An ex-sportswriter colleague came to Rome this week and he emailed me a question I get more than any other.
“Can you recommend a good place to eat?”
This is Rome. It’s like asking a Dubliner where’s a good place to get a beer. I can not find a reliable source for a ballpark figure of how many restaurants, trattorias, osterias, pizzerias and enotecas are splattered all over the city. However, I can count on one hand how many bad meals I’ve had here. I had a bad pizza in my Testaccio neighborhood and one in the student neighborhood of San Lorenzo. I once had some bad pasta in Trastevere across the river.
Every place else has been high quality and reasonably priced with excellent service. That’s why blogging about my five favorite places to eat in Rome has taken longer than a three-part investigation I once wrote about steroid use in Las Vegas.
However, I felt it’s about time I made a list. I’ve lived here going on three years. It’s more than four if you count a 16-month stint from 2001-03. I should be my friends’ No. 1 gastronomic source. During my first stint, I had 13 houseguests. This time, I’ve met at least that many for dinner.
I really don’t mind. After all, as my high school classmate and frequent houseguest in Denver, Tom Ruddy, told me, “John, if you didn’t want visitors, you should’ve moved to Milwaukee.”
Cutting down to five required some ground rules. I ruled out pizzerias. I wrote about them my top five in May. I also included nothing that’s listed in “Lonely Planet.” I trust Lonely Planet’s restaurant recommendations but I’ve walked on every path in Rome. The best restaurants are on the paths less beaten, even by LP.
Making it easier is including a disclaimer that these may not be the five best in Rome. They may not even be my five favorite if I went back to all of them with a more critical eye. I might have a whole new list by Jan. 1. The depth of restaurants in Rome is that good. But these are five of MY favorites and I’m secure in giving this list to anyone and insuring them that they’ll enjoy themselves. They also will not feel ripped off as I did in Denver earlier this month.
So cut this out. Put it on your refrigerator. When you’re hungry and out of food or have a hankering for Italian, don’t call Papa John’s. Get on the Internet and book a flight to Rome. The restaurants will make it worth it.
(The list is in alphabetical order. I tried ranking them and got too hungry to finish the list.)
Ar Galletto, Piazza Farnese 104, 06-686-5498, www.ristoranteargallettoroma.com, 12:30-3 p.m., 7:30-11 p.m. The first thing I tell friends visiting is to avoid eating on the big piazzas. They’re ripoffs. They serve mass produced food for mass tourism with prices to match.
Ar Galletto is an exception. It is on Piazza Francese, my favorite piazza in Rome with the 16th century Palazzo Farnese serving as the French Embassy hovering over you. The piazza is one block off teeming Campo dei Fiori where barkers holding menus try luring you into said sub-par restaurants.
Ar Galletto’s structure has been around since 1500 when it served as an inn for the Borgias, the Italian-Spanish family of nobles who became powerful during the Italian Renaissance. The romantic atmosphere alone makes Ar Galletto one of my favorites. Sitting outside in the huge piazza, with a massive fountain in the middle, you’re far enough from Campo dei Fiori’s noise to enjoy your privacy.
Ar Galletto has all the traditional Roman favorites at slightly higher prices than trattorias. Basics like pasta carbonara are 11 euros while more elaborate gnocci al limone e gamberoni (rice with lemon and prawns) are 16. Plus there are lots of seafood choices. Try an antipasto called pata negra: bruschetta with ham, honey and pine nuts.
La Fraschetta di Castel Sant’Angelo, Via del Banco di Santo Spirito 20, 06-6830-7661, www.fraschettadicastelsantangelo.it, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. From cozy to chaos. La Fraschetta, on a small side street in Centro Storico, is a traditional Roman trattoria that takes Italian family style dining to party heights. It’s small and crowded and loud. Signs in Roman dialect adorn the walls.
Dishes are served for groups to share on long picnic-like tables. Unlike “Italian family style” restaurants in the U.S., the quality of food remains as high as with individual servings. The spaghetti carbonara, perhaps the trademark Roman dish, is fantastic. So is the house wine which doesn’t taste nearly as cheap as the price.
Late in the evening, the staff starts singing traditional Roman songs. Don’t be afraid to clap along.
Mamma Venerina, Via Giovanni Vitelleschi, 44-46-48, 06-9259-3537, www.ristorantemammaveneria.it, open 24 hours. This is the standby for Marina and me, when we can’t decide where to eat and want to relax in subtle elegance. The white tablecloths and classy waiters in ties give this place near the Vatican a feel of old Rome. It’s where you think Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck will walk in at any minute.
The spaghetti with pancetta and mushroom sauce is my favorite, but first try one of its specialties: ravioli Mamma Venerina or the taglioni all’astice, round pasta similar to spaghetti with astice, a poor man’s lobster with bigger pincers.
Come on a warm night for the great outdoor seating on a quiet side street in historic Borgo Pio. Don’t worry about reservations. It’s open 24 hours.
Hostaria da Settimio, Via di Val Tellina 81, 06-5823-0701, noon-3 p.m., 7-11:30 p.m. Up in the leafy neighborhood of Monteverde, above Trastevere and away from tourists, this typical Roman trattoria is great for group outings. The menu is dotted with a variety of rigatoni and fettuccine dishes, plus my favorite, homemade pappardelle al cinghiale: flat, fat noodles in wild boar sauce. It sells for 7 euros. I paid $25 for this in Denver and it wasn’t half as good. Start off with one of their signature suppli, fried rice balls filled with cheese.
The prices are as big a selling point as the quality of the traditional Roman fare. No primo piatto (first course) is more than 8 euros; no secondo piatto is more than 12.
Reservations are required. It’s always packed. But reign in your guests. The restaurant tries charging you for people who don’t show.
Siciliainbocca, Via Flaminia 390, 06-324-0181, www.siciliainboccaweb.com, 12:45-2:30 p.m., 7:45-11:45 p.m. Sicily recently passed Emilia-Romagna as my favorite food region. The seafood and desserts of the Mediterranean’s biggest island top everything else in the gastro paradise that is Italy. Siciliainbocca, north of Piazza del Popolo toward the Olympic Stadium, is where I go for a Sicilian fix.
The atmosphere is friendly and casual. The food is right off a menu in Palermo. My favorite is the pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines) and the spaghetti allo scoglio di polifemo, spaghetti buried in clams, oysters, crayfish, shrimp and whatever else they shipped from the sea that day. Also, the grilled fish is a daily specialty. But always leave room for a cannolo (Not “cannoli.” That’s plural.) for dessert afterward.
There’s another Siciliainbocca in Prati near the Vatican.