efore major battles, ancient Roman generals turned to oracles in what amounted to a ritual merger of superstition and gastronomy. The oracles didn’t seek wisdom in deep reflection or prayer. Far from it. Instead, they depended on signs divined from the entrails of large animals such as calves and steer following ritual slaughters.
In ceremonies handed down from the Etruscans, animal entrails were removed and probed for clues to the future. Based on the reflexes and markings of specific organs, including the liver, heart and intestines, the oracle scouted out what lay ahead and reported back to the commander.
After the rite came a banquet in which entrails — known as offal — were cooked. Though more refined meat cuts replaced offal over the centuries, Roman cuisine never fully severed its ties to an animal’s so-called quinto quarto, or “fifth fourth,” its intestines, head and tail. Trippa, tripe, is a good example.
But perhaps the most celebrated (and off-putting) dish based on offal is “la pagliata,” or pajata in Roman dialect, made from beef, veal and lamb intestines stewed in its own “chimo” (a creamy compound of coagulated foods that’s extremely high in enzymes).
The dish is kin to pig “chitterlings” in England and “chitlins” in the United States. When the casings are cooked in hearty tomato sauce, “la pagliata” has a soft and slightly gummy consistency and a slightly sweet and sour flavor (a bit like extra-sharp cheese). The tomato sauce compliments that.
In post-war Rome, slaughterhouse food was generally earmarked for the city’s humbler classes, including the Testaccio butchers who cut meat for the urban elite. At the time, so-called “poor” ingredients (cucina povera) were a mainstay of blue collar cuisine.
These days, “la pagliata” represents the rarest of hometown delicacies. Only a handful of restaurants and trattorias still serve it regularly. The Mad Cow (BSE) outbreak of the mid-1990s led to an Italy-wide ban on the selling and consumption of bovine intestines. But Rome chefs stuck with the dish, often replacing beef with lamb, which is what the city’s traditional restaurants now serve.
Rome Mayor Gianni Alemmano recently asked the Italian agriculture ministry to “reinstate” beef and lamb pajata or face Romans making it anyway “as an act of civil disobedience.”
As a boy, I watched my grandfather and grandmother prepare the beef variation. My grandfather’s expert hands seemed to merge with those of my grandmother, who was his cooking partner. Like a surgeon at work, he unwound and cleaned the intestines, removing the excess fat and tissue from the organs. He’d advise my grandmother against pulling too hard on the skin at the risk of spilling the “chimo” inside. He’d then take the beef intestines in his long, thin hands and make donut-like loops — gut rings — that he tied together with string.
That was the final pre-cooking step of a recipe that’s long been a symbol of Rome working class life. La Pagliata even slipped into local pop culture thanks to a famous scene in Mario Monicelli’s 1981 film “Il Marchese del Grillo” starring the popular Rome-born comedian Alberto Sordi.
The dish outlined below, “Rigatoni con la Pagliata,” demands that you literally sink your hands into the underbelly of Roman culture. It’s admittedly not suited to all tastes, but the results are well worth exploring for a cook interested in tackling new ground.
Rigatoni con la Pagliata
Ingredients (for 4 people):
- 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) of pagliata (lamb intestines).
- 1.2 cup olive oil.
- 1 pinch salt.
- 3/4 cup finely chopped onions.
- 1 1/2 cup dry white wine.
- 3 cans of plain organic tomato sauce.
- 400 grams of rigatoni.
- 1 tsp. nutmeg.
- 200 grams pecorino romano cheese.
Getting clean intestines isn’t easy. Your best bet is to ask a trusted butcher to prepare it ahead of time. Remember that you’re looking for intestinal casing still rich in flavor-laden “chimo.”
If you decide to make it by yourself, get a sharp knife.
- Start by cutting off one end of the intestines.
- Using your fingers, firmly but delicately pull the skin from the surface of the intestine and carefully peel it off. Don’t pull too hard at the risk of losing the “chimo.” Let that drain out and the dish loses its flavors.
- Cut pieces of 20-25 centimeter-long strips and binding the ends together with string. They look like little “wheels,” or “donuts.”
- In a pan, heat olive oil. When its hot, add the “pagliata” donuts with salt and a sprinkling of pepper. Brown them over low heat, stirring often so that the donuts don’t congeal.
- When the donuts are very brown, add 3/4 cup of finely chopped onion and
- 1 1/2 cup of dry white wine.
- After 3-to-4 minutes, cover with tomato sauce.
- Cook on low flame until the sauce settles (usually about 40 minutes), stirring with a wooden spoon and careful not to break the donuts.
- When the “pagliata” has cooked, remove the donuts from the sauce and set them aside.
- Separately, cook the rigatoni al dente and when ready place them into the pan where the sauce is simmering and stir.
- Serve the rigatoni with the “pagliata” donuts mixed together, adding grated pecorino romano and a sprinkling of nutmeg to each plate.
As for wine, try a dry red — “Rosso di Montepulciano,” for example.
FOR ‘LA PAGLIATA’ (Pajata)
- TURIDDU AL MATTATOIO Via Galvani 64. Tel. 06.575.0447. Major credit cards. Typical Roman cusine. The house dish is pajata. Moderate. €30.
- PERILLI A TESTACCIO Via Marmorata 39. Tel. 06.574.2415. Major credit cards. Closed Wednesdays. Specializes in typical Roman fare (pajata, coda alla vaccinara (cow’s tail in tomato sauce.) Pricy. €35.
- CHECCHINO DAL 1887 Via di Monte Testaccio 30. Tel. 06.574.3816. Major credit cards. Closed Sunday and Monday. Family-run restaurant. Specializes in offal. Good wine cellar. Pricy. €35.
- CHECCO ER CARETTIERE Via Benedetta 10/13 Tel. 06.580.0985. The Porcelli family’s restaurant of three generations. Specializes in “quinto quarto,” or “fifth fourths,” the poorer parts of livestock, including trippa, pajata, oxtail. Pricy. €40-50.
FOR ROMAN FARE IN GENERAL (don’t rely on credit cards; take cash. Average price includes house wine and desert).
- DA AGUSTARELLO A TESTACCIO Via G. Branca, 98/100. Tel. 06.574.6585. Closed Sunday. Augustarello is among the most famous trattorias in Rome. It’s known for Roman specialties and its location in a small Trastevere piazza. Book ahead. Cheap. €30.
- DA GIOVANNI Via della Lungara, 41/a. Tel. 06.686.1514. Closed Sunday. In the heart of Trastevere, Giovanni offers the best in Roman fare. Very cheap. €25.
- DAL PALLARO Largo del Pallaro, 13. Tel. 06.654.1488. Closed Monday. Favorites: Trippa (entrails), polpettine (meatballs), amatriciana (tomato and bacon), coda alla vaccinara (oxtail/calf stew). Very cheap. €25.
- HOSTARIA DA EDMONDO Circonvallazione Clodia, 90. Tel. 06.370.1272. Closed Sunday. Edmondo, assisted by his sons, knows all of Rome’s cooking secrets; he makes his food lovingly. The abbacchio al forno (roast lamb) is exceptional. Cheap. €30.
- LA CAPANNA Piazza Dante, 23. Tel. 06.730.369. Closed Sunday. Roman cooking (a few good dishes); a few good people; incomparable prices. Be prepared to wait for a table. Very cheap. €25.
- L’ABRUZZESE Via dei Gracchi, 27. Tel. 06.314.914. Closed Moday. Pleasant setting, delicious food; lots of Roman staples hard to find elsewhere. Not limited to Roman cuisine, however. Cheap. €30-35.
- LO SCOPETTARO Lungotevere Testaccio, 7. Tel. 06.574.2408 Closed Tuesday. Roman specialities. Great selection of vegetables, from carciofi alla giudia (artichokes) to the exquisite broccoletti strascicati in padella (fried rabe). The abbacchio al forno con patate (roast lamb with roast potatoes) can leave you speechless. Very cheap. €25.
- DA POMMIDORO Piazza dei Sanniti, 44. Tel. 06.445.2692. Closed Sunday. Only Roman food. Pasta e ceci, pasta e fagioli, spezzatino di vitello. Specialty is fish and fowl. Cheap. €30.
- DAR FILETTARO A SANTA BARBARA Largo dei Librari, 88. Tel. 06.686.4018. Closed Sunday. Open for dinner only. The menu here is confined to fantastic filetti di baccala (cod) and other fried fish. The only exception is an antipasto with bread, butter and anchovies. Cheerful place. Very cheap. €25.
- TRATTORIA PONTE MOLLO Via Tor di Quinto, 11. Tel. 06.333.3608. Closed Monday. Tasty antipasti. Check out the melanzane (eggplant) and peperoni ripieni (stuffed pepperoni). Also, excellent amatriciana and seafood risotto. Fantastic fish dishes for those on a budget. Cheap. €30.