On Via San Francesco a Ripa, one of the main arteries leading to the heart of Trastevere, sits a renowned alimentari -- a specialty food store from which you can smell tangy wafts of cured meat and salty aging cheese at a 50 meter distance. Antica Caciara is an old-school shop in an old-school neighborhood, as referenced by its name. Cacio was the term for cheese (aged sheep's milk cheese, to be exact) in Rome before cheeses from cows, goats, and sheeps were all classified as cheeses, or formaggi, in 1920. This shop dates to 1900, ans so predated that law. Hence the term "Caciara" -- cheese shop, in Roman.
I've wandered into this Trastevere institution on many an afternoon, without a shopping list in mind -- just an idea of wanting some salumi (cured meats) and formaggi (cheeses), and maybe a bag of rigatoni or a box of spaghetti, and a few other key ingredients that would allow me to throw together a pasta for dinner. Simple, nothing more and nothing less. But when you're dealing in Roman food, specifically, the few items in the "ingredients" column of any recipe are of utmost importance, often because they are the two or three flavors that make the dish. Cacio e pepe is a pasta with basically just pecorino cheese and black pepper to it. Carbonara? Eggs, guanciale (cured pork jowl), pecorino, and black pepper. Amatriciana? Tomatoes, guanciale, onion, and pecorino with peperoncino optional. Saltimbocca is just veal scaloppine with prosciutto and sage, with a white wine sauce consisting of wine, butter, and little else. So where do you go for these fine ingredients (aside from the butcher shop for the veal)? The best local alimentari you can find. And that's what Antica Caciara is.
You can find delicious dried pasta and fresh eggs here. You can find all of the canned goods (San Marzano tomatoes, Sicilian tuna, etc.) you need for a pasta or a salad. There is a selection of sott'olii (products preserved in oil), like sundried tomatoes, olives, artichokes, and mushrooms. There is bread, always bread. But most important are the meats and cheeses. Since this is Rome, the aged hard cheese of choice -- for eating on its own in chunks, or grating on pasta, or accompanying fava beans in the springtime -- is pecorino romano. Roman aged sheep's milk cheese: saltier with more of a bite than parmigiano reggiano, not unlike Romans themselves.
The fresh cheese of choice here is ricotta (a by-product of the pecorino-making process, naturally), here made from sheep's milk (and sometimes from cow's), always delicious. This is tossed in pastas and baked with vegetables into timbales. It's the main ingredient in the delicious Roman cheesecake, torta di ricotta. And it's perfect as is, spread on crostini with some fresh figs and a little aged balsamic. Really, there's very little you can't do with ricotta.
As for the salumi, of course prosciutto is always popular. But in Rome, the guanciale reigns supreme, particularly in the local pasta dishes I mentioned above. And Antica Caciara has the cured pork jowls hanging in the doorway, giving off their spicy funk. Who can resist? Not I. Romans love their guanciale and I became a part of the fan club very early on. I always had a guanciale ready for consumption in my fridge, lovingly wrapped in a muslin dish towel, so it was protected but could breathe.
I was always ready to slice off a few pieces of the unctuous pork, to toss in the pan until the pieces became crispy and the rendered fat could be used to cook veggies or to start a pasta sauce with its porky goodness. There are other meat items here, of course, not the least of which is coglioni di mulo -- which means "mule testicles" but are really from the pig (no grazie!). But guanciale is the specialty and what tempts me most here.
Whatever you choose, you can rest assured that you will be taken care of at Antica Caciara. And if you're lucky, you'll be waited on by the most cordial Romans I have ever encountered, Roberto Polica, the owner who has worked in the shop since he was 13, and inherited it from his family. The sheep's milk cheeses are made from the milk of his uncle's farm outside of Rome. Can you get more local than that? "Si, signora. Con piacere, signora. Qualcos'altro, signora?" He is charmingly formal and well-mannered, and always reminded me a bit of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. He is, simply put, the sweetest and most dedicated alimentari owner you could ever hope for. Stop in and say hello the next time you're passing through Trastevere!