National Geographic Traveller (UK)

In pursuit of pasta in TESTACCIO

The history of pasta alla gricia is entangled with tales and traditions. Recipes for the classic Roman dish may vary, but as a wander through the trattorias of Testaccio can prove, nothing can unify quite like a good bowl of pasta. Words: Rachel Roddy


Paolo is standing proudly in the doorway of Da Bucatino. Inside, waiters chat and polish glasses. Outside, a couple more smooth cloths and lay the tables that run to the corner of the street. For 16 years,

I’ve shared an internal courtyard with this traditiona­l, family-run trattoria, its boisterous kitchen clatter and scents escaping through the extractor vents and travelling up the three floors to my front door. It was in one of Da Bucatino’s woodpanell­ed dining rooms that I learned the menu of a traditiona­l Roman trattoria is a concentrat­ed history of the city: a near3,000-year-old story told by means of chickpea soup, roast lamb, wild chicory, cherry crostata and — the reason I’m standing here with Paolo — pasta alla gricia.

Although it’s often overshadow­ed by its close cousin amatrician­a, gricia was the original iteration of the dish. The story goes that shepherds high in the mountainou­s hinterland between Abruzzo and Lazio fried guanciale (cured pig’s jowl), tossed it with pasta and pecorino cheese and called it gricia. Centuries later, tomatoes found their way into the Roman larder, and gricia went from bianca (white) to rossa

(red). This new variation became known as amatrician­a, named for the town of Amatrice, and was brought to Rome — along with gricia — by the Abruzzesi, who migrated to the city in search of work. It has become particular­ly popular in Testaccio, the city’s 19th-century, grid-like working quarter, whose disproport­ionately high number of trattorias means the smell of cooking and the promise of a good lunch are all around.

“At Da Bucatino, we have two gricia options,” explains Paolo, while overseeing a delivery of water, the green glass bottles clinking within plastic crates. The first option is traditiona­l: guanciale, grated pecorino romano and black pepper, tossed with stout tubes of a pasta called mezze maniche (meaning ‘short sleeves’). The second version is gricia con carciofi, which sees artichokes cut into slender wedges and fried with the guanciale before being tossed with irregular strings of pici pasta and topped with pecorino. “With both dishes, the key is to have the guanciale cut thickly and fried carefully, so as to render its plentiful fat,” explains Paolo.

But his way isn’t the only way. At Flavio al Velavevode­tto, a smart trattoria built into the base of Monte di Testaccio (an ancient, artificial hill of broken terracotta), the chefs opt to use rigatoni pasta and to add the pecorino in two stages. Some is melted into the hot pan with the guanciale and starchy pasta water; more is added at the end, showered over the dish like a snowstorm.

While the methods for gricia may vary, Testaccio is clearly defined. Once the ancient port of Rome, the wedge-shaped district is delineated by the busy Via Marmorata, a section of ancient city wall and the curve of the River Tiber. And sitting right beside the river is Lo Scopettaro, once a broom-making workshop and now a tempting trattoria. Hungry customers waiting to purchase their brooms were so tempted by the staff’s lunch bubbling in the corner that, eventually, the place transforme­d into its current iteration. Its broom-selling days are over, and it’s now more about the generous bowls of gricia. Here, the dish is made with mezzi rigatoni — tubes a little smaller than Paolo’s mezze maniche. Around me, the diners are a mixed crowd: families sit beside office workers, who sit beside builders. For some, it seems, the promise of a good lunch is too hard to resist.

MORE INFO: ristorante­velavevode­ loscopetta­

Rachel Roddy is the author of An A-Z of Pasta, published by Penguin (£25).

“The Roman evening either keeps still or it sings. No one can behold it without growing dizzy, and time has filled it with eternity”

Jorge Luis Borges, Argentine poet

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Sunset over the orange garden on the Aventine Hill
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