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Young Alessandro Iegri wears twin diamond studs in his right ear and a white apron smeared with blood and wields a huge carving knife. He looks at me like I'm a wimp. " Prova," he says - try it.

I am standing in front of his family's butcher shop, Marcelleria Iegri, one of about 50 food stalls in the covered market in Testaccio, one of the last largely tourist-free neighbourhoods in the city centre and one of the last downtown places where you can find true Roman life. "It" is horse meat, called carne equina in Italian, and I'm squeamish. " Prova, prova," he insists again, handing me a long, skinny hunk of horse sausage. "I've never understood why Americans don't eat horse meat," he tells me, assuming I'm American. "Maybe it's sacred to them."

I try it. The sausage has almost no fat. The taste is almost sweet and it's easy to chew, unlike, say, the lower forms of pepperoni. I am told by friends that horse meat, which has always been part of the local menu, has become more popular since the mad-cow disease and bird flu scares. Certainly, there is no shortage of customers at Alessandro's shop.

My next stop is a fish stall run by Luciano Cervini, 77, who has been a Testaccio market fixture for more than 60 years. Luciano is a big, jovial bald man with a white mustache. His workday starts at 1 in the morning, when the trucks laden with squid, skate, dogfish, anchovies and scampi arrive. The sea creatures are neatly displayed on a big tray of crushed ice. The anchovies, drenched in olive oil, are split, flattened and laid out in a grid pattern. Luciano, equipped with a knife that looks like it could slay a bull, will slice them any way you want.

Luciano never went to school and has been selling fish in more or less the same spot since 1941, when Italy and Germany were fighting the Allies. "The Germans never bought my fish," he says. Neither did the Americans who arrived in 1944, when the retreating German army declared Rome an open city. It is possible neither army knew the market existed.

Indeed, Testaccio, on the southern fringes of the historic centre just beyond the Aurelian walls, has always been a purely local neighbourhood.

When I lived in Rome in the early 1970s, I never visited it.

I was just entering my teen years at the time - the city was the home base of my father, a roving reporter - and I had total freedom to roam the city. But I can't even remember hearing about Testaccio. And when I took my family to Rome five years ago for a three-month holiday, we never visited the place. It was always described slightly ominously as "working-class," with grubby streets and not much to see.

Giving Testaccio a pass was a mistake.

When we moved to Rome in early April, the gods smiled and delivered us an apartment in the Aventine, the leafy residential area to the immediate northeast of Testaccio. We knew the Aventine is a desirable place to live; diplomats and rich Romans love the area. It is quiet, yet within walking distance of most of Rome's historic centre. It's on a hill overlooking the Tiber River, so the air tends to be fresher. The Circus Maximus (think Ben-Hur) and the Colosseum are only minutes away. It has orange and lemon trees, ancient churches and, best of all, parking! Minutes after we visited the apartment and begged the United Nations couple who lived there to lease it to us, we realized the Aventine was smack next to the mysterious neighbourhood called Testaccio. It took us about two hours to determine that Testaccio is a total delight, especially the covered market.

Already, we can't imagine going to any other neighbourhood for our morning caffe, for a cheap and cheerful meal, to fill the fridge with prosciutto crudo, fresh strawberries, Sicilian tomatoes and in-season artichokes, to treat the kids to gelato of a hundred colours. The streets are alive with restaurants, food markets, shoe shops, clothing stores and wine merchants. It has a couple of the finest delicatessens I've seen. One is E. Volpetti, an internationally famous deli where you can drop 100 euros on cured meats and cheeses in about 10 seconds. The aroma of salami, Parmigiano cheese, breads and olives is guaranteed to empty your wallet.

Yes, go to the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, the imperial Palatine palaces and the twisty, medieval streets of Trastevere; they're classic Rome. But until you've experienced Testaccio, you haven't experienced the city.

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