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.
The neighbourhood is slowly being gentrified. Real-estate prices are climbing, but the streets have not lost their Roman flavour, nor has the place lost its usefulness to the locals. For every shoe shop that sells 500-euro Prada loafers and sleek stainless-steel kitchen appliances, there is a hole in the wall that will mend your shirt, sell you spark plugs or serve a pizza that's better than anything you've ever dreamed about in North America.
The back streets are full of surprises. A store that sells nothing but wooden toys, called LegnArte, is so tiny - it might be the size of a bathroom - that the owner substituted a sliding pocket door for the traditional swing-in door. The selection may be small, but each item has been chosen with care, making it a pleasure to browse through.
There are movie theatres, nightclubs and restaurants galore. We've sampled three or four restaurants and have yet to be disappointed. The intensity of flavour of Italian produce in season is unlike anything I have ever tasted in North America. The local restaurants all buy the freshest ingredients from the covered market. You can't go wrong with Da Bucatino, which calls itself a taverna. The meals, such as the spaghetti alle vongole (with clams) followed by strawberries with lemon, are simple, honest and delicious. Even the cheapo house wine - vino di casa - is beyond reproach.
Another fun spot is La Villetta, just outside Testaccio proper and favoured by the players of the AS Roma soccer team and their well-coiffed girlfriends. The place is big, brash and loud, the food better than decent. Go late - 10 p.m. is when the place fills up (in Italy, only families with young children eat dinner before 9).
I wouldn't call Testaccio beautiful; it could do with a good scrub. But it's far from oppressive. Walking the streets, lined with handsome buildings from the late 1800s in various states of repair, is pleasant. Tourists looking for fine art and architecture, or ancient temples, will be disappointed. But it is nonetheless a historic neighbourhood.
The name Testaccio comes from the Latin "testa," which means shard. It was in here that the ancient Romans discarded their broken amphorae, the clay pots with the conical ends that carried oil and wine from Spain, North Africa and other parts of the empire to the seaport of Ostia, then up the Tiber River by barge to the city docks at Testaccio. The 30-metre-high Monte Testaccio, a hill-turned-park at the south end of the neighbourhood, is made entirely of broken amphorae. Restaurants and nightclubs have been drilled into the hill's base.
Testaccio was also, in effect, Rome's stomach. As the ancient city's population grew - historians have estimated its peak population at one million or more, versus about three million now - the government had to boost the free distributions of grain. That meant building vast grain warehouses known as horrea. Some of the biggest were in or near Testaccio.
The food theme lives on. Until 1975, Testaccio housed Rome's slaughterhouses. They were closed, in part, because the truck drivers complained about the difficulty in getting into a cramped, inner-city neighbourhood. They're being restored and plans are being made to turn them into galleries, arts schools and the like.
You don't have to go far from Testaccio to find some remarkable sights, made all the better by the relative lack of tourists. The Protestant Cemetery, sometimes called the English Cemetery, lies at southeastern edge of Testaccio. It is an oasis of tranquillity. Shelley and Keats are buried here. Keats's epitaph, which does not mention his name, is inscribed on the headstone. It reads in part: "Here Lies One Whose Name is writ in Water." (The cemetery also contains the grave of E. Herbert Norman, a Canadian diplomat, historian and, some say, Soviet agent. The former ambassador to Egypt committed suicide in Cairo in 1957, before he was to be questioned by the U.S. Senate subcommittee on internal security. Why he is buried here, I've never been able to find out.) Another sight not to be missed is the Basilica of Santa Sabina, on the top of the Aventine Hill overlooking the Tiber. It's about a 10-minute walk from Testaccio's covered market. Santa Sabina is Rome's best remaining example of an early Christian church. It was built in the early fifth century, is fully intact and has been beautifully restored. The interior is bright, airy and simple. The windows are made from a very thin, translucent stone that sheds a silvery light. Next to the basilica is a lovely orange garden with some of the finest views of Rome.
After a week of exploring Testaccio and eating everything in sight, we craved a non-Italian meal. The treasure box that is Testaccio offered another surprise in the form of Tallusa, a tiny Eastern Mediterranean joint on Via Beniamino Franklin, not far from the defunct slaughterhouses. The owner is a friendly Palestinian called Mofid Fares, who runs the place as if it were his front room. Tallusa is symbolic of what's happening in the Rome of the 21st century. The city is has become a magnet for immigrants - Chinese, Filipinos, Eastern Europeans, Arabs, North Africans. Some are setting up restaurants in Testaccio and other places where the rents are not yet extortionate, giving the city a welcome ethnic variety it lacked in the past.
At Tallusa, you are invited to lounge on pillows and squeeze your legs under a table no higher than an upright book. There is no menu - the food, ranging from Lebanese-style mezzes and couscous to hummus and falafel, just arrives. Everyone smokes, even though smoking is against the law in public places (the law is generally well respected). A bunch of us piled in one Saturday night in mid-April. About 11 p.m., Mofid put down his drink, rose from the floor and shouted, " Ragazzi, polizia!" Half the patrons fled. It wasn't the smoking police; it was the parking cops and he wanted to make sure the patrons didn't get tickets.
That's Testaccio. It's cheerful, friendly, full of curiosities and relatively inexpensive. The food is fabulous. Most of all, it's a Roman neighbourhood at its best. Don't miss it.
Pack your bags GETTING THERE
Testaccio is an easy walk - no more than 20 minutes - from the most popular destinations and neighbourhoods in the southern half of the historic centre, such as Trastevere, the Circus Maximus and the Palatine Hill. Any bus that goes along the Via Marmorata, one of the main commuter roads, will take you there. The green and white bus-stop signs tell you which direction the bus is going and what stops it makes. Alternatively, take the "B" Metro line to the Piramide station.
Testaccio is not known for its hotels (I've yet to spot one in Testaccio proper). But since the neighbourhood is so small, you don't have to stay there to explore it. Best to go in the mornings to visit the covered market and wander the streets, or in the evenings, to take in the restaurants and street life.
WHERE TO EAT
The Covered Market: Impossible to miss. It dominates Piazza Testaccio, the neighbourhood's main piazza. Best to go in the morning, after 8. Closed Sundays and slow on Mondays.
Da Bucatino: 84/85 Via Luca della Robbia; 39 (06) 574 6886. The restaurant, a local favourite, is one block north of the covered market. Closed Monday. In the high season, reservations are essential. (Hint: If you don't have a reservation and are worried about getting one, go early - say 7 p.m. Most Romans don't even think about eating out before 8 p.m.)
La Villetta: Viale della Piramide Cestia 53. 39 (06) 575 5097. You'll find it about two blocks north of the Piramide Metro station. Go late - that's when it's most fun. Order the antipasto misto (mixed antipasto) and loosen your belt.
Tallusa: Via B. Franklin 11; 39 (06) 572 50528. The Middle Eastern hole in the wall is tiny, so make a reservation for dinner. (Reservations are not necessary for lunch.) You can eat outside too, but it's more fun to flop on the pillows inside. Tallusa also does take-out.
WHAT TO DO
LegnArte: Via Mastro Giorgio 37/a; 39 (06) 578 1983. Close to Piazza Testaccio.
Protestant Cemetery: The fastest way to get there from the centre of Rome is to take the "B" line subway to the Piramide stop. When you exit, you will see an ancient mausoleum in the form of a 30-metre-high white pyramid. The cemetery is right behind it. It's open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. On Sundays, it closes at 2 p.m.
Basilica of Santa Sabina: The ancient church is about a 10-minute walk from Testaccio's covered market. Cross the Via Marmorata to the Aventine and keep going up the hill. You'll find it at the very top, overlooking the Tiber.
Eric Reguly is The Globe and Mail's European business correspondent, based in Rome