A tiny trattoria in Rome that specialises in tripe and boasts Caravaggio, Goethe and Keith Richards among its past customers has laid claim to being the world’s oldest restaurant and hopes to knock a Spanish rival out of the record books.
Tucked away down a narrow alley in the Italian capital’s historic centre, La Campana has been open continuously since 1518 according to its owner, Paolo Trancassini, who says he has the archive material to prove it. “No hard feelings but we are the oldest in the world and we aim to take the record,” he said.
The record books give that honour to Sobrino de Botín, which opened in Madrid in 1725, and serves its suckling pig from an oven where the flame is said never to have been extinguished.
The record books give the honour to Sobrino de Botín, which opened in Madrid in 1725.
La Campana prides itself on its offal, which has been Rome’s classic cuisine for centuries, unbeknown to tourists who wolf down pizza and pasta.
During hundreds of years of Vatican rule, when the best cuts of meat in the city were reserved for cardinals and the aristocratic families that supplied the papacy, poor Romans built a culinary culture out of what was left over, from tripe to sweetbreads — roast animal glands. In the 16th century, the streets around La Campana were poor, with alcohol-fuelled punch-ups frequent in hostelries and prostitution so rife that the pope taxed it.
“There were a lot of small birds being dished up at the local taverns then, and lard was used a lot,” Mr Trancassini said. Convinced that his restaurant had been doing business back then, he asked an art historian, Manuela Maggi, to dig into the archives.
The best cuts of meat in the city were reserved for cardinals and aristocratic families.
She found a 1518 receipt for a six scudi annual tax payment for the upkeep of Rome’s road, made by Pietro della Campana, who was then the owner of the restaurant, proving it was 500 years old, more than 200 years older than its Spanish rival. In the 1560s, La Campana’s owner sold up before accusing the buyer of not handing over the cash and breaking into the restaurant to steal the accounts, according to a court case. “Every century from then on I found a reference to the restaurant, showing it had been open all this time,” Ms Maggi said.
The historian said she had no proof that the hell-raising artist Caravaggio had eaten there but that it seemed likely that he had popped in during the late 16th century. “He must have come in because he lived round the corner, loved frequenting local taverns and many of the complaints about his fights were made right in that area,” she said.
“Many of the complaints about Caravaggio’s fights were made right in that area.”
The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited during the late 18th century, a century before Mr Trancassini’s great-great-grandfather took over the restaurant in 1880. In the 20th century it became a haunt for artists, with Picasso dining there and the Italian film director Federico Fellini enjoying Vignarola soup — a broth of beans, peas, artichoke and pig cheeks. In the 1980s, the Rolling Stones guitarist Richards apparently sampled its fare.
Since then, the place has changed little. Regulars get their own tables and a reliably static menu that includes lamb chops and the Roman specialities cacio e pepe pasta, made with sheep’s cheese and pepper, and tripe and sweetbreads.
“We stick with the traditional dishes and we’re not really big on innovation,” said Mr Trancassini, who makes a point of buying his meat from a 120-year-old butchers’ near by. What is missing from the menu, however, is a mention in the record books. “We have asked the Guinness Book of Records to reopen the case and they have said they will look into it,” Mr Trancassini said.
“We stick with the traditional dishes and we’re not really big on innovation.”
This was news to Antonio González, of Sobrino de Botín, which has its own roster of famous customers from Truman Capote to Ernest Hemingway. He said: “We were declared the oldest restaurant in the world because we fulfilled three prerequisites: we have not changed our name, we have remained in the same place and we have not closed. If this Roman restaurant can fulfil the same categories, I would be interested to hear about it.”