talians love children. It’s about the only truth not up for debate in an otherwise argumentative society. Fortunately, this love (and tolerance) extends to eating and being fed. Restaurants will never raise eyebrows at a family with children in tow. Kids are welcome even in the most posh eateries. In fact, most establishments have an ample supply of high chairs, usually crafted in the same style as “grown-up” seating often with a plush cushion to boot.
North American-style children’s menus don’t exist in Italy, but there are still plenty of ways to craft an appropriate meal. For starters, you can work with your waiter, usually a fairly easy task since meeting a child’s sometimes fussy dietary needs is part of knowing how to speak “kid” language, which Italians are more fluent in than most. Most places will gladly produce mezza porzione (half portions) of kid-friendly foods and assure that your child’s order is sent to the kitchen first.
That said, a few words to the wise:
First: Though Italian dining hours have become more flexible in recent years, they don’t cover the customer-oriented “what you want, when you want it” North American norm (same goes for special dietary needs). Few are the restaurants that serve a full-service dinner at 7 p.m. (7:30 is usually the start time for a family meal). If you’re looking for a sit-down family meal before 6 p.m. expect it only at a cafe table or a fast-food spot. Pre-noon lunch is also uncommon, with most Italians (and their kids) taking only coffee breaks before the start of lunch, usually about 1 p.m. at the earliest. The hours between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. are dead to dining, since the Rome work day extends to 8 p.m., with dinner coming afterwards. Once again, a local cafe (known generically as “bars” in Italy) is your best bet in mid- to late afternoon.
Second: Take-out is still a rarity in Italy, though some places will do their best to bundle up leftovers. But over-ordering assuming you can take it home is a bad idea, and that includes pizza. Eat only what you’re up for at any given meal.
Finally, if you’re on a summer trip, remember that air conditioning isn’t a sure thing (part of the reason Rome residents dine after 9 p.m. in the hot months). Some places have it, many don’t. If your kids complain, bribe them with two sure things: pizza… and gelato.
Here’s my shortlist of best child-friendly places in Rome.
— Hostaria Buccilli Buccilli is a typical country trattoria with homey food and a welcoming family atmosphere. Buccilli’s kiddy plus is a large and pleasant garden, where soccer and tag tournaments are strongly encouraged (while parents enjoy their lunch under the garden-front shady pergola or the sunlit veranda). In winter, ask Alberto to book you a table in the smaller room by the huge fireplace barbecue, away from the louder crowds. From there you can watch you grilled meats and porcini being cooked. Via dei Due Ponti, 48 (Northern Rome). Tel. 06.334.0048. Closed Monday.
— Nonna Betta Let your kids to go crazy on an entire meal of deep-fried morsels from a menu that veers away from the classic Mediterranean diet. If the season is right, you can even get a kid to love artichokes – in this case deep-fried and shaped like a flower; or a delightful layered anchovies “disguised” with white endive. Via del Portico d’Ottavia, 16 (Jewish Ghetto). Tel. 06.6880.6263. Closed Friday evening and Saturday.
— Cul de Sac Shaped like a train caboose and serving small tasty portions and sampler platters, this famous wine bar (with outside seating in summer) accommodates even the fussiest mini-gourmands. You can’t go wrong with a chunk of Parmigiano and thinly sliced prosciutto as an opener, waiting for the creative vegetable dishes, hearty soups or the commendable house baba ghanoush to perk up your child’s interest. Meanwhile, you can sip a well-deserved glass of Frascati. Piazza Pasquino, 73 (Navona). Tel. 06.6880.1094. Open daily.
— Molto Lots of stroller space in this secluded Parioli restaurant that serves up unpretentious seafood and pasta dishes you can enjoy on a garden-enclosed wooden deck. Kids under six get a discount on the impressive Sunday brunch menu, priced at €20 instead of €35. Viale Parioli, 122. Tel. 06.808.2900. Open daily.
— Acchiappafantasmi This Calabrian restaurant (the name means “ghost busters”) serves noteworthy regional specialties from the “toe of the boot” as well as pizza at lunch (rare in Rome). Their forte is a “ghost-shaped” pizza prepared to keep kids interested. There’s also classic seafood and ‘nduja spicy sausage smeared on bruschetta. Air conditioned in summer. Via dei Cappellari, 66 (Campo de’ Fiori). Tel. 06.687.3462. Closed Monday.
— Lo Scarpone It’s not uncommon to see elegantly dressed children chasing each other around the 300 tables of Lo Scarpone. The restaurant is a classic post-first communion luncheon venue. There’s plenty of outdoor seating and playing areas, as well as spacious indoor banquet rooms, and a cozy fireplace for winter dining. The menu features classic cucina romana dishes, as well as steadfast grilled meat and seafood entrees. The pizzas are baked in a wood-fired oven. My son likes the house vegetarian fettuccine, followed by a generous portion of medium-rare tagliata, thinly sliced steak. Via San Pancrazio, 15 (Gianicolo).Tel. 06.5814.094. Closed Monday.
— Paradise Beach Just north of passé Fregene is Maccarese, where families can take delight in this informal and low-key seaside day resort, with its relaxed atmosphere and exotic setting. Besides the usual beach package – sun beds, umbrellas, chairs and use of showers and changing rooms – the lido also offers several sports like beach volley, soccer and kite-surf. But the best thing to do at Paradise Beach is bask in the sunlight, eating frittura mista, or slurping up spaghetti alle vongole and fresh fruit platters. There’s also a nice bar that serves sunset aperitivo on the terrace, graced on Sundays by a lavish free buffet of seafood preparations, light pastas, tapas and drinks served between 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., perfect for an early (and thrifty) dinner, getting you back home for the kids’ bedtime. Via Monti dell’Ara, 425 (Maccarese). Tel. 06.667.1451. Open daily and year round.