It’s not just pasta and pizza, Crave reveals the heart and soul of dining out in Italy’s Eternal City.
Words Kavita Daswani
*Featured in Crave’s issue 71, April 2016
No tour of Europe is complete without visiting Rome, one of the world’s most historic cities and a hotbed of culture, arts and cuisine. While it’s hard to have a bad meal in the city, foodies know the chances of a spectacular meal are improved drastically by steering clear of restaurants next to tourist attractions. Instead, hit the backstreets and find out where the locals dine.
A true gourmet exploration of Rome involves eating in different sectors of this busy city. Monti is a neighbourhood that flies a little under the radar, but you’ll find niche boutiques, stylish wine bars and the terrific Urbana 47, a restaurant serving local produce that doubles as an indie cinema. And don’t miss Trastevere on the west bank of the Tiber, where simple, low-key restaurants and gelaterias sit side-by-side on cobbled streets.
Rome is a city where people take eating to go literally, stopping at one of the city’s infinite number of pizza places to pick up a slice to munch on the way home. But perhaps one of the most important things to keep in mind about dining out in Rome is that if you’re flexible about what time you eat, even the most densely packed reservation books can be accessed. At La Pergola, for instance, the city’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant, where sometimes tables are booked for weeks in advance, a recent visitor to the city called and asked if they could come in to dine as soon as the restaurant opened, in the late afternoon, instead of going for a typical 9pm slot. She and her guest were happily accommodated. The restaurant overlooks the seven hills of Rome, and on the inside is lavishly decorated with noted art and antiques and an abundance of flowers. And, not to spoil the surprise – but the presentation of the dessert is a treat in and of itself.
Certainly, Rome is one of those places that ignite no end of conversation about its restaurants, pizzerias, cafés and gelaterias– everyone who has been there has a favourite, and something to recommend, and multiple visits with long stays are necessary to try them all. There are quirky spots such as La Gattabuia, located in an old Papal prison, that has been used in a couple of Italian films, and is the restaurant of choice for avid Italophile John Rasiej, the chief marketing officer of Piazza Italia in the US, which acts as a resource for people seeking out the most notable of Italian eateries and travel leads. The setting is a key attraction, naturally: the walls are adorned with historic implements, while classic Roman dishes are on the menu, including bucatini alla Amatricana (long, thick pasta served with tomatoes, bacon and pecorino), and its signature lamb alla Gattabuia and filet of Argentine beef. Walk it all off after with a stroll down the Tiber.
For an evening of five-star glamour, step into one of the finest hotels in Rome, the Hotel Hassler atop the legendary Spanish Steps. On the top floor is Michelin-starred Imago; sit by the window for an unparalleled view of this magnificent city while sipping champagne and perusing the 10-course tasting menu. Also in the heart of the city is the equally exquisite Hotel de Russie, where a fine brunch can be had in its garden restaurant, filled with ancient trees and lush flowers, Le Jardin de Russie. The place is a veritable oasis in the rush of the adjacent Piazza del Popolo.
For a hip and casual evening, visitors love Tastevere Kmzero, part farmer’s market, part wine bar and all fresh deliciousness. The place is tiny with only a few tables, a little bar and no stove in the kitchen, so sustenance comes in the form of salamis, cured meats, grass-fed cheeses and wild herbs and flowers. After an appetiser at Tastevere Kmzero, move on to Da Teo, one of the city’s top cucinas; grab an outside table under hanging vines, and order Roman specialities such as fried zucchini flowers and pannacotta. Or head to Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, and the boisterous Ristorante Cannavota. Popular with families and large groups, it’s close to historic landmarks such as the imposing Arcibasilica di San Giovanni, and the Scala Santa, up whose 28 marble steps Jesus is said to have ascended before his trial. Nor has Rome been impervious to the craft beer obsession sweeping through the world’s metropolitan centres. Brasserie 4:20 is an American-style joint with burgers, hot dogs and innumerable beers on tap, catering to a local population that is happy to dine out on something other than red wine and pasta.
If you’ve had your fill of vino, pizza and pasta, check out this sophisticated burger-and-beer joint. It’s located in a less-than-salubrious neighborhood, so go earlier in the day rather than later – although it’s open until 4am for late-night munchies. Diners create their own burgers from a selection of different toppings to be accompanied by hard-tofind American beers such as Lost Abbey and Cigar City.
Via Portuense, 82, 00153 Roma
Tel: +39 06 583 1073
This is family-style cooking at its best. Located in Trastevere, this trattoria is so popular that visitors to the city often eat here more than once. The pasta is cooked al dente, with a little bite, to absorb the rich, flavourful sauces. The service is friendly and unobtrusive, servings are large, prices reasonable and there are outside tables for those who book far enough in advance.
Piazza dei Ponzianam, 7A, 00153 Roma
Tel: +39 06 5818355
Starched white tablecloths, red velvet seats, mesmerising views… Michelin-starred restaurant Imago atop the Spanish Steps has it all. Award-winning executive chef Francesco Apreda produces exquisite food and the service is knowledgeable and impeccable. Sophisticated and inventive, the Classic Tasting Menu (€140 each), features gourmet staples such as foie gras paired with mackerel, and astounding desserts such as Napolitan sfogliatella in samosa style with green tea ice cream. The chef may even send you home with one of his signature spice blends.
Hotel Hassler, Piazza Trinita dei Monti, 6, 00187 Roma
Tel: +39 06 699340
Le Jardin de Russie
Escape the crowds among the rose bushes and orange trees at the Hotel de Russie garden restaurant. Part of the elite Rocco Forte group, the hotel serves one of Rome’s best weekend brunch. Chefs prepare fresh pasta dishes at a variety of stations and there’s even a Japanese corner featuring sushi and sashimi. Early reservations are recommended.
Hotel de Russie, Via del Babuinom, 9, 00187 Roma
Tel: +39 06 32 88 81
Spacious, busy, unfussy, this restaurant has a rich history. In times past, hungry actors and artists would exchange a portrait, performance or poem for a hot platter of pasta. Wine from the surrounding hills comes in quaint ceramic carafes to accompany fish from nearby Ostia Lido and bread from the bakery next door. Signature dishes include the linguine alla Reviglio, bucatini alla Cannavota and saltimbocca.
Piazza San Giovanni, Laterano, 20, 00184 Roma
Tel: +39 06 77205007
A popular stop on The Roman Guy’s food walking tour, everyone loves this delightful micro restaurant in Trastevere. Here’s why: Tastevere KmZero is run by a couple of young guys who go the extra mile. On the day we visited, one of the owners was out buying fresh cheese for our appetiser. Everything is sourced locally, the wine and beer is artisan-quality and the presentation is stunning.
Vicolo de’cinque, 30/A, 00153 Roma
Tel: +39 06 95584404