When in Rome.
Some years ago, I attended a dinner in Italy, where I’ve lived since 2010. We were knee-deep in a bottle of wine when one of the other guests learned that I’m a food writer. “You’ve heard of s—, right?” he asked.
That was my introduction to la pajata–a quintessential Roman dish made from the chyme-filled small intestines of suckling calves. That la pajata comes from Rome isn’t surprising–Rome is renowned for its offal dishes. The historic Testaccio slaughterhouse–where workers were paid in butchering scraps–is particularly linked with the 18th-century rise of “quinto quarto” cuisine, such as Roman tripe stew or simmered oxtail. I adore trippa alla Romana and coda alla vaccinara. But I’d never heard of la pajata.
“That’s because it’s underground,” said my new friend. “It’s been illegal since 2001 because of mad cow. But you can still get it on the black market.”
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And then something remarkable happened. I’ve loved organ meat since living in Osaka, when–unwilling to be the Ugly American–I tried chicken heart yakitori and it was so good, it made me question my life choices. But I’d never eaten s—, and it was not a goal.
“La pajata is amazing” he continued. “The calf has only had milk, so it’s technically s—, but it becomes this exquisite cream, like ricotta. And you eat it with rigatoni and tomato sauce with pecorino cheese…”
Only in Italy have I witnessed this beautiful phenomenon–while we are eating, we talk about other food. I was on a rooftop surrounded by bruschetta and mozzarella di bufala but suddenly I kind of wanted to eat s—.
In Italy, culinary traditions are sacrosanct; when the veal entrail ban was lifted in 2015, blog and newspaper headlines triumphed: La pajata is back on the table! Rome rejoices! But the joy is not universal: my Italian friends’ reactions to la pajata range from gross! to poor baby! to yum! Whatever their stance, they all laugh at the famous scene in beloved Roman comedian Alberto Sordi’s 1981 film Il Marchese del Grillo where he orders a noblewoman a plate of la pajata. Only after she’s enjoyed it does he crudely tell her, “It’s s—.”
Organ meat is the classic food of survivors, but Italians aren’t hurting for culinary options. Why eat chyme-filled entrails when you can have lasagna, or any of the exciting “New Italian” dishes by young chefs dreaming up ethnic fusions or health-conscious twists on traditional recipes, like gluten-free pizza and dairy-free semifreddo? Does a dish like la pajata have a future in a culinary climate where a new generation of increasingly informed consumers has endless choices?
I headed to Testaccio–still Rome’s famous meat quarter but now one of its trendiest neighborhoods. Seven butchers told me they’re fresh out of la pajata because it’s “always in demand.”
I asked: “Who’s buying it?” The answers were, again, invariable: Mostly restaurants, sometimes home chefs.
“Does the animal cruelty aspect affect sales?” No more so than it does for suckling pig or lamb, since the calf isn’t butchered merely for its intestines. The faithful remain faithful; even the threat of disease or evolving views on animal cruelty couldn’t keep diehard Romans from partaking during fourteen years of prohibition, when black market pajata was often made from legal lamb entrails passed off as veal. At the Sartor butcher stand–arguably Testaccio’s quinto quarto authority–I was told: “Try it. You’ll be amazed at how delicious it is.”
And once again, the remarkable thing happened. What is this maddening power of suggestion that drives us to crave whatever we’ve been told is delicious? The hot new restaurant. Stone soup. Tide pods. I went to Da Bucatino, one of Testaccio’s popular traditional restaurants, and order a plate.
RuleNumber One for eating exotic meats: You can eat it if it looks like anything but what it is (this is the first rule for eating any meat, really). Such distance is so necessary for eating animal products that it’s even encoded in our language; we eat pork, not pig; veal, not calf. It’s surely no mistake that la pajata is usually served with rigatoni–tubular pasta. The red sauce and tangy grated pecorino cheese make it hard to tell what’s pasta and what’s not. Cutting into the inside of an intestine casing reveals the s—, which looks like ricotta, just as I was told it would, on a rooftop years ago, by a diehard Roman.
I ate it. I liked it. And I realized a basic truth: When something tastes good, you can overlook all kinds of s—.