Reach deep enough into the bowels of Roman cuisine and eventually you’ll find … bowels. Pajata is the intestine of a suckling animal, traditionally a calf, still containing partially digested mother’s milk. Stewed for pasta, grilled, braised or roasted, pajata exemplifies the Italian concept of tipicità , “typicality,” something that helps define a place or people. What mozzarella is to Naples, ragù to Bologna, pajata is to Rome, as much as cacio e pepe or fried artichokes.
Pajata originated in the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome, a commercial center since ancient times, which from 1890 to 1973 was home to a titanic municipal slaughterhouse. The meatpackers, called scortichini, would receive offal as part of their pay. This entrail economy birthed the notion of quinto quarto, “fifth quarter,” where the previously unwanted bits, accounting for a fourth of the animal’s weight, were transformed into dishes like trippa alla romana (stewed tripe), coda alla vaccinara (braised oxtails), and of course, pajata. From workplace trash to cultural treasure, pajata became a favorite of everyone from well-off gastronomes to the city’s large Jewish population (partially-digested milk is not considered “milk” anymore, and therefore pajata can be kosher).
I lived in Rome this past winter and spring, and became something of a pajata enthusiast. I particularly enjoy the spiedone di pajata served at Pommidoro, a crusty old place in the rapidly gentrifying San Lorenzo neighborhood that my father discovered more than twenty years ago. Lengths of intestine are tightly braided around a yard-long skewer and cooked over a huge charcoal grill in the middle of the restaurant. Every single time, I would order a zucchini-sized hunk, still sizzling from the fire and smelling of hay-smoke and brown butter. The flavor of grilled pajata is magnificent. Sweet, grassy, a little musky, with the mild tang of the curdled milk, it tastes like cheese-stuffed sausage. If I wanted someone to experience “the real Rome,” I took them to Pommidoro and ordered pajata: my sister and brother-in-law, a North Dakotan who had grown up on a cattle farm, a friend’s boyfriend who had gotten his first passport to come visit her.
When I returned home to the States, I assumed that someone had to be serving pajata — after all, American calves have intestines. I searched and searched and searched, Command-F’ing “pajata” on every Italian restaurant’s menu I came across online. I finally found it at Lupa, the West Village osteria owned by Mario Batali. But this dish had an extra, troublesome word. Finta. Fake.
Skeptical, but intrigued, I set up a time to meet with the executive chef, Josh Laurano, and taste the pajata finta at this self-described “Rome away from Rome.”
A few days later, I was standing in Lupa’s steamy, alley-sized kitchen, shirt already soaked through. As line cooks hustled and spun, pushing out the last orders of the lunch rush, I asked Laurano why he was serving a faux-version.
He ruefully explained that when he became the chef at Lupa, he called every purveyor and butcher in the Yellow Book to see if anyone had pajata. All of them replied that it was illegal to sell it.
Well, practically illegal that is. The USDA has strict laws concerning meat processing, including one that forbids the sale of organ meats unless they have been cleaned and processed first. You could go to Madani Halal, a live-animal market in Queens, which is religiously exempt from most USDA regulations, and can sell you milk-stuffed intestines … provided, of course, that you also buy the whole animal, and are not serving it commercially.
So, Laurano does his best to approximate, using a recipe developed by his predecessor, Cruz Goler. He makes a tomato-based ragù of sweetbreads, guanciale and tripe, flavored with soffrito (slowly caramelized onions, carrots and celery) and a pinch of chile flake. The sauce is served with rigatoni, and a dollop of whipped ricotta to emulate the creaminess of the curdled milk.
“Traditionalists would surely say that this isn’t a pajata — in some areas of Rome, I’d probably get chased down the street with a meat cleaver,” he said with a laugh. “But we also have a loyal base of customers who love it and come in to order it.”
But even in Rome, there’s been controversy about what constitutes “true” pajata. From 2001 until this past April, veal pajata, the most traditional type, was banned by the EU, due to panic over Mad Cow Disease. Some defiant restaurants would quietly serve it, but many, like Pommidoro, switched to lamb. Now that veal pajata has finally returned, a hierarchy has already emerged, according to Katie Parla, a Rome-based food and beverage educator and journalist.
“In the aftermath of the lift on the ban, both veal pajata and lamb pajata are on the menu,” she told me over the phone. “However, the popularity of veal pajata at the moment means there isn’t enough to go around, so it’s reserved for regulars and for the restaurant owners themselves.”
This small spike in popularity, however, is on a larger downhill trend. Pajata, previously a staple, is now considered old-fashioned by many.
“It wasn’t just the ban, it’s changing eating habits,” Parla explained. “The younger generation are pescatarians, vegans, and in general people who don’t eat everything.” The ultimate indicator? Some butchers give lambs heads away now.
“It’d be on my menu tomorrow,” he replied. He went on to explain that when he first started at Maialino, he had trouble enticing customers to try offal. Now, with many restaurant menus reading like anatomy charts, he’s reconsidered.
“Honestly, I think pajata is less offensive than tripe,” he said. “We’d move a lot.”
Back at Lupa, Laurano set a steaming plate of pasta before me. I mixed the ricotta into the pasta, turning the sauce from crimson to rosy pink, and took a bite. It tasted even better than many rigatoni alla pajata I’d eaten in Rome. The sauce was far deeper and more complex, the bits of tripe and sweetbread more tender and succulent than intestines. The ricotta provided the rich finish, perfectly cut by the bold sharpness of mint and chili flake. I ate the whole thing and scraped the bottom.
I think finta is an ungenerous term for this dish. It’s not pajata, clearly. But it’s an homage, not an imitation. And it tastes damn good.