My 5 favorite restaurants in Rome: Affordable, accessible, authentic
I’m often asked if I’d ever live anywhere in Italy besides Rome. I know what they’re getting at. If it’s a woman, she read “Under the Tuscan Sun” and thinks life in rural Italy is all Italian poetry and glasses of Chianti in gardens. If it’s a man, they hated Rome’s filth and have a postcard of Positano hanging on their computer back home.
The problem is the beauty of these isolated places is offset by their limitations. They’re perfect spots if you have a family or you’re a unabomber writing a manifesto.
My girlfriend and I have no children. We eat out a lot, maybe twice a week. In that department, Rome has no limitations. Eating out in Rome is like sailing in the Caribbean. Every stop is paradise. And nearly every day I pass new restaurants I want to try. My collection of business cards I have yet to check out is bigger than my baseball card collection as a kid.
But I have tried a lot. In fact, since my first blog about My Five Favorite Restaurants in Rome three years ago, I have almost a completely new list, all affordable (dishes 8-15 euros) and all accessible. Only one restaurant carried over. Next year, my list may have a complete changeover, too. Favorite restaurant lists in Rome are as permanent as tissue paper.
In 2016, my two rules were no pizzerias (I’ve done my top five already here) and no restaurant on my list could be in Lonely Planet. Rome’s gastronomic charms have been documented for 2,000 years. I wanted to tell readers of places unknown to most. Well, No. 1 on my list, Renato e Luisa, made Lonely Planet’s Rome and Italy guides. Some secrets are impossible to keep.
So clip this list and put it on your refrigerator. Better yet, replace your Positano postcard with it. Try some of these places and you’ll see why I’ll always live in Rome, although Marina and I are considering six months a year by the sea. (The list is in order of preference. Reservations recommended. Neighborhoods in parentheses. Phone numbers do not include 39 country code.)
1. Renato e Luisa (Centro Storico), Via dei Barbieri 25, 06-686-9660, 8-11:30 p.m. closed Monday, www.renatoeluisa.it.
It’s located on a quiet alley perpendicular to Largo del Torre Argentina, the ruins of four Republican temples where Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times. So the location has that romantic element, too.
Numerous Roma natives recommended this place to me. It’s where locals go. With its inclusion in Lonely Planet, I see more foreigners but it hasn’t affected the experience.
The food is Roman cuisine with elegant twists. It has one of my favorite appetitizers: goat cheese with nuts and honey. I always get the fettuccine pachino e ricotta di bufala (Flat pasta noodles with buffalo ricotta and cherry tomatoes) or the tagliata di manzo all’aceto balsamico (lean beef with balsamic vinegar). Renato’s signature dish is cacio e pepe e fiori di zucca (pasta with pepper and pecorino cheese and courgette flowers).
The desserts are fantastic. They have one of the best tiramisus in town but I lean toward the fondente al cioccolato con crema al mascarpone e composta di arance amare (Dark chocolate with mild Italian cream cheese and orange sauce).
2. Osteria dal 1931 (Monteverde), Via di Donna Olimpia 44, 06-537-0032, noon-3 p.m. 7:30-11 p.m. daily, www.osteriadal1931.it.
I’m partial to 1931 because it’s in my neighborhood, about a 10-minute walk from my apartment. But I’d go across town for a dinner or lunch in its romantic garden setting outside.
It’s what you think a meal in Rome should be like. The food is outstanding with homemade pasta and a luscious ravioli with spinach and ricotta cheese. Lots of classic Roman street food such as coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) and baccala’ (deep-fried cod).
As the name indicates, it was built in 1931 when Benito Mussolini was in power and, not coincidentally, is in the neighborhood where many of his fascist friends settled. I’ve been told Mussolini ate here occasionally. Owner Stefano Alviani, whose family has run it since it was built, couldn’t confirm it but it makes sense.
Across the narrow street is Casa Popolare, Rome’s first public housing courtesy of Il Duce. Relax. It’s not a tenement. They’re condos now.
One confirmed guest is the late Anthony Bourdain, who raved about the place. I’m sure another regular must’ve been the late director Pier Paolo Pasolini (“Salo'”), who lived with his cousin in an apartment just up the street during the early 1950s and where a plaque commemorates his years there.
3. La Fraschetta di Sant’Angelo (Centro Storico), Via del Banco di Santo Spirito 20, 06-6830-7661, noon-11 p.m. closed Sunday, www.fraschettadicastelsantangelo.com.
This is my lone holdover from 2016. This is where I take visitors who want a rough-and-tumble, loud, Roman dining experience without worrying what you look like.
Located across the bridge from Castel Sant’Angelo, Hadrian’s mausoleum he built in 139 AD, it is covered with phrases in Roman dialect and messages from people from around the world. It’s decorated in red and yellow, the colors of A.S. Roma whose fans gather here for group feasts.
Lazio fans? They can eat on the Tiber.
La Fraschetta is small, crowded and loud. You must squeeze past scurrying waitresses down a narrow hallway to the bathroom. But the food is top-notch. It is typical Roman fare: carbonara, amatriciana, gricia, cacio e pepe. Try the antipasti plate of porchetta, sizzling, suckling pig, and the saltimbocca (veal with ham) is the best I’ve ever had. Save room for dessert. Their cheesecake, covered in chocolate or fresh berries, is nearly sexual. So is its tartufo, soft chocolate covered in hard dark chocolate.
4. Ristorante Scarpone (Doria Pamphilj), Via di S. Pancrazio 15, 06-581-4094, 12:45-3 p.m. 7:30-11:15 p.m. closed Monday, www.ristorante scarpone.it.
Marina likes coming here to combine her two favorite foods: pasta and seafood. There’s a long list: linguine all’astice (long thin pasta with lobster), tonnarelli al polpo (long round pasta with octopus), spaghetti con vongole (classic long pasta with clams). Also, fresh fish is served every day, from swordfish to turbot to sea bass.
The atmosphere is classic Rome with a large seating area in a garden. It’s perfect for a summer, fall or spring evening or lunch in the shade. Two huge rooms inside offer a warm respite from the relatively mild winter chill.
Started in 1849, Scarpone is built in a former cottage on an old country road. It’s located on the edge of Doria Pamphilj, Rome’s largest park with 450 acres of fields, jogging paths and lakes. Go for a leisurely stroll around the park without hauling a picnic basket. Drop in at Scarpone to dine.
5. Pizzeria Vignola (Flaminia), Viale del Vignola 25/27, 06-322-7451, 12:30-3 p.m. 7:30-midnight, closed Wednesday, www.ristorantevignola.it.
This place is much more than a pizzeria. Its list of twists on Italian food is longer than the pizza menu. My favorites are the penne alla vodka (short, hollow pasta tubes with vodka-induced tomato sauce), risotto al radicchio gorgonzola (thick, soupy rice with a dark, leafy vegetable and biting cheese) and pasta cinghiale (thick pasta with wild boar sauce). Marina’s taglia petto di pollo (roast chicken breast with olive oil and lemon) just recently was soft, tender and juicy.
It’s located on a quiet side street up Via Flaminio, one of the main arteries leading north from Piazza del Popolo, the piazza where victorious Roman armies entered when they first returned to Rome. It’s also the site of the city’s last beheading, courtesy of the Catholic Church in 1826
And yes, there is a romantic aspect to Vignola, at least for Marina and me.
We met there.