A working-class neighborhood in Rome is being transformed by a tide of newcomers seeking grit, guts, and authenticity. But there’s a twist.
From the outside, the vast structure looks like the entrance to a once-forbidden city. There’s a columned facade, rounded entrances, and a giant statue of an angel wrestling a bull to the ground. Below that, underneath many years of grime and ever-sprouting weeds, you can still read the words STABILIMENTO DI MATTAZIONE.
This is the ex-mattatoio, the old slaughterhouse of Testaccio, a neighborhood in Rome. Enter through the gates, and you’ll see rows of huge barn-like buildings, bearing names like VITELLARA (veal room) or PELANDA DEI SUINI (hog scalder). Overhead are big metal tracks with rusting hooks, for moving carcasses around this massive space. Peer into one of the buildings, though, and you won’t see bloody men with knives—you’ll see students poring over blueprints in bright rooms. You’ll hear others practicing instruments. If you had come in autumn, you may have even stumbled upon an art exhibition devoted to animal rights. Something has changed here.
Rome is famous for bearing the evidence of its past generations. Bits and pieces from 2,000 years of inhabitation—solitary columns, brick arches, chunks of once-guarded walls—are scattered among new construction; no area in the city feels truly modern. Testaccio, located on the banks of the Tiber southeast of the city center, is an extreme example of this piecemeal construction. In ancient times, Testaccio served as the city docks, where thousands of amphorae arrived every day, full of olive oil from Greece and Spain. Workers broke the pots open to extract their contents, and stacked the fragments onto a pile. Over a few hundred years, the pile grew into a hill—Monte Testaccio. Today, shops and bars and dance clubs have been carved into the base of the mound, like a giant Hobbit home on the Shire.
In 1888, Rome decided to build a municipal slaughterhouse, one that would be the biggest in Europe and provide meat for the growing city, on a site in what was then a sparsely-populated periphery. Active from 1891 to 1975, the mattatoio was the heart of the neighborhood. Public housing for the slaughterhouse workers was commissioned in 1903 and built up over the next 20 years. Cut off from the rest of the city by a triangle of river, hill, and railroad, Testaccio was its own little village. “The slaughterhouse produced many satellite activities—there were butchers, tanners, restaurants,” says Irene Ranaldi, a long-time resident of Testaccio and author of several books about it. “So when the slaughterhouse closed, many other people lost their jobs.”
As the postwar city absorbed former suburbs, the meatpacking industry was moved out to the new periphery. In 1990, ownership of Testaccio’s public housing was transferred from the city to the region, which allowed the apartments to be rented out, often under the table. Artists and actors—first the aspiring and then the famous—trickled in. The long-abandoned slaughterhouse became the home of the architecture department of Roma Tre University, as well as art galleries and a music school; food festivals and markets took root in the old stockyard. And Testaccio, once a smelly, isolated appendix of the city, became Rome’s hippest neighborhood.
“Testaccio is in-your-face, no-holds-barred Rome,” reads the neighborhood’s description on AirBnB. “Testaccio's delightfully cramped restaurants and nightclubs are the opposite of trendy. Instead, their inelegance succeeds in making the neighborhood wildly popular with Romans who value exquisite food and bawdy fun more than seeing-and-being-seen.” Ask most locals (or tour guides), and they’ll tell you that the neighborhood is the birthplace and still-source of rustic Roman specialties like coda alla vaccinara (stewed oxtails) or pajata (calf intestines still containing milk chyme). Some even say that Testaccio is the real Rome, and the home of real Romans. At the same time, everyone would also say that Testaccio has changed, especially the rents.
“This neighborhood has been revolutionized,” says Sandro Quatrocchi, over a tumbler of wine at his fraschetta, a tavern that only sells draft wine that his family produces on their farm outside of Rome. “As people got older, they sold their apartments to a younger crowd, and slowly it’s become less of a working-class neighborhood and more of a chic one.”
Sandro’s bar is the last of its type in Testaccio, and it is definitely not chic. Wine is €1 per glass, a salami sandwich €2.50. At night, the patrons are mostly old men chatting in the Roman dialect of romanesco and reading the Gazzetta dello Sport. Once, I saw a birthday party for a patron’s grandson, where in lieu of a cake there was a pot of fagioli con le cotiche (pigskin and beans) that had been brought from someone’s apartment and was ladled onto plastic plates. But Sandro expresses little resentment toward the younger, wealthier newcomers. “Things change,” he says with a shrug. “The young people come to my bar for lunch. They’re respectful. Why not?”
After talking with numerous other residents and hearing similar answers, it became clear that Testaccio isn’t the stereotypical case study in urban gentrification, full of fears of displacement and simmering class tensions. The neighborhood hasn’t been completely transformed—there are plenty of many older residents, traditional restaurants, and small shops. The original buildings, still technically owned by the government of Lazio, haven’t been torn down to make way for modern luxury apartments; some longtime residents still live in the public apartments or sold them to their children.
“The reason is structural,” says Irene Ranaldi. “It’s more of questions of hardware, let’s say, and less of software.”
What Testaccio is a case study in, however, is the power of myth. The neighborhood’s popularity boomed in part because it is “gritty” and “authentic.” However, that image was largely created after the neighborhood ceased to be an industrial, working-class quarter. As Ranaldi puts it in her book Testaccio, “The name “Testaccio” is used as a brand, a brand which is immediately recognizable to the consumer.”
The prevailing mythos of Testaccio is only maintained by ignoring certain historical facts. When the slaughterhouse first opened, Testaccio wasn’t even considered very Roman at all. “It was an empty, uninhabited area of Rome, and then people came here to work,” Ranaldi said. “The identity of Testaccio absolutely wasn’t ‘Roman.’ Many people came here from the Abruzzo, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany. Here, it used to be much more like Esquilino.” (Esquilino is a zone of Rome known for its large Chinese and South Asian population).
Neither is Testaccio actually the navel of Roman cuisine. Certain quinto quarto (the “fifth quarter,” or organ-meat dishes) like pajata, are actually much older, and simply were more popular in Testaccio because of the proximity of the slaughterhouse. “A lot of the quinto quarto that people think is from Testaccio is actually from the Jewish ghetto,” says Katie Parla, an American who has been writing about Roman food for a decade. “A lot of Romans don’t know their food history. They just assume that the food has been made forever, by everyone. And everyone who has a restaurant in Testaccio that specializes in quinto quarto perpetuates the myth.”
Sergio Esposito, who runs a wildly popular sandwich store in the Testaccio Market, saw the myth and tried to modernize it. As a young man, he worked alongside his father and brother in the slaughterhouse. Now 75, he has a gray mane of hair, an impressive nose, and still looks like he could carry a side of beef over his shoulder. “I spent all day disemboweling animals,” he says, drawing his hands down through the air as if carving open an imaginary belly. “That’s where my interest in quinto quarto started.”
After the slaughterhouse closed, Esposito left Testaccio, but returned in 2012 when he realized that selling street food (something that is not traditionally popular in Rome) would be easier than running a butcher stall, since many younger Romans now do their food shopping in a supermarket. Mordi e Vai, his stand in the new Testaccio Market, serves panini stuffed with braised beef, stewed tripe, and pajata. The stand, decorated with slogans in romanesco, was an immediate hit, frequently appearing in guides to Rome in American and Japanese newspapers and inspiring a wave of imitators. “I was the first one to think of it,” Esposito says, with palpable pride. “The world marches on, and you have to follow.”
Could Testaccio become completely hipsterized? Probably not, at least in spirit. Its draw is based on its reputation, and that reputation—embellished as it might be—depends on the presence of its offal-centric restaurants and old shops. How that image will endure, no one can say for sure.
“In 20 years, when all of the owners of these old trattorie die, perhaps a Chinese or an American group will come and buy the restaurants to keep them running,” Irene Ranaldi says with a laugh. “The brand has to be maintained.”