If it’s spring, I want to be in Italy. I’m not saying my desire always turns into reality, but it’s top-of-mind like, say, when it’s 8pm and I’m dying for a big square of Vahlrona and a Medici goblet-size glass of red.
This year, the carbo-loading gods were listening and they granted me 120 hours (that’s five days for those of you who don’t calculate bliss like I do) in the Eternal City. After that, I was given nine days in Tuscany. While there’s nothing like the rolling, green hills of Chianti or the Super Tuscan-producing eastern shore, La Maremma, I’m a sucker for the grit and antiquity of Rome.
Where else can you nibble on a formaggi & salumi plate while staring at a temple dedicated to all the gods of Pagan Rome? (The Pantheon.)
There’s nothing better than pressing the pause button on my day around 5pm and sipping an Aperol Spritz on the former grounds of the 1st Century’s Stadium of Domitian (Yep, that’s Piazza Navona.)
Pizza, suppli and a carafe of house red will never be as delicious as when they’re enjoyed a javelin’s throw from the Colosseum. (Proper name- Flavian Amphitheater)
As you can imagine, I get really, really excited when planning my meals, mid-day breaks, bites and sips around Rome. So much food, so little time. I do a deep-dive into my research, heavily relying on the local experts like Elizabeth Minchilli, Katie Parla, Maria Pasquale of “Heart Rome” and Natalie Kennedy of “An American in Rome.”
The ladies did not lead me astray. From their expert taste buds to my dear friend, Chrissy’s tried and true list of favorites in the Centro Storico, I didn’t have a bad meal. What am I saying?! Six weeks have since passed and I can remember EVERY. SINGLE. BITE.
Here’s my Rome Top 10 List for you and your next flavor adventures!
- Da Enzo- Via dei Vascellari, 29 (Trastevere)
Trastevere is to Rome what the Rive Gauche/St. Germain-de-Pres is to Paris. The vibe is young, “Money’ed Millenial” coupled with the feeling that you’ve just stepped onto a movie set.
I lived here in college, on Via della Scala, age 20-going-on-21, and it’s where I discovered food, real food. Da Enzo is the exact embodiment of the neighborhood: authentic, take-me-as-I-am rustic goodness (…with the teeniest bit of attitude).
Come here for great, simple food at surprisingly low prices. I am a sucker for their pasta alla gricia and housemade burrata. But next time I’ll pay more attention to the ‘piatti del giorno.’ The table next to me ordered the fettuccine with wild baby asparagus as well as the 7-layer lasagna and I think I drooled a little onto my plate.
2. Hostaria Costanza– Piazza del Paradiso (behind Campo dei Fiori)
You want every dinner experience in Rome to be just like this. Tucked away near Campo dei Fiori, Hostaria Costanza is just the right spot for everyone from 30-something, traveling foodies (ahemmm) to Vatican priests.
Where else could you find a restaurant sporting vaulted stone ceilings that are 2,000 years old?! Stay humble and hungry while reflecting on the fact that Costanza just happens to be built into the surviving portico of the Teatro di Pompeo, you know, the exact spot where Brutus stabbed Caesar during the Ides of March in 44BC. Next, think antipasti. The long table that greeted you at the front door is one of the many reasons Costanza will always be on my Rome Top Ten List. You’ll find platters of everything from house-marinated baby onions to fried eggplant to melt-in-your-mouth fresh mozzarella. The waiter will expertly pluck a selection of appetizers for you and then you need to press on into the depths of the menu. The primi (the pasta course) that I will never forget is Costanza’s Rigatoni alla Norcina. It hails from the town of Perugia and is basically a sausage cream sauce lightly perfumed with truffles and shavings of orange zest. It makes no sense. Truffles and oranges should not go together…it should not be good but… ma che buonissimo!
3. Perilli– Via Marmorata, 39 (Testaccio)
As only American-cum-Roman culinary goddess, Elizabeth Minchilli, could phrase it, Perilli is where she would have her “last meal before the rapture, earthquake, end of days.” Minchilli and her family have a standing table at the 106 year-old Testaccio staple for the sacred Sunday lunch and she swears by everything from the “frumpy in the best way” dining room to the most exceptional plate of rigatoni alla carbonara in all of the Eternal City. As she relays about the restaurant’s famed carbonara, the “al dente rigatoni bathed in a wet ooey gooey coating of cheese and egg [is] studded with huge chunks of guanciale. I could eat it every day. Three times a day.” What more can I add? I loved that Perilli chooses to use big fat rigatoni- instead of thin spaghetti- for the dish so that the sauce gets trapped in the tubes and is more easily delivered to my expectant mouth. Because it was spring, I ordered vignarola, the ancient Roman dish that literally dates back thousands of years and features the bounty of a Lazio spring- fava beans, petit pois and artichoke hearts. The pork ‘secondo’ with fried potatoes came highly recommended but I just couldn’t. I skipped the meat and went straight for a heavenly little dish of tiramisu.
*Pro tip- Arrive 30 minutes to an hour before your reservation and hop next door to Volpetti (pictured above). I’ve never seen an array of salumi- much of it truffled and truly spectacular- like theirs in my life! A true Roman “find” and they can shrink wrap many of your purchases to pack in your luggage for the trip home
4. Li Rioni– Via dei Santi Quattro, 24 (Colosseum)
A trip to Rome is not, well, a trip to Rome without Pizza Night. It needs to happen post-8pm when the Romans are finally peckish after their aperitivo-hour marathon, and the real pizzerie have opened their doors and stoked their ovens. The classic Roman pizza is thin, almost crispy at the edges, and hedges on the side of minimalism instead of Brooklyn excess. This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t order a pizza that lists 7 different artisanal toppings- you should! But just realize that two artichoke hearts and 5 slices of salami will appear, not a kilo of sausage and your grandma’s garden. Pizza is also never ordered alone. There is a delicious preamble before the main event that showcases the Romans’ deft skills with the deep fryer. The fritti that you should focus on include fiori di zucca (fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies), suppli (rice mixed with tomato sauce, rolled into balls, stuffed with nuggets of mozzarella and then deep-fried) and olive ascolane (stuffed, breaded and fried olives). Italians tend to go for beer over wine when enjoying pizza. Heck, I say start with vino and then finish with una bella birra.
*Pro Tip- You can not miss the suppli here. Start with two but don’t be afraid to order more.
5. Beppe e I Suoi Formaggi– Via Santa Maria del Pianto, 9A (Jewish Ghetto)
Ever since I’ve lived in New York City, there has been a Murray’s Cheese. This means that I am totally spoiled by vast quantities of cheese artfully displayed behind a glass case, sold and sampled by extremely competent staff. Until a few years ago, this was not the scenario in Rome. In the nick of time, Beppe (Giuseppe) Giovale sashayed into town from the Piedmont region (land of truffles and Barolo, among other foodie delights) and opened up cheese shop in the Jewish Ghetto. He is a cheese producer, first and foremost, and features his Piedmont-origin cheeses beneath a long, glassed-in counter as well as in a gorgeous, well-lit “cave” along the back wall. I selected one of the larger platters to enjoy with my friend, Chrissy, and enjoyed the unctuous, sublime nuggets of milk and hard work in the adjoining, casual restaurant. It all made for the perfect way to spend a quiet Saturday afternoon.
6. Flavio al Velvevodetto– Via di Monte Testaccio, 97
(The above photo was not taken at Flavio al Velavevodetto. It’s just beautiful- like Flavio’s food!)
I’m spoiling you with restaurants housed in ancient ruins. And restaurants that you will dream about for the next 5 years. Flavio al Velavevodetto is to me, what Perilli is to Elizabeth Minchilli. This is cucina romana at it’s best. Senti… (That means, “Listen up!”)
Flavio takes itself very seriously- and I mean that in the best way. To the benefit of you, me and every other savvy diner, the restaurant grows their own vegetables in Northern Lazio as well as raises their own herds and flocks. This doesn’t just mean “sustainable” and “responsible.” This means that you will never taste a zucchini flower so fragrant, nor will you slice into a polpette di bollito (fried meatball) as tender and flavorful. Though, my tippy-top-of-the-list-favorite is their pasta alla gricia, essentially the lesser known cousin of pasta alla amatriciana. Yes, do away with the crushed tomatoes! Just give me a bowl of rigatoni with heaps of guanciale, a shower of pecorino and several twists of pepe (black pepper). The best part is, Flavio is located in Monte dei Cocci, or Monte Testaccio, an ancient landfill from the third century A.D. where Romans used to dump their amphorae (pots used to store water or oil). Yes, Flavio al Velavevodetto is housed in an ancient landfill. And you will never eat so well.
*Pro Tip- No matter what, order the pasta alla gricia
7. Settimio al’ Arancio– Via dell’Arancio, 50 (Spanish Steps)
Fabulous friends know fabulous restaurants. When my handbag and footwear designing friend, Michelle, texted with a name and an address near the Spanish Steps, next door to Palazzo Fendi, I knew I had to go. Her recommendation came some seven years ago and I have never missed a lunch at Settimio all’ Arancio since. The family-run trattoria focuses on elegant pasta preparations, super fresh (and expertly fried) seafood and grilled meat. Settimio is the amazing Roman mix of cloth napkin service, $15 entrees and a wine-by-the-glass menu that features extraordinary finds. A meal-for-two that would cost $300 in New York is just over $100 here. When I visited just over a month ago I was thrilled to see that the family had opened up a connecting room and added an elegant wine & salumi bar. But, food first. I must have felt some sort of calorie deficit because I ordered an antipasti of Millefoglie di Calamari e Carciofi, essentially a round timbal of fried baby calamari layered with fried artichokes. I followed my fried decadence with calamaretti-shaped pasta (short, fat, wide tubes of pasta) with dentice rosso (red snapper in a light tomato cream sauce). I skipped my usual order of Calamaro Ripieno di Provola e Melanzane (a large calamari stuffed with provolone cheese and sautéed eggplant) They begged me to order dessert; I demurred. The kind, attentive waiter brought me limocello sorbet anyway. Dio, I love this place!
8. Sorpasso– Via Properzio, 31,33 (Prati)
Come here for the prosciutto bar. Come here for the buzz. Come here for the great uniforms proclaiming, “Life’s Too Short To Drink Cheap Wine!” Whenever I’m across the river, either ambling around Castel Sant’Angelo or the little side streets near the Vatican, I make sure to time my visit for an aperitivo hour at Sorpasso. It’s become a Prati neighborhood staple for that truly Roman time of day, 5-7pm, when everyone wants a spritz, a nibble and to check out their neighbor. While I have eaten dinner here, I wasn’t terribly impressed with what the kitchen turned out. I recommend saddling up to the bar and enjoying the formaggi & salumi platters, the trappizini (baked bread pockets stuffed with an array of goodies) and the exceptional wine-by-the-glass list. Sit back, relax and feel very Roman.
9. Giggetto– Via del Portico d’Ottavia, 21a
I have always wanted to enjoy dinner at Giggetto, if nothing else but for its proximity to the gorgeous Portico d’Ottavia. The portico represents the center of the Roman Ghetto- four small blocks between the Tiber River, the Turtle Fountain, the Theatre of Marcellus and the Palazzo Cenci- and dates back 2,000 years. It was built in 27BC by Augustus for his sister, Octavia Minor, then was burned and restored several times all the while shifting functions from temple to library to church to fish market. This is an ancient face that has undergone some major face lifts! And since I only like my (long overdue) history lessons when I can enjoy them with a sizeable plate of perfectly fried artichokes and Lazio Syrah, I finally booked a table for 6, outside on the patio, facing Ottavia’s door, on this trip. Giggetto proved to be both a tourist and local staple for good reason. The carciofi alla giudea– always one of the main draws at any of the Jewish Ghetto restaurants- were sensational, both crisp and tender, and the pastas were very good. The puntarelle with anchovy dressing were outstanding. Don’t arrive at Giggetto expecting to be blown away by creativity or precision in the kitchen but do look forward to once-in-a-lifetime scenery and Jewish Roman classics.
*Pro Tip- Call ahead to reserve a table outside.
10. Il Piccolo– Via del Governo Vecchio, 74 (Piazza Navona)
In my opinion, the “littlest” wine bar in all of Rome (thus, it’s name, Il Piccolo), is also the best. Tucked just behind Piazza Navona on a buzzy, beautiful, chaotic stretch of Via del Governo Vecchio, Il Piccolo is the neighborhood wine bar we Americans do not have. There are maybe 5 tables inside, with a half dozen more that spill out onto the sidewalk, nice weather permitting. You’ll find a few tourists, but many locals and at least one big table of regulars who play dominoes, lament life and drink their fare share of cheap, good red wine.