If you saw a dish like this one (the colors! the presentation!) while dining in Rome, you might assume it comes from one of Rome's Best Restaurants—you know, the places where "Best Restaurant" comes in caps, like La Pergola or Il Pagliaccio. At the very least, you might assume a meal at said restaurant would set you back a pretty penny.
You'd be even more convinced of this after taking a bite. Super-fresh, perfectly roasted octopus on a black bean sauce, adorned with a slice of celery gelatin (yes, really). And that's just the antipasto.
But despite the creative dishes and the high-quality ingredients, this is no La Pergola. It's Osteria Fernanda, a restaurant in Trastevere. Perhaps the best restaurant in Trastevere. And the price is a fraction of what you'd spend at Fernanda's Michelin-starred neighbors.
Located near Porta Portese (would you look at that… you can get there on the #3 bus!), Osteria Fernanda is a small but elegant space, contemporary with just the right "old Rome" touches (brick archways, wooden floors). If you can, reserve a table upstairs (shown above)—the tables downstairs are a little close together.
From the start, the service was impeccable. I was there with a visiting Scottish friend and her mother, and speaking with them in English; we were the only English-speakers in the place. But we were treated with the same courtesy and respect as the tables of Italians around us. (After more experiences than I can count, especially in Rome's centro storico, where the polar opposite is true, it's admittedly sad that this is worth mentioning). The owner, who took our orders, was polite, helpful, and, yes, spoke English.
But the food is where things really got going. First came a delicious amuse–bouche, one of those little complimentary "extras" that are rare at any but the most expensive Rome restaurants. The antipasti were perfect: the octopus (above) was delicious, although the second antipasto we ordered, an "escalope of foie gras, Szechuan pepper gelato, lemon puree and crushed nuts," blew my mind (below). Hot and cold, melt-in-your-mouth soft and crunchy, meaty and citrusy—everything was there. And it all worked.
After setting such a high bar, the primi could have been letdowns. They weren't. Although out of the three dishes were ordered—mine, acqua e farine pasta filled with Roman artichokes on cuttlefish-ink and bottarga, was creative but good—the most traditional was actually, in my opinion, the best. Yep: bucatini all'amatriciana.
It just might be the best amatriciana I've had in Rome. Ever.
Too full for the delicious-looking secondi (next time, I'm going for the beef cheek with artichoke gelatin, Jerusalem artichoke sauce and licorice), we went right for the desserts. Big surprise: They were fantastic, too. And the presentation was lovely.
Even though the prices were listed on the menu (our octopus starter was €15, the amatriciana was €14), the bill could have been almost anything. Would they charge us for the amuse–bouche? Assume we were all tourists and take advantage by adding a 15% servizio or an exaggerated pane e coperto charge? And how much were the bottles of wine that the owner had recommended, and that we hadn't double-checked the price on?
For two antipasti, three secondi, two dolci, two bottles of wine, bread, and water, the price came out to about €110. Or a little under €40 a head. The wines had been under €15, and, yes, the amuse–bouches were complimentary. Cheap? No. Incredible value? Yes. (There also are two tasting menus, one 4-course taster for €33 each and one 5-course taster for €38).
I will be back.
And Osteria Fernanda? I'm sure foodie fame is coming your way. And more tourists, too. Just please, please, don't change. Okay?
Osteria Fernanda. Via Ettore Rolli 1. +39065894333.
Everyone seems to love Luzzi, a trattoria just down the street from the Colosseum.
Tourists love it because it has checkered tablecloths, waiters who speak English and are (gasp!) friendly to them — but who still yell at each other across the room in Italian, and an earlier opening time for dinner than most other 8pm-and-after restaurants.
Locals love it, although a little less, because the waiters are nuts but (usually) fast, and the menu's cheap: €6 and under for most pizzas and pastas.
The only people who don't love it is foodies. That's because Luzzi is not for those of us who pick apart whether the guanciale tastes smoky or if the pasta is fresh, or who want a wine list (you won't find one here). Luzzi doesn't serve some of the best food in Rome. It doesn't even serve some of the best cheap food in Rome. (For that, see: places in San Lorenzo and Testaccio, including Il Pommidoro and Nuovo Mondo, and some in Trastevere, including Roma Sparita).
But Luzzi fits a certain need. That need is for a place that's fun, cheap, and reliably okay within a 10-minute walk from the Colosseum, an area where you can't throw a guidebook without hitting a terrible, touristy, overpriced place that caters to, and is filled with, people with their noses in the same guidebook. And some of its dishes are pretty good, including the amatriciana or fettucine alla bolognese (both €5.50), and starters like the octopus grigliata or the antipasto that you get yourself. Help yourself to the array of veggies and other goodies in the back, and you'll be charged depending on the size of your plate — this big plate cost about €4 (below).
In the evening, though, your best bet at Luzzi is the pizza (shown at top). It doesn't hold up to the pies coming out of Luzzi's neighbor Li Rioni, but then again, Li Rioni is a dedicated pizzeria, no pastas on the menu. Luzzi isn't. And even so, their pizza's pretty darn reliable, always with a proper thin Roman crust and fresh ingredients.
(Well, almost always. Never, ever order their pizza at lunch; it seems Luzzi's pizza chef is only on at dinner. So what you'll wind up with, instead, is a kind of undercooked, floppy monstrosity that scares away all the other pizzas on the playground).
So am I recommending Luzzi or not? If you're in the Colosseum neighborhood and are at risk of winding up in one of the other myriad and awful places in the area, if a friendly, bustling atmosphere is more important to you than if every dish is perfect, or if you're used to places where guitarists sing "That's Amore" to you and where spaghetti and meatballs are on the menu and you want to try something a little more authentic, then yes. If you're the type who likes to reserve dinners in advance and eat the very best of what Rome has to offer…mmm…probably not.
(That doesn't mean I don't love you, Luzzi!)
Luzzi. Via di San Giovanni in Laterano 88. Open for lunch and dinner daily except for Wednesday. 06 7096332. For a map, click here.
When 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.
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.)
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.
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.
Looking to eat at some good restaurants in Italy? Excellent. I truly believe few other countries in the world have food quite as good as Italian food. And experiencing that Italy’s culinary culture — at its best — should absolutely be one of your aims on your trip.
But… it’s not quite as easy to find good restaurants in Italy as you might expect.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say “Italy! You can eat anywhere in Italy and eat well”. Erm… not quite. It’s true that if you have some savvy, you can find an excellent place, the kind where you walk out blissfully happy and with your wallet still surprisingly full, almost anywhere. But it’s not true that you’ll have this experience everywhere without even trying.
That’s especially the case in cities that welcome as many tourists as a place like Rome. (Reminder: Three million people live in Rome, while 10 million people a year visit the city). Unfortunately, many eateries have taken advantage of the fact that they’re unlikely to see these visitors again by serving up mediocre-to-terrible, even microwaved food.
Want to avoid that experience? Here are some tips for finding good restaurants in Italy.
How to find good restaurants in Italy if you’re… willing to put in some work
These tips are best for foodies who really want to make sure no meal goes to waste (and are willing to put in some effort and research to get there).
Tip #1: Don’t use Tripadvisor (with one caveat)
It is so, so easy to research restaurants in advance now. You have thousands of websites at your fingertips, all promising to guide you to “the best restaurants in Rome” (or “the best restaurants in Venice”, or “the best restaurants in Italy”…). But that’s part of the problem. Where do you go? Whose advice do you trust?!
The first place many people tend to go for restaurant recommendations? Tripadvisor. Do not do this. Why? Tripadvisor’s absolutely fine for reviews of hotels and tours — things that tourists are in a great position to review. But restaurants? With all due respect, most of us, when we’re tourists, are not the best judges of the quality of local cuisine. That’s especially true because so many travelers to Italy are confused about what even is Italian food to begin with. (More about this in my post about what’s Italian, versus Italian American, food). You want a local’s review, not a one-time visitor’s — and locals don’t tend to review their neighborhood restaurants on Tripadvisor.
In fact, I know from personal experience that some restauranteurs have made a career out of “gaming” the system. I knew one owner who regularly served customers less-than-Rome’s-best food. But he knew that, at the end of the meal, by being really friendly, offering a “free” limoncello and asking the clients to review him on Tripadvisor, he’d get a good review anyway. He did. For several months, his restaurant — which, again, was pretty mediocre — was the top-rated restaurant in Rome. According to Tripadvisor.
That being said? I will use Tripadvisor sometimes. But the Italian version. (Just go to Tripadvisor.it). Even if you don’t understand the language, that’s OK: if there’s a restaurant you’ve heard of that you’re cross-checking, you can put it in and see how the Italian speakers rate it.
It’s still not foolproof. (An Italian from Milan is as much a tourist in Naples or Sicily as anyone else). But it’s a bit better than exclusively looking at reviews and ratings by us Anglophones.
Tip #2: What (and who) to trust online instead
With Tripadvisor out, where else can you turn? I’m equally wary of Google reviews, but because they at least aren’t sorted by language (and because I think locals are a little more likely to review their own favorite spots there), I trust them a little more.
Really, though, I trust individuals.
If my restaurant recommendations aren’t quite enough for you (or you’re looking for good restaurants in Italy in a different city), here are some other foodies in Italy to trust:
Elizabeth Minchilli. Another long-time, Rome-based food blogger, Elizabeth’s website is a lovely conglomeration of recipes and restaurant recommendations. As well as on her website, she shares recommendations (and recipes) for her favorite restaurants in Rome in her book Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City. She also has a handy app, Eat Italy, which covers Rome, Florence, Venice, Torino, Milan, Umbria, and Puglia.
Food tours can be a fun (and delicious) way to break up the history- and art-focused sight-seeing. They can also be an excellent way to learn about the local cuisine… and pick your guide’s brain about where they eat. Here are some favorites:
Food tours in Venice: Walks of Italy’s Venice food tour includes a visit to the Rialto market and a gondola ride.
But… let’s say all of this research isn’t for you. What if you just want to eat well, avoid Rome’s worst dining options, and not spend tons of time researching and booking restaurants? That’s fine. But you’ll definitely want to follow the following five suggestions.
How to find good restaurants in Italy if you’re… already in Italy (and don’t want to screw around with too much online research)
So you’re already on the ground, sans restaurant reservations, hunting for that perfect spot — and just can’t be bothered to read a bunch of online reviews. It’s okay! Here’s help.
Tip #4: Get out of the tourist centers…
…Or at least be aware that the closest you are to, say, the Colosseum, the harder it’ll be for you to find top-notch nosh. There are some notable exceptions to this: the pizzeria Alle Carrette in Monti, for example, is remarkably close to the Roman forum for having such good food. But while the owners of Alle Carrette have the pride and business acumen to keep their food delicious and their prices moderate, not every restaurant so well-positioned will do the same. Especially watch out for the areas right around St. Peter’s Basilica and the Trevi Fountain, which are veritable food deserts.
Tip #5: Run, don’t walk, away from friendly hosts.
He seems nice? He speaks English? He’s telling you you’re beautiful and your husband is a lucky man?
That all means one thing: His food’s not good enough for people — most notably Italians — to come in on their own. Avoid at all costs.
Tip #6: English menus are fine. Tourist menus are not.
If you see a sign like “MENU TURISTICA: 10 Euros for appetizer, pasta, and wine!”, you’re probably in trouble. Same if there are any photos on the menu.
But if you go inside and are handed an English menu, don’t worry. Most restaurants do this these days.
Tip #7: Never look for a place to have dinner at 6pm… or 7pm (depending on where you are).
Or, really, anytime before 8pm — at least if you’re in Rome or further south. As a general rule of thumb, if it’s open that early, it’ll be catering to tourists: southern Italians never eat before 8:30pm. Some savvy restaurants that remain solid, like the institution La Campana, do open earlier — they’ve realized it’s a good way to get extra business. Still, it’s a risk. And isn’t part of the fun of traveling somewhere the fun of getting into local rhythms? (This changes the further north you go. In northern cities, like Milan, people tend to eat at 7:45pm or 8pm; in a sleepier rural area, say the Dolomites, it may be as early as 7pm. Earlier than that, though, is hard to find anywhere in Italy).
Eat when locals do, and you’ll be far more likely to be surrounded by locals, not to mention have a better sense of which places are busy at an actual (local) dinner time — always a good sign.
Tip #8: Look for the crowd, and then be patient.
Remember, restaurants tend to be smaller in Italy and locals tend to linger longer over their meals. That means places fill up fast. So if a place is good, and if it’s dinner time (see above), there’s no reason it should be empty. Be wary if it is.
On the flip side? If it’s 9pm and a place is popular, it may be tough to get in without a reservation. Often, though, you can put your name down and either hang out, or come back in a half hour or so. If you want to eat at good restaurants in Italy — and you didn’t want to make reservations — then patience will be your friend.
Tip #9: Don’t get hung up on the names.
Trattoria, hosteria, taverna… meh. Any difference there once was between these has pretty much slipped away. Just remember that a birreria is more a place for fried food and beer, that a “bar” isn’t really a bar (it’s what we’d call a cafe), and that most good pizzerias aren’t open at lunch.
Finally, remember what you’re looking out for: That hole-in-the-wall place that doesn’t even look like a restaurant on the outside, but when you walk in (remember, at 9pm), it’s bustling with Italians. Eat only at gems like these, and you’re guaranteed to find good restaurants in Italy.
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here!