Buzzing with activity, chatter and delicious aromas, the market square has historically been at the center of city life. The Greek concept of agora – a term whose literal meaning is “gathering place” or “assembly” as the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city – later evolved to a place that also served as a marketplace where merchants sold their goods on stalls and small clustered shops. The agora marketplace brought people together to supply and provide sustenance for family and to foster communication, enhancing social interaction.
One of Rome’s best examples of this cultural evolution is the Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio: a modern-day agora sitting on nearly two millenia of history.
In the 1st century much of the Tiber River trade took place in Testaccio, and the remains of the broken testae amphorae (clay vessels) stacked to create the artificial Monte dei Cocci hill in the heart of Testaccio, is the archeological evidence of the area’s ancient everyday Roman life. In the 1900s thanks to the building of the mattatoio (the city’s slaughterhouse from 1920s until it closed in 1975) – which employed many workers lodging in the developing housing “lotti” – Testaccio became a center of activity for butchers and one of Rome’s most traditional working class neighborhoods. Two decades ago, a process of gentrification changed Testaccio’s hard-at-work face to a more hipster one, shifting it from a raucus blue collar neighborhood to a swinging food and culture mecca.
It comes to no surprise then that the Testaccio neighborhood market – which for several decades resided in the small square at the intersection of Via Bodoni, Via Manuzio, Via della Robbia and Via Mastro Giorgio, and relocated to its present address in 2012 – should become one of the neighborhood’s most striking and beloved attractions. Despite initial scepticism regarding the modern 5000-square meter structure designed by architect Marco Rietti, past and present come together in and among the sky-lit, pristine stalls, which Romans now greatly appreciate.
Fismongers, butchers, produce sellers and other vendors occupy the 100 or so stalls that circle the central “piazza” complete with refurbished pellet seating and a cafe overlooking ancient Roman ruins of the original 1st century market found in the lower levels during contruction. Favorite occupants that moved from the old location and the newly businesses are thriving and include the likes of butcher dynasty Sartor (box #61 and #70), while stall #94 is fishmonger Mastroianni (yes, related to the late actor), baker Da Artenio who also sells a few natural wines and the best bite-sized pizzas in the universe occupies box #90.
Great mixed juices and vegetarian smoothies can be enjoyed at Zoé at box #59, while retired butcher Sergio Esposito stuffs classic cucina romana recipes in sandwiches at box #15 Mordi e Vai. Fresh seasonal vegetables are sold with a smile at #82 Fiori di Zucca, and Silvia‘s fruit and produce stall #68 is one of our favorites. Michelin star-studded Chef Cristina Bowerman recently opened another Romeo space in the market at #30, and with it Cups at #44 which is a fun takeaway kitchen that sells tasty signature dishes served in portable gelato-like cups. There’s also a gluten free bakery In Cibo Veritas at number #57, a delightful old school deli run by the sweet cuple Lina and Enzo at #89, and fresh pasta makers Le Mani in Pasta, which besides selling all kinds of fresh pasta also conveniently serves plates of freshly strecthed and cooked pasta for a handful of Euros at box #58.
In the Testaccio neighborhood where the market is located there are also contemporary art museums, shops that sell sublime cured meats, balsamic vinegars, cold pressed olive oils and cheeses, plus baked goods, coffee bars, and pastry shops. Not to mention the fabulous restaurants that serve everything from quinto quarto to freshly caught fish!
Walking the tree-lined avenues of Testaccio and taking in the feel of everyday life is an authentic Rome experience.
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All images © Eleonora Baldwin
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.