My 5 favorite restaurants in Rome: Affordable, accessible, authentic

Renato e Luisa near Torre Argentina is my favorite restaurant in Rome. Rome by Month photo


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.)

The beef in balsamic vinegar is one of Renato e Luisa’s signature dishes. An American in Rome photo


1. Renato e Luisa (Centro Storico), Via dei Barbieri 25, 06-686-9660, 8-11:30 p.m. closed Monday, http://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).

Osteria dal 1931. TripAdvisor photo


2. Osteria dal 1931 (Monteverde), Via di Donna Olimpia 44, 06-537-0032, noon-3 p.m. 7:30-11 p.m. daily, http://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.

La Fraschetta di Castel Sant’Angelo. TripAdvisor photo


3. La Fraschetta di Sant’Angelo (Centro Storico), Via del Banco di Santo Spirito 20, 06-6830-7661, noon-11 p.m. closed Sunday, http://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.

Ristorante Scarpone. Ristorante Scarpone photo


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, http://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.

Vignola. TripAdvisor photo


5. Pizzeria Vignola (Flaminia), Viale del Vignola 25/27, 06-322-7451, 12:30-3 p.m. 7:30-midnight, closed Wednesday, http://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 and also 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.

My five favorite restaurants in Rome

Mamma Venerina in the historic Borgo Pio neighborhood near the Vatican is inexpensive elegance that reminds you of old Rome.

Mamma Venerina in the historic Borgo Pio neighborhood near the Vatican is inexpensive elegance that reminds you of old Rome.


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.

That’s it.

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

Ar Galletto


Ar Galletto, Piazza Farnese 104, 06-686-5498, http://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

La Fraschetta di Castel Sant’Angelo


La Fraschetta di Castel Sant’Angelo, Via del Banco di Santo Spirito 20, 06-6830-7661, http://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.

Marco has always served me well at Mamma Venerina.

Marco has always served me well at Mamma Venerina.


Mamma Venerina, Via Giovanni Vitelleschi, 44-46-48, 06-9259-3537, http://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

Hostaria da Settimio


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.

Settimio suppli

Settimio suppli


Reservations are required. It’s always packed. But reign in your guests. The restaurant tries charging you for people who don’t show.

Siciliainbocca

Siciliainbocca


Siciliainbocca, Via Flaminia 390, 06-324-0181, http://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.

Spaghetti allo Scoglio di Polifemo

Spaghetti allo Scoglio di Polifemo


There’s another Siciliainbocca in Prati near the Vatican.