Everybody has their favorite spots around Rome and the guidebooks are full of suggestions, many of which have been passed around and recycled so many times that the places mentioned no longer merit the high praise that they still garner. Some do, but not all of them. For example, the famous gelateria called Giolitti, isn’t all that. Nor is the coffee at Tazza D’Oro. Don’t get me wrong, they’re good. But no better than 100 other places around town.
I’m no art aficionado, Roman historian, or culinary expert. These are simply the places that I like. Some of these are widely known while others are my own little discoveries. One of the most appealing things about this city is that you can never fully know it. Indeed, very few Romans have an in-depth knowledge of their own hometown—there’s just too much for a single lifetime.
So for what it’s worth, here are a few things that I’ve stumbled upon during my time here in the Caput Mundi. This will be a work in progress and I’ll try to update it from time to time as I discover new places or if I receive a particularly credible suggestion from somebody else in the know.
Favorite Fast Food:
Mondo Arancina, Via Marcantonio Colonna, 38. +39 06 9761 9214 Website: Mondo Arancina
They offer many variations of the famous Sicilian snack. But while some of their creative concoctions are tempting, I always stick to the classics: al ragù or al burro (prosciutto and besciamella sauce). Best street food ever invented. Period.
“Pizza e Mortadella,” Via Cavour, 281.
A great place to stop for a quick, cheap bite if you’re doing the tourist itinerary near the Coliseum, Forums, etc. They have a lot variety, the quality is excellent, and you can get in and out quickly if you’re in a hurry.
Dar Filettaro – Filetti di baccalà. Largo dei Librari, 88, +39 06 686 4018
This place is semi-famous and can be found in many of the guidebooks. There is only one thing to order here: the fried baccalà. OK, maybe two things…you’ll probably want a beer to wash it down.
RivaReno Gelato Via Magna Grecia, 25. +39 06 7759 0302 · rivareno.com
Only ten meters from the San Giovanni Metro Stop, just outside the wall. You could stop here one day while visiting the famous Archbasilica or the Holy Steps, but don’t wait for that. Next time you’re on the A-Line heading in the direction of Anagnina, get off at San Giovanni and indulge in the best gelato in Rome (maybe in all of Italy). My wife is from Sicily and even she (reluctantly) agrees. If you want to play it safe, the pistachio will never disappoint. For a new taste, try the ricotta e fichi.
One thing you’ll notice about this gelato is that the temperature is about 2°C (5°F) warmer than most gelato you’ve ever had (and warmer still than our American ice cream). You might think that this strange for a frozen dessert, but in my opinion it is one of the secrets of their success. You see, when things are too cold our taste buds are numbed and we can’t fully appreciate a flavor. (The same thing goes for white wine, by the way. It should be slightly chilled, but never cold, a mistake we Americans constantly repeat.) Anyway, whatever magic formula they’ve come up with, the results are undeniable. After you’ve experienced this “sogno,” you may feel that you owe me some great debt of gratitude. But please, lavish gifts are unnecessary—a simple “grazie,” will do.
Surprisingly, there aren’t that many true enoteche in Rome today. More “di moda” are American/British style wine bars, which try to capitalize on the trend. These new places have fancy machines to dispense the wines, which are fancier still, defeating the whole purpose of an enoteca, which is meant to be cozy place to drink good local wine and a fair price. Below I’ve listed two of the originals that are worth checking out. The first place also offers some meat and cheese plates to munch on, the second one does not. In both places, you might not find an English-speaking person behind the bar. No worries, vino rosso and/or vino bianco are the only Italian words you’ll need. Salute!
Ai Tre Scalini – Bottiglieria dal 1895 Via Panisperna, 251. +39 06 4890 7495 · aitrescalini.org
Il Vinaietto Di Marco E Giancarlo Via del Monte della Farina, 38. +39 06 6880 6989
And then there’s…
Cul de Sac P. PASQUINO 73. +39 06 68801094 http://www.enotecaculdesac.com/
I put this place here only because they call themselves an enoteca, but I really consider it more of a osteria. Sure, they have tons of great wines available by the bottle and several by the glass. But what they really do well here is their assortment of meats and cheeses from all over Italy. I like to order a sampling platter of 3 meats and 3 cheeses with a bit of bread. My favorite is the spicy salami from Calabria called, ‘Nduja.
And if you sit outside, you can have a chat with Pasquino, the talking statue. Well, he doesn’t actually “talk,” but there is a tradition of criticizing the Church or the government by writing satirical poems (or just general insults) and affixing them to the statue for all of Rome to read.
Oh, and don’t leave this place without trying the crostatine con arancia with a glass of Passito for dessert.
Favorite Roman Restaurant:
Flavio al Velavevodetto Via di Monte Testaccio, 97. +39 06 574 4194 · flavioalvelavevodetto.it
I love Roman food and I’ve found a number of places around town that satisfy me personally. However, this particular restaurant comes recommended by several of my Roman friends who have independently and impartially judged this place as one of their city’s best. I certainly don’t disagree; it’s fabulous. And once you’ve eaten here, I’ll say to you, “Ve l’avevo detto!” I told you so!
Favorite “Ethnic” Restaurant:
Capricci Siciliani Via di Panico, 83. +39 06 4543 3823 · capriccisiciliani.com
If you get tired of Carbonara, Cacio e Pepe, Coda alla Vaccinara, Trippa, and the rest of the Roman dishes, then why not try an “ethnic” restaurant. No, I don’t mean Chinese, Thai, Indian, or Sushi—those places are, without exception, bad in Rome. For a city that has such an amazing food culture, the Romans (and Italians in general) are surprisingly inept with other cuisines. Or more likely, they just don’t take them seriously. Fortunately, the Italian peninsula is rich with diverse culinary traditions that make experimentation abroad superfluous. The food of Tuscany and Sicily are particularly appealing to Italians from every part of the boot.
Indeed, Rome has plenty of restaurants that specialize in the cuisine of other Italian regions. Capricci Siciliani is a Roman outpost of a well-known restaurant in Messina, Sicily. They perform miracles with seafood ingredients—the “braciole di pesce spada” (swordfish rolls) are particularly magnificent. They also have an impressive list of Sicilian wines to accompany your meal. It’s not a cheap place, but within the norm for the center of Rome.
Favorite “other” Churches:
We’ve all seen Saint Peter’s and marveled at its magnificence, which is without question. Most of us have also visited the other important churches in Rome such as Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni in Laterano, and Saint Paul’s Outside the Wall. But Rome is absolutely packed with spectacular churches that individually would be major tourist attractions in any other city of the world. But there are dozens of these jewels and it’s easy for them to get somewhat “lost” among the more than 900 churches in the city proper. Here are a few that have struck my fancy:
Basillica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva Piazza della Minerva, 42. Near the Pantheon.
From the outside the thing that grabs your attention immediately is the relatively famous statue of an elephant and an obelisk by Bernini (designed by Bernini, executed by his pupil). The plain, simple Renaissance façade of the church itself is actually quite boring and doesn’t really invite you to explore the interior. But once inside you’ll discover the only Gothic-style church in Rome with a beautiful vaulted ceiling painted the color of the midnight sky. Also, there’s Michelangelo’s statue of Christ the Redeemer near the altar. Oh, and Saint Catherine of Siena is buried here (except her head, which is still in Siena).
San Clemente Via Labicana, 95. +39-06-7740021
This church is famous because we get to literally experience the metaphor of Rome’s layers of history. You enter into the 13th Century Basilica at street level, then descend a steep staircase into a 4th Century Basilica. Then you go down further still into a 1st Century Roman house. 2,000 years of history in about an hour—you can’t beat that! (It will cost you €5, however).
Santo Stefano Rotondo Via di San Nicola da Tolentino, 13. +39 06 4211 9130 · santo-stefano-rotondo.it
This church is interesting for its unique architecture, which as the name suggests, is in the round. It was consecrated around 470 and dedicated to the martyr Saint Stephen, whose body had been discovered a few decades before in the Holy Land, and brought back to Rome. The church was the first in Rome to have a circular plan, inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
Chiesa di Santa Barbara dei Librai, Largo dei Librai.
Perhaps the smallest church in Rome which is about the only reason to check it out. That and the fast food place next door which sells the best fried baccalà that you’ll ever try (see fast food suggestions above).
Favorite Free Art:
The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Piazza di S. Luigi dè Francesi
Get directions +39 06 688271 saintlouis-rome.net
Speaking of churches, this one is more famous for the art it contains rather than the building itself. From the outside, you may wonder why you see so many people coming and going into this rather ordinary façade. The reason is Caravaggio, arguably the most (in)famous painter to ever live and work in Rome. His reputation as a hooligan and troublemaker is only outdone by his talent as an artist. He didn’t produce that many paintings during his short life, but the very best of what he did produce is here (for free) in this church.
When you enter, go the apse on the left and walk all the way to the front. This is where you’ll find the Contarelli Chapel and the three famous canvases by the baroque master: The Calling of St Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Within these three painting we witness the full realization of the chiaroscuro style—the use of dramatic light and shadows—which Caravaggio made famous.
Don’t miss the chance to see these incredible masterpieces. Just make sure to check the times before you go.
More to come…