t can be hard to get a word in edgewise with online foodies strutting their stuff. Or maybe it’s the edgewise that’s gotten too easy. Italy-oriented food blogs have slowly crept into the hundreds, some better than others but most all of them beating the drum loudly.
Many of their authors are right in saying that inconsistent Rome has only a handful of exceptional restaurants. At the same time, no restaurateur makes a mission out of serving inedible food. You wouldn’t know that from reading the blogosphere, which can seem in lockstep with America talk radio. Harsh judgments are a badge of honor.
I’m no foodie but I do like to eat out. The restaurants listed below are places that I’ve enjoyed over the past two years. A few of them are fairly new, others family-run old-timers. In some cases I spell out the content of dishes, in others I just mention the ingredients or focus instead on the mood of the place. English and Italian names are used interchangeably. Culinary rocket science isn’t my goal. For example, I don’t go into detail about famous Rome formulations such as carbonara and amatricana. You can do your own homework.
Booking is another matter. Once-upon-a-time, Rome reservations were limited to a few high-end places. No longer, even in a recession. Unless you’re eating pizza, call ahead. In general, busy pizzerias won’t take reservation unless you’re four or more. On any given night the better ones will keep you waiting if you arrive between 9 and 10 p.m., particularly on weekends.
Apart from this whimsical list (which is anything but comprehensive), the magazine also has several hundred other reviews, most of them in the Top Tables section. Restaurants with functioning websites (about half those in Rome) have clickable headers.
A word of caution: Online information, while entertaining to read, isn’t necessarily reliable. That’s because most owners farm out web design and content to outsiders who may know little about the place itself.
Among my favorite online statements belongs to the La Montecarlo pizzeria, whose English-language introduction revels in the word “stupefying.” Not all my favorites are especially stupefying, but most all of them will serve you a decent meal.
√ Flavio al Velevevodetto ¶ Risky to name a restaurant “I told you so,” as in “Flavio at I Told you so,” but no harm, no foul. Apparently the owner spent much of his adult life telling people he eventually intended to open an eatery, and where. Once he did, well, he told them so.
Located on a slope of Monte Testaccio, history is part of Flavio’s appeal. Inside are layers of amphora behind glass. In Roman times, Testaccio was a bustling Tiber River port, with foodstuffs moved from port to city. The amphora carrying the goods were then discarded, hence the 57-meter-high mountain of refuse atop which the Southern Comfort-style restaurant is located. A spiral staircase leads to a quaint outdoor deck overlooking a courtyard, with tables in both places as well as inside.
Food-wise, it’s heavy-duty Rome, with an emphasis on homemade pasta and fresh seafood. Waiters run down the staples (carbonara, cacio e peppe, etc.) and brief you on the day’s catch. Portions are abundant (a Fiorentina seems made for three), service excellent, atmosphere superb. When grilled tuna is the lightest thing going, you know you’re in more-is-better territory. The tripe (trippa alla romana) is a meal unto itself while the homemade tiramisu, housed in a glass, is thick and sweet.
Bottom line, it’s mood over cuisine, with both sides deeply satisfying. Expect to spend about €35-40 a head. ¶ Flavio al Velevevodetto, Via di Monte Testaccio, 97/99. Testaccio. Tel. 06.574.4194. Open daily. Major credit cards.
√ Glass ¶ Cristina Bowerman’s Michelin-starred restaurant is… gorgeous. But perspective on it can be skewed. Rave reviews in Italian publications say things like “a mirage in the otherwise desolate panorama of Trastevere” (Gambero Rosso). Trastevere desolate food-wide? Really? Then there’s the matter of comparing it to similarly stylish spots in Manhattan. Does Rome really need to imitate New York? No.
Still, what Bowerman has done, much to her credit, is create a beautiful, service-driven restaurant with delicate, above-average food (mostly her own twists on local ingredients) in a neighborhood known mostly for loud indoor and outdoor dining. Occasional overkill is the only problem. Take her beef tartar (with orange slivers, capers, tobiko, wasabi sauce and microverdure, or microvegetables). Does it taste good? Yes. Does it taste anything like a tartar? No. That said, she works hard on making tourist-troubling entrails — so-called quinto quarto — both appetizing and interesting, often adding onion and mustard tastes.
Bottom line, if you seek a stylishly upscale spot in a neighborhood otherwise filled with both wonderful and terrible eateries – reflecting the chronically chaotic flavor of Trastevere – this is, as Gambero Rosso says, your “mirage” come true. Whether you need or want mirages is another story. ¶ Glass. Vicolo Dè Cinque, 58. Trastevere. Tel. 06.5833.5903. Closed Monday. Major credit cards.
√ L’Asino d’Oro ¶ The Rome version of Orvieto’s L’Asino d’Oro opened in 2009 in blue-collar Montesacro, hardly a restaurant-friendly neighborhood. Chef Lucio Sforza’s off-the-beaten track effort didn’t work out, so off he moved to more diner-friendly digs in Monti. This city “golden ass” replaces the Orvieto original in an effort to prove that countryside cuisine can be effectively redesigned and applied to an urban setting. Sforza’s pasta and meat dishes still have a farmer’s market feel (“For the masses, flavorful, and prepared with few tricks,” he says of his cuisine). He takes delectable rustic cooking (keeping the lentils and boar, for example) and sets them in a “Clockwork Orange”-cum-Helsinki dining room. The minimalist paradise lets you taste the likes of crostini with fava-bean puree; potatoes glazed with pinoli and broccoli; veal with capers; pork ribs with cereal and beans; and caramelized sage pudding.
To keep modernity in check, the dishes are still hand-inscribed on a daily menu. There’s also an excellent and informative website. Expect to pay about €40 a head. ¶ L’Asino d’Oro. Via del Boschetto, 73. Monti. Tel. 06.4891.3832. Open daily. Major credit cards.
√ Tempio di Iside ¶ Francesco Tripodi and his wife manage this top-notch seafood “temple” near the Coliseum (off Via Labicana, the tram-boulevard that seems to run directly into the monument). Here you’ll find superb scampi, sweet shrimp and crab dishes, though the menu runs the gamut (exquisite antipasti (hot, cold, raw), with fish carpaccio and fried moscardini (baby squid) leading the way). Pasta with red shrimp (gambero rosso) and pecorino cheese confirms the wisdom of the “Gambero Rosso” guide premise, which equates shrimp with goodness. Particularly fine also is swordfish with artichokes (pesce spada con carciofi). A main course of grilled shrimp (gamberi rossi alla griglia) eaten outdoors in summer over white wine can make all seem right with the world. AC indoors, if you insist. Expect to spend €50-60 a head, depending on your wine choice. ¶ Tempio di Iside. Via Pietro Verri, 11. Center. Tel. 06.700.4741. Closed Sunday. Major credit cards.
√ Taverna dei Fori Imperiali ¶ Family-run Taverna dei Fori Imperiali is just down the street from the Roman Forum. Since Rome’s ancient district contains its share of dives, that’s not necessarily a good thing. But Fori, thankfully, is an exceptionally authentic family-run trattoria-ristorante that makes its own pasta and, when the season’s right, hauls in the best white truffles. Every “i” is dotted, in keeping with old-school trattoria tradition. Broad and hearty pappardelle are delicious both alla carbonara and con ragú. Also try casarece alla Norma (tomaro, basil, eggplant) and tagliolini cacio e peppe e zafferano (pecorino, black pepper and saffron).
Chef Alessio, of Umbrian origin, has two children working the dining room, Claudia and Aldo; both are gracious. They’ll tell you which fish to pick, which always helps. Fori serves an array of main course staples, led by the mouthwatering scaloppa all’aceto balsamico (veal scaloppini in balsamic vinegar). As for dessert, there’s always a homemade pastry. Expect to spend €30-40 a head. ¶ Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, Via Madonna dei Monti, 16. Monti. Tel. 06.679.8643. Closed Tuesday.
√ GENS ¶ Stylish GENS was kick-started by Brazilian-born Lincoln Amano, one of many to pump culinary rock’n’roll into the Monti neighborhood. Amano’s Italo-Asian approach is evident from the start. Consider cheese flan with Sardinian pecorino and fava puree; egg rigatoni in simmered in bacon, red wine, and Treviso radishes; wok-cooked red shrimp with in sesame oil and soy sauce; beef tagliata seasoned with rosemary, black pepper and pistachios; sesame tuna with capers; beef salad with potato, rosemary, radicchio and lime.
Dessert? Try cheesecake with passion fruit or white chocolate mousse with wild cherries. The place does its best to intertwine Roman fare and “foreign” flavors, with most the made-to-order conspiracies pleasantly on target. The menu generally changes biweekly, so expect the unexpected. ¶ GENS Ristorante. Via del Boschetto, 73/74. Monti. Tel. 06.4891.3832. Closed Sunday. Major credit cards.
√ Er Comparone ¶ Of Trastevere’s Comparone, Bobby Kennedy allegedly said, “Truly good the rigatoni to Severino; but good also the rest.” Either RFK had a too much grappa in 1964 or someone cooks better than they translate. Comparone is a kind of Rome anachronism that harks back to the not-so-sweet Dolce Vita 1950s (Severino was the owner at the time). The first courses are poor man’s pasta, amatriciana, carbonara, cacio e pepe, fetuccine alla Romana; the second courses no-nonsense meat, cheese, fish, lombata, ossobuco, coda alla vaccinara, pesce spada, scamorza-mozzarella in carrozza, and so on. One of the attractions is sitting under the awning that overlooks Piazza in Piscinulla (even in bad weather).
Some complain prices have risen (now €35-45 a head) and food quality dropped, which may be true. That Comparone is rarely filled up is another troubling sign. Then again, this place has survived more than half-a-century in a tough market. You take the good decades with the bad. ¶ Er Comparone. Piazza in Piscinula, 47. Trastevere. Tel. 06.581.6249. Closed Monday. Major credit cards.
√ Pizzeria La Montecarlo ¶ Superb pizza and acceptable pasta at this bustling joint on narrow Vicolo Savelli, off Corso Vittorio. The deep friend fritti, croquette di pattata (potato dumplings) and supplí (mozzarella and rice balls) may well disrupt your pizza meal, so go easy. The pizza itself is Rome-style, crispy and thin. Fueled by cheap castelli wines, the atmosphere is hokey; smarmy even — just watch what happens to women eating in groups. But that’s part of the fun. If you want true Rome kitsch, have a look at the Italian Chinglish on the website (“If you want a pizza, then tell it!”).
Tourists beware: This is one of those places where things can go well or badly (as in disappointingly), depending on the mood of the personnel on any given night. Dealing with the rush comes ahead of all else, and Rome has never been known for its customer service — unless you know the owners. Most good pizzerias depend on their Rome clientele for survival, not on the tourist flux; so don’t expect them to be looking to score guidebook points by getting around to serving you in turn. ¶ Pizzeria La Montecarlo. Vicolo Savelli 13. Center. Tel. 06.6861877. Closed Monday. Major credit cards.
√ Sitar ¶ Sitar serves average-to-above average Indian food at reasonable prices in city that does its best to trivialize ethnic eating. While most of the restaurants along Rome’s Indian Alley, Via dei Serpenti, do a similarly creditable job (or make an effort to), at least one, Maharajah, is absurdly overpriced. There’s no cover at Sitar and the 12-table dining room (down a flight of stairs) is peaceful and efficiently run. Size seems to help English-speaking owner Sundip; he has less to worry about. The Mughlai dishes focuses on staples (the chicken pakora is a treat) and Indian beers are also available. So long as you don’t assume you’re suddenly in London or Delhi, you’ll be fine. ¶ Sitar Indian Restaurant. Via Cavour, 256A. Cavour. Tel. 06.488.4004. Open daily. Major credit cards.
√ Pugliamonti ¶ This organic vegetarian restaurant (Puglia plus Monti) is artichoke heaven: Variazione di carciofi (mixed); spiedini (skewered); alla Giudia (the fried flower); alla Romana; stewed (with garlic and mint); sottaceto (pickled in vinegar); alla brace (grilled); and fritti (breaded and fried). Oh, and if those didn’t kill you, there are also artichoke ravioli in fava beans and mint sauce. Light is not the word. At the same time, chef Emanuele Dicuonzo tries his best not to make you leave feeling like a blimp. Not easy when the menu also includes add cheese cannelloni, pumpkin puree and grilled goat cheese. Dessert? Baked apple pie.
Since Rome restaurants that make a sincere effort to cover vegetarian cooking (no animal fats used) and pay attention to lactose allegories aren’t a dime a dozen, Pugliamonti is a welcome treat. All the wines are from Puglia. There’s a prix fixe menu for lunch, while a dinner tab will run you €25-30 a head. ¶ Pugliamonti. Via Urbana, 104. Monti. Tel. 06.474.2772. Open daily. Major credit cards..
√ Da Remo ¶ Testaccio’s Da Remo lets you chomp on pizza as it should be: thin, crisp, and charred at the edges. Basically doughy chocolate. But stay away from the great pizza debate — as in Naples deep dish vs. Rome thin. Fact is, early Naples pizza actually skimped on dough. People were poor and foodstuffs limited. After World War II, some pizza thickened (while the Italo-American variety got the mumps).
The pies here actually have a human dimension, in that you can finish an entire Margherita at Da Remo. It’s that thin. “Topless” Pizza Bianca is a popcorn-style delight. Like many pizza joints, this is very much a make-your-own-topping establishment. It’s also allergic to quiet. You come, order, shout, eat. Consider going easy on the appetizers (fritti, et al), lest you use up available pizza space.
Expect to pay €15-20 a head and be prepared to wait for a table. Da Remo is great for after a movie or late night. Open until 1 a.m. (Don’t even think about takeout on leftovers; won’t happen). ¶ Pizzeria Da Remo. Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice, 44. Testaccio. Tel. 06.574.6270. Closed Sunday. Major credit cards.
√ Né Arte Né Parte ¶ Rome actors Ricky Memphis and Simone Corrente funded this noisy and slightly unnerving Testaccio spot (the expression “Né Arte Né Parte” is usually applied to do-nothings). Service-wise, the “Né” part is true to Rome: late-to-fulfill promises but always busy-bodied. The food, however, is anything but lazy, dominated by a down-to-earth, meat-and-potatoes array of Rome staples, including amatriciana, gricia, cacio e pepe, carbonara, rigatoni alla pajata (cucina povera entrails); and after that lombata, involtini, abbacchio alla scottadito, and spigola. All is prepared and delivered in a workmanlike way.
Oh, and expect no privacy; your table to belongs to everyone in the house. Then again, that’s also part of game, and perhaps part of what movie cops Memphis and Corrente had in mind when they decided on the Trastevere locale, a poor man’s joint that hubbub-wise doubles for a movie set. Prices are reasonable (€30-35 a head). ¶ Né Arte Né Parte. Via Luca della Robbia, 15/17. Trastevere. Tel. 06.575.0279. Closed Monday. Major credit cards.
√ Taverna Rossini ¶ Occasionally, a neighborhood restaurant produces a (quiet) earthquake. That’s happened in snobby Parioli, in north Rome, long known for the staid. At ugly Piazza Ungheria, a block from the U.S. Embassy residence, pretentious Al Ceppo was the cock of the walk for decades. But then came a gruff ex-rugby player named Filippo, who a decade ago opened this restaurant-pizzeria and ensured it stayed open seven days a week. He then started serving pizza and meals at all hours. Local hotel traffic bought into it, followed by hard-to-please Parioli folk.
What’s nice about this success story — the place is packed every night — is how represents a just reward for hard work. Pizzas (thin crust or thick, you decide) dominate the menu but the Rome mainstays are also good, particularly anything grilled. Since Filippo is a fish fan with an upscale fish place next door, the catch is fresh. Doesn’t matter if you eat at 6 p.m. or midnight, which goes over well with families and teens. There’s all-season outdoor seating for smokers and the weather-defiant. Though the place can house more than 500, it’s usually packed Friday through Sunday. For a pizza meal, €15-20; otherwise €20-30. ¶ Taverna Rossini. Viale Giacomo Rossini, 54. Parioli. Tel. 06.8424.2903. Open daily. Major credit cards.
√ Filippo La Mantia (Hotel Majestic) ¶ Hotel dining’s downside is, well, hotel dining. The saving grace here is chef Filippo La Mantia, whose Via Veneto spot inside the Hotel Majestic — thank goodness for the outdoor balcony — delivers creative twists on classic Italian fare. Sicilian La Mantia unconditionally spurns onions and garlic, opting for his own interpretation of needed smells and flavors (basic, citrus, mint and capers in abundance). His twists put him geographically close to North Africa and French-styled Lebanon. Chicken comes glazed and chilled; the “Falso magro” is rolled veal with pinoli, grapes, salami, and eggs; tuna gets a coating of lard and mint.
Though there’s no disputing La Mantia’s grace or stylishness, the hotel pomp and the Sicilian regional pretentiousness can seem at times just a little too contrived. Dinner runs between €70 and €90, depending on your wine choice. Book ahead. ¶ Filippo La Mantia (Hotel Majestic). Via Liguria 1. Via Veneto. Tel. 06.785.8542. Closed Sunday. Major credit cards.