Last week I went to shop at my favourite Roman market, Testaccio, and was devastated to find a dark, fenced-in area in the middle of the square. For me it was if the Colosseum had suddenly disappeared. I cannot explain how I felt.
Forty years ago when I first moved from London I gradually learned about Italian cooking in this market. Here Rosa taught me how to make linguine with mussels and ‘hot’ shrimp, Felice fed me my first pasta and lentils and Ranieri , the butcher, applauded my choice of meat with fat, telling the other customers that it took an English Signora to understand beef. In the name of progress this vibrant feast for the senses has moved two blocks away into a new space with underground parking. It reminded me of the philistine taxi driver who wanted to turn Circo Massimo into a multiple story car park.For me the heart of the city has been transplanted, and the patient has died. I turned my back on the new sterile boxes and slunk away to mourn. In September I will return to discover how many familiar faces remain and to see if any of the old magic survives.
I am copying what I wrote about the market several years ago when it was alive and happy.
Mercato di Testaccio
For me Testaccio is the gastronomic heart of Rome. This area by the river Tiber was the port of ancient Rome where the boats unloaded their huge amphoras containing olive oil and grain from Sicily and Egypt. With the same civic disregard shown today by their descendants, the Roman sailors threw the empty amphoras into the river, and in order to keep navigation channels clear, the emperor was forced to intervene. He ordered the emptied amphoras to be broken and stacked methodically in a pile. This “pile” gradually built up to form Monte Testaccio, the eighth hill of Rome. Over the centuries caves were cut out of the artificial hill to store wine and food at a constant temperature, and when, after the unification of Italy, the modern slaughter house was sited in this area, cheap wine shops and eating houses sprang up to feed the workers. Today the storage caves have been replaced by refrigeration and the slaughterhouse has been rehoused outside Rome but the area has kept its Rabelaisian character.
The market itself is housed in the central square with covered stalls crowded together, and it is a photographer’s nightmare with its mixture of neon, electric and limited day light. Aesthetically the structure has nothing to recommend it, but I find it more appealing than a Bernini fountain. The stalls pulse with good-humour and there is always time to exchange a smile, a joke or even a recipe. Outside cars hoot, motor bikes snarl and in the distance sirens wail, but inside the market you are cocooned in a hedonistic world. The choice is bewildering and there is something to suit every pocket. One stall sells exotic fruit and luxury out-of season vegetables, while another stall sells only one homely crop, but one that has been freshly picked, carefully washed and lovingly arranged. Bags are handed to the customer to hand-pick the fruit and vegetables, and even potatoes are subjected to keen scrutiny. When I buy my herbs they are taken out of a reserved store under the counter, proudly held up for admiration, then wrapped with the loving tenderness usually reserved for the newest baby. The fish stalls display their glistening catch with panache, exhorting people to buy with the fervour of evangelist preachers, and the rows of butchers patiently trim off fat, mince the chosen piece of meat and calmly try to satisfy the often unreasonable demands.
Around the market square there are interesting speciality shops where you can see that Testaccio has retained its old traditions while welcoming valid innovations. Ranieri is a fine butcher who now also prepares ready- to- cook dishes, something unheard of a few years ago, and a young co-operative, Canestro , sells organic produce. Volpetti in Via Marmorata is probably the best salumeria in the city, selling hams, cheese, delectable bread and pizza and a good selection of prepared dishes. His burrata cheese fromPuglia must be sampled and he has the best mozzarella in Rome.