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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9 comments

  1. I’ve eaten there only once (last December says the time stamp on my food pictures) and liked it but I have no point of comparison as to how much better it might have been. I felt it was good value for Money and I ate too much.
    I did not go there because of guide books but because by and large the Roman people I follow on Twitter seemed to like it. A lot.

  2. I’ve been to Taverna about 20 or so times over the last 6 years, and stopped going last year when I repeatedly had exactly the same experience you’re describing! Portions less hearty, price less worthy, servers and cooks less friendly (and, frankly, less Italian). Overall, the AUTHENTIC feel I once had there was gone. It seems only more evident these days that Roman food gets proportionately better the further away you get away from the heart of Rome itself.

    🙁

  3. Complimenti and well said. It’s such a sad day when your favorite carbonara sucks, and the well-worn signs are just a little too well-worn– in particular, the half-hearted smiles of a noncommitted waiter.

    However, it is better to have loved and lost, then to never love at all. Now got to La Matricianella.

  4. Excellent article. Complimenti ! Had a similar experience at a place near the Vatican last yr – glowing TripAdvisor write-ups…so-so, not cheap food. (Do those who contribute 5* reviews really appreciate they truly aren’t eating that well, or with anything like value-for-money ?)
    On safer ground here in southern Abruzzo. Scant tourist industry and restaurants very much for locals. Prices go up/quality goes down = customers go elsewhere. There’s plenty of choice.
    At lunch yesterday, home-cooked pasta, litre of wine, some cheese. €18. For two.
    I’ll take you – but I won’t tell you where !

  5. @Nathalie – Yes, lots of Romans used to love this place. But I haven’t heard much buzz about it lately… makes me think perhaps they’re finding the same thing!

    @Steve – I’m glad I’m not the only one who had this experience here!

    @Ann – Thanks for your suggestion! Bill and I are supposed to have coffee one of these days… I’m looking forward to meetin him!

    @Erica – La Matricianella! Thank you, thank you 🙂 I’ll check it out subito.

    @David – Sounds like you have it much better in Abruzzo, indeed. And yes, I always wonder the same thing about TripAdvisor write-ups. I’m guessing… no, people don’t realize. But I guess saying that makes me sound like a bit of a food snob, huh?

    Thank you to all for stopping by, and for your comments! Anyone else have any suggestions of new places that can replace my old fave?

  6. “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.” Very well stated! I’ve tried for years to get owners to understand that getting the clients in once may at first seem to be the hard part, getting them to come back and recommend others is a bit easier, but keeping up the quality once success hits should be easier still, and yet time and time again they rest on those rotting laurels. Maybe the expat foodies of Rome should organize a “seminar” for restaurant owners to explain the concept of customer service. Seriously.

  7. That’s sad. The description of their carbonara broke my heart, honestly. That’s a real loss.

    I also just found out that my favorite place in Monti – Taverna Romana, just down the road – has changed hands and gone down in quality as well. I haven’t even been back; I heard it from friends, and refuse to have my memory of it tarnished.

    And my two favorite places in San Lorenzo closed (one of which made pizza MUCH better than Formula Uno, which I hate to say, is kind of crap but yes, cheap).

    And now Roma Sparita being assholes! (I came to this post from Katie’s.) Roma e’ sparita davvero.

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