It’s Palm Sunday in Rome and the centro storico belongs to the butchers. Domenica della Palma is not just a holiday, but a ritualistic celebration that brings together butchers from all over the city as well as Rome residents to Regola, a beloved neighborhood in the centro storico. This is a Palm Sunday celebration like no other.
A Secret Society of Butchers
For the past 30 years, Rome’s butchers host an Easter brunch in Pizza della Quercia, a tiny piazza near Campo de’ Fiori. The butchers brunch is not a secret. In fact, they’ve been celebrating Palm Sunday together every year (except 2020) for the past three decades. The true secret is the Confraternità dei Maccellai di Roma, the Confraternity of Butchers of Rome.
For nearly five centuries, a private group of approximately 300 butchers have been meeting monthly in a beautiful 16th century palazzo to discuss butchery issues. Traditionally a mens-only group, the butchers have quietly collected dues, acquired property and subsidized fellow butchers since 1532. Imagine the Templar Knights with cleavers, meat hooks and a good shank and rarely does the confraternity promote itself publicly.
Not every butcher in Rome belongs to the confraternity. In fact, some feel that it’s too much of a club, with its dues and religious requirements. But the butchers who do belong, represent macellai (butcheries) in every neighborhood all of the greater expanse of Rome. And these butchers continue to help out butchers in need.
A celebration like no other
Everyone, and by that I mean every butcher, butcher and family friend, priests, policemen and neighborhood residents eagerly come together in Piazza della Quercia by around 10 am. And every year, I am there with my family. We eagerly await the clergy-led procession and mass, whose pomp and circumstance include festooned priests waving large palms and fancy carabinieri escorts. But let’s be serious, we are all waiting for the free brunch.
The butchers line the piazza with picnic tables layered with plastic dishes. Each dish is Rome’s traditional Easter breakfast: a slice of colomba (Easter cake), a slice of porchetta (seasoned roast pork), a few slices of salami and a slice of bread, accompanied by one hard-boiled egg and a few, often melted chocolate eggs. We stand behind the make-shift metal fences, waiting for a white-coat butcher to hand us our dish, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get two hardboiled eggs.
The crowd is excited, absolutely no elbow room with everyone pushing for a plate. We bump into old friends and make new friends. We learn that some butchers’ clients from the nether regions of the city have specifically sought out our little piazza for Palm Sunday.
At some point, the butchers bring out coratella, a grayish cream of lamb offals that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole unless Roberto Dionisi, president of the Confraternity handed it to me. In 2015, I went behind the scenes with Dionisi for BBC, and quickly learned to gulp coratella with cheap wine.
The Butchers Brunch, as I’ve been known to call it, isn’t fancy, it’s family- a local block party and neighborhood celebration that reminds that no matter how big the city is, Rome is really just a piazza.