The words ‘Sunday’ and ‘lunch’ when appearing together describe one of my favourite things in life. Sunday lunch is the best way to draw a line under one week and give oneself a little treat to encourage moving into the next. When I was young, we always watched old movies on Sunday afternoons — Channel 48 had a great lineup of films from the 30s and 40s — and that was sort of the same concept, except that Sunday lunch is better because it involves food. When I first lived in Italy, I used to drive out to the country for Sunday lunch most weeks. That still happens, although less often these days, due to lethargy and busy-ness. Plus, these days, Sunday is not the punctuation mark that it used to be for me. I usually work on Sundays so that I can take a day off during the week. Nevertheless, old habits die hard — especially old habits involving food.
Jane and I decided to drive to the beach for Sunday lunch. But then we discovered that there was a day-long ban on any cars that weren’t super environmentally friendly. Basically that meant that any car more than a few years old was out and since Jane’s car and mine collectively are about to celebrate their 32nd birthday, it was back to the drawing board. We decided to head into the centre of town to check out one of the restaurants on my friend Elizabeth’s Eat Rome app (which, if you don’t already own, you must download immediately, whether or not you live in Rome). But after waiting for a bus for ages, we took off on foot, determining to stop when my (still painful) feet gave up. That happened to be in Testaccio.
The neighbourhood of Testaccio backs up to the Tiber and was the centre of the river trade during ancient Roman times. The river workers used to toss the big amphoras (known as testae) used to transport wine and oil onto a scrap heap. Several hundred years of that and you’ve got a 35 metre hill made of potshards – Monte Testaccio, the 8th hill of Rome. In the late 19th Century, Testaccio was zoned as a working class neighbourhood and developed as such with cheap houses and apartments and little workshops. A major employer was Rome’s abattoir (the Mattatoio), which was built in 1890 in the heart of Testaccio. Many of the traditional restaurants in the area specialize in the sorts of things that would have been left on the slaughterhouse floor. Workers were paid with offal (the ‘quinto quarto’ or ‘fifth quarter’ to an Italian). They would take their earnings to the nearby taverns to be cooked up for lunch. The slaughterhouse is at present one of Rome’s museums of contemporary art.
Across the street from the Mattatoio is a huge new food market, all shiny and new, with loads of glass, a hotel and a big American steakhouse. It’s a far cry from its scruffy predecessor, where I used to spend a lot of time when I lived around here. My favourite food stall was La Casa di Pomodori, which sold dozens of tomato varieties. Testaccio has in fact spent the last few years getting royally gentrified, with tons of new restaurants, bars and clubs. I barely know the place anymore. Happily though, it’s still kept its slightly down at heels appearance.
We stumbled on Bean, a cute little restaurant that seems to be a recent arrival. Clean. Well lighted. High ceilings. Paintings of fruit on the wall. That sort of thing. Jane commented that it lacked the tacky frou-frou of your average Roman trattoria. By that I think she meant garlic hanging from the ceiling and painted plates on the walls. Having said that, I just realized that I have never actually been to an Italian restaurant in Italy that featured candles in Chianti bottles and red checked tablecloths. Is that just an American-Italian thing like spaghetti and meatballs and hoagies?
But back to Bean. I started with a bowl of beans in tomato sauce, accompanied by a bruschetta (pronounced broosketta y’all), basically toasted bread anointed with olive oil. A piece of raw garlic was provided for scraping across the surface of the bread. It was very tasty indeed.
Next I had a veal chop and a fine salad featuring fennel, mushrooms and Parmesan cheese.
Jane had a fine fried artichoke — I think it was even better than the one I had at Giggeto recently — and a penne alla carbonara. She thought it was too al dente. I thought it was wonderful. The guanciale (pig’s cheeks) were delicious: chewy and piggy, just how I likes ’em.
So there you go. Nothing fancy and (thankfully) offal-free. But a nice low-key place for a Sunday lunch after you’ve worked up an appetite wandering around the Protestant Cemetery. Bean serves pizza in the evenings.
Bean. Via Luca della Robbia 23, Rome. 065743017