Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Restaurant recommendations in Rome

While in Rome in March for 10 days I returned to many of my favourite restaurants. Many Roman restaurants are family owned, often the mother or father are the cooks and the waiters are relatives or people who have been working with the family for decades. Being a waiter in Rome is a profession not like in North America something you do waiting for a better job. The waiters are often mature men, no there are no waitresses, a women can be at the cash or cooking but not waiting on tables, this is a man's job.

The decor is simple in most restaurant, you have tablecloth and cloth napkin, the cutlery is polished, the restaurant is your dining room and the atmosphere most be conducive to dining in a relaxing, convivial, leading to conversation, no jarring background music. The emphasis is on quality food, well prepared, fresh ingredients, something that is sorely lacking in North America where often the food prepared is frozen or from industrial quantities bought from large corporations who deliver to restaurants. In Italy, the cook still goes to market everyday and will buy fresh, fish, seafood, meat, vegetable and fruits.
Desserts are the usual torta, a crust with jam, or a torta with pecans or almonds, a mont blanc cake in winter, or a chocolate mousse cake, maybe a tiramisu if you are in a touristic area with lots of foreigners around. The tiramisu is a home made dish prepared and eaten at home not something an Italian would have in a restaurant. But it has to be understood that desserts in general are not really an item on most italian menus, an espresso is decaffeinated in the evening. Fresh fruits, a cup of wood berries simply with lemon juice or a bit of sugar is usually preferred, no whip cream, don't ask for it, they do not have it. Besides milk products are not found usually after 11 am on any menu. Each neighbourhood has a baker and the cakes and pastries come usually daily for that bakery and are delivered to the restaurant. Again quality is everything and so is personal reputation.

On any menu you will find the antipasto first, then the pasta dishes there is no meat in such dishes usually fish or seafood is a common ingredient in the sauce and again the sauce is accompanying the pasta in other words your pasta will not be drowning in pasta. If the sauce is based with tomatoes it is usually whole tomatoes used and cooked as is, usually a small cherry like tomato or a sauce made with a tomato base and other ingredients.  The second part of the  menu will have meat, usually, lamb, steak filet, veal. Again chicken is a rare menu item because it is considered the food of the poor. Do not forget to ask about accompaniment or contorno, otherwise your meat dish will be lonely on the plate.
Many people unused by this tradition are taken aback that the meat dish is served without any garnish. Ask your waiter for a contorno. Usual vegetables found on most menus and this is true of most restaurants are roasted potatoes with rosemary, sorry no french fries, spinach, chicory, not creamed but sauteed in a pan with a bit of garlic, green beans, in season you will have Porcini mushrooms, braised radicchio  or a green salad. Olive oil replaces butter, so again do not ask for it, they will not have any.
Another nice tradition I really like is instead of bread, you are offered pizza bianca which is the thin crust of the pizza taken pipping hot and crunchy from the oven and served with rosemary and olive oil.

As for wine you can have a glass or a quarter or a half liter, after that they will bring a bottle. Every restaurant has a house wine which is usually made by the family owning the restaurant and will be good table wine or a wine from a local vineyard. The difference in price is not enormous, table wine is a few euros and a good bottle of wine will be about 10 to 12 euros. You can of course have very expensive wines but again in Italy that usually means 20 to 25 euros a bottle, but this will be exceptional wine.

Now here is my very own personal list of restaurant and caffè I like in Rome, been there many times to each one and know the waiters and the family owning the place.

For dinner around 8:30pm, note good restaurants are not open prior to 8 pm. I am so use to eating late now at night that I cannot imagine having dinner before that time. Rome is more formal in the evening and you have to remember that this means dressing up, no jeans or T-shirts.

In front of the Opera house in Rome, La Matriciana owned by the Crisciotti family, this trattoria on Via del Viminale 44 has been around since 1870 and the decor was updated in the 1930's art deco style and has remained since. Again the waiters have been serving tables for at last 40 years. You need reservations if you go on a night the Opera house across the street is open, diners will come in around 11pm for late supper after the show and it will get crowded with the artists and members of the orchestra.

Anatra Grassa on Via Savoia 68 across from Villa Albani is an excellent restaurant with great nouvelle Italian cuisine.   Again reservations are recommended. The Chef a young man is a genius, he arranged a very special menu for an important anniversary I gave 2 years ago and I am still thinking of the excellent food.

For dinner or lunch

I limoncini, Via del Giuba 12, in a quiet neighbourhood off Via Asmara in the Afrika neigbourhood, so named because all the streets name are after cities in the former African colonies of Italy.
Cristiano runs the restaurant and his mother is at the cash, the staff is Philippino and the chef Egyptian but this is a very Roman restaurant, very good food and atmosphere. In the summer and early fall you can have dinner outside and it is very pleasant.

Stella Maris, Viale Regina Margherita at the corner with Via Nomentana. A Sardinian restaurant, specialty seafood dishes Sardinian style. The family running this restaurant are very pleasant, the food of good quality and reasonable prices. A very good white wine is the Vermentino di Gallura to go with your fish.

Da Giovanni, Via Antonio Salandra 1 at the corner with Via XX Settembre. Basic but brilliant, the chef is the old mother of the owner, she has been cooking since 1948. You have to go down stairs to enter the restaurant, the walls are covered with wood paneling and simple checkered tablecloth. The menu is Roman dishes, they also have in winter the best Mont Blanc Cake I have ever tasted. In March they also have the Roman Stuffed artichokes. The waiters are in their 60's and the restaurant attracts a lot of famous people in Italian society who come for a quiet meal, so try not to stare if you should recognize someone.

For a simple quick lunch or your second breakfast at 10am

My personal favourite is the Antica Gelateria on Via Alessandria at the corner of Corso Trieste, this place is also known as the Australian Bar because many years ago the Australian Embassy was across the street. Massimo runs the caffè with his very distinguished looking mother who is always impeccably dressed at the Cash. Massimo's father comes in several times a day and he looks more like a prosperous banker than a caffè owner. They are charming people all. They also have a very good Italian breakfast which consist of Tramenzino sandwiches with tomato bread or sage bread or simply plain white bread no crust. Their coffee is quite good and they also have croissants (corneto) stuffed with apricot jam.

Their cook Judy prepares light lunches, excellent salads and hot dishes. One of my favourite is her yellow curry Gnocchi.   For dessert ask for Caffè affogato from the verb affogare to drown. It's a cup of espresso coffee with a single scoop of vanilla or chocolate ice cream, the idea being that the ice cream is drowning in the coffee, absolutely delicious.

Rome Eternal City for rent temporarily.



  1. Wish I'd had your recommendations when I was there. Apart from a trad restaurant in Testaccio, I can't think of any I'd hurry back to. Best coffee (Tazza d'oro), quaintest chocolate shop (Valzani) and a few gelateria, yes. Duly noted.

    1. I have many more restaurants I can recommend. So just ask if you need a suggestion.

  2. i would think the house wines alone are worth the trip.