The Best Trattoria in Rome? How About Six of Them

The best trattorias in Rome

Looking for the best trattoria in Rome? Good. Because unless you’re sticking to Michelin-starred spots only, at some point during your trip, you’re going to wind up eating at one. Might as well make it top-notch.

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 if you want the very best trattoria in Rome… 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 trattorias in Rome I frequent.

(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 in Rome

Spaghetti alle vongole at Hostaria Romana
An abundant portion of spaghetti alle vongole at Hostaria Romana

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?).

Carciofi at Hostaria Romana in Rome
Don’t limit yourself. How about a carciofo alla giudia…

 

At Hostaria Romana, one of the best trattoria in rome
…and a carciofo alla romana?

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.

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Osteria Fernanda, the Best Restaurant in Trastevere

Osteria Fernanda restaurant in Rome

If you saw a dish like this one (the colors! the presentation!) while dining in Rome, you might assume it comes from one of Rome's Best Restaurants—you know, the places where "Best Restaurant" comes in caps, like La Pergola or Il Pagliaccio. At the very least, you might assume a meal at said restaurant would set you back a pretty penny. 

You'd be even more convinced of this after taking a bite. Super-fresh, perfectly roasted octopus on a black bean sauce, adorned with a slice of celery gelatin (yes, really). And that's just the antipasto.

But despite the creative dishes and the high-quality ingredients, this is no La Pergola. It's Osteria Fernanda, a restaurant in Trastevere. Perhaps the best restaurant in Trastevere. And the price is a fraction of what you'd spend at Fernanda's Michelin-starred neighbors.

Da Fernanda in Trastevere, Rome

Located near Porta Portese (would you look at that… you can get there on the #3 bus!), Osteria Fernanda is a small but elegant space, contemporary with just the right "old Rome" touches (brick archways, wooden floors). If you can, reserve a table upstairs (shown above)—the tables downstairs are a little close together.

From the start, the service was impeccable. I was there with a visiting Scottish friend and her mother, and speaking with them in English; we were the only English-speakers in the place. But we were treated with the same courtesy and respect as the tables of Italians around us. (After more experiences than I can count, especially in Rome's centro storico, where the polar opposite is true, it's admittedly sad that this is worth mentioning). The owner, who took our orders, was polite, helpful, and, yes, spoke English. 

But the food is where things really got going. First came a delicious amusebouche, one of those little complimentary "extras" that are rare at any but the most expensive Rome restaurants. The antipasti were perfect: the octopus (above) was delicious, although the second antipasto we ordered, an "escalope of foie gras, Szechuan pepper gelato, lemon puree and crushed nuts," blew my mind (below). Hot and cold, melt-in-your-mouth soft and crunchy, meaty and citrusy—everything was there. And it all worked. 

Osteria Fernanda, Rome restaurant in Trastevere

After setting such a high bar, the primi could have been letdowns. They weren't. Although out of the three dishes were ordered—mine, acqua e farine pasta filled with Roman artichokes on cuttlefish-ink and bottarga, was creative but good—the most traditional was actually, in my opinion, the best. Yep: bucatini all'amatriciana. 

It just might be the best amatriciana I've had in Rome. Ever.  

The best amatriciana in Rome

Too full for the delicious-looking secondi (next time, I'm going for the beef cheek with artichoke gelatin, Jerusalem artichoke sauce and licorice), we went right for the desserts. Big surprise: They were fantastic, too. And the presentation was lovely.

Dessert at Osteria Fernanda in Rome

Even though the prices were listed on the menu (our octopus starter was €15, the amatriciana was €14), the bill could have been almost anything. Would they charge us for the amusebouche? Assume we were all tourists and take advantage by adding a 15% servizio or an exaggerated pane e coperto charge? And how much were the bottles of wine that the owner had recommended, and that we hadn't double-checked the price on?

For two antipasti, three secondi, two dolci, two bottles of wine, bread, and water, the price came out to about €110. Or a little under €40 a head. The wines had been under €15, and, yes, the amusebouches were complimentary. Cheap? No. Incredible value? Yes. (There also are two tasting menus, one 4-course taster for €33 each and one 5-course taster for €38).

I will be back.

And Osteria Fernanda? I'm sure foodie fame is coming your way. And more tourists, too. Just please, please, don't change. Okay?

Osteria Fernanda. Via Ettore Rolli 1. +39 065894333.

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Rome’s Most Roman Restaurant… But Forget the Checkered Tablecloths: Fraschetteria Brunetti

Fraschetteria Brunetti, Rome

When I first walked into Fraschetteria Brunetti*, a stone’s throw from Piazza del Popolo, I thought all of my senses were under assault.

If the bright-red walls and yellow tablecloths weren’t enough, they were covered in notes and hand-drawn pictures left by particularly appreciative (or drunk) clientele. Tables were jammed so closely together, and so packed—with people who kept jumping up and down to go out for smoke breaks or to call friends on their telefonini—that elbow-room wasn’t so much a commodity as something nobody had ever heard of, never mind required.

And then there was the noise. Want to have a conversation with your dining companion? Nah. Between the blaring pop and the equally-loud diners, you might as well be whispering at a discoteca.Diners at Fraschetteria Brunetti near Piazza del Popolo

If all of that sounds annoying… it was.

It was also completely, quintessentially—and, yes, endearingly—Roman.

Forget checkered tablecloths. If you want to experience “authentic Rome”—the Rome of young men shouting “OH, bell-ohhh” at their friends and of girls wearing Nike Airs and shiny jackets, the Rome of youth and fun and noise, of Romanaccio and worn-out, smoke-spitting scooters—then this is the place to come.

What’s that? The food, you say? You want me to write about the food?

Right. The food. In the celebration going on around me, I almost forgot to order. Never mind eat.

Pasta at Fraschetteria Brunetti in Rome

The food is… fine. There’s a cheap, fixed-price lunch menu from Mondays to Fridays—€9 for a primo, or for an antipasto and a secondo, each with a drink, coffee, and bread. Otherwise, an enormous antipasto of meats and cheeses came to €10; pastas are €10, and main courses €12—good prices for the area and for the amount of food (the portions were huge), less-good for the quality (granted, I did order a pasta with sausage and broccoli, but it was even greasier than I’d expected).

But perhaps the huge portions and the oiliness were all a part of the strategy. It seemed like at least three-quarters of the other diners were here to eat away their hangovers or, alternately, to keep the party going. (To be fair, it was early afternoon on a weekend. It might be far more staid on a weekday. Although the exuberant scrawls from former diners, hanging all over the restaurant, make me think it’s always like this).

Want to check the place out for yourself? Just make sure you bring your humor. After all, the Rome you’re diving into is “authentic”—but it might not be the one you’ve been picturing. And note: We did not receive a fiscal receipt here (just another way this place was super-Roman…). If you go, make sure you request a ricevuta fiscale.

Fraschetteria Brunetti is located at Via Angelo Brunetti 25b, right near Piazza del Popolo. Phone: +39 06 3214103.

*I’ve linked to the restaurant’s website for information’s sake, but I’m flabbergasted by the photos. Is that really what the place looks like without all the people packed inside? It’s almost… downright… sober-looking!

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My Three No-Fail Rome Restaurants

Kick-ass carbonara from Da Danilo in RomeSometimes, I feel like I'm slagging off on Rome's restaurants more than anything else.

However. There is fantastic food in this city, and honest people serving it. You just have to know where to go.

When I need a no-fail, top-notch, not-too-expensive Italian meal (like when guests are in town), these are the three restaurants I now turn to. The food is fantastic, the service good, the atmosphere untouristy, the prices moderate. And I haven't found something surprising added to my bill. (Yet).

My top picks to eat in Rome…:

With a group of friends or family: Flavio al Velavevodetto

Flavio al Velavevadetto in Testaccio, Rome

I was a little late to the Flavio al Velavevodetto lovefest, having been preceded by, among others, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. But I'm so glad I arrived.

Tucked into Monte Testaccio (if you don't believe that the hill comes from an enormous pile of Roman amphorae, thanks to being a dump in ancient times, just check out the restaurant's glass wall, above), Flavio al Velavevodetto serves up all the traditional Roman dishes, but in a way that makes even your 100th amatriciana taste almost, well, new. Don't miss their fritti, vegetables so lightly fried they remind me of tempura.

Fritti at Flavio al Velavevodetto
The other bonus of Flavio is the ambience. It's elegant and understated, and the interior is much roomier than at crammed little trattorie in the center. In the summer, you can dine out at the lovely terrace upstairs, a particularly good bet if your crowd is on the loud side. Plus, the serving staff is unfailingly polite and pretty fast—rare things for Rome.

Flavio al Velavevodetto is located at Via Monte Testaccio 97, a short walk from the Piramide metro stop. Or you can, of course, take the ever-present number 3 "foodie" bus to get there. Call +39 06 5744194 for reservations.

On a date: Da Danilo

I first stumbled into Da Danilo because it was just around the corner from my first apartment. Until the newspaper articles on the walls tipped me off, I had no idea that the place was a local legend. Even now, two years later, it remains legendarily good. And surprisingly local. If a bit on the expensive (and, at night, crammed-together-tables) side.

The small, so-intimate-you're-bound-to-knock-knees trattoria serves up Roman dishes, but with such fresh ingredients, they hardly compare. Don't miss the carbonara (top of post), with one of the most delicious, smoky-crispy-perfect pieces of guanciale I've ever encountered. Not to mention this carpaccio, dressed with puntarelle or truffle shavings.

Da Danilo food in Rome

Da Danilo is located at Via Petrarca 3, a stone's throw from Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and its metro stop. Call +39 06 77200111 for reservations. 

For a business meal: L'Asino d'Oro

L'Asino d'Oro restaurant Rome

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: L'Asino d'Oro just might be my favorite restaurant in Rome. At least, it's in the top three.

Here's where to go when the idea of more cucina romana, or of checkered tablecloths, makes you want to get on the next plane to anywhere. Yes, the food is Italian—but it's Umbrian. With a twist. No amatriciana on the menu here; instead, look for deliciousness like stewed wild boar in a sweet wine sauce.The atmosphere is sleek and modern, the staff professional, and the prices good. If you're pinching your pennies, you also can't beat the 3-course €12 tasting menu at lunch.

L'Asino d'Oro is located at Via del Boschetto 73 in the heart of Monti, a short walk from the Forum or Colosseum. Call +39 06 48913832 for reservations.

You might also like:

Twelve of My Favorite Churches in Rome

Where to Eat in Rome's Most Touristy Areas

Artisanal Beer, Pizza, Fritti, and Steak—In One Place

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How to Ruin the Perfect Meal: An Open Letter to Rome Restaurants

A great meal in a Rome restaurant, gone sour

I had lunch today at a Rome restaurant I'd never eaten at before: Divinare, a chic (and cleverly-named) wine bar in Testaccio. The food was delicious, from a pasta with fiori di zucca and guanciale (above) to a super-fresh and gourmet salad.

But I can't recommend Divinare to hungry travelers. And boy, is that frustrating.

It's not that they did anything that I haven't seen a hundred times before. But I'm just too sick of it by now to put up with it any more, even the smallest instances of it.

Familiar with Rome's food scene? Then you know where I'm going with this.

Like one of my favorite restaurants in Rome, L'Asino d'Oro, Divinare has a lunch special: 13 euros for a primo, glass of wine, water, and coffee. Not a bad deal. And there's no mistake that that was supposed to be the total; the menu clearly says "servizio e coperto incluso" (service and cover included). My companion and I even commented to each other how much we liked the rare sight of a restaurant that didn't charge coperto.

He ordered the special; I had a 10 euro salad. We also ordered the (included) water for him, plus one for me, asking for due acque piccole. Our very polite and friendly server, who also may have been the owner, brought one large water instead. That made sense. He also brought bread. This made sense, too.

What didn't make sense? Our bill. Thirteen euros for the menu (correct). Ten euros for the salad (yep). A charge for my coffee (fine). Plus… a charge for the whole bottle of water, plus a 2 euro "pane" charge (wait, what?).

It was a difference of three or four euros. Still, I didn't understand where it came from. We should have been charged for half of the one large bottle of water, and for no "bread and cover" at all. When we said something, the server/(owner?) tried to "explain" to us how Rome restaurants charge for bread separately. Yes, we said, but if you bring the bread without us ordering it, which you did, it seems that would be part of the "coperto" charge. Which should be included.

And what about the water? Oh, he said, it's always tough to figure out these things when one person gets the full menu and one person doesn't. (Really? It seems pretty simple: Just charge for half the two-person bottle).

To be fair, he was nice about it. He knocked the charges off for us. And, for all I know, he always charges for "bread," the lack of clarity on the menu is an honest mistake, and nobody else has ever said anything. It's definitely possible.

But, needless to say, we still left a delicious meal with a bad taste in our mouths. And what a shame that is.

I don't mean to lay all the blame on Divinare. Because here's the thing. This "tacking on" of extra, not-quite-corretto charges happens all the time. Food blogger Katie Parla has written about the selective service charge at Grano that's applied to tourists only, and she just wrote about how Roma Sparita has started sneaking a 15% servizio onto tourists' bills, although their menu clearly says service is included. Similarly, Roma Sparita didn't charge me for service or coperto in June, proving their sometimes-charge is an unfair sleight-of-hand for unsuspecting tourists that's led me to update my own blog post about Roma Sparita accordingly. At other restaurants, waiters lean over when tourists are paying to "remind" them that service wasn't already included on their bill (hint hint hint!).

As for most others I've spoken with, it's not the automatic inclusion of a charge, whether servizio or pane e coperto, that bothers me. It's the shady way that it's never clear if it's going to be added or not—even when the menu seems to make it so clear. And it's the way that it seems to be targeted primarily at English speakers, although Italians can feel free to correct me on this point.

So look, Rome restaurants: I have a request. For the love of your own business, cut the bullshit. Please. You know what's fair and what's not. Charging for bread, when it was brought to a table without being ordered and the menu says coperto incluso, is shady. Charging for a large bottle of water for two people, when one person was supposed to get their water included, is not right. Charging some people service, when the menu says servizio incluso, is not okay. But what's crazy is that you already know that. And guess what? So do many of your clients!

Sure, all of this is small-change stuff. Three or four extra euros is hardly the end of the world. But, when it comes to restaurants with great reputations like Roma Sparita and Divinare, that's part of what blows my mind the most. You'd really rather go to the trouble of making a client an amazing meal and still risk them leaving less than 100% thrilled with their experience… just for the sake of some pocket change?

And, dear restaurants, here's something else you need to keep in mind. You might think that, if your client is a tourist who's in Rome for a day, it doesn't really matter if they love your food or think the bill is fair. But guess what? Tourists, too, have brains, friends… and access to TripAdvisor and Chowhound. Plus, with smartphones and iPads becoming more and more prevalent, future would-be clients now can access lousy reviews online more and more easily while they travel.

Not to mention that, every once in a while, that "tourist" happens to be a Rome-based blogger, travel journalist, or guidebook writer. Or even all three.

So please. You're smart people. You've figured out how to start a business in one of the world's most challenging countries for entrepreunership, not to mention a food establishment in one of the most restaurant-saturated cities on earth. So you tell me. Is it really worth the small change?

For more on the frustrations of Rome's food scene, check out my earlier piece on the demise of Rome restaurants like Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, which go downhill as soon as they hit it big.

It's also useful to know how not to get ripped off eating at restaurants in Italy—this is a post to print and bring with you on your trip (or download from your smartphone).

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Where to Eat in Rome’s Most Touristy Areas

The best restaurants right at Rome’s tourist sites, including near the Pantheon, Spanish Steps, and Colosseum.

Food at Palatium, a great restaurant near the Spanish Steps

I’ve said it before: When you’re looking for good restaurants in Rome, get thee away from the city’s tourist centers. The farther from the Colosseum, Pantheon, or Spanish Steps you are, the better and cheaper — in general — the food is going to be.

That said? Sometimes, after a day of sightseeing, your feet are just too tired, or your stomach too darn loud, to walk the extra 20 minutes, or wait for the bus, that’s required to wind up in a less hit-or-miss food zone like Testaccio. But that doesn’t mean all is lost.

Here, suggestions for where to eat in Rome’s most touristy locales. Even if they won’t all blow your mind (although some will), they’re reliably good food, good value, and within a 5-minute walk from the given site. (Just to make sure, I used the ever-objective Google maps to see how long “walking directions” took).

To help you visualize how close these really are to Rome’s major sites, here’s a helpful map of them all. Print it all out to save your feet, and your stomach, when you’re in Rome.

This post covers where to eat when you’re at the Spanish Steps, Colosseum, or the Pantheon. (Above: An awesome mozzarella-di-bufala-egg-combination thing from Palatium, a top spot near the Spanish Steps).

Look for an upcoming post on where to eat when at the Vatican, Trevi Fountain, or Piazza Navona!

Where to eat at… the Colosseum

Taverna dei Quaranta. Via Claudia 24, a 3-minute walk from the Colosseum. I didn’t quite believe it when a friend of mine said that this place was any good. But then I went. And it is. Despite being located just 2 minutes’ further down the road than all of the terrible, touristy places that directly overlook the Colosseum, Taverna dei Quaranta is a different story. The cacio e pepe here is fantastic, the spaghetti alle vongole tasted super-fresh, and a pasta alla norma (with eggplants, tomato and salted ricotta) decided my next return for me. The restaurant also offers traditional Roman secondi (oxtail, fried baccalà), a pizza menu, and, my friend says, a kick-ass tiramisu. At about €8 for a pasta, the prices are also good for the area. +3906 7000550, www.tavernadeiquaranta.com/en. Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Pizza from Trattoria Luzzi, a good restaurant near the Colosseum

Trattoria Luzzi. Via di San Giovanni in Laterano 88, a 5-minute walk from the Colosseum (and a 1-minute walk from the Basilica of San Clemente). As I’ve written before, Luzzi isn’t the best food you’ll eat in Rome — but it is some of the cheapest and, thanks to its nutty waiters, the most fun. Its amatriciana or fettucine alla bolognese are reliably okay… and both set you back just €5.50. The pizza (above) is also very good, although don’t order it at lunch: The official pizza chef isn’t on then, so what comes out instead is a sad excuse for a Roman pie. Another bonus? Unlike many of the places in this quarter, the guys at Luzzi don’t try to screw you. That said, I’ve noticed more complaints about rudae service at Trattoria Luzzi, and had one bad experience so far myself — but it seems always to be from people sitting indoors, and at dinner only. For the best experience, grab an outside seat. +39 06 7096332‎. Open for lunch and dinner every day except for Wednesday.

Li Rioni. Via dei SS. Quattro Coronati 24, a 5-minute walk from the Colosseum (and a 2-minute walk from the Basilica of San Clemente). One of Rome’s better pizzerias, this is also a local favorite, a place that’s filled (and loud) with Italian families and babies by 9pm. (Come at 7pm, of course, and you’ll see mostly tourists). The pizzas are how Romans do them — crispy, thin and piled with fresh ingredients — and cheap, to boot.The service can be a little spotty, especially on busy Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, but it’s all part of the fun. The name “Li Rioni,” by the way, comes from the fact that the pizzeria is right on the border of two of Rome’s famed rioni, or quarters — Monti and Celio. +39 06 70450605. Open for dinner only every day but Tuesday.

Where to eat at… the Spanish Steps

The Via della Croce pastificio (lunch only). Via della Croce 8, a 1-minute walk from the Spanish Steps. Time your sightseeing to land you in the Spanish Steps area between 1pm and 2pm, and lunch is all set. That’s because that’s when a pasta shop, located a stone’s throw from the famous staircase, starts offering “samples” — i.e., big trays — of hot, handmade pasta. The price, with water and wine included? Just 4 euros. Check out my previous blog post on the Spanish Steps pasta shop for more info. Open for lunch every weekday.

Palatium, a great restaurant near the Spanish Steps in Rome

Palatium. Via Frattina 94, a 5-minute walk from the Spanish Steps. I’ve sung the praises of Palatium elsewhere before, and with good reason. A foodie favorite, Palatium is run by the Lazio Regional Food Authority—which, while it might not sound sexy, means that all of the ingredients are home-grown in Rome’s Lazio region. The menu, which changes frequently, features Rome favorites with a twist, like ricotta-and-mint ravioli. The prices are great for the quality, with pastas around €10 and mains €15. Just keep in mind that this isn’t your traditional, checkered-tablecloth trattoria (photo above). +39 06 69202132, reservations recommended. Open for lunch and dinner every day but Sunday.

Enoteca Antica. Via della Croce 76, a 3-minute walk from the Spanish Steps. This isn’t the best value you’ll find in Rome, but it is one of your best bets if you don’t want to stray from the Spanish Steps (if you can’t get in at Palatium, that is). A wine bar and restaurant, the atmosphere is lovely, there’s outdoor seating, the food ranges from fine to good, and the prices aren’t terrible. Just make sure you double-check your bill: Several recent clients have noted that staff has been sneaking in higher prices than the menu calls for. Never hesitate to point out any mistakes you see, and to be firm. +39 6 6790896. Open for lunch and dinner every day.

Where to eat at… the Pantheon

The torta at Armanda al Pantheon, a good restaurant at the Pantheon

Armando al Pantheon. Salita de’ Crescenzi 31, less than a minute’s walk from the Pantheon. Since 1961, Armando’s has been serving up traditional, Roman dishes right next to the Pantheon — and he’s been making it in the guidebooks, too. The constant mentions of Armando’s make it all the more surprising that both the food, and prices, remain good. Look for pasta e ceci (pasta with chickpeas) on Fridays, and don’t miss the damn-good torta antica Roma (above) to finish everything off. +39 06 68803034. Open for lunch and dinner all week except for Saturday night and Sunday.

Trattoria da Gino. Vicolo Rosini 4, a 5-minutes’ walk from the Pantheon. Hidden on a side street north of the Pantheon, near the Parliament building, da Gino is authentic Roman cuisine at its best. The handmade pastas are excellent, as is the antipasto spread. Since it’s a tiny place and a favorite of locals, make reservations if you can. +39 06 687 3434. Open for lunch and dinner every day but Sunday. 

Trattoria da Ugo e Maria. Via dei Prefetti 19, a 5-minute walk from the Pantheon. Don’t expect a big sign welcoming you to this no-frills, family-run restaurant: The only sign says “Trattoria,” and the curtains and door are often closed. Enter, though, and you’re walking into an authentic Roman experience. The hand-written menu changes daily, pastas are handmade and prices are moderate (about €8 for a pasta). +39 06

6873752. Open for lunch and dinner every day, except Saturdays and Sundays.
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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The Demise of a Once-Good Restaurant in Rome: Taverna dei Fori Imperiali

Once my favorite Rome restaurant...

Once upon a time, I had a favorite restaurant in Rome.

This restaurant wasn't five-star. It wasn't fancy. But it was everything you'd want from a Roman trattoria: Good, fresh dishes, particularly the pastas; dad cooking in the back, kids serving out front; convenient location (a stone's-throw from the Forum!); moderate prices; checkered tablecloths.

Sadly, this is also everything tourists, understandably, would want from a Roman trattoria. And where the tourists go, the quality flees — at least here in Rome.

It's a sad story. But it's not a unique one.

In fact, you see it again and again in Rome: A place becomes a local favorite. Then someone writes it up. Then it winds up in a guidebook. Then, just as the deluge of tourists really starts, once the place has really made it, once you'd think the owners might work all the harder to maintain that success and re-invest and be creative… that's exactly when the quality slumps. The cooks change. The servers get surlier. The food gets worse. And the prices go up.

I never thought I'd say this about the restaurant that, even a year ago, made me wax poetic about truffle ragu and eggplant, the one where I took every single guest who visited, the one I could count on to be easy on the palate and (almost) as easy on the wallet. But Taverna dei Fori Imperiali has, it seems, taken the same path as countless Roman restaurants before it.

The seeds of demise probably were planted back in 2006, when Frank Bruni wrote it up in a glowing restaurant review for the New York Times. (A "real find," he wrote). The taverna started doing so well that it changed locations, moving into a tonier and bigger spot (like the old place, right across from the Forum). Other reviewers started writing it up, too, including myself — I included it as a pick for lunch my article for the Guardian last summer, "Eat Like a Local in Rome." When that article came out, the food was still great, the price still good, and the place was still packed nightly with lots of tables of Italians. (Almost always a good sign).

But over the next few months, the menu changed. The prices rose; no longer was I shelling out 25 euros for a dinner, but 30. Thirty-five. I could understand that — hey, the place was getting popular — but the pastas, usually so delicious, seemed to lack a certain something. Still, I had to give them credit: I never saw the restaurant without Dad cooking in the back, either his son and daughter serving clients themselves, just like always.

In the meantime, the restaurant climbed to nearly the top of Tripadvisor. That's when things really seemed to change.

So, after a couple more mediocre meals there, I went back again last week. It was one last shot. I still felt like I could almost taste that first ragu I'd had here. Trust me when I say it was a taste worth fighting for.

It was lunchtime. There wasn't a single table of Italians. While the son was in the restaurant, we were served mainly by waiters I didn't recognize; the daughter was nowhere to be seen. And Dad? He was still there. But, in all my meals there, it was the first time I'd ever seen him in "civilian clothes," without his chef's hat. Nor did I see him enter the kitchen once throughout our entire meal.

Needless to say, not having the same cook, the one who before had seemed so proud of making his creations personally, is a big change. And, of course, chefs don't remain chefs forever. They train new cooks. They move on. They retire. It's understandable.

But here's the thing: This was a change we could taste. And it wasn't good.

My companion and I ordered a starter of liver patè. The patè was fine… the toast it was slathered on, burnt. The cost? Eight euros.

Well, on to the pastas, always Taverna's fortè. Portions seemed to have shrunk. The main menu's puttanesca (9 euros) was fine, but nothing particularly special. I had a carbonara that was served lukewarm, salty, and seemed to be swimming in liquid — uncooked egg? Fantastic. Not the worst food, or even the worst carbonara, that I've had. But definitely not great, especially for 13 euros.

The bill — which came with a receipt only when we asked, and not with a smile — with water, no wine, came to about 18 euros each. Not terrible. But not worth it.

(And let me just say it kills me to write that. Oh, Taverna! How I once loved you! How I wish I still could!)

It's a sad tale. But I share it because it's also a cautionary tale. And I think we can all learn from what it tells us: If you're visiting Rome and trying to figure out the best local places to eat, don't rely on TripAdvisor, don't rely on guidebooks, and don't even rely on articles written more than 6 months ago. As even Anthony Bourdain said in his "No Reservations" Rome episode, to "out" a restaurant as being good, to expose its brilliance to the masses, is to kill it.

And in Rome, that happens quickly. So quickly that you have to let go of that memory of aromatic, delicious, heartstrings-pulling ragu… and go in search of a new favorite restaurant to replace it.

(Anyone have suggestions?)

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Can’t Find a Favorite Italian Dish in Rome? Here’s Why

Neapolitan pizza margherita, Naples The short answer: The dish either isn’t Roman — or it’s not Italian.

Food culture in Italy is extraordinarily regional. So, particularly at local, non-touristy restaurants, you won’t find the same cuisine in Rome that you would in Bologna, Florence, or Venice. In Rome — or at least at Roman restaurants — you won’t find risotto (Milan and the north) or thick-crust pizza (Naples and the south), for example. (Yes, that means that pizza as good as the one in the picture above won’t exist just anywhere in Italy!)

While that has downsides, I, for one, tend to think that’s pretty cool. It makes the experience of traveling around Italy even richer and more rewarding. It also helps provide that the food you eat is made in a way that’s been time-tested by the same locals serving it up to you. And it helps ensure that those recipes use fresh, local ingredients.

On top of that, though, though, there are some foods that you could comb all of Italy for and still not find. Except, of course, in the kinds of restaurants that dish up mediocre, microwaved food at inflated prices… to tourists and tourists alone.

Why? Because these foods aren’t Italian. They’re Italian-American.

What dishes do I mean? Here’s a list of five Italian dishes that people expect, but will find much more easily in Chicago or New York than Italy.

1. Lobster fra’ diavolo. This was served for the first time in New York City in 1908 — and using Maine lobsters! Don’t expect to find the dish, which features lobster in a red sauce (sometimes spicy, sometimes not), while you’re in Italy.  

Instead try: pasta all’arrabbiata, pasta with a Roman sauce of tomatoes and red chili peppers that make it “angry” (hence the name arrabbiata). Peperoncino, or red chili peppers, used in fra' diavolo and pasta arrabbiata Like hot pepper? Don’t worry: There’s no end of ways to make your eyes stream in Italian cuisine.

2. Chicken or veal parmesan. Nope, not Italian. What is Italian, or at least southern Italian, is melanzane alla parmigiana, or what we know (roughly) as “eggplant parm” — eggplant fried and layered with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and parmesan, then baked. Using meat instead, and throwing it on top of pasta, was an invention of Italian immigrants in the United States and Canada.

As with most Italian-American cuisine, chicken and veal parm probably came about as a way to show how much more Italian immigrants could suddenly afford in the New Country. Back home, most subsisted on cheap foods like polenta and black bread in brine. (Have you seen that at your local Olive Garden? Didn’t think so.) After all, meat and pasta were expensive. But now, with their newfound American wealth, these same peasants and laborers could write back home and say Hey, guess what we cooked, parmigiana made with veal! And served with pasta!

Thus, chicken and veal “parmesan” — and lots of other meat-and-pasta dishes besides — were born.

Instead try: If you’re in Sicily or the south, melanzane alla parmigiana.

3. Spaghetti and meatballs. This, of course, is the Big Daddy of all Italian-American dishes. It comes from the same idea you saw with chicken parm: two symbols of prosperity, together in one dish. This was also a dish that, as early as the 1920s, was specifically — and erroneously — marketed to Americans as Italian. (So if you thought it was authentic Italian, you’re in good company!)

An Italian ragu Warning: In Italy, this (delicious!) dish is probably as close as you’ll get to spaghetti and meatballs.

Instead try: Hitting your meat and pasta notes separately, such as by ordering a pasta all’amatriciana (a Roman pasta with a red sauce of tomatoes and guanciale) and, if you can find them, separate polpettine di carne (meatballs).

Bent on combining lots of meat with lots of pasta? Your best bet will be a Tuscan or Umbrian ragù — but, with very little or no tomato and lots of minced-up meat, onion, celery, and carrot, it’s not the sauce you’re probably thinking of! If you’re in Bologna, definitely try pasta alla bolognese, but steel yourself here, too: It may be redder than an Umbrian ragù, but still uses lots of meat and only a little bit of tomato paste. (In other words, it ain’t like the bolognese back home).

4. Garlic bread. The whole idea of smothering bread in either olive oil or butter with lots of garlic was invented in the U.S. in the 1940s, if not before. A similar version is known in Europe, too… in Romania.

Instead try: bruschetta al pomodoro, toasted bread, often rubbed with a bit of garlic (but not nearly what you see with garlic bread!), then piled with tomatoes and some extra virgin olive oil.

5. Olive oil to dip your bread into. It’s just not done in Italy, partly for the reasons I once wrote about in “Eleven Etiquette Mistakes (Not) to Make at an Italian Meal.” In short, you’re supposed to use your bread while you’re eating to mop up the sauce, not eat it before the food arrives. And, secondly, the flavor of olive oil is broken down by light and heat — the two things it’ll be exposed to if it’s just sitting on your table.

Instead try: mopping up your sauce with the bread, and enjoying olive oil as it appears on the other dishes.

Also: my favorite trattorias in Rome, where to find the best gelato and how to pack for any season.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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Taverna Trilussa: Pasta Done Right, but for a Price

Review of the restaurant Taverna Trilussa, a well-known pasta restaurant in Trastevere in Rome, Italy.

Taverna Trilussa, restaurant in Rome

I'd heard many good things about Taverna Trilussa, tucked just behind Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere, before I went. Even from discussion boards on one of Rome's pickier, and (to chefs) more forboding, foodie sites.

I wasn't disappointed. Taverna Trilussa's pasta truly is traditional Roman, done the best it can be. But there's a price to pay.

First, there's the actual price. For a restaurant that touts itself as being "traditional Roman," the prices sure aren't. A pasta amatriciana, easily found elsewhere for €8, costs you €14 here. A bottle of wine, two pastas, and a secondo of oxtail, all on the cheaper-to-moderate side of the menu, rang the tab for two up to €73. That's without antipasti, dessert, or even coffee.

Second, there's the issue of atmosphere. This isn't a problem if you reserve a table outdoors: The large patio area is draped with ivy, romantically-lit, and a lovely spot for a summer meal. The interior, though, isn't nearly as charming. Big enough that its size seems warranted more for a cafeteria than a Roman taverna, its lighting was the real issue. It's not as bad as some Roman restaurants that seem to think flood-lighting and American 90s pop music are the keys to a Zagat-rated ambiance. But I did find myself squinting after coming in from outside, not the best introduction to a restaurant's interior.

Finally, there's the service. I was there on a relatively quiet Thursday night during ferragosto, and although the waiter took our order promptly, he didn't return for another half an hour. Neither did any of our food.  Coda alla vaccinara at Taverna Trilussa.

But if you don't get bogged down by the details,  the reward can be worth it. After our tummy- rumblingly-long wait, the pasta that emerged, brought out in the metal pans in which it was cooked (a little hokey, but hey, shows it's freshly made), was very good. I had pasta amatriciana, one of the restaurant's specialties. The sauce was just-right (not undersalted! yay!), with fresh, plump tomatoes and perfectly al dente pasta. My dining companion had the restaurant's apparently much-renowned ravioli mimosa. It was also yummy, although we had to laugh at how the menu had made it sound like it had a top-secret ingredient — really, it's just egg in the sauce. (Well. I think.) By the time our coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) came, piping-hot and falling off the bone, we were so stuffed we had to force ourselves to partake. Somehow, though, we managed. 

Taverna Trilussa. Via del Politeama 23, in Trastevere. For a map, click here.

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Eight Tips When Planning a Trip to Rome

If you don't think about what time of year you're coming, you might end up here during ferragosto. Goodbye, shopping and fine dining!

Yes, your passport’s important. But that’s not what I mean. As much as many people seem to plan their trips to Rome down to the detail, there are some mistakes that can be easy to make… from using TripAdvisor for restaurants to coming during ferragosto. Below, eight items to keep in mind while planning a trip to Rome.

1. Bring your student ID. If you’re a university student, bring your I.D. card with you. It’s true that this gets you fewer discounts than it does in more student-friendly countries like, say, Greece, but it does get you a discount at the Vatican (€8 instead of €15) and can come in handy elsewhere, too. If you’re an E.U. citizen, also make sure to bring an I.D. with you whenever you’re sightseeing: You lucky Europeans get discounts at almost all of Rome’s sites, including the Colosseum, forum, and Borghese Gallery.Everything's closed during ferragosto... so don't come then!

2. Don’t come in July or August Think about what time of year you’re coming. Yes, little Johnny gets the summer off from school. But so do everybody else’s kids, so this is when the hotels are full (and pricey), the Colosseum’s packed, and you have to stand on tiptoes to get a look at the Vatican’s Laocoön. Not to mention that it’s hot, sweaty, and in August, Romans celebrate ferragosto — meaning that the city’s best restaurants and family-run shops are closed. (For proof, see photo above). Scheduling limitations are understandable. But if there’s any way to sweep away to Rome in June, or better yet, spring break, fall, or Christmas, you’ll have a much more relaxing, rewarding experience. Little Johnny will thank you.

3. Do your restaurant research… Understandably, a lot of people come to Rome and think, “All these restaurants serve Italian food. They MUST all be good!” Sadly, that’s not the case. You would wind up eating in a tourist trap if you showed up at Times Square hungry and confused (I know I have…), and you will wind up having the same experience in Rome. Not might. Will. It’s a tourism-based city, and lots of restaurants take advantage of that, shoveling their customers terrible, microwaved food along with a gut-wrenching bill.

So if you’re spending any amount of time thinking about what museums and sites you want to see in Rome (and who doesn’t?), then do yourself a favor: Use some of that time to think about where you’ll eat, too. You’ll be spending at least two hours a day dining, three or four if you’re doing it the Italian way.  You don’t want to feel like those hours, or euros, are wasted.

4. …but don’t do your restaurant research on TripAdvisor. Yes, TripAdvisor is good for some things. It is not good for restaurant recommendations, at least here in Rome. It’s too easy to play the system — aggressively asking clients to post 5-star reviews, having cousins and siblings put up fake reviews, etc. I’m not casting any aspersions on the restaurants that are listed as Rome’s “best” on TripAdvisor. But. Suffice it to say that I’ve never heard of most of the TripAdvisor top-15 (Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, a local favorite, and Babbo’s, which is pretty good for the value, aside), among anyone claiming to be a “foodie” or even “very enthusiastic eater.” And those restaurants have never, ever come up as recommendations to me from any Roman or expat friends in all the times I’ve asked.

But the bad news continues. Also be wary of guidebooks, since as with all restaurant scenes, things change quickly here in Rome, and guidebook-info is often at least a year behind. (Not to mention that as soon as a restaurant winds up in a guidebook, it often starts resting on its laurels). For proof, just check out my post on Ristorante Montevecchio. In 2007, it had a glowing review from NPR. But three years is a long, long time in the dining world.

If you do your research, you can have pizza like this. Formula Uno, RomeSo what do you do? Well, research elsewhere — preferably in recent newspaper articles like, okay, mine, and on good Rome-food websites like Katie Parla’s www.parlafood.com. I’ll also be adding more and more restaurants to the “Food and Drink” part of this site, so stay tuned.

5. Think ahead of time about taking a tour. Because if you’re interested in the concept at all, what will happen is this: You’ll get to the Colosseum. You’ll see the line. Some nice-looking 20-something holding a clipboard will stop you and say “Hey, do you speak English? Do you want to skip this twenty-three-hour line?” And before you know it, you’ll be hustled into a tour that, well, might get mixed reviews, to put it nicely.

Instead, do your research in advance and think about what you might want to take a tour of. (The Vatican can overwhelm visitors, and those companies worth their salt arrange for you to skip the line; the Forum can seem like a pile of rubble without a knowledgeable guide; an evening city walk can help you get your bearings). Then book it. Done. You don’t have to think about it again — nor do you have to get swept into a group of 50 with a barely-English-speaking guide, all because you didn’t book a well-researched company in advance.

6. If making a strict itinerary, know your closing dates. I never fail to be saddened — and surprised — by the number of visitors who come to the Vatican Vatican museums on Sunday, expecting to waltz right in. Why do these downtrodden hordes surprise me? Because the Vatican museums (including the Sistine Chapel and Raphael rooms, of course) are always closed on Sunday. (Except for the last Sunday of the month, when it’s free, but that means the line snakes for miles and miles, so….).

If you’re planning your sites day by day, make sure you know what will be open when. If you can’t find out opening dates for a museum/restaurant/site through a quick search online, give them a call on Skype. Also, remember that if you want to go to the Borghese Gallery (and you should! It’s lovely!), you must reserve in advance.

7. Don’t get a RomaPass. Necessarily. A lot of visitors do this ahead of time because it seems like a great idea: Once you activate it, your first two entries to sites are free, the rest are discounted, and you get free public transport, for three days. Sounds pretty great, right?

Before you spring for it, though, consider which sites you’ll be going to first — and if “skipping the line” is worth it. (The only RomaPass site that tends to have a long line is the Colosseum). A RomaPass costs €25. Let’s say you’re coming to Rome and you’re doing a Colosseum tour with a company that lets you cut the line. So instead, you immediately do the Capitoline museums (€7.50 saved) and the Palazzo Barberini (€5 saved), neither of which have lines that I’ve ever seen. In the next three days, you would have to take the bus or metro six times and hit up three more sites that charge you entry for the card to even pay for itself. (Are you even going to three more sites that charge you entry? Most top spots, including the Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, St. Peter’s Basilica, and other churches, don’t have an entry fee. Plus, the RomaPass does not include the Vatican museums, a €15 entry).

You also don’t have to buy a RomaPass in advance: If you decide you want to buy one once you get here, you can purchase it from any of the ticket desks of the participating sites or from ticket desks at some metro stops, including Termini, Spagna and Ottaviano.

For a RomaPass FAQ, click here; for a list of the museums it includes and their respective discounts, click here.DSC_0103

8. Forget the traveler’s cheques. Or, at least, don’t go too crazy: They’re nice insurance, but can be way more of a hassle than they’re worth. Bringing a big wad of cash and expecting to change it when you get here is a bad idea, too, only because any of the money-exchange places you find will give you a “you-must-be-kidding” (and not in a good way) kind of rate.

Easier: Bring a couple of ATM cards and use them when you get here. (At least one will work. Really.) For bigger purchases, use a credit card, like Visa’s CapitalOne, that doesn’t bang you with a surcharge for international fees. Both options will give you the “High Street” exchange rate, not the rate that some guy with a storefront and some pretty currency symbols came up with.

Just remember two things. First: Credit cards are accepted far less often in Italy than they are in other countries, including the U.S. and U.K., so you should always have cash on hand. Second: To be on the safe side, make sure you call your bank and credit card companies in advance to inform them that you are going abroad, so charges that they see won’t be the nefarious workings of some Roman scam artist.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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