Termini: Rome’s rough-and-tumble train station has become an international gastro emporium

Eccellenza della Costiera, one of 40 eating establishments at Termini.
Eccellenza della Costiera, one of 40 eating establishments at Termini. Photo by Marina Pascucci

One reason Rome left a forgettable first impression when I visited in 1978 was the city back then didn’t exactly greet you with a red carpet, rose petals tossed at your feet. It was more like a frayed throw rug covered in cigarette stains and wagging a big middle finger.

That’s what I thought of Termini train station.

Maybe I was tired, hot and burned out on art. I had just fought through the mass of humanity that is the Florence tourist scene and my train dumped me into this pit of a station. Termini was dark, foreboding, cavernous, charmless. It didn’t have the historic rounded roof of Milan Centrale, the amenities of Paris’ Gare du Nord or the class of London’s St. Pancras Station.

It was built in 1863 and totally rebuilt in 1937 for the 1942 World”s Fair which World War II eventually cancelled. Termini’s most distinguished feature is the arched roof which allegedly resembles the barrel vault that supported Ancient Roman baths.

Termini station is tied with Paris’ Garde du Nord and Munich for the largest in Europe. Wikipedia photo

It probably didn’t help when I sat on a bench outside Termini writing in my journal and two pretty backpackers ran toward me, begging me to take them to their hotel. Three amorous Italian men were running after them, their fractured English obviously a non-starter.

It’s 46 years later and Saturday I visited Termini as I have so many times in my 10 years retired in Rome. 

It’s beautiful. 

Paul is a French bakery that opened in France in 1889. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Termini’s new look

Like an aging Italian starlet showing its age, it has received continual facelifts. Now it’s no longer a place to suffer through and escape, despite a false reputation of it being one of the most dangerous areas in Rome. Today it’s a destination. It has great shopping, from a Nike store to COIN to Victoria’s Secret. The massive greeting hall and the floor below it is like a modern shopping mall.

But the biggest reason to hang out in Termini is dining. Yes, in the city with the best restaurants in the world (Shaddup, Paris!), Termini has the best restaurant scene in the sprawling Esquiline neighborhood. Under Termini’s roof, there are 40 eating establishments. Sushi. BBQ ribs. Truffles. Cannelloni. Termini is a cross-section of international cuisine.

Mercato Centrale opened in 2016. Photos by Marina Pascucci

The transformation began in 2016 when Mercato Centrale opened. It’s a giant food hall in the part of Termini running along Via Giolitti, the huge boulevard feeding into the terminal. 

Terrazza Termini

Adding to the gastro scene is Terrazza Termini. It is a long hallway lined with tony restaurants on the floor above the greeting hall. A French cafe. A sit-down Japanese restaurant. A hamburger joint. Half of it was built in 2017 and the other half appeared three years ago.

Below it is Mignon alle Mura, a comfortable, airy 200-square-meter sit-down bar, so named as its floor-to-ceiling picture window frames the Servian Wall, a defensive barrier that has been around since the 4th century B.C. At Mignon, which opened in January 2022, you can get a variety of Italian breakfast pastries and sandwiches along with a cheap cappuccino for €1.60. (I once paid €7.50 for a cappucc in Zurich Hauptbahnhof, which the European Railway Index libelously ranked as the top train station in Europe.)

La Porchetta di Ariccia features Lazio’s signature suckling pig porchetta sandwich. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The ranking mostly takes in consideration train station logistics, platform crowds and cleanliness. Hell, it’s Switzerland. Food – and coffee ripoffs – are way down the list. This is where Termini shines. Mignon replaced the pre-Covid meeting point. Ciao was a scruffy cafe with an uncomfortable bar with few tables and cafeteria-type food.

Marina and I took the escalator up to Terrazza Termini and had a nice stroll scouting out a lunch place. Lining the back wall, behind a huge electronic departures board, are floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking some of Termini’s 32 train platforms, tying it with Gare du Nord and Munich for the largest station in Europe.

The restaurants

At the far end is La Porchetta di Ariccia, featuring a suckling, roast pig, which a woman carved up to make the Lazio region’s classic pork sandwich. Nearby is Antica Focacceria, a Sicilian restaurant with window displays of different arancini, Sicily’s signature stuffed, fried rice balls. Next to them were huge, triangle-shaped piadine, Italy’s flatbread sandwiches. 

Across the way, however, we saw Terrazza Termini’s lone black eye. Like a dead rat on a plate of amatriciana sits a Starbucks. The coffee giant that has destroyed more neighborhoods than Covid has burrowed its way into Italy’s major cities, polluting my adopted country’s unmatched coffee scene with frappuccinos and paper cups. A short line was encouraging; the larcenous €4 cappuccinos not surprising.

Antica Focacceria, a Sicilian restaurant, has a variety of Sicily’s arancini. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Marina and I rolled our eyes, held our noses and kept strolling. Paul is a French bakery that started in France in 1889. Color posters of beautiful French landmarks line the walls. Display windows show round strawberry and raspberry pies, multicolored petit four sweets and a variety of flaky croissants.

Next to it is Sushi Daily, pre-made sushi in handy plastic boxes to take on the train, priced between €12.45 for a single meal to €32.45 for a family variety tray. Then there’s Five Guys, a classic American burger joint with old-fashioned red-and-white checked walls and burgers starting at €10.95 and milkshakes at €5.98.

Terrazza Termini featured lots of classic shops selling items you can get around Rome, from piadine to cornettos to vegetable wraps. They’re get-in-and-get-out places for hungry people late for a train.

My cannelloni at Eccellenze della Costiera. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But then there’s Eccellenze della Costiera. It’s designed like a cafe on the Amalfi Coast with fake lemons hanging from vines clinging to the walls. It features a wide range of cannelloni and suppli, not to mention an array of desserts. I had a meat cannelloni for €9.50, two long cannelloni tubes filled with warm ricotta and meat. It was the perfect Italian lunch: light, tasty and, yes, healthy.

An Eataly, Italy’s gastro chain covering the breadth of Italian cuisine,  opened in Termini in December.

At Freeto, featuring a long line of freshly made goods, I asked the woman about business. She said it comes and goes but said she worries about the scene outside Termini. She hit on the one rap that has stained Termini through the ages.

The dangers

The area around the station is often listed among the more dangerous neighborhoods in Rome. It is a bit rough around the edges. The streets are lined with cheap fast-food and retail joints. Hotels, a little long in the tooth, are on the many streets shooting off Giolitti in the front and Via Marsala in the back. 

The station attracts some pickpockets, drug dealers, scam artists and crooked cab drivers. (Psst! If anyone offers you a free bracelet, keep walking. If you accept it, they’ll ask you for a tip all the way to your hotel. And insist on cabbies using their meter. Drivers often don’t use meters and then ask for double the metered price.)

After all, 150 million passengers go through Termini every year traveling on 850 trains a day. That’s a lot of potential victims.

However, the reputation rarely meets the truth. Termini is not a very violent place. I have never felt threatened there, at any hour of day or night. I’ve been there in the middle of the night – 4-5 a.m. – to take the airport bus. I’d see a few homeless camped out and passed out along the wall. I saw a high hooker teeter and fall near the entrance. Saturday I saw about six homeless asleep – or passed out – along Termini’s outer wall. They were harmless.

The numbers

Rome is a safe city. For a capital of 2.8 million (4.3 million in the metro area), it is very safe. Six other cities in Italy have higher crime rates, topped by Milan and followed by Bologna and Rimini.

Rome’s crime rate of 53.36 is considered “moderate” by Numbeo, the world’s largest cost-of-living website

I get a kick out of Italians’ idea of crime. They think Rome is a dangerous city. I’m an American. I know dangerous cities. Violent crime here is very low. In 2022, Rome had only 26 murders. Chicago has had that many since I started writing this morning.

Marina takes graphic design classes in one of Termini’s upstairs offices. They end in early Friday evenings. She always has me meet her afterwards to shepherd to one of the plethora of restaurants then to the subway inside. 

Termini does get more dodgy on Marsala the farther you get away from the main terminal. I had a female friend who got decked by three men who stole her purse. She was not harmed otherwise.

Two stabbings

However, two high-profile incidents haven’t helped Termini’s reputation. On New Year’s Eve 2022, a 24-year-old homeless Polish man stabbed and seriously injured a 24-year-old Israeli woman buying a train ticket inside the station. He was arrested in Milan and charged with racially motivated attempted murder but denied involvement.

Last Feb. 5 at 11 p.m. on Giolitti, a 46-year-old Milan man tried fighting off a thief whose accomplices stabbed him three times in the chest, sending him to the hospital in serious condition. Three North Africans were later arrested and charged with attempted murder and aggravated robbery.

The next month, the city ordered greater security at the station and a sweep arrested 18 people and cited 33 more for drug dealing. 

So if you do come to Rome, stay aware. Wear a money belt. Talk to no one who approaches you. You’ll be fine. And if you’re hungry, stick around a while. You’re in the best restaurant city in the world.

Termini welcomes you with a tasty introduction to Rome.