ROME—“Do you think you would like nerve salad?” my guide asked cheerfully, referring to what I would eventually come to know is lukewarm pig foot tendons, as we set the date for a culinary tour that would take us, quite literally, deep into the bowels of Roman cuisine. As one who finds raisins too wrinkly and bananas too mushy, I envisioned a bowl of purple veins still wriggly and warm from the slaughter and thought only one thing: “No. No, I would absolutely not.”
My guide, noted food writer Elizabeth Minchilli who is offering a “Truly Offal Week in Rome” food tour early next year, sensed my fear and assured me that nothing we would eat would still be moving or make me sick. In fact, she dared predict that I just might like it.
When the date finally arrived, I donned a green sweater to match what I assumed would be the color of my face by the time this full immersion reporting trip was done. I set off for Rome’s fabled Testaccio market in the shadow of the city’s ancient slaughterhouse along the Tiber River. The space is relatively new after the market moved from its original square in 2012, but those behind the market stalls come from a long lineage of nose-to-tail cuisine, selling everything from baby lamb brains and bead-like glands to bleached cow stomachs and esophaguses. This is also where the adventurous eater can find horse, pigeon and rabbit meat at any number of stalls. In this world of insider cuisine, chicken livers and oxtail stew suddenly seem quite easy to swallow.
Testaccio is not a touristy neighborhood; there are no big hotels so accommodation is limited to rental apartments in historical apartment blocks. But it has always been associated with food, and some of the city’s most-loved restaurants are here—and often booked every night of the week. The area’s namesake attraction is Mt. Testaccio, a man-made hill that is formed of terracotta urns used to bring oil and wine from the nearby Tiber River. Starting in 1888 when Rome built its massive municipal slaughterhouse here—then the largest in Europe—many of the workers were paid these throw away pieces of meat in lieu of cash. They would either take them home to eat, cook them up and peddle them as street food, or sell them to local butchers who would resell them to customers who couldn’t afford the better cuts. That, explains Minchilli, is how these nasty bits became so important in Roman cuisine.
We started the tour at the horse meat butcher’s stall. Minchilli explained that while horse meat, or equine, is not offal unless one is referring to actual horse innards, she often includes it in offal tours because of its unique place on the table. While it is largely shunned in North America and the United Kingdom, horse meat has, for years, been a staple in many varieties of traditional Italian cuisine. The iron-rich meat was first introduced into Italian cuisine in the 1800s to cure anemia. Minchilli says people just liked the flavor and kept on eating it. The blood red meat was markedly darker than that of the bovine meat next to it. “Horse used to be eaten all over Italy, but it has gone out of fashion for a lot of reasons,” Minchilli says, explaining that affection for horses as pets tops the list. “There are only a few horse butchers left in Rome, but if you go down south to Puglia almost every butcher will sell it.”
We ordered a few slices of air-cured horse meat and tried them. They tasted much like they looked: salty blood with a hint of copper.
That out of the way, we moved on to kidneys which are sold alongside simmering pots of entrails at the popular stand Mordi e Vai, which translates to hit and run. There Sergio Esposito, a former butcher of all things innard, prepares fresh stews that he slaps into sandwiches or sells in little tubs. It is one of the most popular stands in the market but it’s not for everyone. The dish we tried, called “Solo Per Pochi”or “Just for a Few” was veal kidneys. As Minchilli explains, these bits can easily be ruined and taste like urine. “These dishes aren’t for everyone,” Esposito told me. “I love this, but maybe you won’t, the important thing is that you try.”
Almost every restaurant in Testaccio sells fifth-quarter fare, which is what offal is referred to among those in the know. “There is no such thing as a fifth quarter,” Minchilli says. “So the name refers to the pieces that are usually thrown away.”
We made our way to one of the district’s most famous fifth-quarter joints: Checchino Dal 1887, which is the cornerstone of this sort of curious cuisine. Here, the menu is rich with dishes like pajata, brains and testicles and, just as Minchilli had promised, nerve salad. We ordered a mixed plate that included baby calf entrails which were butchered with the mother’s milk still inside them, which made for a delightfully creamy cheese like delicacy. There were grilled calf testicles, cow stomachs with a tomato sauce that clung to the honeycomb like papillae, and a mix of pig foot tendons and sauteed greens, which tasted nothing like they seemed.
It was, as Minchilli promised, absolutely delicious. Minchilli’s “truly offal week” tour includes the Testaccio market, tripe stalls in Florence, and a pig farm in Umbria. She will bring the brave heart eaters into the belly of the beast. Vegetarians need not apply.