My Three No-Fail Rome Restaurants

Kick-ass carbonara from Da Danilo in RomeSometimes, I feel like I'm slagging off on Rome's restaurants more than anything else.

However. There is fantastic food in this city, and honest people serving it. You just have to know where to go.

When I need a no-fail, top-notch, not-too-expensive Italian meal (like when guests are in town), these are the three restaurants I now turn to. The food is fantastic, the service good, the atmosphere untouristy, the prices moderate. And I haven't found something surprising added to my bill. (Yet).

My top picks to eat in Rome…:

With a group of friends or family: Flavio al Velavevodetto

Flavio al Velavevadetto in Testaccio, Rome

I was a little late to the Flavio al Velavevodetto lovefest, having been preceded by, among others, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. But I'm so glad I arrived.

Tucked into Monte Testaccio (if you don't believe that the hill comes from an enormous pile of Roman amphorae, thanks to being a dump in ancient times, just check out the restaurant's glass wall, above), Flavio al Velavevodetto serves up all the traditional Roman dishes, but in a way that makes even your 100th amatriciana taste almost, well, new. Don't miss their fritti, vegetables so lightly fried they remind me of tempura.

Fritti at Flavio al Velavevodetto
The other bonus of Flavio is the ambience. It's elegant and understated, and the interior is much roomier than at crammed little trattorie in the center. In the summer, you can dine out at the lovely terrace upstairs, a particularly good bet if your crowd is on the loud side. Plus, the serving staff is unfailingly polite and pretty fast—rare things for Rome.

Flavio al Velavevodetto is located at Via Monte Testaccio 97, a short walk from the Piramide metro stop. Or you can, of course, take the ever-present number 3 "foodie" bus to get there. Call +39 06 5744194 for reservations.

On a date: Da Danilo

I first stumbled into Da Danilo because it was just around the corner from my first apartment. Until the newspaper articles on the walls tipped me off, I had no idea that the place was a local legend. Even now, two years later, it remains legendarily good. And surprisingly local. If a bit on the expensive (and, at night, crammed-together-tables) side.

The small, so-intimate-you're-bound-to-knock-knees trattoria serves up Roman dishes, but with such fresh ingredients, they hardly compare. Don't miss the carbonara (top of post), with one of the most delicious, smoky-crispy-perfect pieces of guanciale I've ever encountered. Not to mention this carpaccio, dressed with puntarelle or truffle shavings.

Da Danilo food in Rome

Da Danilo is located at Via Petrarca 3, a stone's throw from Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and its metro stop. Call +39 06 77200111 for reservations. 

For a business meal: L'Asino d'Oro

L'Asino d'Oro restaurant Rome

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: L'Asino d'Oro just might be my favorite restaurant in Rome. At least, it's in the top three.

Here's where to go when the idea of more cucina romana, or of checkered tablecloths, makes you want to get on the next plane to anywhere. Yes, the food is Italian—but it's Umbrian. With a twist. No amatriciana on the menu here; instead, look for deliciousness like stewed wild boar in a sweet wine sauce.The atmosphere is sleek and modern, the staff professional, and the prices good. If you're pinching your pennies, you also can't beat the 3-course €12 tasting menu at lunch.

L'Asino d'Oro is located at Via del Boschetto 73 in the heart of Monti, a short walk from the Forum or Colosseum. Call +39 06 48913832 for reservations.

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La Campana: A Classic, and Rome’s Oldest Restaurant

Oxtail at La Campana, near Piazza Navona, RomeLa Campana, a restaurant tucked away a few steps from Piazza Navona, claims to be Rome's oldest dining establishment. It was recorded as being on the same street all the way back in 1518 — a tough claim to match.

But since these kinds of claims are everywhere, particularly in a city as overrun with old establishments as Rome, that's not really why you should go.

You should go if you want to experience good, classic Roman food, or cucina romana, at not-bad prices, in the heart of the center. In an area where culinary mediocrity is so thick on the ground, that's pretty tough to find. Oddly enough for the neighborhood, it's not even fair to call La Campana touristy: While there are always tourists there, a number of businessmen are always taking up the tables as well, particularly at lunch.

That said, not all of my experiences at La Campana have been perfect. One more-mediocre experience included my rigatoni all'amatriciana (€8), a dish that was undone by the long strips of not-very-crisp-or-smoky guanciale, or pork jowl, each of which were at least two-thirds white fat.

But I've also had a juicy saltimbocca (veal wrapped with prosciutto, €12, shown below) and an excellent coda alla vaccinara (€12), at top, in a rich, delicious sauce and with the meat falling off the bone. That coda alla vaccinara, alone, made me vow to pay more visits to Rome's (maybe) oldest restaurant. Other classic dishes on the menu to try include the fettucini al ragu (€10), trippa (€12)and artichoke (€5).

Saltimbocca at La Campana, RomeSomething else I'll say for La Campana: The service is excellent. That's not something you tend to see in many moderately-priced Roman restaurants, particularly not those that have been written up as often as this one. But the black-vested waiters are unfailingly polite, and the service (usually) pretty fast.

La Campana. Vicolo della Campana 18. Closed Mondays. For more information, click here. For a map, click here.

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For Cucina Romana Done Right: Il Pommidoro

Pasta alla gricia at Pommidoro, Ro,eWhen I want cucina romana, Rome boasts one restaurant I can always count on for high-quality ingredients and top-notch dishes: Il Pommidoro.

Located in the student-heavy, graffiti-spotted San Lorenzo neighborhood (half-jokingly referred to by Roman residents as the "communist quarter"), Il Pommidoro isn't on the track for most tourists. The clientele, almost always exclusively Italian, reflects that. But when it only costs €6 to take a cab before 10pm to Il Pommidoro from, say, the Colosseum, it's a worthwhile venture. Especially when it's for classic Roman dishes the way Il Pommidoro cooks them up.

Italian orange mushrooms, or amanita caesarea, at Il Pommidoro, Rome

One of Rome's classic family-run restaurants, Pommidoro dates back to 1926, when the current owner's grandmother turned her wine shop into an eatery. Aldo, the grandson, started working here at seven. 

Although the menu does have plates inspired from beyond the Lazio region, most of the food reflects those older Rome traditions. All of your classic offal is on the menu, from animelle alla cacciatora, or stewed sweetbreads (€12) to spiedone di pajata, the intestines of unweaned calves (€10). Try the porchetta as an antipasto; the sliced pork, shown below, is melt-in-your-mouth. Roast partridge, rabbit and duck also are on the menu, and much of it was shot by the Bravi family themselves on their hunts. (This was, perhaps, never made more real to me than when I took a bite of their pheasant last night, only to chomp down on something hard. It was shot.) 

Porchetta at Il Pommidoro, Rome

Pastas include all the classics, too, from carbonara (€8) to amatriciana (€8). And while a recent amatriciana was the only dish I've ever had there that I haven't been completely impressed with — it was a little too watery — Il Pommidoro has made it up to me in the past with their other pastas. Most notable: The best pasta alla gricia I've ever tasted, complete with perfectly al dente pasta and smoky, just-crunchy-enough bits of guanciale, shown at top.

Always ask about their specials, too; you might come across something like the orange mushrooms, or amanita caesarea, shown above.

Il Pommidoro tends to be popular with locals, so make sure you book in advance. Unlike most other Rome restaurants, it has long lunch hours — until 3pm — so it's a good midday stop, too.
Il Pommidoro's wood oven

The wood oven at Il Pommidoro, perfect for roasting those suckling pigs and rabbits.

Il Pommidoro. Piazza dei Sanniti 44, in San Lorenzo. Open for lunch and dinner daily except for Sunday. 064452692. For a map, click here.  

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Lo Scopettaro: Go, Maybe, but Not for the Carbonara

Lo Scopettaro in Testaccio

If I hadn't ordered the carbonara, I might have left Testaccio's Lo Scopettaro much more impressed. And feeling less like I'd just consumed a pile of bricks and several lead irons (although that was my own fault, being someone unable to take a couple bites and leave the rest untouched).

Lo Scopettaro is touted, by some, as one of Rome's rustic, traditional tavernas, guaranteed to serve up good pastas for okay prices. RomaToday says that "for years it's been a true institution in the capital, a sure spot for those who love traditional Roman cuisine."

But I think at some point along those 80 years it's been around, Lo Scopettaro may have started resting on its laurels. After all, from the crowd in there last night (mostly Italian, plus one or two tables of tourists), it seems like it can.

The good news about Lo Scopettaro: It has both outdoor and indoor seating, and the indoor section is, indeed, rustic and quaint. Its menu is packed with options for true cucina romana lovers, from nervetti di vitello (€8, and that'd be nerves of veal — yum!) to rigatoni con pajata (€12 for pasta with the intestines of a milk-fed calf). (Don't worry, there's plenty for less adventurous eaters, too, from a normal amatriciana to classic saltimbocca).  

The service was also surprisingly on point. With our reservations, we were sat right away and even given the option of immediately sitting inside or outside — whoa. We were served promptly and politely throughout the whole meal. For that, I give Lo Scopettaro big ups.

What about the food, you say? In a word: Uneven. The good tasted homemade, filling and yummy; the bad was bland. And our plates were half one, half the other.

An amatriciana's (€9) spiced-just-right sauce was delicious (although the noodles were, ahem, most definitely store-bought… can't imagine Grandma would approve). The muscolo di vitello (veal muscle), served in a thick tomato stew with carrots, was filling and tasty. But the chicory, one of only a couple of contorni in season, was undersalted and underspiced, even though we'd asked for it with lots of pepper.

The real disappointment, though, was the carbonara. Extremely heavy, it had a ton of cream and absolutely no bite. If the chef had added black pepper or salt, I couldn't taste it. I was confused: After all, this was supposed to be one of Lo Scopettaro's specialties. I saw plate after plate of the stuff leaving the kitchen, heading to other (Italian-speaking) tables. 

It was only after I'd slogged halfway through my plate, wondering if I was missing something or if it was an "off" night, when we overheard the DSC_0132following conversation at the table behind us:

Happy middle-aged Italian couple, tucking into their two plates of carbonara, to the waiter: "Please, tell us. What is the secret with this dish?"

Waiter: "We use a lot of cream and not very much egg." (Could have told you that).

Couple: "It's so good!"

Waiter: "Yes, most other restaurants do it differently, with more egg, but this is how we like it."

These two were apparently regulars, at least if the free cherry pie they got had anything to say about it.

So: Regulars must come here for Lo Scopettaro's carbonara, which apparently they like thick, creamy, and missing the egg, salt and black pepper that I usually associate with the dish — and which nobody else serves like that. If you can't see yourself agreeing with them, I'd still say go to Lo Scopettaro — if you're in the area, and if you steer clear of the carbonara.

Also be ready to fend off the waiter's (very polite!) attempts to sell you on the tasting menu, which, at €37, seems pretty expensive for a "rustic" place in Testaccio, especially if not all those dishes are top-notch. As it was, our bill came to €53 for two, including a not-so-great bottle of the house red (€10). For cucina romana, that's plenty steep enough.

Lo Scopettaro. Lungotevere Testaccio 7, in Testaccio. For a map, click here.

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Rome Restaurants Actually Open in Ferragosto

Delicious rigatoni amatriciana at Lo Scopettaro in Testaccio, open during ferragosto.
You don't realize how dire the dining situation is in Rome until you
call 20 places on your list in late August, the height of ferragosto, looking for a reservation
somewhere, anywhere, with edible food. But all that pulling out my hair
(and running up my phone bill) allowed me to, at the very least, come
up with a list of places that are open. Right now. And good, not like
those awful tourist places you see on the percorso between the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain.

And thus, I reveal to you (drum roll, please!) my hard-earned list. Let
no man or woman in Rome have to wait seven more days for a good dinner
out.

-Taverna Trilussa. Trastevere. I just wrote about this place;
it's slightly pricey, but the pasta, done the traditional Roman way, is
pretty darn good. Try to reserve a seat outside. +39 065818918.

Asinocotto. Trastevere. It's next on my list for what I've heard about
its traditional-dishes-with-a-twist, like ravioli filled with salted
cod and marjoram or coconut mousse with gingered, dried fruits. +39 06
5898985.

Roscioli.
Campo dei Fiori. Overpriced and probably overrated, but also well-liked (at least by tourists) for
its classic Italian pastas, meat and fish. Another plus for visitors:
It's right in the heart of the centro storico. +39 066875287.

Glass.
Trastevere. Modern, hip, and highly-renowned. I'm told it's hard to get
out of there for less than €50 a head, at the very least. I'm also told
it's well worth it. I'm saving up my money to find out. +39 0658335903.

Nonna Betta.
Ghetto. I generally try to steer clear of the Ghetto, but I've heard
this is a gem (or at least, fairly good) in a sea of tourist traps.
Come here if you have a fried-food craving or need to nosh kosher. +39
0668806263.

-Lo Scopettaro. Testaccio. Boasts traditional (and cheap) cucina romana; I'm going tonight, so stay tuned. It's been on my list for a while. Update: Read about my experience at Lo Scopettaro here. +39 065742408.

Le Tre Zucche.
Portuense. Off-the-beaten-path, but some locals say it's worth it for
the yummy, creative food; diners especially recommend the tasting menu.
+39 065560758

-Bucatino. Testaccio. A favorite for classic Roman dishes like bucatini all'amatriciana and gnocchi. Cheap prices. +39 065746886.

Osteria dell'Arco. Porta Pia. Creative Roman cuisine, moderate prices. +39 068548438.

None of those fit the bill? Ethnic restaurants (like Monti's Maharajah) and chains (like Insalata Ricca) are usually open during ferragosto, too.

Any good ones I forgot?

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Taverna Trilussa: Pasta Done Right, but for a Price

Review of the restaurant Taverna Trilussa, a well-known pasta restaurant in Trastevere in Rome, Italy.

Taverna Trilussa, restaurant in Rome

I'd heard many good things about Taverna Trilussa, tucked just behind Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere, before I went. Even from discussion boards on one of Rome's pickier, and (to chefs) more forboding, foodie sites.

I wasn't disappointed. Taverna Trilussa's pasta truly is traditional Roman, done the best it can be. But there's a price to pay.

First, there's the actual price. For a restaurant that touts itself as being "traditional Roman," the prices sure aren't. A pasta amatriciana, easily found elsewhere for €8, costs you €14 here. A bottle of wine, two pastas, and a secondo of oxtail, all on the cheaper-to-moderate side of the menu, rang the tab for two up to €73. That's without antipasti, dessert, or even coffee.

Second, there's the issue of atmosphere. This isn't a problem if you reserve a table outdoors: The large patio area is draped with ivy, romantically-lit, and a lovely spot for a summer meal. The interior, though, isn't nearly as charming. Big enough that its size seems warranted more for a cafeteria than a Roman taverna, its lighting was the real issue. It's not as bad as some Roman restaurants that seem to think flood-lighting and American 90s pop music are the keys to a Zagat-rated ambiance. But I did find myself squinting after coming in from outside, not the best introduction to a restaurant's interior.

Finally, there's the service. I was there on a relatively quiet Thursday night during ferragosto, and although the waiter took our order promptly, he didn't return for another half an hour. Neither did any of our food.  Coda alla vaccinara at Taverna Trilussa.

But if you don't get bogged down by the details,  the reward can be worth it. After our tummy- rumblingly-long wait, the pasta that emerged, brought out in the metal pans in which it was cooked (a little hokey, but hey, shows it's freshly made), was very good. I had pasta amatriciana, one of the restaurant's specialties. The sauce was just-right (not undersalted! yay!), with fresh, plump tomatoes and perfectly al dente pasta. My dining companion had the restaurant's apparently much-renowned ravioli mimosa. It was also yummy, although we had to laugh at how the menu had made it sound like it had a top-secret ingredient — really, it's just egg in the sauce. (Well. I think.) By the time our coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) came, piping-hot and falling off the bone, we were so stuffed we had to force ourselves to partake. Somehow, though, we managed. 

Taverna Trilussa. Via del Politeama 23, in Trastevere. For a map, click here.

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Roma Sparita: Eat in Trastevere, But Not With Tourists*

DSC_0002edit

I'm so glad to have just discovered Roma Sparita, a bustling restaurant and pizzeria in the heart of Trastevere. Like other tourist spots in Rome, Trastevere is packed with poor culinary choices. Roma Sparita, however, is not one of them.

Situated, with plenty of outdoor seating, on the broad, quiet Piazza Santa Cecilia, the restaurant was, at 10pm on a Wednesday, completely full of Italians. (That's always a good sign). Even so, the host hustled to get our party of two seated. Another waiter asked if someone was helping us. Within three minutes, our table had been cleared, reset, and a menu brought. For a restaurant in Rome–especially a popular, not-expensive restaurant in Rome–that kind of service is rare. Believe it or not.

*[Update, Oct. 2011: In the pursuit of honesty, I have to share that, sadly, this blog post is now completely, um, incorrect. When I wrote this more than a year ago, guidebooks, tourists and (most importantly!) Anthony Bourdain had yet to discover this place. But just a couple of months after this post, Bourdain went (rightfully) gaga for Roma Sparita's cacio e pepe in "No Reservations."

If you've caught this post on my blog about Rome restaurants almost always going south with newfound fame, you know what happened next. More and more tourists started eating here… and the food quality started to slide. The cacio e pepe is still good, but no longer great, and certainly not the best in Rome. Nor is this any longer a "local's place" by any stretch of the imagination. Even worse? Roma Sparita has started taking advantage of tourists who eat here. For excellent cacio e pepe at places that don't rip you off (yet), instead, head to Flavio al Velavevodetto, Trattoria Da Danilo or even Taverna dei Quaranta at the Colosseum. They might not have a fried-parmesan bowl, but they don't rip you off with a selectively-applied service charge, either.]

The food ranged from classic cucina romana to regional variations (beef carpaccio? you don't see that much in Rome). And it more than lived up to expectations. Popping the olive ascolane, a fried mixture of green olives, veal, pork, and breadcrumbs, became tough to stop doing–even knowing a pizza and pasta were on the way.

Then came the good stuff.

The pizza alla norma (shown above), a Sicilian dish with tomato, eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata (a salted, dried ricotta grated onto the pizza), was just right. And Roma Sparita's most famous dish, its tagliolini al cacio e pepe, deserved every accolade. Presented in a fried basket of parmesan, it was the best cacio e pepe I'd ever had. Truly. (To the uninitiated: a traditional Roman dish, cacio e pepe features pecorino romano cheese and black pepper. That's it. Simple, but delicious.)

Even with a good, €15 bottle of Sardinian wine, the bill came out to a little more than €20 per person. Not bad. But it left me with one lingering question: With restaurants with that kind of value in Rome, why would you ever eat here?

Roma Sparita. Piazza Santa Cecilia. Closed Sundays for dinner and Mondays all day. For more information, click here. For a map, click here.

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Al Pompiere: A Jewish Ghetto Classic, But Banking on It

Fritti at Al Pompiere, Rome You could do worse than “Al Pompiere.” In the heart of the Jewish Ghetto, the restaurant has been around since 1962 — no mean feat for an eatery anywhere in the world, but especially in a city with culinary competition as stiff as Rome.

In particular, it’s a place to come when you’re looking for classic cucina romana. What Rome-based food writer Katie Parla calls “the holy trinity of Roman pasta dishes” all make their appearances on the menu. My carbonara tasted a little undersalted and didn’t play quite enough on the pecorino’s (or the pepper’s) zing, but the consistency was perfect and the pasta fresh.

The biggest draw to Al Pompiere, though, is its fried offerings. The carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style artichoke) had just the right crunch; the filetta di baccalà (fried salt cod) was soft and flaky on the inside, crisp on the outside. Then there were the fiori di zucca ripieni (stuffed zucchini flowers), which were, quite simply, grossly delicious: There’s nothing like squishing a piece of food with your fork and seeing grease spurt out. (All three are pictured above. Just looking at the photo makes you feel like you’re hurting your arteries, doesn’t it?).

What the restaurant lacked, though, was atmosphere. Set on the second floor of a palazzo and nearly empty for Saturday lunch, it felt awkwardly roomy — and with tablecloths covering the tables, a tad too elegant for the down-to-earth fare. With not an Italian dining in sight, I had to doubt Fodor’s claim that it’s a “neighborhood favorite.” Maybe I caught it on an off day. Or maybe it’s simply been around too long.

Al Pompiere. Via Santa Maria de’ Calderari 38, on Piazza Cenci. Closed Sundays. For more information, click here. For a map, click here.

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Ristorante Montevecchio: Tastes of a Grandparents’ Kitchen…?

DSC_0001 I had high hopes at Ristorante Montevecchio, a restaurant tucked into almost-impossible-to-find Piazza Montevecchio. Just a two minutes' walk from Piazza Navona, the place is in the center of everything — but thanks to the small, tranquil piazza, still feels off the beaten path.

But I wasn't there because of the location. I was there because the restaurant had been recommended to me, with lavish praise, and because when I Googled it, one of the first things that came up was this glowing review by NPR. (I hadn't even been aware that NPR did restaurant reviews). With visions of "Fresh Tastes of a Grandparents' Kitchen" running through my head, I went.

My first warning sign: the complete lack of diners. At 9:15pm — prime dining time. I should have listened to my own instructions. Instead, I gave it a try.

To be fair, the food was good. I started off with the timballo di parmigiano di melanzane, a little eggplant-and-ricotta concoction that was yummy, if not exactly €12 worth of yummy. For the second course, I took the waiter's suggestion and had his favorite, the ravioli Montevecchio-style — ravioli of the house. Big, plump pillows of pasta filled with ricotta and spinach, the dish was satisfying. But when I pay €16 for pasta in Rome, I expect something pretty darn fantastic, or at least seafood-based. This was not it. The same went for the €8 tiramisu, served, oddly, in what to all intents and purposes appeared to be a water glass.

The service was good, although I can't imagine that three waiters to three tables — the maximum the restaurant got to while I was there — could ever struggle. And the fact that they were closing down at 10:30, when most popular restaurants are just starting to get into full swing, made my dining companion and I feel awkward. "I'm worried the waiter's going to hit you in the head with a chair he's swinging onto a table," she whispered to me at one point. It was only 10:45.

Final verdict? The food's fine, but to get bang for your buck in Rome, skip Montevecchio — unless it's just the cute little piazza you're looking for. (In fairness to NPR, by the way, it looks like management has changed since the review was written).

Food: 3 of 5. Ambiance: 4 of 5. Value: 2 of 5.

Ristorante Montevecchio. Piazza Montevecchio 22a. Closed Mondays. See more details here. Click here for a map.

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