When in Rome, Eat Like a Roman
ROME, ITALY – It may sound crazy, but it’s not easy to find a truly great local restaurant in Rome. Tourist traps disguised as eateries are built to snare the 100,000 visitors passing through the city each day. This can be tough for travelers looking for the real deal in Italian food. Instead of stumbling into hole-in-the wall culinary gems serving up Mamma’s secret sauce, you’ll most likely fall into a sea of English language menus, elevated prices and mediocre food.
So where do the locals actually go to eat when they dine out in Rome?
Sometimes I gauge the authenticity of a Roman restaurant on the ratio of native speakers to tourists. My favorite Rome foodie haunts are located in converted warehouses or neighborhoods located waaay off the complimentary city map found in every hotel. The reason I’m in the know has nothing to do with travel savviness. I get all my foodie tips from locals.
Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with Rome’s food scene after serious newbie culinary missteps (I thought that dining at a restaurant on Piazza Navona was eating local). I’ve been traveling and living in Italy for the past 15 years. The majority of my friends here are Italian, and fellow food lovers. Although I have my favorite spots, I wanted to go to the source for great restaurant advice that would trump the text of any guidebook.
I gathered a group of five Italian professionals at my favorite (sorry, I’m not giving this one away) wine bar in central Rome and posed the following question:
“What’s your favorite restaurant in Rome?”
I continued, explaining, “I’m not talking about Michelin-starred, special occasion, family dinner eateries. I’m asking each of you, what’s your favorite food spot where you eat with friends?”
The responses were varied, from internationally known pasta havens to cutting edge eateries. In addition to naming a restaurant, I asked each person name a preferred dish and to tell me a little bit about themselves. Here are their local recommendations. Buon Appetito!
Diner: Francesco, television journalist
Restaurant: Fish Market, Via di Pietralata 149/b*
Dish: Spigola all a brace – grilled sea bass
Fish Market is a hip, do-it-yourself eatery in the hottest nightlife district in Rome. Formerly an industrial zone on the city’s outskirts, Via di Pietralata is a haven for alternative art spaces, clubs and cutting edge cuisine. In the warm summer months, the restaurant’s roof retracts for an open air experience. Diners buy their own drinks at the bar, and order seafood at a market-like counter where it is weighed, grilled and served. The prices are among the best in Rome, and the quality of the seafood is outstanding.
*On May 16th, the restaurant’s second branch - Fish Market Trastevere - opened on Vicolo della Luce, 2
Diner: Roberto, interior design entrepreneur
Restaurant: La Camilluccia, Via Mario Fani, 113 (corner of Via Stresa)
Dish: Filetto di rombo al forno con patate e funghi – porcini baked turbot with porcini mushrooms and potatoes
La Camilluccia, an elegant restaurant located northwest of the city center, serves up Sardinian cuisine with a focus on seafood dishes. Sea urchin, oysters, and crudo (raw fish) make an appearance, as does carta di musica – a paper-thin Sardinian flatbread. Locals rave about the restaurant and it’s idyllic setting far from the chaos of central Rome, but a hefty price tag keeps La Camilluccia a destination reserved for special occasions. Diners may call in advance to book the restaurant’s culinary specialty: Sardinian roast suckling pig.
Diner: Monica, political journalist
Restaurant: Enoteca Cul de Sac, Piazza di Pasquino, 73
Dish: Polpette con purée – meatballs with mashed potatoes
Established in 1977, Enoteca Cul de Sac claims to have initiated the wine bar movement in Rome. The word enoteca literally means “wine repository” or wine store, but is also used to describe bars and bistros serving up everything from tapas-like snacks to multi-course meals. Cul de Sac offers a staggering collection of more than 1500 wines and serves Mediterranean cuisine. The restaurant’s central location and extended hours (open til 12:30AM nightly) make it a perfect place to drink and nosh into the late Roman night.
Diner: Gaia, lawyer
Restaurant: Pierluigi, Piazza de’ Ricci, 144
Dish: Paccheri cozze pacchino – wide rigatoni-like pasta with mussels
Restaurant Pierluigi recently made a splash in international media after reports surfaced that Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg failed to leave a tip on his table. For the record, tipping is not required and rarely an expectation in Italy. One thing is clear: Mark Zuckerberg must have some Italian “friends” who tipped him off to Pierluigi. The restaurant — established in 1938 — is located in one of the city’s most stunning piazzas, surrounded by 16th century palaces. Seafood rules here, with platters of spaghetti alle vongole (clams), sublime grilled fish and fresh-caught carpaccio.
Diner: Carolina, works for a political party
Restaurant: Maccheroni, Piazza delle Coppelle, 44
Dish: Spaghetti carbonara
I concur with Carolina; the carbonara at restaurant Maccheroni tops my personal foodie charts as one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Maccheroni will appear in your guidebooks; it’s been done to death on travel television (I got a text from friends who spotted Rick Steves shoveling down the restaurant’s addictive pasta) and celebrity endorsement (can anyone say “Michelle Obama?”). Somehow the quality of the cuisine manages to remain unscathed by the restaurant’s popularity.