There it was, nestled under a list of typical Roman entrées. Fully embracing “doing as the Romans do,” I pointed to trippa alla romana and said, “Questo.”
“You do know that that is animal stomach, don’t you?” the waiter asked, smirking.
I ignored his qualms and insisted on being adventurous. I’m in Rome. Isn’t Italy known for its food?
Upon first impressions, I understood why my server had been unconvincing about my selection. The sauce was blood red and the slivers of tripe looked like a cross between newly hatched albino snakes and shriveled squid tentacles. A few bites in, and all I could say was that the sauce was, at the very least, palatable.
After learning of this, famed food and travel blogger Gina Tringali smiled and said, “Wow, you really will try just about anything.”
Regardless of the freshman experience, I was determined to undertake the challenge of finding the best strips of simmered stomach with which to fill my own.
Not-So-Fit for Kings
Little did I know that the cultivation of the recipes for tripe and other classic Roman dishes had much history behind them.
In ancient times, nobility feasted on the best cuts of meat while the working class was paid with the butcher’s rejects. They then gathered this offal to craft a satisfying meal using fresh seasonal ingredients.
Some dishes were even reserved for certain days of the week. Trippa was the Saturday Night Special, while gnocchi tantalized taste buds on Thursdays.
Although originally intended for peasants, the flavors of trippa alla romana are anything but humble, and every step of preparation is precise.
Notes of onion and garlic, traces of carrots and celery, the warmth of cloves, and the hint of mint intensify the body and complexity of the slowly simmered tomato sauce that settles in the honeycombed pockets of the strips of stomach. Pecorino or Parmesan cheeses pack a flavorful punch, and the final texture is much like that of grilled octopus or extremely al dente pasta.
The passion for culture and tradition erupts from every building and cobblestone alleyway of Rome today, particularly through cuisine. As recipes for trippa alla romana passed through generations of family, tradition was preserved by inventing modern takes on the classic dish.
Traipsing through Testaccio
Both Tringali and distinguished Rome-based food blogger Katie Parla pointed me to Testaccio for the best trippa to try, tourist traps not included.
Testaccio has been the cornerstone of trade and Rome’s slaughterhouse district for two millennia. Trademarked by a mountain of ancient broken amphorae, it was the birthplace of trippa alla romana and other traditional recipes. Testaccio is called Cuore di Roma— the heart of Rome— yet is often overlooked despite its dense history.
For those who venture south of Aventine Hill, it offers an invigorating gastronomic experience that rhythmically beats with the passion for life and quality ingredients. It has a thriving culinary scene and serves authenticity aficionados the most innovative and traditional foods.
After multiple tasting trials in other districts, Testaccio reigns sovereign due to the pedigree and proximity of its slaughterhouses, such as Macelleria Sartor Daniele in the Nuovo Mercato. These restaurants and street vendors have garnered a loyal entourage that return weekly to get their hands on genuine cucina Romana.
For those on the go, chefs at Trapizzino and Mordi e Vai craft the perfect portable panini. If a full-course Roman dinner is more up to speed, locals flock to Flavio al Velavevodetto.Through conversations with the masterminds about their heirloom recipes for tripe, I found that each chef’s versions were inherently different despite presentation under the same moniker. Visits to Testaccio thus ensure unique experiences.
At Trapizzino, strict attention to detail is key in preparation. Using the freshest cuts of tripe from the nearby macelleria, strips are soaked for hours in pecorino cheese and Roman mint. Various genera of tomatoes, celery, carrots, onions, garlic, and extra virgin olive oil are then added to the mixture and simmered as a unit.
Owner Stefano Callegari opened Trapizzino in 2008 after extensive experience of running pizzerias and studying street food. A worker behind the counter explains that the name “Trapizzino” is a play on words, as she gestures to the triangular slice of pizza bread she transforms into an Italian pita pocket by stuffing it with fresh-from-the-pot trippa alla romana.
She describes Callegari’s biggest success as juxtaposing old and new by making a classic accessible any time of day. It is taking bite out of history with a modern reminder of tradition.
Down the road in Testaccio’s Nuovo Mercato is Mordi e Vai, nestled into box 15 among other street food stalls.
Just like at Trapizzino, queues of native Italians wrap around the corner, each waiting to grab a warm panino filled with chef and owner Sergio Esposito’s trippa. It has a chicken-like texture and each bite is consecutively more satisfying.
Esposito’s take is as enticing and portable as Callegari’s. Situated behind his stall, Esposito doles out hearty portions of his critically acclaimed street tripe.
“This is a very old family recipe of many years. It is close to my heart,” he says, pointing to a pot of tomato sauce.
Esposito incorporates a special type of mint that gives each bite a crisp zing, distinguishing its flavor. The final touch is sprinkled Parmesan and pecorino cheeses before folding the stomach tissue into a delicious and portable sandwich.
In the evening, a flavorful dinner awaits at Testaccio osteria Flavio al Velavevodetto. Cool summer breezes drifting through dual-level outdoor terraces create an ambience that embraces gastronomes into its organ-like chambers.
Tucked behind greenery on Via di Monte, chef Flavio de Maio’s tavern oozes authenticity. The lively staff zips in and out under the low-set vaulted ceilings and between mazelike cocci walls as they endow guests with hearty portions of traditional Roman delicacies.
Their trippa is as flavorful as it is fairly priced and aesthetically appealing. The sweet, savory tomato sauce was filled with the fresh-picked flavor of pomodori from the vine with carrots and celery enhancing to the colorful visual display. More importantly, the gently curved slivers did not appear the least bit intimidating.
It was also clear that meticulous measures were taken to ensure the consistency. At Flavio, the spongy strips are so tender that they can be sliced with the side of a fork, while at the first touristy trattoria I found myself sawing with the vigor of a woodsman to hack off a bite-size sliver with a knife.
A friend of mine was even pleasantly surprised. “It tastes just like grilled calamari!” she said.
The presentation is also beautifully executed. One look around the room and my qualms of appearing as a kooky food blogger were quieted in seeing other food-savvy Romans snapping shots of their suppers. Atmospheric lighting and lively Italian conversation set the soundtrack to my organ meat odyssey as a whole.
While the household names of pasta and pizza are commonplace in any American-in-Italy’s vocabulary, classic dishes remain unsung heroes of cultivating a more worldly palate. The allure of the traditional trippa alla romana di Testaccio lies within the creativity and passion of transforming the unwanted offal into a satisfying meal.
Tripe is likely the last choice in mind when it’s nestled on a menu between cacio e pepe and carbonara, whose relationship with “Italian food” is analogous with that of Roman Holiday and cult classic films about Italy. However, its unparalleled history has an enticing quality that reels in those hungry for the real deal.
Although Hepburn famously samples gelato on the base of the Spanish Steps, I found I prefer to walk down the path less traveled by tourists to Testaccio to send my senses on a new Roman holiday and culinary escapade that evolved out of survival and passion for la bella vita.
WHERE TO GO
Flavio al Velavevodetto|Via di Monte, Testaccio 97, 00153 Roma|Tel. +39 06 574 6841|http://flavioalvelavevodetto.it
Trapizzino Testaccio|Via Giovanni Branca, Testaccio 88, 00153 Roma|Tel. +39 06 4341 9624|http://trapizzino.it
Mordi e Vai|Via B. Franklin, 12 E (Nuovo Mercato Testaccio), Box 15, 00153 Roma|Tel. 3391343344|http://mordievai.it