“Eat, Pray, Love” lunch scene puts Ristorante Santa Lucia on city’s crowded tourist trail

Opened in 1999, Ristorante Santa Lucia was the site of a scene from "Eat, Pray, Love."
Opened in 1999, Ristorante Santa Lucia was the site of a scene from “Eat, Pray, Love.” Photo by Marina Pascucci

I don’t like chick flicks. Romcoms and love stories more predictable than Bugs Bunny cartoons roll my eyes more than my heart. But one scene hit me hard. It made me long for Italy like a long lost love of my life.

Yes, I’ll admit it. I’m a guy who liked Eat, Pray, Love. I loved the best-seller book. Author Elizabeth Gilbert is a literary magician. Her description of finding true happiness at that ashram in India is a masterful feat of an impossibly difficult emotion to capture. 

The scene

In the movie, one scene stood out and is a reason I’m here in Rome today. Remember the scene where Julia Roberts, playing Gilbert, orders lunch with friends on a restaurant’s beautiful fern-lined terrace? She’s trying out her new Italian and while she orders, the camera flashes to closeups of each dish being prepared and served.

Carciofi. Melone e prosciutto. Melanzane. Spaghetti alla carbonara. Pappardelle con ragù cinghiale.

Every dish looked worthy of the Borghese Museum. It made my jaw drop, my taste buds explode, my heart long for Italian cuisine more than any woman. And I don’t even like carciofi (artichokes) or melanzane (eggplant). 

I watched it in a theater in Boulder, Colo., in 2010, at a time when I was still trying to figure out how to move back to Rome. I walked out of the theater with a steel resolve to return here as soon as possible and made it four years later.

Saturday night I went to that same restaurant.

The location

Ristorante Santa Lucia sits on Largo Febo near the end of Via di Santa Maria Dell’Anima. Located one street west of Piazza Navona, Santa Maria Dell’Anima is one of the most touristy streets in the city. Saturday night all the restaurants lining both sides of the narrow cobblestone road were packed. Groups of tourists stood outside waiting for tables. I heard a half dozen languages.

A bartender prepares a cocktail in the Santa Lucia bar. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Santa Lucia stands out for its ambiance. It’s dominated by a terrace covered by three huge patio umbrellas and massive platanus and lime trees. Potted ferns are everywhere. Each table has a white candle inside a glass wind protector. In a city more famous for its casual family run trattorias, this place scores a 10 on the romance meter.

However, I punted intimacy into the Tiber by visiting with 40 others. I went on an invite from Expats Living in Rome, an expats Meetup group that meets weekly around the city. It was an aperitivo where we sat at long tables off the terrace and sampled antipasti and pasta.

Rinaldo Midea owns Santa Lucia with his cousin, Nicolo Ruberto. Photo by Marina Pascucci

How it happened

The owners are Rinaldo Midea and Nicolo Ruberto, two cousins who opened the restaurant in 1999. Rinaldo told me one day in the late 2000s director Ryan Murphy approached him during a site inspection about using the restaurant in a movie about a newly divorced writer trying to – I hate this cliche but it’s accurate – find herself. Why this restaurant?

“We have the most beautiful terrace in Rome!” Rinaldo proudly said.

The scene is only about five minutes long. But Rinaldo said they spent two days shooting, 10-12 hours each day. They did 100 takes.

“It was total chaos,” Rinaldo said. “It was beautiful but very crazy.”

They shot at least 10 takes of Roberts ordering in Italian. How well did she do?

Santa Lucia’s mezze maniche amatriciana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“I don’t know,” Rinaldo said. “When they shot the scene, the bodyguard wouldn’t let anyone near her.”

She stayed at the five-star Bio Hotel Raphael with its terrace restaurant view of Centro Storico and its €950 a night suites. It’s practically next door to Santa Lucia and a bodyguard accompanied her each day to the set. Neither cousin met her.

They didn’t care. They said the ensuing publicity increased their business 30 percent. The film made $204.6 million on a $60 million budget. Tourists following Roberts’ footsteps around Rome (and maybe to Bali and the Brazilian she shacked up with) stop by the restaurant and ask if this is where she had lunch.

Another Rome restaurant in the film, Osteria Dell’Antiquario, lit another culinary match. It shows Roberts, smiling like a little girl with candy, looking almost guiltily at a perfect bowl of spaghetti pomodoro. When the camera shows close ups of her eating each bite, I could almost taste the fresh tomato sauce. 

Rome could not have better publicity for its cuisine which I maintain is the best in the world in terms of flavor, health, authenticity and ambiance.

“It was a great demonstration,” Nicolo said. “Tourists come to Italy to taste the food they ate in the film. Spaghetti pomodoro, pasta, carbonara, pizza from Naples. And dishes typical of (Rome’s) Lazio (region). It was great publicity.”

The Expats Living in Rome Meetup group at Santa Lucia. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The food

Antiquario is permanently closed but I sampled the food at Santa Lucia and it is indeed worthy of the big screen. We had luscious little meatballs drenched in parmesan sauce and mezze maniche amatriciana (half-size thick tube pasta in tomato sauce with pig’s cheek, onion and pecorino romano cheese). 

Santa Lucia is touristy. Rinaldo said the clientele is about 70 percent tourists and 30 percent Italian. I’ll still go back for a menu that has all the famous Roman dishes with a little lean toward Sicilian cuisine and seafood, including lobster, tuna, sea bass and even scorpion.  

Elizabeth Gilbert is a huge success, but I have one thing over her. I’m still living in Rome.