In 1961, there were 10 porters working at Testaccio market. Known as facchini, these men and boys were the moving muscles of the market, transporting both the stall structures, which were still unfixed, and fruit and vegetables from warehouses near Monte Testaccio to the market square. Once the market and stalls were set up, it was the work of i facchini to ferry produce from the market to the dozens of trattorie, osterie, pizzerie and tavole calde in Testaccio and beyond.
In 1961, Silvio started working alongside his brother. He was 11. Their parents were longstanding vendors; at first, they had a fruit and vegetable stall, then, after the war, a grocery stall. The boys were born into the market universe; everyone knew them and they knew everyone, every bolt and corner, every trattoria kitchen door. It would be a few years before Silvio was considered a facchino, although from the first day he worked as hard as anyone else, proud of his memory, strength and ability to manoeuvre a trolley.
Silvio was still working as a facchino when I moved to Rome 17 years ago. I would see him most days, stacking crates in the market or wheeling his trolley down the middle of the road, always in blue trousers, a canvas jacket with a breast pocket, and a flat cap. I took it as a sign of belonging when he began shouting, “Buongiorno!” to me. The first time we spoke, he was delivering chicory, fluorescent broccoli and the whitest cauliflower to the side door of a trattoria called Felice. I remember because I took a picture of him holding cauliflowers. I also remember an occasion when my son was small and we met Silvio with what seemed an impossible leaning tower of crates filled with artichokes on their way to another trattoria, Perilli.
He retired two years ago, but still walks the streets much as he ever did. We meet most days and often chat. He holds the story of 70 years of his market universe, all those interconnected bits. He tells me how, over time, more stalls became fixed with storage, so the work for facchini reduced, even more so when vendors began delivering the goods themselves. Two generations of facchini have passed away, he tells me; he was the last. When we meet, he is often on his way to Perilli, who honour 59 years of well-timed deliveries by offering him lunch three times a week. He was never invited to eat at Felice, he notes. Six decades, all those crates of chicory, broccoli, artichokes, broad beans, peas, potatoes, cauliflower, and not one lunch.
As Silvio crosses the piazza to go to Perilli, I come home to make lunch, a cross between cauliflower cheese and potato gratin. This sort of thing is known as sformato in Italy, which means “taken out of the dish”, and refers to a number of easy-going, comforting, vegetable and cheese dishes.
Sformato di cavolfiore e patate – cauliflower and potato bake
Prep 15 min
Cook 30 min
4 medium potatoes
Salt and black pepper
1 medium cauliflower or romanesco cauliflower
600ml whole milk, warmed (with an onion studded with cloves, if you want)
50g parmesan, grated
Boil the potatoes whole and unpeeled in salted water until tender, then peel. Trim and break the cauliflower into florets and boil until just tender (keep in mind they are going to bake again). Using your hands, break both the potatoes and cauliflower into small rough chunks.
Next, make the bechamel. Heat the butter in a heavy-based pan. As soon as it starts to foam, whisk in the flour, keep whisking steadily for two minutes, then take off the heat. Add a little of the warmed milk and whisk to a smooth paste. Return the pan to the heat, then add the remaining milk, whisking continuously until it almost boils. Season, then lower the heat and simmer, stirring and whisking frequently, for about 10 minutes, until the sauce is thick. Add three-quarters of the grated parmesan.
Mix the potatoes and cauliflower with the bechamel, then tip into an ovenproof dish. Top with breadcrumbs mixed with the remaining cheese, then bake at 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4 until edges are bubbling and the top golden.