A few nights ago I attended a fun Vietnamese cooking class. It felt good to get out of the house, hang out with girlfriends, sip wine and, learn new exotic recipes. Mostly, it was great to blast some energy back to my cucina romana-dazed taste buds.
Most Rome restaurants serve local cuisine. Many are below average, some are decent, a few even stellar. But after the nth plate of cacio e pepe my palate starts begging for variety. That’s when I shrug in the face of guanciale, and turn all my attention to papadum.
Yet Rome’s expats (mostly the American ones) haven’t had much to cheer about over the years, particularly if they once lived in cities brimming with ethnic options like New York, L.A. or Chicago. Ever the optimists, they’ve continued wandering city streets in search of decent surrogates. Recently, there’s been a growth spurt in quality international cuisine. Applause.
When I tire of the pecorino-encrusted walls of my Roman comfort zone, here are some of the places I head for.
JAPAN/Zuma Located in posh and revamped Palazzo Fendi, newly opened Zuma occupies two floors with extensive views of Rome from a beautiful roof terrace. The cuisine is inspired by the informal style of “izakaya” dining (dishes designed to be shared at the table family style) and offers original and untraditional Japanese cuisine. • Open lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday | Zuma , Via della Fontanella di Borghese, 48. Tel. +39.06.9926.6622.
AFRICA/Mesob Ethiopian restaurant Mesob offers a wide selection of spicy meaty or vegetarian entrees to get your “injera” on. Piccante-lovers will applaud the delicious “zighinì.” Equally commendable is the “gored gored” (a raw beef dish). On Saturday you can participate in weekly coffee rituals. Affordable, with impeccable service. • Open lunch and dinner Tue.-Sun. Cash only | Mesob , Via Prenestina, 118. Tel. +39.338.251.1621.
MIDDLE EAST/Shawarma Station Lebanese-Egyptian cuisine in a cafeteria-style setting. Clean, affordable and delicious. Good quality meats on the doner kebab stations and well prepared falafel, kofta, hummus and couscous. • Open daily lunch and dinner | Shawarma Station, Via Merulana, 271. Tel. +39.06.488.1216. No website.
MIDDLE EAST/Ali Babà I have often traversed the city to get to what Romans colloquially call “il kebabbaro dell’Arco di Travertino.” The house lamb and chicken doner kebabs, and Ali Babà’s delicious falafel and homemade hummus are phenomenal. This is probably the only place in Rome that cooks and serves food around the clock. Good value for money, top-notch ingredients and friendly service, even at 4 a.m. • Open 24/7 | Alì Babà, Via Carroceto, 96. Tel. +39.328.453.9525. No website.
INDIA/Janta Fast Food I’m a total Indian food ignorant. I usually rely on my well-traveled expert friends to make Indian dinner reservations, but I always leave unimpressed. If I were to pick, I’d be content with the samosas, biryani and curries, lentil stews, or vegetarian/vegan dishes sold for pennies at this Indian cafeteria and takeaway joint off of Piazza Vittorio. No tablecloths and food served out of metal trays, but unbeatable flavor and courtesy. • Open daily 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. | Janta Fast Food , Via Mamiani, 11. Tel. +39.06.446.0792.
KOREA/Galbi An authentic Korean barbecue restaurant that uses oak coals on its grill, a novelty for Rome. Fresh seafood, nice “kimchi” and other fermented goodies, plus the traditional Korean barbecued meats are musts not be overlooked. • Open lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat. | Galbi , Via Cremera, 21. Tel. +39. 06.884.2132
CHINA/Green T Chic and exclusive Green T is every Chinese food lover’s happy place. Opened by an Italian entrepreneur and his phenomenally talented Chinese wife, Green T serves probably the city’s best Peking duck, traditionally in three dishes: steamed skin, soup and meat. The steamed, salted, or fried dumplings are habit forming. Superb main courses. Vast selection of teas, too. • Open lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat. | Green T , Via Piè di Marmo, 28. Tel. +39.06.679.8628.
MEXICO/Tacos and Beer Matchbox-size Tacos and Beer was just what Rome was missing: a true Mexican street food joint serving unpretentious quality food. The burritos are thumbs up worthy, and though portions are contained, the quality of ingredients more than makes up for it. Contemporary Mexican art on the walls, competent staff and rum, tequila and mezcal cocktails complete the setting. • Open daily for lunch and dinner. | Tacos and Beer , Via del Boschetto, 130. Tel. +39.06.9437.5366.
U.S.A./Mr. Doyle’s Barbecue If you miss a good old cookout meal, juicy pulled pork, sticky spare ribs, real deal barbecue sauce and craft beer, this is where to go. Authentic smoke BBQ delivers fine slow cooked quality meats, like the F*cking Doyle sandwich, which is packed with pork belly, tabasco, jalapenos, tomatoes, lettuce and dill pickles, served with a baked potato dripping cheddar cheese. They also do whiskey tastings and cater events with a cute food truck called Lella. • Open daily 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. | Mr. Doyle’s Barbecue , Via Massaciuccoli, 66. Tel. +39.06.6481.6085.
BRAZILIAN-JAPANESE FUSION/Samba Maki Brazilian saudade meets the Land of the Rising Sun. This is a thing. One of the latest culinary nouvelle vague fusion cuisines entangles the flavors and cultures of Japan and Brazil in a mix that’s hard to categorize but very likable. Don’t overlook the flaming gunkan, saudade rolls and tartares. Fine sake cocktails • Open lunch and dinner (the Prati location closes Monday; the Nomentano spot on Sunday). | Samba Maki , Viale Regina Margherita, 168. Tel. +39.06.841.5075 and Via Vittoria Colonna, 17-19. Tel. +39.06.323.5178.