The Vespa journey turned out to be brilliant, making short work of the evening traffic. We whizzed around the Coliseum, shook our fists at the monstrous Vottoriale, and marvelled at the Trevi fountain - even with the tourists, including me, it was magical. Three coins were duly tossed over the shoulder and I wished for a good dinner.
The restaurant Checchino dal 1887 (0039 6 574 3816) is in Via Monte Testaccio, by the Tiber. It sits opposite the gates to the old (disused) city abattoir and is a most civilised place. Run by the Mariani family, it has been in the same ownership since... well, 1887. Checchino specialises in the tradition of offal - and by that I don't mean just liver, kidneys and a lick of tongue. Here, the "fifth part" also includes testicles, brains, feet, tripe, intestines, sweetbreads and other internals and extremities.
This is probably the nearest thing to a Roman feast, in a city that does not own a regional cuisine - but then not many cities really do. However, Checchino has a similar feel to that of Boeuf Couronne in Avenue Jean- Jaures in Paris (also next to the old abattoir, la Villette, in the 19th) and, in a revivalist style, the restaurant St John, in St John Street, by the working Smithfield market, in London.
"When in Rome...," I said to myself (or any other foreign city, come to that), "stick to the same place once more if it pleases the first time." So I ate at Checchino three times in four days, just to make sure: twice with friends and once on my own. As with similar occasions, I seem to eat best in solitary circumstances, and end up finding out more about a place. Purely, I suppose, because there is the time to ponder and look about, natter with the owners and ask for suggestions. And indulge without guilt.
The suggestion of some slices of freshly cooked porchetta (sucking pig) might not be everyone's idea of a first course, but here it seemed a perfectly natural way to start lunch. Three thin slivers (wide, but thin) arrived, just warm, and dressed with exceptionally fine olive oil, lemon juice and black pepper. No salad, no sauce, no gravy, no hedge of rocket or parsley field. Just the meat. It was fabulous. Well, perhaps one might suggest something a little lighter to follow that? A piece of steamed fish? A little frittata (omelette)? Even a small plate of spaghetti alla carbonara (a dish which, incidentally, does seem to have an affinity with Rome)? No, silly. It was time for bollito misto.
Bollito is a pot of mixed boiled meats, of which a typical collection might be tongue, chicken (or boiling fowl), ham, rolled and boned calf's head, cottechino or zampone sausage (a rich mix of pork, pork skin and red wine), and beef brisket.
Traditionally from northern Italy, particularly Piedmont, a bollito offered in a restaurant there will be served from a special compartmentalised boiling trolley, with each section containing the different meats kept hot and moist in barely simmering stock.
This was certainly the case at Dal Bolognese (0039 6 361 1426), an old, established Roman restaurant in the Piazza del Popolo. Here the bollito trolley takes pride of place in the centre of the restaurant, where wisps of steam leak out from time to time.
Once an order is placed, and the lid lifted, clouds of meaty vapour escape into the room. Everyone watches as morsels are lifted out with a two-pronged fork, placed on a central carving board and deftly sliced onto a waiting hot platter.
Salsa verde is the definitive accompaniment here, and no self-respecting bollito is complete without this green lotion. A big dash of mostarda di Cremona was also on hand. These preserved fruits in a heavy, mustard flavoured syrup have a controversial appearance in Rome, because purists would say that this tradition should only be offered in the north. Well I enjoyed it here, so tant pis, as they say over the border.
Sadly, however, the salsa verde at Dal Bolognese had a raw chutney feel, rather than the green oily ointment I am sure is more the thing. The deeply verdant oily bowlful back at Checchino was more like it, though here the boiled meats came direct from the kitchen, ready carved onto the plate - and no mostarda. There were four slices of ox tongue (unsalted), half a boned calf's foot and three slices of beef brisket. More olive oil and lemon was suggested - as with the porchetta - and a few perfunctory (though not unpleasant) boiled potatoes attended this excellent carnage. A good lunch, very good, I murmured, as I drained the '78 Tignanello.
Bollito Misto, serves 10 - it is not really worth doing for less
The meat ingredients may vary as to your locality. However, a simple trio of meats, as served at Checchino (but perhaps without the calf's foot), could include salted ox tongue, chicken and belly pork or ham, for example. The addition of a boiling sausage such as cottechino (available in good delicatessens) will really complete the dish. Here is my version, anyway.
1 small, salted ox tongue, brought to the boil in unsalted water and drained
1.4k/3lb beef brisket (unsalted), preferably on the bone
2 litres/314 pints light chicken stock, enriched with a split pig's trotter if possible
11.8k/4lb free-range chicken
1 pre-cooked cottechino or zampone sausage
3 large carrots, peeled and cut in half lengthways
3 large onions, peeled and stuck with 4 cloves
3 bay leaves
7 beautiful sticks celery, peeled
for the salsa verde
1 bunch flat-leafed parsley, leaves only
10 large basil leaves
15 mint leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
6 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 tbsp capers, drained and squeezed
150ml/14 pint extra virgin olive oil
little salt and much pepper
1 jar of mostarda di Cremona
Begin by poaching and simmering (not boiling as the name suggests) the beef and tongue in water, in 2 separate pans, for about 2 hours. Just cover the meats with water and, as they come up to a simmer, skim off any froth that forms along the way. Test for tenderness by inserting a skewer through the meats: there should not be any resistance. Lift the tongue out of its cooking broth and bury it in the other pan, alongside the beef. Cover them, and keep warm.
Add the chicken stock to the tongue water and put in the chicken, carrots and onion. Bring to a simmer once more (skimming, etc, once again) and poach for 50 minutes. Add the sausage (removed from its foil pouch) and celery stalks, and continue simmering, very gently, for a further 30 minutes.
At some time during these processes, make the salsa verde. Put the herbs, garlic, mustard, anchovies, and capers into a food processor with a few tablespoons of the oil. Process for a few minutes, and with the machine running, add the rest of the oil in a thin steam until thick-ish and very green. Season with any necessary salt and pepper.
To serve the bollito, slice the meats and sausage and carve the chicken into manageable pieces. Arrange on a large heated platter with the celery stalks (discard the other vegetables) and spoon over some of the broth. It is also nice to splash the pieces of meat with some extra olive oil. Serve the salsa verde and mostarda in separate bowls, alongside