There are some subjects I would be reluctant to ask a Roman for advice on: how to form an orderly queue, how to negotiate a pedestrian crossing or the appropriate age for a man to move out of his mamma’s house. But, when it comes to how and where to eat, it pays to do as the Romans do. Like its people, Roman cuisine is unpretentious, nourishing and full of character. Seasonal since long before the Empire, it washes down nose-to-tail eating with a healthy dose of field-fresh greenery.
I lived in Rome just long enough to find my gastronomic feet. Overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of culture and history I should be taking in, I centred my days off on finding a new edible delight, stopping off to look at a Raphael or an ancient fresco en route. Such would be my advice to any Roman visitor: listen to your stomach – not your audioguide. Eschew the crowds at Piazza di Spagna, ignore the nonnas rolling pasta in restaurant windows around Campo di Fiori and instead follow the lead of hungry Romans – just remember to look out for oncoming traffic.
A Roman breakfast can be one of two things. A square of pizza rossa, wrapped in greaseproof paper and eaten at a charge down the street, or a small but perfectly formed pastry, preferably filled with crème pâtissière. Both are to be washed down with a jolt of bitter coffee – note, this is called un caffè, never an espresso.
Antico Forno Roscioli
Via dei Chiavari, 34
Indisputably the best bakery in Rome. Come at any time of day for a glutenous fix, but their breakfast offering stands out from the crowd – and be ready to fight your way to the front. Six foot long slabs of pizza rossa, perilously thrown in and out of a wood-fired oven being being sliced to order.
Roscioli Caffè Pasticceria
Piazza Benedetto Cairoli, 16
Just across the way from the bakery you’ll find the Roscioli family’s restaurant – their carbonara is just as it should be – next door to their metro-chic coffee shop. Miniature smoked salmon buns and cream-filled sfogliatelle are to taken standing at the glass-fronted bar, washed down with the closest you’ll find to Australian-style coffee this side of the Channel.
Piazza di S. Eustachio, 82
A few steps away from Rome’s mesmerising oculus, the Pantheon, pick up a mid-morning cappuccino brewed with house-roasted coffee beans and water which flows into the machine via an ancient aqueduct. Beans can be ground to order to take home, too.
Via Giovanni da Empoli 37
The beautiful offspring of a Calabrian chef and a Danish baker, recently-launched Marigold offers homemade cinnamon rolls for breakfast and hand-cut pappardelle with lamb ragu for lunch. Artistically executed, I can guarantee it tastes as good as it looks.
It’s amazing how hungry one can get between pizza for breakfast and pasta for lunch. Fortunately Rome has plenty of places where a hungry traveller can rest their weary feet, before picking up where they left off – en route to another meal.
Via Giovanni Branca, 88
Corners of focaccia, laid thick with the foundations of Roman cuisine. Tongue in salsa verde, meatballs in tomato sauce and melanzane parmigiana are just some of the daily-changing fillings you might encounter in this vibrant Testaccio fueling station.
Via dei Banchi Vecchi, 143
The ultimate Roman street food, a suppli is the northern Italian equivalent of an arancino. Breadcrumbed balls of risotto stuffed with anything from ragu to mozzarella, they are the ultimate mid-afternoon mouthful.
Via Felice Cavallotti, 36b
A little off the beaten track, this artisan gelateria in Monteverde is worth the hike. The owner churns each flavour from scratch, drawing inspiration from the seasons. Saffron & roasted walnut, Sicilian pistachio and blackcurrant & ricotta – these are far beyond your usual cornetto.
Whether it’s for a restorative bowl of cacio e pepe or a decadent three course meal, Italians make time to sit down for lunch. I urge you to do the same.
Mordi e Vai
Nuovo Mercato Comunale di Testaccio, Via Beniamino Franklin
Take a pew and bathe in the glory that is Sergio’s panino all’allesso. Nothing more than bread roll filled with slow-cooked beef and braised winter greens, it has left better men than me speechless. A glass of vino rosso from the wine merchant next door is a delightful pairing.
Lungotevere Testaccio, 7
Look past the clichéd checked tablecloths and signed photographs of Pavarotti, and you’ll find a carbonara and an amatriciana that stand the test of time. One of the oldest trattorias in Rome, still run by the same family who opened its doors in the 1930s.
Via Giovanni da Castel Bolognese, 63
A reliable, straightforward trattoria run by a family who treat tourists with the same honest respect they do regulars. Take them at their Sunday best – lasagne, roast porchetta rounded off by tiramisù – you won’t regret it.
Aperitivo hour is something we’ve never quite managed to emulate in Britain. Businessmen, students, elderly couples and families with children in tow, meeting in the last of the evening light to wash away the cares of the day. A single glass of something chilled before heading out to supper, it’s a million miles from happy hour, our own sad interpretation of this Italian habit.
Via Fratelli Bonnet, 5
Litro is a rare find – a bar whose wine list is entirely dedicated to natural and biodynamic Italian grapes. Knowledgeable staff with a friendly but laissez-faire attitude, both the wine and the relaxed atmosphere offer welcome breathing space in a city that can overwhelm all the senses.
Via del Monte della Farina, 38
Select a glass from the excellent and reasonably-priced list or wander the shop floor and crack open a bottle from the well-stocked shelves, the choices at this well-kept Roman secret are endless.
Bar San Calisto
Piazza di S. Calisto, 3
I ended up here on my first night in Rome, relieved to finally catch a glimpse of bonafide Romans in a sea of Trastevere’s tourists. From that day on it became my local, more for the people-watching than for the offering, although this isn’t bad either. On a baking hot day, order a sgroppino: lemon sorbet doused in vodka or prosecco.
What appeals to me most about Roman cuisine is the effortlessness of it all – good ingredients, simply cooked and enjoyed in unpretentious circumstances. None of these restaurants require a change for dinner, but the food will impress upon your memory forever.
Via Giovanni Branca, 100
Testaccio was once the heart of the city’s slaughterhouse industry and this rustic trattoria just off the main square has stayed true to those roots. Trippa alla romana and coda alla vacinara are just two of the sensational dishes that brought this squeamish British woman round to offal.
Via di Monte Testaccio 97
Built into a fascinating hill made of ancient amphorae, this bustling trattoria has become attracted a cult following of its own. All the usual Roman suspects at a very affordable price, made with locally-sourced ingredients.
Trattoria da Augusto
Vicolo De’ Renzi, 15
Formica tables, bills written on the paper tablecloths – this is a no frills dining experience worth standing in a queue for. Tucked away in a corner of tourist-ridden Trastevere, the flavours and feeling of this family-run trattoria are genuine. If you’re very lucky, coniglio alla cacciatora (rabbit in tomato sauce) will be on the daily-changing menu.
Shop like a local
Never more true than in Italy, the best food is to be found at home. Having spent weeks trailing Romans into restaurants, I turned my attention to their shopping habits. Unlike in London, everyone in Rome, from nonna to young professional, relies on their local market for their meat, fish and most importantly, seasonal produce.
Circo Massimo Farmers Market
74, Via di S. Teodoro
Rome’s central Slow Food market, open only at weekends. A one stop shop for organic seasonality, with everything from line-caught fish from the nearby harbour at Anzio to fresh egg pasta, extruded to order. A fantastic place to find edible gifts, without a tourist price tag.
Nuovo Mercato Comunale di Testaccio
Via Beniamino Franklin
Recently rebuilt, Testaccio’s covered market is home to the city’s best sandwich (see Lunch) as well as all the makings of a truly flavoursome home-cooked meal. Two butchers, half a dozen fruit & vegetable merchants, mouth-watering deli counters – only a swarm of trolley-wielding nonnas stands between you and authentic Roman fare.
Mercato Rionale Niccolini
Via Baccina, 36
Just one of Rome’s many local markets, hidden in a sidestreet in Monteverde. Frequented exclusively by local residents, this is less perhaps on first sight less glamorous than the other markets but the quality of goods is still exceptional.