I’ve been obsessed with Italy’s sagre since my first introduction to them. So much more than food festivals (though food’s a big part of it), these are celebrations of a local community, culture and cuisine. The particular foodstuff they celebrate completely ranges — anything from white truffle to chocolate to pumpkins to chestnuts to wine. And the best season for them? The autumn! Which is why I just wrote about seven of the best sagre in Italy in autumn — from a little town just outside Rome to Puglia to Piedmont — for The Guardian. Check it out here.
The sad news arrived this week that Italy is truly, finally getting its first Starbucks — which seems like the perfect time to talk about coffee in Italy. You know, Italiancoffee in Italy. What it is. How to order it. What the various kinds (macchiato, lungo, cappuccino, mamma mia!) really mean. And, naturally, where to find the best coffee in Rome (and beyond).
But first, let’s get one thing out of the way: what coffee in Italy is not.
How to know your coffee isn’t Italian-style
Italian coffee is not something you would mistake on the first sip for a weirdly hot milkshake. It does not require 10 minutes of you patiently waiting for a barista to make it only to then grab it to go and rush out the door with it in your hand as if, at that precise moment, the urgency of your situation suddenly became apparent. It is not served in a cup so large it could be mistaken for an army barracks stock pot.
And it does not in any way taste like peppermint, spiced pumpkin or like what would happen if you burned butter, added it to raw bitter greens, then boiled the two together. (Yes: that last point means properly-done espresso, from good-quality beans, does not have that burned, bitter taste that you get from a mug of classic Starbucks roast).<p?
Got it? Good!
Okay, fine, but what’s the big deal with Italian coffee, anyway?
You mean, why does Italian coffee have such cachet that leading coffee chains worldwide all give their menu items Italian names… no matter how American/British/fill-in-the-blank their drinks really are?
For one thing, because Italians invented coffee culture. No, they weren’t the first to harvest—or brew—the beans. But they were the first in Europe to open a coffee house (Venice, 1629), to invent the espresso machine (Turin, 1884) and to come up with the macchinetta (the stovetop percolator first produced by Bialetti, still the leading creator of the moka, in 1933).
Or, as the owner of Caffè Sant’Eustachio in Rome once put it to me years ago, when I asked him why he thought not a single Starbucks had opened in Rome:
“Macchiatto, espresso, cappuccino — these are all Italian names. Why would we buy the American version of these drinks when we’re the ones who invented them?”
If you’re eating at restaurants in Rome, you’re going to wind up eating at a trattoria (or, more likely, several). Originally, a trattoria was a mid-priced, family-run restaurant, something between a ristorante and osteria in terms of expense and formality. In reality, it’s come to mean pretty much any restaurant in Rome that’s serving up Roman dishes and isn’t overly expensive (or any others that want to pretend that’s the case — hi, all you places with tourist menus!).
So, as with any other kind of dining in Rome, if you want the very best… you should have an idea of where to go.
When I’m craving an amazing cacio e pepe or Roman artichoke or saltimbocca, these are the places I head to.
(Do note that while these places all have very good food, they’re not all always top-notch with service: brusque waiters are part of the trattoria’s charm. Truly. It’s as traditional as carbonara).
The best… no-frills trattoria
Hostaria Romana is old-school: the tables are crammed together, past diners have scrawled their signatures on the wall, and if two people at your table order the same pasta, it’s spooned out of a pan right at your table. Fortunately, the dishes are old-school, too. Nothing here is going to blow your mind with creativity, but that’s not the purpose of, say, a like-your-nonna-romana-made-it amatriciana: We’re talking simple ingredients done well.
On that basic (but oh-so-difficult, if other trattorias in Rome are any indication!) promise, Hostaria Romana delivers. Which is especially surprising given its location right around the corner from Piazza Barberini, or tourism central. Even more surprising? The waiters here are actually nice. Go figure.
In season, don’t miss the artichokes. When I ate there in December, I ordered both the alla giudia (fried) and alla romana (braised) styles. They were both delicious. (Who said you have to settle for just one option?).
Hostaria Romana is located at Via del Boccaccio 1, right near Piazza Barberini; it’s open daily except Sundays for lunch and dinner. For dinner, reservations are recommended.
Fact: You can never get enough of gelatoinRome. That’s a very good thing, since these days, there seems to be a new gelateria opening every couple of months. And not just a new gelateria. But a new real gelateria.
What’s a “real” gelateria, you say? Here’s the second (more sobering) fact: The vast majority of Rome’s gelato shops spoon out industrialized junk, whipped up from a lovely conglomeration of synthetic thickeners, chemical flavors, and air. (Remember, friends, real gelato should not look like a cloud, and it should not be brighter than your sunburned face after a Roman holiday… coughBlueIcecoughDellaPalmacough). And for years, those who wanted top-notch, non-fake gelato had to seek it out, especially in the center, where such shops were few and far between.
When in Rome, eat Roman food. (Duh). But to have the best possible culinary experience, go a step further: have the city's most top-notch traditional dishes… at the restaurants that make them in the tastiest, most authentic ways. And it's not always easy to know where that is, since a trattoria that serves up only mediocre meat courses might make the best pasta alla gricia in Rome, while a restaurant usually better ignored might actually be the number-one spot for carciofi alla giudia.
Luckily, here's help! Here are six of Rome's must-eat dishes — and my favorite places for trying each one — in my first piece for the Travel Channel. (Stay tuned for more!)
It's spring, and you know what that means: gelato! Scoop up April's issue of National Geographic Traveler for my piece on where to find Rome's best. (Pun intended). I'll also post a link here when the story goes live online. In the meantime, here's a hint.
Sometimes, you don’t just want brunch in Rome. You want American brunch in Rome. You know. Pancakes. Eggs. Bagels. Filter coffee.
That can be pretty tough.
Finding brunch in Rome isn’t the part that’s hard. Like cupcakes and cocktails, brunch is what all the cool kids in Rome are doing (or consuming) these days.
And, like cupcakes and cocktails, even though some of the cool factor of brunch stems from it being a US import, it’s often not quuuuite done American-style. In fact, most Italian brunches offer up a spread that just like a noon-time aperitivo, with pastas, salads, meats, and cheeses. (And maybe some couscous or farro, if we’re getting really fancy).
But when you’re homesick hungry for American brunch, that just won’t do. Here are three places to head to instead: my three favorite spots for American brunch in Rome.
These days, Rome’s food scene goes beyond the traditional mom-and-pop trattorias. (That hasn’t always been the case). In a new piece on Rome for foodies for New York Magazine, I track down the best activities, restaurants, and accommodation for foodies, from hotels that house Michelin-starred restaurants to Rome’s best spots for artisanal beers. Buon appetito!
But you know what? Things change. (Even in Rome!). And for 2014, it’s time for an update.
For one thing, I Caruso is no longer a hidden gem. (I’ll take some of the blame for that). And on a recent visit, I found its gelato, while still good—and way better than the fake junk you’d get at most of Rome’s other gelaterias—not quite as flavorful as I remembered.
Meanwhile? Just up the street and around the corner, another gelateria, opened two years ago by a former I Caruso employee, blows I Caruso out of the water. At least if you prefer your gelato rich and decadent. Like I do. (Hey, go big or go home, right?).
‘Tis the season… for rain in Rome. (Ah, November!). And in a city where so many of the sights are outdoors, and so much is meant to be explored on foot, rain can feel like a real deal-breaker.
Sure: There are always the Vatican museums. And if you’re lucky, maybe you booked your Borghese Gallery or Palazzo Valentini tickets for exactly the day the skies opened up.
But let’s go beyond the obvious, shall we? Here’s what I’d call the perfect rainy day in Rome: an itinerary that hits up spots that are cozy, indoors, off-the-beaten-path, interesting — and located in neighborhoods that, while charming, aren’t so cobblestoned-street-picturesque that you’ll be upset to miss the chance to photograph them at their sunny best.
So get your umbrellas ready (and, by the way, one good thing about rain in Rome is that, as soon as it starts, umbrella-sellers pop up all over the city. So it’s okay if you’ve forgotten yours. Just, please, barter the sellers down to 2 or 3 euros for a small one; it’ll fall apart by the end of the day anyway!).
No matter where you’re staying in Rome, the neighborhood of Testaccio is easy to get to: You can take the metro (get off at Piramide, then walk five minutes) or a number of buses (including the 3 and 75).