Food & Drink: Organ recital

Busting a gut to find the perfect way to celebrate a big birthday
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE happy birthdays, and there are pesky birthdays. By pesky, I mean those that end in a nought. I'm heading straight for a nought at the moment, and what makes it even peskier is that the nought is not preceded by a one or a two, if you get my drift.

Needless to say, my nearest and dearest has her heart set on converting this milestone (an event I'd much rather forget) into the most memorable time of my life.

It's the nought that does it. People go mad. When your birthday ends in a five or a seven, they say things like "What sort of cake would you like?" or "Which do you need more, socks or underwear?" But as it's a zero, she suddenly says: "If you could have a birthday dinner in any restaurant anywhere, where would you go?"

She means it, too - three-star in Paris, somewhere on the Amalfi, a kaiseki restaurant in Tokyo, the local pub. It's a terrifying thought. Restaurants special enough to stand up to a nought birthday are few and far between. If I pick a restaurant that doesn't live up to expectations, I've not only ruined my birthday, I've shattered her hopes, dreams and everything she had to live for.

First to mind is the timeless Gundel restaurant in Budapest; or the opulent Burgundy heaven of Petrus in Hong Kong; or Gualtiero Marchesi's incurably romantic L'Albereta in Italy. I could go to Alain Ducasse in Paris, of course, but the poor man has enough on his shoulders sustaining his reputation as the world's finest chef without having to cope with the enormity of my birthday.

Then it hits me. It has been 15 years since I stumbled upon one of the most remarkable restaurants in the world. A century-old trattoria, Checchino dal 1887, sits on Monte Testaccio in an unfashionable quarter of Rome, opposite what was once the old slaughterhouse. It is the most Roman restaurant I have ever met. Turn up at 9pm and the place is deserted. But wait until 10pm, and you can't move, as a crowd that looks like a cast of extras from La Dolce Vita, all silk suits and camel-hair overcoats, sips local wine. But that's not what makes it remarkable.

The restaurant is built on a man-made hill built of broken wine and oil clay amphorae, piled on top of each other over 500 years by Roman slaves. The name of the "mountain" Testaccio derives from the Latin testa, or terracotta, and if you walk into the cellar beneath the restaurant, you can see the jagged walls. But that's not what makes Checchino remarkable.

There's the fact that it's been in the same family for four generations and the current owner, Elio Mariani, still uses his great-grandmother's recipes. But what makes Checchino truly remarkable is that every recipe is for offal. The place is practically a shrine to mysterious meats; a temple to funny bits; a memorial to discards and off-cuts.

In the early days, when the meat workers received a proportion of their salary in off-cuts, they would bring their wobbly, bumpy, strange-look- ing inner bits across the road and exchange them for a meal. Many of these dishes live on in Checchino today, including a sweet, delicate rigatoni with pajata (calves' intestines), tonnarelli pasta with a rich, unctuous sauce made from oxtail, and a truly eye-popping mixed grill of calves' spinal marrow, digestive tract and testicles.

I haven't thought about the place for years, but now I crave its honesty, the earthiness of its flavours, the generosity of its hospitality. I need the dishes I missed out last time; beans with caul fat, crostini with rendered pig's cheek, lip-sticking tripe, and calves' foot salad.

So Checchino it is. It seems appropriate to celebrate a nought birthday with an affair of the heart. Especially when it's scattered with a little freshly grated Parmigiano.

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