While booking a last-minute trip to Rome, restaurant reservations took priority over ruins, although I wanted to see those, too. My fiancée and I were recouping after a family funeral – pasta and wine is a healing tonic, and I wanted bowls of cacio e pepe to work some kind of soul-curing magic.
Turns out, they did.
There’s no shortage of Rome food experts – Katie Parla, Elizabeth Minchilli, and Rachel Roddy come to mind – not to mention my friends, travel advisors, and journalists. This kind of “where to eat and drink” research is one of the anticipatory pleasures of planning a trip.
I wanted a mix of classic Rome, within walking distance from our home base near the Piazza del Popolo, plus a few farther-flung dining spots. And I wanted to allow for serendipity to take over: If we spied an osteria down an inviting alley with ivy climbing its bricks, we could cancel our plans and drop in.
There were a few disappointments, but more often memorable dining and drinking moments in the Eternal City. Luckily, we averaged 24,000 steps per day to balance everything out.
Bombolini alla Crema and Gran Caffé at Sant’Eustachio
You’re not going to find bad coffee in Rome. Open since 1938, this beloved spot is touristy (note the mugs, bags, and other branded souvenirs for sale), yet we returned almost daily for espresso and the addictive, single-bite bombolini alla crema. These sweet Italian doughnuts filled with a bit of cream pair wonderfully with a gran caffé, their version of an espresso – with steamed milk, if preferred. If you don’t take your coffee sweetened, make sure to say so before they dump sugar in. You can sit outside at one of the tables, but the price of your order will double. Do as the locals – and throngs of tourists – do and sidle up to the coffee bar.
Hotel de Russie’s Iced Coffee
My other coffee obsession turned out to be at our hotel. I returned several times to the Hotel de Russie’s take on iced coffee, served up in a wine glass at the see-and-be-seen Stravinskij Bar. (Sightseeing + Wine with Lunch = Need Caffeine Jolt!) Unsweetened on my request, it tasted faintly of sweet cocoa, a testament to the quality of the beans. Though it was ice cold, there wasn’t any ice in the glass. The secret? The bartender uses a cocktail shaker to create a frothy, smooth texture. It’s a version of what is known as a shakerato in Italy.
Cocktails at the bar come with quite the spread – mini fish sliders, salmon tartare, generous bowls of olives, breadsticks, and vegetable crudité. It truly became my happy place in Rome; we even skipped a restaurant reservation one night to spend several more hours people-watching and enjoying bar food and drinks.
Gelato at Il Gelato di San Crispino
I love a basic cup of Italian stracciatella gelato as much as the next person, but I’ll remember the less typical, preservative-free flavors here the most. Try their popular, creamy eponymous ice cream with a strawberry-tree and honey sauce from Sardinia, or the fresh-walnut and dried-fig ice cream. Also of note: lemon sorbet made with Amalfi Coast lemons, and clementine sorbet with fruit grown in Sicily.
Cacio e Pepe at Flavio al Velavevodetto
You can’t leave Rome without ordering cacio e pepe (pasta with pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper) at least once. Flavio al Velavevodetto’s version was my favorite, even though I’ll never know how to say the restaurant’s name properly. Located in the working-class Testaccio neighborhood and built on the site of an ancient Roman dump (you can still see terracotta pots through one of the glass walls), the restaurant first appears small, until you notice how many rooms snake down to the bottom levels. It was filled almost entirely with locals the night we went. Here, you can also try another Roman classic: carciofi alla Romana, or braised Roman artichoke hearts.
Armando al Pantheon’s Lemon Pasta
Despite its location a stone’s throw from the Pantheon, this family-run trattoria has been a beloved local favorite since 1961. It’s cozy and wonderful and serves up the best of Roman staples such as cacio e pepe and spaghetti carbonara. But it was the spaghetti alla verde (pasta with lemon, arugula, and parmesan) that I’ll try to recreate at home. Also a stand-out: chargrilled lamb chops that fell off the bone.
Seafood at Osteria Gensola
Chances are you might see the day’s seafood shipment arrive as you’re browsing Osteria Gensola’s menu. Located in a less-trafficked area of Trastavere, this convivial, small neighborhood spot specializes in the freshest of fish, though they do have classic pasta dishes, too.
A Cornetto from La Buvette
Do as the Italians do, and order a cornetto with your espresso in the morning at La Buvette, a charming café on Via Vittoria.
A cornetto (Italian for “little horn”) and a croissant (French for “crescent”) are in the same family of breakfast pastries, but the former is less buttery and flaky than its French cousin, with more of a bread-like texture – you’ll feel slightly more virtuous eating one in the morning. La Buvette also has wonderful mini orange-scented olive oil cakes.
Panini at Duecento Gradi
What this spot lacks in ambiance – it has more of a grab-and-go, brightly lit feel – it more than makes up for in/with perfect panini, starting with the freshly made, crisp and chewy bread. I went with the sardines, mozzarella, and zucchini flower version as fuel before our incredible, in-depth Vatican tour with Context Travel. Don’t count on a table, but they turn over fast.
Wine (Any Wine) at L’Angolo Divino
This small and dim wine bar is what you hope to stumble upon in Rome, with bottle-lined walls, aperitivo snacks such as cheese and olives, and a friendly host, who will help you decide what to order as it fills up with Roman friends meeting for drinks. It’s just far enough away from the madness of Campo dei Fiori.
All photos by Annie Fitzsimmons.