I’ve been to Rome five times since 2003, and let me tell you, there is some fabulous food in the Eternal City. But it isn’t always easy to find. When I talk to Americans who have gone there, sometimes they don’t report the best experiences with food. One friend told me she felt the Romans were out to rip off Americans.
I myself can recall one particular meal in a long alley lined with restaurants near the Vatican, one with a man in a black tuxedo waving us in, which was a real disappointment—overcooked spaghetti, tasteless sauce. Really there is no excuse for this. The farm fresh ingredients, the delicate cheeses, the cooks skilled at making fresh pasta from scratch, the prosciutto sliced so thin you can see through it—this is what is available in Rome.
I want to help you avoid feeling ripped off and disappointed. Rome is my favorite city to visit, and I want you to love it, too. Here are some tips, and a few restaurant recommendations that will get your tastebuds savoring La Dolce Vita. You don’t need to pay a lot to eat well in Rome, either. Personally I love having a great meal for less. If you share my philosophy, this article is for you.
1. Olive Garden Isn't Real Italian
Don’t expect olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the tables. Italians don’t do that. Don’t expect a basket full of garlic bread—they don’t do that either. Italians are horrified that we pair seafood with any cheese-based sauce, so don’t look for shrimp Alfredo on the menu. Italians don’t know what we mean by an Italian sub, either. They have no idea what Italian dressing is.
You’ve made it to Rome. It’s a magical place. Italians pride themselves on having the best food in the world for a reason. It’s not just arrogance. They know their stuff. They’ve been passionate about food since before there were kings of Rome. Trust them. Ask the waiter what’s good. If you want Olive Garden, save yourself the steep airfare and jet lag and stay home.
Also, you may think Italian service is bad because they don’t come and interrupt you all the time. Italians think it’s rude to rush you through the meal. If you need something, flag your waiter down. If you’re getting impatient, remind yourself that you’re in Rome. Enjoy the view.
2. Avoid Tourist Traps
If someone is waving you into a restaurant, don’t eat there. No Roman would eat in a place in which the maître d. so rudely did this, so you shouldn’t either. If there is a sign that say “menu turistico” or “tourist menu” don’t eat there. Here’s the problem. If a place caters to tourists, they know you most likely won’t be back, so their motivation to show you their best is low. I’m sure there are places that cater to tourists that don’t take this attitude, but why risk it? Try to find a restaurant a Roman would choose. Look for places where at least half the clientele appears to be locals.
If you’re looking at a fountain in a big public square in the historic center you can be fairly sure the restaurants lining that square will be needlessly expensive and touristy. Try going a few blocks away from those packed piazzas and heavily trafficked lanes. You’ll find a better deal, more quiet, authentic charm, and people who are happier to see you.
3. Roman Pizza Rocks
My husband and I found our favorite pizza place in Rome by using our New York City smarts. In New York, if you see cops eating at a pizza place, it is good. We walked into the front door, and we saw a bench full of carabinieri in their snazzy uniforms and hats with the flame insignia. We also saw another key hallmark of a great pizza place—a wood burning oven. In Italian, this is ‘forno al legno.’ Look for signs that say that. Real Roman pizza is cooked in a wood-burning oven, giving the crust a delicate charcoal flavor. The oven takes hours to heat up, which is why our favorite pizza place is never open for lunch. Real Roman pizza has a super-thin crust. Details on our favorite pizza place are at the end of this article.
I always order the pizza margherita when I’m trying a new place, because if they do that well, then all of it will be good. Pizza margherita is just crust with red sauce, mozzarella and basil leaves on top. It was invented in the 1800s by a Neapolitan pizzaiolo for Princess Margherita’s visit to Naples. It is meant to match the colors of the Italian flag.
There’s no such thing at a 16-inch pizza in Rome. Pizzas come smaller so they can be cooked perfectly. That oven is so hot, it takes just a few minutes. At our favorite place, my husband and I share a pizza, because we also order the fritti misti, the fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella (a Roman delicacy) and the filetti di bacala. Fritti misti are fried vegetables and croquettes. Filitti di bacala are fried salted cod. So good. The Romans know how to deep fry things so they are light and crisp like no one else. Try the fritti misti and tell me I’m wrong.
When you have pizza in Rome, be careful the cheese doesn’t burn the roof of your mouth. Real cheese can do that. Most New York pizza places use the fake stuff, which can’t get hot enough to burn you, but it’s also fake cheese. The real mozzarella is made from buffalo milk, and it’s divine.
Fried Zucchini Flowers
A Roman Delicacy
4. If You Find a Place You Like, Go Back
At our favorite pizza place, the first time we went, the hostess, who looked a bit like Monica Bellucci, took one look at us and rolled her kohl-rimmed eyes, as if to say, “not more American tourists!” Both of us found this oddly enchanting. Remember, we are New Yorkers. The food was wonderful and so economical that we returned the next night, and were greeted like family. We kept going back and bringing more people to try this place, and finally, the same Monica Belluci hostess asked us how many times we’d eaten there over the years. When I told her ten, she broke out the limoncello and gave our whole party a free glass of the crisp creamy stuff. Lesson learned. Roman restaurateurs love you when you come back.
5. Drink Local
Italy has more than three thousand varieties of grapes used to make wine. That’s right, I said three thousand. So forget everything you think you know about Italian wine and get adventurous. The local stuff never gets to our shores because it’s so good the locals drink it all. Think you don’t like Lambrusco or Frascati? Try the stuff the locals drink and you’ll fall in love. And if your restaurant makes their own wine and it comes out of a spigot in the wall, so much the better! It’s most likely delicious, and it will definitely be cheap. Do the locals drink it every day? Then it must be good.
6. Osteria, Trattoria, Tavola Calda, Ristorante, Bruschetteria?
Italian eateries come with a dizzying variety of names. Know your terms. A ristorante is fancier than a trattoria or osteria, which is fancier than a tavola calda, which just means ‘hot table.’ You can get great food at all of these. If you’re on a budget, try the tavola calda. If you can find one, try a bruschetteria. There are so many kinds of bruschetta. It’s basically toast with some kind of topping. I had a wonderful bruschetta with wild mushrooms once, and another time bruschetta with tuna on top. Very tasty!
Zucchini Flowers in Rome's Campo de' Fiori
Part of Rome's banquet of amazing ingredients
7. The Wonder of Aperitivo
The Happy Hour Secret to a Mostly Free Meal
Near the Mausoleum of Augustus there is a complex of mod eateries and wine bars all called ‘‘Gusto.’ My husband and I were tired and footsore so we stopped into the little bar for a glass of wine. It was around five o’clock and the only other couple there was what we figured from their impeccable dress, was probably a senator and his mistress, avidly sucking face. We thought this was hilarious. Again, New Yorkers we.
We sipped our wine and, over the space of a few hours saw a cavalcade of progressively more substantial food arrive on the long marble table in the center of the bar. At first it was just chips and peanuts, but it graduated to sandwiches, cold cuts, cheese and fried rice balls, which gave way to an assortments of pastas. Thus we discovered the magic of aperitivo, which is what the Italians call happy hour. Italians think it’s bad for you to drink alcohol without food, so if you hang out and order two drinks, you may end up having a delicious dinner for free. Most bars have some kind of aperitivo. Italians eat dinner very late, so aperitivo performs the function that tea does in Britain. Why not take advantage of it? On a budget? Make lunch your big meal and have aperitivo for dinner.
Two Spritzes at the Hotel Eden
A spritz is a refreshing Venetian cocktail made with Campari, white wine and soda. The view from the roof bar of the Hotel Eden is worth the high price tag. You can see St. Peter's dome and the Spanish Steps from here.
8. Don't Order Every Course
The antipasti are so good, you should probably try lots of them. After that, just have pasta. My husband and I almost never order a meat dish, which the Italians call ‘secondo’ or second course. The exception is places that specialize in nose to tail eating. If you’re a meat and potatoes type of person, try some ravioli with meat filling. Having every course is for folks who want to sit for hours. And it will cost you.
You must have some. It’s made with milk, not cream, so it’s lighter than American ice cream. You’ll see shops with gelato piled high and encrusted with chocolate bars, cookies, fruit and flowers. Don’t go in. These places are trying too hard. The best gelato places don’t have to. My favorite is San Crispino, two blocks east of the Trevi fountain. In there, shiny metal lids mean you can’t even see what you are ordering. And whatever you choose will blow your mind. Giolitti a few blocks north of the Pantheon is also good. Many flavors! If you see a shop, look for the word ‘artigionale,’ which means artisanal, or hand-made. You want gelato that was made fresh that very day, and not in a factory, either.
Where to Eat
Best Pizza and Fritti Misti: Taverna le Coppelle, Via delle Coppelle, 39, 00186 Rome, Italy. Just a few blocks from Piazza Navona. Only open for dinner. Sometimes opens later than the sign says, so go around the corner and grab a glass of wine while you wait at the Sicilian wine bar with the barrels.
Fried Mozzarella Balls and Artichokes! Da Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavia.Via del Portico D'Ottavia, 21, 00186 Roma, Italy. This is a fancier place in the Jewish Ghetto with a view of a temple built in honor of Augustus’s sister Octavia. They deep fry the artichokes jewish style so they are crispy. Order also the mozzarella in carrozza, the deep friend mozzarella balls.
Best Truly Local Joint. Da Augusto. Piazza de' Renzi 15, 00153 Rome, Italy. At this Trastevere osteria, they pick one kind of meat to cook, one kind of pasta sauce. This place is my exception to my no meat rule. The lamb is amazing. If you want any other kind of meat or sauce than what they chose to serve today, you are out of luck. The wine comes out of a tap. I’ve been told this is the kind of typical Roman cuisine that’s harder to find these days, home made with love and wonderfully rough hewn. It does feel a bit like you’re in a Fellini film, which is exactly how I want to feel.
A Complex Temple to Food, Pizza joint, restaurant, wine bar, jazz bar, cooking school, and cooking shop all in one. ‘Gusto. Piazza dei Cinquecento, 00185 Roma, Italy. Try the trattoria here. Aperitivo is ridiculously fabulous. Or you could just shop for cooking paraphernalia. A great bar to check out after you visit the Ara Pacis—it’s just one block away.
Castle St. Angelo Angel in Rome, Italy
Thanks for reading this article! I hope it helps you enjoy your stay in Rome!
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