Do You Need to Book Restaurants in Rome? (Really?)

Do you have to book restaurants in Rome?

Over the years, I’ve found that one of the biggest surprises for first-time visitors involves whether you need to book restaurants in Rome.

Many of us, after all, are used to restaurants back home. Whether in the US, UK or Canada, unless you’re talking about a super-trendy or Michelin-starred restaurant, it’s often fairly easy to walk into a restaurant for dinner and get seated without much of a wait. It’s easy to assume that Rome is the same. Why shouldn’t you be able to walk into a humble trattoria on a Thursday evening and find a table?

Then there’s that all-pervasive myth about Italy: The idea that no matter where you eat, you’ll eat well. So even if you can’t get in to one place, the next place should be just as good. After all, the center of Rome is just teeming with good restaurants, right? And, of course, we all love that idea of “discovering” that perfect hole-in-the-wall spot — no research or reservations needed.

The problem? In Rome, none of this holds water. (Or wine, as the case may be…).

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Seven of the Best Autumn Sagre in Italy

I’ve been obsessed with Italy’s sagre  since my first introduction to them. So much more than food festivals (though food’s a big part of it), these are celebrations of a local community, culture and cuisine. The particular foodstuff they celebrate completely ranges — anything from white truffle to chocolate to pumpkins to chestnuts to wine. And the best season for them? The autumn! Which is why I just wrote about seven of the best sagre in Italy in autumn — from a little town just outside Rome to Puglia to Piedmont — for The Guardian. Check it out here.

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Where, Oh Where, to Eat in Rome on Easter?

Italian food... that can be hard to find on Easter!

Here's some irony for you: Easter's the most important feast in the Christian calendar — but in the home of the Pope himself, it's also the toughest day of the year to find food. At least in restaurants in Rome.

Ironic or not, it, well, makes sense. Most Italians are at home on Easter, chowing down that feast with family. Even restaurateurs.

Whether it's ironic or not, though, one thing's for sure: For travelers to Rome, it's definitely inconvenient. So find out what's open in advance… and, since you'll be competing for dinner slots with lots of other hungry travelers (it's high season now, after all!), book your meals a few days ahead of time, too. Unless you don't mind eating microwaved spaghetti and meatballs on Tourist Alley every night.

"So then, where do I book?" you say. "Which of Rome's great restaurants are actually open on Easter? I'm so worried I won't experience that fantastic Italian food I've heard all about!"

Worry no longer: Rome food guru Katie Parla's got you covered. I'm especially down with her recommendations of Da Danilo and Roma Sparita (despite being more than a little worried that, post-No Reservations mention, it'll start to go the way of this once-loved Rome restaurant.)

Buon appetito!

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Rome’s Best Cannoli — and Other Sicilian Goodies

Ciuri Ciuri cannolo, Sicilian cannoli, Rome
It wasn't until I moved to Rome that I learned something very, very important: The sign of a fresh (read: good) cannolo is that the tube is only filled with that delicious, just-cloying enough ricotta mixture when you order it. Not before.

That's just one of many things that Ciuri Ciuri, the Rome-based Sicilian pastry shop, does right.  

You may have had cannoli before, but — unless you've been to Sicily — you probably haven't had cannoli like these. I once met a Sicilian girl living here who swore that Ciuri Ciuri's cannoli were the only ones she would touch between flights home. And, as a confession, I usually find Italian sweets not-quite-sweet-enough. (Hey, I'm American: More is better, baby). That's never a problem with Ciuri Ciuri. (That, combined with the fact that one of their stores is right across the street from me, makes this shop very dangerous indeed).

But no need to stop at a cannolo (with orange slice, pistachios, or chocolate chips, as you prefer). How about something Sicilian and savory, like an arancino? Or something that looks savory but isn't… like this marzipan? (I swear the corn cob tasted like corn. No, I wasn't sure how I felt about that).

Marzipan from Ciuri Ciuri pastry shop, Rome

Ciuri Ciuri isn't Rome's cheapest pastry shop. A cannolo is (if I recall) €2.50, and those three chunks of marzipan above set me back some €8.

But when it comes to tasting a little slice of heaven, who's counting coins?

Ciuri Ciuri has four Rome locations: Monti (Via Leonina 18/20), Celio (Via Labicana 126/128), Largo Argentina (Largo Teatro Valle 1/2), and Trastevere (Piazza San Cosimato 49b). (Click the link for maps). And, by Rome standards, they're open strangely late — till midnight at all locations but Celio, where they're open till 11pm.

Verrrrry dangerous.

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Romeing, On Newsstands Now

Finally, Rome has an answer to "Time Out": Romeing, a free mini-magazine that publishes a full calendar of events, plus articles and reviews, each month.

Although there are other print publications like this in Rome, none are in English. (One exception: "Where Rome," but its calendar isn't exactly exhaustive). Aimed at expats or travelers looking for something to do beyond the Vatican or Colosseum, whether a new modern art show at the Maxxi or a rugby match viewing at Flaminio Stadium, it's small enough to slide into your back pocket or purse.

Check it out…plus my contributions, including my monthly "Tips & Tricks" column (inspired by the same section in this blog!).

You can pick up Romeing at a variety of hotels, museums, bars, and embassies around the city, including the Galleria Borghese, Maxxi, Bibli (Trastevere), Mimi e Coco (Piazza Navona), Magnolia (Campo dei Fiori), the British embassy, Australian embassy, and Leonardo da Vinci language school, among others.

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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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How to Eat Responsibly in Italy and Beyond

The wonderful meals you can enjoy in Italy might not be around forever. Between globalization, a farming crisis, and the demand (particularly by tourists) for out-of-season products, the way Italy makes and consumes its food is changing. Just check out the relatively-sudden prevalence of grocery stores (there are three within a 5 minutes' walk from me) or the crowds that pack the (yes, few and far between, but still existing) McDonald's in Rome for proof.

The same way you'd think twice before tossing garbage into the street, think about how your choices of restaurants and foods might impact the (culinary and natural) environment around you. Katie Parla gives some excellent tips for how to be a conscientious eater — in Italy, or anywhere.

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