Rome’s Mercato Testaccio combines a slice of old Rome with a slice of fresh prosciutto

Since the Roman Empire, my Testaccio neighborhood has been Rome’s working-class ‘hood. More than 2,000 years ago, its warehouses held the olive oil, wine, grain, etc., that came up the Tiber RIver for a population that numbered a million people. In the 19th century, it was home to the city’s biggest slaughterhouse where the stench of butchered animals could be smelled in all the surrounding streets. The working class in that slaughterhouse was paid in all the poor animal parts which they cooked in any imaginable way to make disgusting meat palatable.

Rome’s Mercato Testaccio Food Market

Today, my Mercato Testaccio Food Market serves that same street food: tripe (cow’s stomach tissue) pajata (cooked intestine of a milk-fed calf), coda alla vaccinara (oxtail), baccala’ (cod, the cheapest fish in the ocean).

True Roman street food, as they call it, I truly believe is based on a dare.

Rome's Mercato Testaccio Food Market: Prawns
Prawns – Photo: Cintia Soto

However, Mercato Testaccio Food Market has become my home away from home. Located exactly four minutes from my apartment, I make jaunts from my gym to the sprawling open-air market every morning.

The actual name is Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio. That’s in deference to the original Mercato di Testaccio. That market slung tomatoes and pork for nearly 100 years a few blocks away until it moved to this site in Aug. 2012.

Shopping in Italy is different. The food here is so fresh and so natural, I shop in the Mercato Testaccio Food Market every day for what I’ll eat that day.

Federico, the Butcher

I have my usual routine.  I first wind my way to Federico, my butcher. He always wears a white fedora, similar to the ones every moronic tourist buys, as if it’s a requirement to get out of Rome’s airport. He once told me he wears it, not to resemble an insurance agent from Ohio but to honor the macellaios (Italian for butchers) who have been wearing them in Rome for centuries.

He also honors them by selling the best prosciutto and sweet Italian sausage I’ve ever had. His prosciutto is the maroon color of a New York filet. His sausage is so lean I don’t need to drain the fat from my pan. I can’t have an aperitivo or make my prized pasta salsiccia (sausage) without a visit to Federico. His meats are almost health food. I’m in about the best of my life and his meats are a reason.

Rome's Mercato Testaccio Food Market: Federico and tripe
Federico and tripe, the stomach tissue of a cow – Photo: Cintia Soto

Allessandra, the Bread Lady

Next I turn around to Alessandra in her bread stand. Eating bread in Italy is tricky. It is so fresh, you buy it at 9 a.m. and it’s stale by 5 p.m. Meanwhile, your average loaf of bread in the U.S. has the shelf life of Ivory soap. Just buy Italian bread, eat it quickly and enjoy it. Alessandra sees me coming and immediately puts a round bun of “pane latte sesamo” (sesame bun) in a brown bag, like Pavlov’s dog hearing a bell.

Rome's Mercato Testaccio Food Market: Alessandra, the bread lady
Allessandra, the bread lady – Photo: Cintia Soto

Paolo, the Fruit and Vegetable Lady

I then go across the aisle to the vegetable stand where pretty Paola sells me tomatoes so sweet I eat them like apples. They go in my pasta sauce, my salads, my antipasti mix. If there was tomato rehab, I’d enter it. She sells clementines with peels that fall off the juicy flesh of a fruit that explodes in your mouth with cold, fresh juice after being in my fridge for two hours.

Rome's Mercato Testaccio Food Market: Carciofi
Carciofi (Artichokes) – Photo: Cintia Soto

Alessandro, the Pasta Guy

A few steps away is Alessandro, my pasta guy. As bald as a mushroom, Alessandro stands behind trays of about a dozen different pastas. Salmon-filled ravioli. Orechiette. Fettuccini. Tortellini. They’re all handmade that morning. All beat the that boxed pasta I ate in the United States. Fresh pasta may be Italy’s most perfect food. Cook fresh pasta of any of the more than 300 varieties, brown some garlic, add some fresh tomatoes and a dash of oil then cover it with grated parmigiano reggiano. You’ve got a simple cheap meal that would sell for $15 in the U.S.

Rome's Mercato Testaccio Food Market: Alessandro the pasta man
Aleesandro, the pasta man – Photo: Cintia Soto

Antonella and Francesca, the Mother-Daughter Cheese Team

Next down the walkway are the cheese goddesses, Antonella and Francesca, the attractive mother-daughter team whom I mistook for sisters. They get bufala mozzarella shipped up from Campania, the region famous for Naples and the best bufala in Italy. The white balls sit in murky fluid in a big bowl atop the counter. Slice a ball of that onto a sliced tomato and drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil and you have one of the best afternoon snacks of your life.

Rome's Mercato Testaccio Food Market: Cheese sellers
Mother-Daughter cheese team of Antonella and Francesca – Photo: Cintia Soto

The Fish Monger

About once a week I visit the fish stall. I can tell how important food is to Italians by going to fish stalls. That’s where a big husky fish monger covered in blood and holding a cleaning knife the size of a machete will painstakingly tell me how to delicately season a salmon. The guy looks like a gladiator and talks like Paula Deen.

I’d write more but this blog has made me starving. I’m making ricotta and pistachio-stuffed ravioli in pesto sauce, fried zucchini and a chef salad.

So what’s in your fridge for tonight?

About John Henderson


John Henderson worked nearly 40 years as a sportswriter, the last 24 with The Denver Post, including eight as a traveling food columnist. Worked since 1984 as a free-lance travel writer. Traveled to 98 countries and retired to Rome in January 2014. Originally from Eugene, Ore., and also worked in Kent, Wash., and Las Vegas. Graduate of the University of Oregon in 1978. Check out my blog, Dog-Eared Passport. Twitter @JohnHendeRome

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One Response

  1. Avatar for John Henderson

    Cintia Soto

    Thank you John on spending the day with me at Testaccio Market. I learn a lot with you walking around, how wonderful it is in Rome, I can’t wait to go back to Rome.
    Thank you for give some credits to my photos.


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