As you saw in my earlier post Agrodolce: Our favorite Roman trattorias ten years on, we spent six weeks in Rome in the spring and early summer of 2013. During that time we revisited many of our favorite restaurants from when we lived our version of la dolce vita back at the turn of the centry. In that first post was a review of La Carbonara in the Campo dei Fiori. In a followup posting called Agrodolce: Infinitely Curved Pizza we reviewed Sora Margherita. Both of these old favorites were a disappointment. And the bad streak continued with Agrodolce: Gastro-Deletion on the Accretion Disk where we reviewed Costanza Hostaria. Things turned around, though, with two visits to one of our all-time favorite restaurants, Casa Bleve, reviewed in Agrodolce: Rinascita Gastronomica. And we were relieved to find that our favorite fish restaurant in Rome, Baia Chia, was also as excellent as ever (see Agrodolce: Pesce Così Succosa Dolce). Now we move on to the Testaccio.
Note about this photo: Monte Testaccio is an artificial hill made up from fragments of broken, discarded amphorae dating from the time of the Roman Empire (that’s 2,000 years ago). It’s over 100 feet high and over a half mile around the base. In other words, a good size hill. Locals have burrowed into the mountain to establish car repair shops and nightclubs. This photo shows how the amphorae shards were stacked up to form the hill.
The Testaccio is one of Lucullus’ favorite Roman neighborhoods. Situated between the Aventine Hill (a plebian stronghold in antiquity) and the Tiber river, the area has always been predominantly working class and it is here that ties to classical Roman cooking remain the strongest. For centuries the mother of all Roman abattoirs dominated the Testaccio’s physical landscape and to this day continues to influence the neighborhood’s culinary topography. Like all slaughterhouse-driven cuisines, the Testaccio’s specialties derive primarily from the “fifth quarter” of the animal in question. In other words, offal is not only back on the menu boys, but guts have pride of place in just about every trat worthy of the epitaph “old school” in this part of the Eternal City.
Even amidst our halcyon days, however, there were disturbing portents of change. The Testaccio was “discovered” first by avant-garde clubbers drawn to late night discos, then by gentrifying real estate speculators, and finally itinerant gourmands who fanned out across the neighborhood from the Volpetti foodie emporium on Via Marmorata in search of authentic cucina di povera.
We arrived on our recent visit to find that this trend had increased demand to the point where the owners of stalwart osterias such as Flavio al Velavevodetto had succumbed to the siren call of expansion. Fulvia and Lucullus dined at Velavevodetto’s new location in upscale Prati with an old friend in order to see if success had spoiled this iconic Testaccio establishment. It had. The food was dumbed down to accommodate the squeamish and prices jacked up to fleece gullible.
Lucullus determined to find out if this rot had spread throughout the Testaccio. The signs were not good. The locals have been in a foul mood ever since the city closed the traditional outdoor market in Piazza Testaccio and moved the stalls to a new covered facility adjacent to the old slaughter yards, which have also been repurposed as exhibit spaces for post-post-modern art. It turned out that the local angst associated with the market was simply good old Roman resistance to any change. Lucullus judged the new market the best currently operating in Rome and often elected to walk the extra several miles to shop there instead of the expensive and dwindling Campo emporium.
The question of the Testaccio’s trats still had to be answered, however, and again the auspices were troubling. Reconnoitering in the vicinity of the new covered market, Lucullus determined that many of his favorite family-owned haunts had been replaced by larger touristic venues to include an American style chain restaurant (no wonder the multi-generational denizens were so pissed!). Flocks of human cormorants thinly disguised as gastro-tourists were also much in evidence, marching in lock step behind a “local expert” from venue to venue for their regimented feedings.
Trattoria Da “Oio” a Casa Mia
Telephone: 06 578 2680
Hours of operation: Monday-Saturday 12:30–3:00 pm, 7:30–11:30 pm; Closed Sun
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Rostra rating: 4
Yet amidst these omens of decline, Trattoria Da Oio a Casa Mia seemed to stand untouched by the ravages of discovery-driven change. Located at the base of Monte Testaccio, a two thousand year old hill composed of amphora shards, I have always imagined this restaurant to be the direct descendant of an ancient Roman crossroads tavern. Many of the dishes served at Da Oio’s would have been familiar to the warehouse laborers and administrators from the near-by state run olive oil reserve, who supped at the tavern over the centuries as the mound of shards rose to over one hundred feet above street level.
Walk down memory lane: This is a photo of Morgan at Trattoria Da Oio a Casa Mia over ten years ago.
Oio is the chef/proprietor’s nickname, which alludes to Oliver Hardy and was bestowed by his regulars in reference to his substantial girth. His trattoria, in Lucullus’ not-so-humble opinion, is the gold standard of Testaccio cuisine and any compromise of its standards along the lines of Velavevodetto would surely be a sign that the end times were nigh.
Unfortunately, signs of gastronomic tribulation soon appeared on the web. Katie Parla, a Rome-based food and beverage educator, journalist, and food blogger (www.parlafood.com) issued a barbed challenge with her unqualified declaration that “the food at Da Oio A Casa Mia is an abomination.” So in the aftermath of a long morning spent exploring the ruins of the Palatine Hill with Pliny the Younger, Cincinnatus, and Artemis, Lucullus proposed lunch at the digitally maligned trat.
As Lucullus regaled his friends with tales of visits past to Oio’s establishment during their procession past the Circus Maximus, it occurred to him that he had not chosen the most compatible of luncheon companions for this particular excursion (the redoubtable Fulvia was absent on this adventure due to a vicious attack of tree pollen allergies). Pliny, a philosophy and classics major in his junior year visiting the Eternal City for the first time, was high on everything Roman and quite a trencherman for his tender age, so no problem there. But Artemis only eats animals that Cincinnatus has personally dispatched to the choir invisible, while the venerable warrior himself is not a huge fan of organ meat. However, Lucullus was able to turn this particular gastronomic bug into a feature by promising the pair that their particular dietary preferences could be easily accommodated with traditional non-offal dishes on offer at the crossroads tavern.
Lucullus and company arrived early enough to snag one of the few outside tables deployed under awnings across the sidewalk from the restaurant entrance. This can be a mixed blessing because the tables sit right on the busy Via Galvani in a neighborhood where noise seems to be chemically bonded to the very air molecules. On the other hand, Oio’s dining room can get pretty hot and noisy during the Roman summer, particularly at lunchtime. In any case the locals always seem to prefer the outside tables, so when in Rome…
The tavern’s small kitchen is Olly’s domain while the rest of the house falls under the iron hand of his wife, who is ably assisted by a staff of only slightly less formidable wait harpies brooking no nonsense from the slightly terrorized clientele. The rapid-fire interrogation of Lucullus by the proprietress concerning menu language, level of aqueous effervescence, and color of wine did much to relieve his anxiety about changes for the worse at Oio’s trat. The front of the house gorgon had lost none of her brazen intensity. Having dispensed with the niceties, our victualing virago got down to serious business.
“What do you want to eat?” she demanded
“What’s good today?” asked Lucullus in pathetic imitation of a regular.
“Everything,” came the reply rife with impatience.
“Can we have a couple minutes?” Lucullus begged, trying not too successfully to disguise his masochistic ecstasy.
“You have until I get back with the bread, water, and wine,” the tavern termagant barked over her shoulder.
The bread and wine went a long way to dispelling any lingering doubts. The freshly baked bread had not changed a bit—crusty with a cakey, slightly yellow crumb and minimal salt, more Sicilian than Roman. The fruity medium bodied red wine was served chilled, very old school and quite appropriate for a hot day in June. Most importantly it was an excellent companion for the hearty rustic fare about to grace our humble table.
The tavern gorgon now fixed Lucullus with a look that clearly threatened to transform him and his companions into statues adorning the four corners of the crossroads if he did not place an order subito. Lucullus promptly ordered two large balls of buffalo mozzarella for Artemis and Cincinnatus to be followed by tonarelli cacio e peppe and rigatoni amatriciana. For young Pliny and himself, Lucullus quickly improvised a death by offal experience that involved the house antipasto Romana followed by coratella d’agnello and animele accompanied by cicoria and patate arrosto al forno.
The antipasto Romana was Pliny’s first ever close encounter with organ meat. It was definitely a deep end of the pool experience involving nervi or veal nerves (a fact from which Artemis remained blessedly ignorant). These proved to be a boiled form of spinal meat candy: crunchy on the outside and gelatinous on the inside, dressed simply with olive oil, salt, and pepper. The nervi were accompanied by boiled sliced beef tongue in a wonderful green sauce spiked with pepperoncini. The antipasto was rounded out by that most Roman of all side dishes, beans—in this case canneli beans cooked in the stock made with the aforementioned nervi along with veal tendons and knuckle bones, and then served at room temperature.
Lucullus grew wistful and more than a bit jealous watching Pliny scarf an improvised open face sandwich made from a slice of the yellowy-latticed bread, tongue, nerves, beans and a slice of mozzarella. Ah to have the body of a twenty something and Rome’s culinary bounty at one’s feet!! Cholesterol is definitely wasted on youth. With respect to the mozzarella, despite his fears Lucullus thought it was quite decent if a bit chewy.
The pasta showed up next. Lucullus ordered the cacio e pepe for Artemis by design because a) no animals were hurt or abused in making the dish, and b) because this particular pasta was singled out for some serious vitriol by Ms. Parla. To quote her blog:
“Half the bowl was filled with lumpy sauce that I swear had kilo [sic] of butter in it.”
Artemis’ pasta, however, was on point. The bespoke egg tonarelli had obviously been made that morning. The salty sheep cheese and freshly ground black pepper melded into a dish that bettered my recent sampling of the same preparation at Da Enzo (high praise indeed). Furthermore, Lucullus looked carefully for any evidence of butter in the sauce, found none, and then took a poll of three very discerning palates receiving the same verdict.
This was all to the good since there should not have been any. Authentic cacio e pepe, such as Artemis was served at Trattoria Da Oio a Casa Mia, is made without butter, or olive oil for that matter, using a process called mantecare whereby the cheese and pepper are amalgamated in the pot used to cook the pasta adding one tablespoon of the pasta water per serving.
It is important to note at this point that Lucullus finds a lot of common ground with Ms. Parla concerning restaurants such as Sora Margherita (see Agrodolce: Infinitely Curved Pizza), Vecchia Roma (not the one reviewed in Agrodolce: Gastro-Deletion on the Accretion Disk; perhaps all Roman restaurants with this name should be avoided?), and Da Gigetto. She also has very good points to make concerning responsible seasonal and locally sourced dining in Rome. Perhaps Ms. Parla encountered her cacio e pepe on a day that Oio’s kitchen was in the weeds (it happens to the best of us). Ms. Parla’s allusion to butter, however, is nothing short of bizarre in the context of cacio e pepe.
Lucullus also found her assertion that Trattoria Oio “serves ‘eh’ food for too much money” completely groundless. Indeed, while Lucullus’ was distracted by Artemis’ tonarelli, that old warhorse Cincinnatus inhaled his rigatoni amatriciana, mopping up every quark of sauce with bread once the pasta was exhausted. Thus, in all fairness, Lucullus cannot describe this dish, but Cincinnatus is a very talented cook, known in particular for his fresh pasta. Thus, his ringing endorsement of this Roman classic should also be added to the evidence against Ms. Parla’s “abomination” judgement.
Whatever remaining concerns about Oio’s cuisine were completely dispelled by the offal courses. Coratella d’agnello, a classic Testaccio preparation involving lamb liver, heart, and lung in a vinegary onion sauce was merely superb.
The sweetbreads (animele) were a stunning testimony to “less is more” Roman cookery. The key to this dish was the pristine state of the ingredient. These sweetbreads were the larger pancreas type (as opposed to the thymus variety), which had been expertly soaked, blanched, trimmed, and pressed. Then they were simply pan fried in olive oil, salt, and pepper and served with no sauce to distract from their rich yet delicate flavor and velvety texture.
The sides were no slouches either. Cicoria ripassata spiked with plenty of pepperoncini was a tour de force of salty bitter greens, layered heat, and unctuous olive oil mouth feel. The oven-roasted taters came to the table hot, nicely browned, and redolent of rosemary. Pliny gorged so fulsomely on organ meat and contorni that he could not even contemplate dessert, a unique event in his three weeks of gluttony in the Eternal City.
Ms. Parla notwithstanding, Olly’s crossroads tavern has not changed a bit. The trat is still gloriously old school. The same wait harpies make the clientele work for their excellent value-for-money fare. When we dined there, we were the only stranieri. The rest were neighborhood locals and businessmen, to whom the tavern gorgon brusquely issued paper bibs to protect their suits. Finally, the cost of the meal was significantly less than any equivalent we encountered in the Centro Storico.