’ve seen far too many of my favorite Rome restaurants close this year. If the United States bottomed out in late 2008 and 2009, Italy is in an even deeper dungeon now, with few signs of any immediate improvement. That goes for the whole of the European Union, with Greece and Spain and Italy leading the sad charge.
The dire Rome dining scene reflects this larger reality. Businesses are increasingly weighed down by new taxes imposed by a nearly broke government desperately trying to stay afloat. Goods cost more because of inflation. There’s less money to spend, which means more and more people stay home. It’s a classic vicious circle.
When universally acclaimed, off-the-beaten-track pizzerias (ones that charge only €8 for a meal) are forced to close, you know you’re living through hard times.
Fortunately, some supper stalwarts have managed avoided the crisis-era quick fix of upping costs and lowering quality. The survivors focus on smaller menus and better ingredients. Though it’s always a game of Russian roulette, “chic-onomical” meals are still available in Rome.
Here is my shortlist of the city’s top value dining options. Get them while they’re still open.
Antica Osteria da Benito is in the city’s centro storico on the outer confines of the ancient Jewish Ghetto. It’s been around for nearly five decades, and its new, youthful management maintains its old ambiance, serving simple dishes in robust potions while keeping prices in check. They wisely vary the offer between a light prix fixe lunch and a more structured à la carte dinner. Daytime meal prices mostly come in below €20 with a choice between two pasta dishes, usually amatriciana or carbonara, and five traditional entrées, including manzo alla picchiapò (bollito that’s been stewed in tomato sauce), saltimbocca (sage and prosciutto-laced veal cutlets), tripe, and a rotation of seasonal side dishes. For dinner I always pick from caramelized pork shank, the house meatloaf (nonna‘s recipe), or the mouthwatering lamb chops. Save room for tiramisù. Antica Osteria da Benito. Closed Sun.-Mon. evenings. No website. Via Dei Falegnami, 12/16; Tel. +39.06.686.1508.
Dar Filettaro is a sure thing. The wee friery nestled in small Piazza Santa Barbara dei Librari a few steps off the melee of Campo de’ Fiori offers trademark dishes that are a constant source of bliss. Take the fried cod fillets. Large and golden, the filetti are coated in a crisp and feather light batter, concealing a piping hot, succulent interior. Other classic Roman dishes include burro e alici (buttered bread with oil-preserved anchovies), mixed cured meat and salumi platters, cannellini beans dressed with a thread of olive oil, garlicky puntarelle, and sautéed cicoria. In summer, the meal always ends with complimentary watermelon slices. The bill never tops €15. Seating outside avoids coming out with your clothes smelling of fried fish, but the indoor air conditioning is sublime. Dar Filettaro. Open Mon.-Sat. from 5:30 p.m. until late. No website. Cash only. Largo de’ Librari, 88; tel. +39.06.686.4018.
Asinocotto prides itself as the city’s first carpacceria, serving more than 20 kinds of thinly-sliced meats, fish, fruits and vegetable carpaccio. The venison carpaccio comes with mostarda di Cremona marinade, the refreshing branzino ceviche is paired with shaved fennel salad, and the baccalà carpaccio is married to lime and crispy endive. Sweetness comes via pineapple carpaccio with Grand Marnier and lavender flavored strawberries or dark Santo Domingo cru chocolate dressed with freshly squeezed orange juice and Maldon salt. Vegetarian carpaccios include the topinambur (Jerusalem artichoke) with toasted almonds and basil-scented zucchine with Parmesan and orange zest.
My favorites on the constantly changing menu are the goose meat breast à l’orange with pecorino and green peppercorns and the Angus beef marinade with radicchio dressed in raspberry vinegar. The menu also offers pasta and entrées, with prices never higher than €35 for a full meal. Asinocotto. Open Tues.-Sun. for lunch and dinner. Live music on Thursdays. Via dei Vascellari, 48; tel. +39.06.589.8985.
Ozi, Vizi e Sfizi is a cute and honestly-priced pub in the heart of bohemian Trastevere that offers great burgers, excellent panini, and homemade desserts. My favorite menu items are the delicious €2.50 supplì of the day with fillings that vary by the hour, the homemade chicken nuggets coated in a Parmigiano Vacche Rosse double panure, and the giant “Due Passi” burger served on a toasted sourdough bun and loaded with roasted bell peppers, crispy bacon, melted pecorino romano, and sweet mustard. Sandwiches are served with homemade cacio e pepe potato chips dusted with pecorino and pepper.
Don’t miss the sausage and broccoli sandwich, or the classic onion frittata sandwich, which you can wash down by choosing from a wide selection of Trappist ales and other artisan beers. Sundays host the €12 prix fixe pranzo della nonna, with home-style dishes, hefty portions and a separate kids menu. Lunch guests can also book foot reflexology classes held on the premises starting as early as 11 a.m. Ozi, Vizi e Sfizi. Open for lunch and dinner except for Sunday and Monday evening. Via Della Luce, 63; tel. +39.331.105.5463.
La Fontana di Venere is a little-known eatery located in an ancient palazzo a stone’s throw from the Trevi fountain. It serves thin crust Roman-style pizzas, fresh seafood, succulent meat dishes, and excellent cucina romana starters. Guests should try the creative house pasta dishes, including homemade gnocchi served with a creamy pesto sauce (the gnocchi are unrelated to horrid ones commonly made with dehydrated potato flour passed off by some restaurants as legit). Another delight is the fettuccine “alla Venere” dressed with a shrimp and cherry tomato ragù and pistachio crumble. Meals average €25 per person with lunch served as early as 11 p.m. and dinner from 7 p.m. The timetable makes it perfect for families traveling with younger gourmands. La Fontana di Venere. Open daily. Vicolo de’ Modelli, 56; tel. +39.06.6992.4087.
Bisque is a secret seafood gem. The tagliatelle in prawn bisque sauce and the tuna steak in a pistachio and poppy-seed crust are both superb. The curiously named cataplana, a delicious bouillabaisse (mixed seafood soup), is prepared and served in a copper pot.
Though crustaceans are the house specialty, the menu has an array of meat dishes (Castelmagno cheese tortelloni with cubed eggplant and leeks; a beef carpaccino with sautéed porcini; gossamer straccetti au gratin with a Parmesan and zucchini crust). Another plus is the “surf and turf’ tasting menu at €15. All dishes are prepared to order with take-out available (and free Wi-Fi). Bisque. Open Tues.-Sun. for dinner only. Via Del Moro, 24; tel. +39.06.8982.6481.