This article is part of a guide to Rome from FT Globetrotter
Photography by Camillo Pasquarelli
When it comes to food, Romans are resourceful people. With our cucina povera, we have been championing sustainable eating for centuries. And the quinto quarto, or the “fifth quarter” as it is known, is perhaps the most ancient example of nose-to-tail eating there is.
It is with this catch-all phrase that we Romans describe the parts of cattle, pigs and sheep that are usually discarded — considered, mistakenly, of no culinary value. These include the head all the way to the hooves via the heart, intestines and pretty much every organ you can think of (yes, testicles — granelli — too) that you would never find in your local high-street supermarket.
In the 19th century, Roman butchers’ apprentices around the newly built abattoir in Testaccio were paid in quinto quarto — all the elements that a butcher could not sell. They would then try to sell these to local working men’s trattorias, barter them for other goods or cook them for themselves and their families.
It is thus that some of the tastiest and most traditional Roman dishes came to be. Cooked slowly, most often in a tenderising tomato sauce, these offcuts have over the years gone up in the world. Once the preserve of the poor and dispossessed, they have become staples of Roman family cooking, and today you’ll find modern renditions of them in Rome’s most high-end restaurants.
With issues such as food waste and slow food high on the sustainability agenda, quinto quarto’s popularity has risen once more after a dip during the years of mad cow disease. These dishes are not only sustainable and inflation-proof, they are, of course, absolutely delicious and in some cases very nutritious. Your next trip to Rome should include sampling at least one of them.
There are many star dishes in quinto quarto’s firmament but these are the ones that shine the brightest and you will find most commonly served.
Coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew)
This intense, falling-off-the-bone oxtail dish is the undisputed queen of the quinto quarto. Cooked for hours over a low heat, it slowly stews in a luscious concoction of tomatoes, celery and (secret ingredient) bitter chocolate. To make it go further (another nod to our resourcefulness), we traditionally eat rigatoni pasta with the sauce from the stew as a first course, and the actual pieces of oxtail as a main. Another variation is ravioli stuffed with oxtail meat, served in a decadent cooking sauce.
While you will find quinto quarto in most Roman eateries, its real home is in cool Testaccio, where the grandiose Mattatoio (abattoir) acted as a magnet for workers’ trattorias. You’ll find it everywhere from super-traditional restaurants to trendy places offering contemporary reinterpretations of it.
Checchino dal 1887
Via di Monte Testaccio 30, 00153 Rome
As its name suggests, Checchino dal 1887 has been one of the stalwarts of Roman cuisine for quite some time. Right next to the Mattatoio, it probably serves the widest array of quinto quarto in the city, including the infamous granelli. It doesn’t get more classic than this (if a little old-fashioned) but its coda is simply lovely. (Website; Directions)
Piazza Orazio Giustiniani 2, 00153 Rome
Just around the corner from Checchino and with a lovely outdoor seated area, Jole has a more modern menu. Its coda-filled ravioli are fantastic. (Website; Directions)
Trippa alla Romana (Roman-style tripe)
Tripe is largely off limits in the United Kingdom. The mere mention of it tends to elicit looks of disgust. And yes, whoever thought cooking bovine stomach lining in milk and onions was a good idea must have been having a very strange day in the kitchen. But bear with me on this one.
Its Roman rendition is another warming, hearty showstopper. Cooked in tomatoes, onions, celery and with a hint of mint before arriving piping hot at your table, it is then covered in grated pecorino. Digging in with some crusty bread will make you think twice before turning your nose up again at this often forgotten, nutritious and low-fat food. It is hugely popular in Roman homes — I even remember eating, and enjoying it, at school.
Via di Ponte Quattro capi 16, 00186 Rome
Located on the Isola Tiberina, the picturesque island in the middle of the Tiber just across from the Jewish Ghetto, Sora Lella is a Roman institution, and its founder’s most famous dish was trippa. (Website; Directions)
Via Mastro Giorgio 29, 00153 Rome
Back in Testaccio, if you can get a table here (book well in advance and be very charming to the temperamental Franco, who runs the place), try the luscious trippa between one of the most famous cacio e pepe in Rome and a to-die-for tiramisu, which I must have every time I return home. (Website; Directions)
Rigatoni con la pajata (rigatoni with milk-fed calf’s intestine)
OK, this one is not for the faint-hearted, and I admit that I have had a difficult relationship with it. During my childhood, my father, who loved pajata, used to taunt us children with it. That said, it is incredibly popular in Rome and, if offal is your thing, I recommend you try it.
Pajata are the intestines of a calf that has been fed only on its mother’s milk. For this dish, they are tied up in calamari-shaped doughnuts and cooked al sugo — you’ve guessed it, in tomato sauce — and served over rigatoni, then smothered with pecorino. As you bite into them, the creaminess of the milk creates a velvety marriage with the tomatoes to envelop the pasta in a satisfying, filling and most definitely one-of-a-kind combination.
Lungotevere Testaccio 7, 00153 Rome
After a very filling serving of pajata here (it’s not the sort of dish you order for a light lunch), freshen your taste buds with a gorgeous puntarelle salad when it’s in season, and its unique anchovy, garlic and olive oil dressing. (Website; Directions)
Via Giovanni Branca 98, 00153 Rome
This spot is as spartan as they come but does all the classics perfectly. If you want to deviate from tomato sauces, go for grilled pajata as a main instead of as a pasta course. (Website; Directions)
Animelle coi carciofi (grilled sweetbreads with artichokes)
I adore these. I call them the foie gras of Roman cooking — but at a fraction of the cost of the French delicacy and with none of the guilt associated with it.
Grilled sweetbreads accompanied by the king of Roman cooking, the artichoke. That’s it. A marriage made in heaven. This dish is simplicity at its best — and we all know that semplicità is the number one signature Italian cooking mantra.
The king, il carciofo, which we Romani venerate like a deity, deserves an entire tome in itself. All you need to know is that creamy, delicately sautéed sweetbreads in a luscious white wine and olive oil emulsion and artichokes are an irresistible partnership.
Via Marmorata 39, 00153 Rome
If you want to step back in time to the La Dolce Vita era while enjoying beautifully executed classics, this is the place for you. One of the few remaining authentic and immaculately preserved trattorias. (Website; Directions)
Via Giovanni da Empoli 5, 00154 Rome
Head here for modern interpretations of quinto quarto in a casual but trendy setting by a passionate crew of young chefs — their crispy coated animelle are a real hit. (Website; Directions)
Off the beaten track
Piazza Benedetto Brin 5, 00154 Rome
One of my absolute favourites. In the crumbling but beautifully evocative quarter known as Garbatella, this tiny hole in the wall, with ample outdoor seating for unforgettable summer dinners, is basic in both decor and service (bring cash) but really tasty. As well as trippa and pajata, you can also sample insalata di nervetti, one of the more fringe dishes of quinto quarto: a cold salad of — wait for it — veal spinal nerves in a tangy olive oil, chilli and vinegar dressing. We eat this as an antipasto and it is a lot nicer than it sounds. Don’t miss the polpette di bollito — moreish fried rissoles made from stewed beef. (Website; Directions)
So the next time you visit Rome, come and join the original food-sustainability movement, board the zero-food-waste train of fantastic flavours and traditions, slum it out with cucina povera and, I promise you, you will feel as though you’ve eaten like an emperor.
Where’s your go-to place for offal dishes? Tell us in the comments
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