According to a wise, accessible piece on Rome Vacation Tips, there are several ways to identify tourist traps in comparison with restaurants that care about the quality and authenticity of the dining experience:
- Pictures of the food
- No Italians in the restaurant
- Menu in English posted outside
- Laminated menus
- 200 yards or less from a famous attraction
- People outside inviting in passersby
- My addition to this list: ask locals for their favorite places.
In the span of five days in Rome in May 2019, my partner and I encountered several radically different restaurant experiences. Since I know the attention span of many blog readers stops before the halfway point, my order of experiences will be from best to worst.
The best ristorante: All-around exquisite experience
This trip to Italy is my third one in three years, and I’m hard pressed to recall a better overall dining experience than our visit to Ristorante l’Arcangelo. Everything about the dinner was outstanding, and I recommend this restaurant in superlatives. My partner had read an online list of best places to eat in Rome, and this one caught his eye because of its mention of the chef-owner’s name. When we arrived, the host asked if we had a reservation, and when we said no, she looked at us rather sadly; then a man in a white kitchen coat waved us inside and pointed to a table near the back of the restaurant. Upon seating us, our server brought us a bowl of freshly prepared soup, calling it their “welcome.” The green puree was smooth and evenly warm, and the flavor was a blend of several vegetables; my vegetarian heart leaped. I asked for a glass of wine from the Lazio region, and the server told me it was available only in the full bottle; then she turned toward the cooler behind her and waved away her comment, dismissing the need to purchase the whole bottle. She poured a small portion, and I tested it, finding only the marks of a good wine. To taste, the wine was perfetto, and when the server returned, I told her I’d purchase the entire bottle, especially since we’d have three more days in the city.
For our first course, the server (as well as online reviewers) recommended the Supplizio, Roman-style rice balls with smoked potato croquette, which contained chicken gizzards. When we told her of my vegetarianism, she said the chef would make meatless ones especially for me. The result for each of us was a martini glass containing three croquettes. These were hot and freshly prepared, and I resisted gulping down all three so that I’d have room for the main course. For our entrée, I chose the Raviolo di cipollata ed il mio garum (ravioli with onion and the chef’s blend of spices); my partner picked the gnocchi, which he’d never had before. Each square of my ravioli was remarkable for its perfect amount of cheese and light onion filling sealed within the pasta, and when I tried my partner’s gnocchi, I must have expected what I’ve usually experienced with pasty, chewy gnocchi, but this preparation was tender, even light for potatoes; my partner commented that it was a palate-pleasing blend of tangy and savory, and the cured pork jaw added a salty flavor that complemented the others. To be more precise about his reaction, he said the main course “released endorphins with each bite.”
As we dined, we kept seeing the man who’d waved us into the restaurant as he took orders and checked on the guests in the dining room. When he approached us, I saw the red-embroidered name on his chef coat: Arcangelo Dandini. This renowned chef and owner of his own restaurant in Rome comfortably blended in with the restaurant staff, and his down-to-earth personality was simultaneously welcoming and non-intrusive. Before we left, we asked our server if the chef would take a photo with us, and our new favorite celebrity chef seemed downright flattered by two American tourists’ request.
The best osteria:
According to quite a few reviews and web pages, Osteria Antichi Sapori da Leo is a four-star diner owned by a family and is frequented by local residents of the Aurelia neighborhood. While some of the reviews have been less than stellar, we took a chance and walked to it from our BnB. When we walked through the nondescript storefront, we seated ourselves at the corner table of only eight in the small dining area. A small rectangular piece of paper and a pen lay on the table along with the one-sided, text-heavy menu. Based on what I’ve studied about Italian food culture, I recognized the primi, secondi, and tre corsi (first, second, and third course) of the menu options, and I wrote our choices on the slip of paper.
Our bruschetta–my #1 comfort food–arrived on warm, perfectly toasted bread; based on its simple, yet mouthwatering presentation and taste, I will be changing my homemade bruschetta so that it’s less busy. Before we arrived in Rome, I was determined to follow my friend Jennifer White’s strong recommendation to have authentic cacio e pepe; when our second course arrived with steam rising from the dishes of cacio e pepe, I happily realized I’d finally found a delicious version of a traditional Roman dish that contained just enough olive oil, cheese, and pepper on each piece of pasta al dente (find the kind). Thinking I was too full from the second course, my pupils surely dilated when I saw the third course—the colors of Italy represented by caprese, bright red, fresh tomatoes under a generous layer of mozzarella garnished with shredded basil and lettuce. My partner was well pleased with his first course of spaghetti pomodori and even happier with his third course of fried meatballs, which he said were a savory, tender-yet-crunchy difference from the U.S. version he’s had. Since Italian tradition is to serve meatballs separately from spaghetti, I was worried he’d be displeased, but I was pleasantly surprised with his response.
Between and during each course, I was entertained by the lively conversation of Italian men on their lunch break; including the two servers, I was one of four women in the entire place. The décor of the place held my attention perhaps even more than the gesture-heavy dialogue of my fellow diners; the walls covered in a variety of faded prints ranging from Michelangelo’s Adam and God with their always almost-touching fingertips and the column of Al Pacino’s Scarface poster and several other photos of Italy’s favorite son in Hollywood. When we checked out, the price was only ten euro for each of us. I handed the server 20 euro, and she bade us a no-nonsense “Grazie, arrivederci,” waved away my offer of more euros as a tip for overall excellence, and continued her service to the other guests. When I’m in Rome again, I will definitely seek out this spot again, and I recommend it to students traveling in the area due to the authentic, affordable experience.
The best neighborhood gathering place:
We followed our AirBnB host’s advice and walked to Ferro e Ghiza, a popular place for residents of the Aurelia neighborhood. We were happy to be seated after we told the host we hadn’t made reservations (which in retrospect I recommend), and our table was outside among five other tables where native Italian speakers were smoking and telling boisterous stories to each other as they sipped their wine. I ordered a pesto pasta, which was as distinct and fresh as possible, allowing me to taste the pine nuts and basil as separate flavors, blended exquisitely. My partner ordered the special of the day, pasta with mussels and clams, and he commented that he’d always had to “work for” mussels and clams, but not this time. We felt layered in smoke but happy with this choice. It’s an energetic, artsy environment that is clearly a favorite among the residents.
For the rest of this entry, I will list the absolute NOPEs of food choices in Rome.
Food mistake 1 and 2: Sidewalk solicitation and failing to read online reviews
On our first full day in Rome, we had worn ourselves out from walking and packing in as many notable sites as possible, and we broke our own rule of picking a restaurant along a major tourist route. The enthusiastic maître d’Ristorante Pizzeria da Marco enticed us under the restaurant’s sidewalk umbrella and gave us menus. For each item, the Italian name and English translation of the dish appeared alongside a photo of the prepared food. The laminated, spiral-bound menu showed a dark green, leafy, full artichoke, which my partner eagerly ordered for us; when it arrived, it was several pieces of chopped, canned artichokes mixed with some chopped tomatoes and shredded iceberg lettuce. I ordered a mixed salad and cacio e pepe. The server—infinitely less enthusiastic than the sidewalk host—brought my salad with my partner’s main course, and the salad was a bowl of chopped iceberg lettuce, a few chopped tomatoes, and corn.
What I felt like doing after dining at the Pizzeria da Marco
My partner had ordered the juicy steak shown in the menu, but when it arrived, it had most likely been frozen and fast-thawed; it was tough and gristly, and probably to speed its cooking, the cook had sliced it open in several places instead of searing it on the grill. By the time he’d grown tired of sawing the tough meat, I’d finished my salad, thinking the server had forgotten my pasta. As we were preparing to leave, the server appeared with my pasta: a lukewarm plate that had hardly noticeable cheese or pepper. The whole experience was hardly palatable. We laugh about it now, but at the time we were mightily disappointed.
Food mistake 3 and 4: Tourist trap breakfast and glossy photos in the menu (and a repeated mistake of not reading online reviews)
On the morning of our visit to the Vatican Museum, we made the costly mistake of having breakfast at the Caffe Vaticano across from the museum entrance. With visitors entering the restaurant from every direction and speaking many languages, our server took a while to reach our table for our order. Because my partner had been craving meat, he wanted a more traditional American breakfast; I, on the other hand, am not used to big breakfasts and ordered yogurt and the “small bowl of fruit” listed on the menu. The server brought us my caffe e latte and my partner’s banana smoothie, then we waited for our breakfast to arrive. About fifteen minutes later, the server brought a small plastic container of yogurt with a peel-back lid. About fifteen more minutes later, he procured my order of fruit—the equivalent of at least one peach, several pineapple slices, a banana, an apple, some cantaloupe, and a few strawberries. It made me wonder what the large bowl must look like. When my partner’s plate arrived, it was two eggs over hard, two pieces of bacon, two hot dogs, and two slices of dry white toast. HOT DOGS. The picture of his meal had shown bratwurst or sausage.
By the time the bill came, we had laughed at the ridiculousness of it all, and then we were shocked into silence by the amount: 47 euros, including a 5 euro “service fee.” When my partner gave the server a 50-euro bill, the server asked, “Tip?” I answered matter-of-factly, “No tip. Basta. Grazie.” On subsequent days during our visit, we had breakfast in our apartment, gathered from a few outdoor markets the previous day.
Final Wisdom: If I may leave readers with some final pieces of advice: go out of your way to find the best cafes and restaurants. Also, learn enough Italian to say thanks and please, and you’ll receive much more patience from the restaurant staff.