Rome is unquestionably one of the world’s greatest food cities. Not only is there plenty to eat across all price ranges, but it’s obvious if you’ve spent any time there that food is really, really important to the locals. It is said that the life of every self-respecting Frenchman revolves around the three meals of the day. This rings even truer for Romans, especially because inhabitants of the Eternal City tend to sneak in a couple extra daytime snacks. A maritozzo as a midmorning snack? I don’t see why not.
Rome is paradise for carb lovers, so the first thing that comes to mind about Roman cuisine is probably its delicious pasta, with recipes of somewhat mythical status such as carbonara (with pork jowl bacon, Pecorino Romano, raw egg yolks and black pepper), cacio e pepe (a creamy sauce of Pecorino Romano and black pepper) and amatriciana (think carbonara, plus tomatoes, minus the eggs). There’s plenty of meat, as well. While Rome for centuries has fed its legions of cardinals, princes and noblemen with the best cuts from the four limbs of each animal, what was left for the city’s less-privileged inhabitants was offal. From this bounty of hearts, livers, lungs and tripe — aptly known as quinto quarto, or “fifth quarter” — comes some of the most traditional dishes: coda alla vaccinara (ox tail), trippa alla romana (tripe), coratella (a meat stew where, really, anything goes).
The Jewish community, too, shaped the Roman culinary tradition: Tolerated but continuously tormented with demeaning regulations, Jews were forced to live in the ghetto, and by the Pope’s order in 1555, offal was their only meat. From the Jewish tradition comes another highlight of any Rome visit: the ubiquitous fritti, or fried things, from carciofi alla giudia (fried artichokes “Jewish style,” literally) to crocchè (potato croquettes) to fried zucchini flowers to supplì (fried rice balls).
So good food is really easy to find, yes, but with the historic center packed full of tourists at all times of the year, there are obvious consequences: Beware of the countless abysmal trattorias aggressively luring unsuspecting customers with identical offers of overpriced, overcooked pasta and frozen pizza. Be careful, do a little research and strive for authenticity. The following list is a good place to start.
Armando al Pantheon
A pagan temple turned Christian church, the Pantheon has been sitting in the heart of Rome for centuries and is one of the most popular tourist attractions. It is therefore almost a miracle (the gods must have a say even in such mundane matters) that one of the city’s most authentic restaurants is right around the corner, serving up a menu of timeless classics such as pasta alla gricia (with guanciale, pecorino cheese and black pepper) and abbacchio a scottadito (grilled lamb chops). The restaurant is so tiny that you’ll need to move your knife and fork in motion with the people sitting at the next table in order to avoid bumping elbows. Be patient: Real estate is incredibly expensive in the area, and this is how the restaurant keeps its prices so reasonable. Salita dei Crescenzi 31, 00186 Roma; armandoalpantheon.it
In Italian, “sforno” is first-person singular of the verb “sfornare,” meaning “to take out of the oven.” From the outside, it is easy to overlook this unassuming pizzeria, tucked away on a secondary street in the Cinecittà district (where the Roman movie studios are located). It would be a mistake. Here, they serve some of the best pizza in Rome: a fluffy, fragrant dough much different from the crispy, thin pizza that is more widespread in the city. The house’s cacio e pepe — somewhat of a modern classic by now — is a must try. The pizza goes in the oven with grated Pecorino Romano and ice cubes to prevent the cheese from melting. Daily specials are listed on the blackboard, from fritti such as zucchini flowers and crocchè, supplì and an outstanding carciofo alla romana (braised artichoke with garlic, parsley and mint). The carefully curated natural-wine and craft-beer selection is not what you’d expect from the pizzeria down the road. Via Statilio Ottato 110/116, 00175 Roma; sforno.it
Da Cesare al Casaletto
Peering in from the outside, this nondescript trattoria looks a bit drab, if not run-down. And its very common name (“Cesare” is still going strong more than 2,000 years after the emperor who made it famous) might seem to confirm this looming suspicion. In recent years, though, this trattoria has come to be considered one of the best around, and it now draws its clientele from the whole city, which led to it being called Da Cesare al Casaletto, a nod to the neighborhood, in order to distinguish it from other, less conspicuous places called Cesare. The long menu features all the classics of Roman cuisine, including the seasonal specialty rigatoni with pajata, a delicacy made with the intestines of suckling calf and a dish that only recently re-emerged after a 14-year ban connected to mad-cow disease was lifted. The impressive wine list, with a focus on natural wines, is curated by sommelier Leonardo Vignoli, who used to work in high-end restaurants before deciding that a great trattoria would be more fun. Via del Casaletto 45, 00151 Roma
For such a big city, Rome is pretty conservative in terms of food. Ethnic restaurants are few and far between. Sushi is rare and usually of dubious quality, and locals tend to be, in general, wary of international trends. Yet the Romans fell in love fast and hard with this quaint little restaurant in the style of a Parisian neobistrot. From the very minute it opened, they flocked en masse to try 26-year-old chef Alba Esteve Ruiz’s fresh modern cuisine. Not even two years later, Marzapane had to undergo a complete renovation in order to add much-needed extra seating to the space. Despite the chef being Spanish, the normally skeptical Romans didn’t even blink when Ruiz’s carbonara was voted one of the best in the city. It’s a tough reservation to get, so call in advance. Via Velletri 39, 00198 Roma; marzapaneroma.com
Really great cooking starts with the best ingredients, and the Roscioli family’s commitment to sourcing the best salumi and formaggi goes way back. The youngest generation of Rosciolis decided in 2002 to turn their family grocery in the heart of Rome’s historic center into a multifunctional deli. It’s an institution cherished by tourists and locals alike. The carbonara and gricia (rigatoni with artisanal jowl bacon, Pecorino Romano, Sarawak Black Pepper) are benchmarks for how these traditional dishes should be prepared. The impressive wine list includes rare bottles and old vintages. Via dei Giubbonari 21, 00186 Roma; salumeriaroscioli.com
Not many born-and-bred Roman chefs could claim to know the city’s cuisine as well as Arcangelo Dandini, who authored a couple of books on the topic. Although still deeply rooted in tradition, his cooking is more modern and has a sense of humor (just like the chef himself), which is apparent in signature dishes such as foie gras torchon with candied melon, Maldon salt and Plasmon, a packaged biscuit beloved by many generations of Italian children. When booking, consider reserving a seat at the counter, where Arcangelo himself finishes off the dishes, sushi bar-style. Last year, Arcangelo opened Supplizio, a simple joint devoted to one of his specialties, supplì. The name is both a pun and a bit of a humble brag: “Supplizio” means “torture.” Via Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli 59, 00193 Roma
For a city known for its pasta and meat, it is perhaps surprising that so many locals would not hesitate to describe this elegant seafood restaurant as their favorite place in Rome. A big reason is the unrivaled quality of its fish. The crudi (raw fish) are perfect, as is the signature pasta with locally sourced fish. The vongole veraci (carpet shell clams) in the spaghetti come straight from Sabaudia, a pleasant seaside town south of Rome, while the anchovies in the Spelt Spaghetti with bread crumbs and ash-roasted peppers come from the island of Ponza. Don’t be intimidated by the formal appearance: This elegant restaurant offers warm, friendly service. In the warmer months, ask to be seated outside, at one of the tables in Via dei Chiavari, a scenic alley that is as Roman as it gets. Via dei Chiavari 4/5, 00186 Roma; ilsanlorenzo.it
Pipero Al Rex
In the age of the celebrity chef, it is quite rare to find a restaurant named after his maître. It takes a large personality for that. Enter Alessandro Pipero, an old-school restaurant man consumed by his love of the long-lost art of hospitality. He’s turned this place, located in a contemporary hotel with little charm, into a destination of choice among Roman diners. The credit must be equally shared between him and chef Luciano Monosilio, whose cuisine cleverly combines a gourmet offering, such as gambero caffè e latte (coffee and milk shrimp), with crowd-pleasers like carbonara, here served by weight: It comes in all sizes, from just a forkful (50 grams) to a ginormous portion of 250 grams. Via Torino, 149, 00184 Roma; hotelrex.net/restaurant
This cozy bar in Monteverde Vecchio takes its commitment to natural wines extremely seriously, serving mostly biodynamic bottles by small Italian producers to a crowd of discerning patrons who fill up the tiny, stylish room each night. Not in the mood for wine? Opt for one of revered mixologist’s Pino Mondello mezcal cocktails, such as the Mezconi, a twist on the classic Negroni with the smoky Mexican distillate replacing the traditional gin. Food, here, serves to complement the drinks, yet simple dishes such as bruschetta with butter and anchovies or battuta di fassona (beef tartare) are lovingly prepared with good ingredients. Via Fratelli Bonnet 5, 00152 Roma, vinerialitro.it
For a food writer, it’s not easy to describe a place like Al Ceppo, which partly explains why this lovely restaurant flies so far under the radar. It simply doesn’t make good copy: Al Ceppo offers a customer-centric dining experience, thanks to an extensive menu — a feature unceremoniously banned from “cool” restaurants, but a boon for regulars — and a subdued, timeless elegance. Dishes such as porcini salad, Parmigiano crumble and raspberry vinaigrette and veal sweetbreads with olive puree are flawlessly executed. The wine list is vast, classic and reasonably priced. Service is timely and professional without being cold. So it’s easy to understand why Al Ceppo is beloved by the people living in the affluent Parioli neighborhood. And it can be a real lifesaver for Sunday lunch, when many restaurants in Rome are closed. Via Panama 2, 00198 Roma; ristorantealceppo.it
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