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Jun 15, 2006 04:11 PM

My Favorite Rome Restaurants (Kinda Long)

  • j

In return for the great advice I’ve gleaned from my fellow foodies on this site, I’d like to pass along my 2 favorite places to eat in Rome.

First a little about me, because in order to evaluate restaurant advice, you need to consider the source. I am a New York woman who travels solo to Rome twice a year. I’ve eaten all over Italy and while, yes, there are some regions where the food is consistently better than in Rome (Emilia-Romagna, for instance), I am a big-city girl who can’t stand being away from the metropolis. You have to get up from the table sometime and Rome just rings all of my bells. I’m incredibly spoiled foodwise. New York’s got the best restaurants in the world if you ask me. And also, I’m not big on ambience/decor. I judge a place by one main thing, what I call the “Bennissimo Factor.” Either the food is bennissimo or it’s not, and if it’s not, no amount of ambience can make it so. And if a place has lousy service, it really ticks me off because New York City is the world capital of snooty waiters and headcaptains. If I want the waitstaff to act as though they’re doing me a favor by serving me, I can just stay home and eat at certain places in Manhattan and be condescended to by the champs. Lastly, I love a bargain. To me there’s nothing better than finding a little gem of a place where the food is inspired, the staff is welcoming, and the price is doable for a secretary from Wall Street. So here goes:

In Rome, there are two places I return to again and again. One is in the old Jewish ghetto and fairly well-known, “Al Pompiere,” and the other I’ve never seen written up anywhere, a little place in Monti called “La Forchetta d’Oro.”

Al Pompiere is the place I make a bee-line for as soon as I dump my bags at my hotel. It’s a bit pricey by my standards, but worth every euro. I always order the same meal: I start with a carafe of the house white (I’m no oenophile) and an antipasti of fried baccala and zucchini squash blossoms. Then I order a second plate of the same thing because I’ve just gotten off the plane and I’m famished and no doubt a little hungover. Once I’m semi-alert, I go right for the main event--roasted lamb with artichokes and Gaeta olives. That’s the dish that announces to my tastebuds that I’m officially back in Rome. I don’t eat pasta at Al Pompiere because I have other places where I go just for pasta. If puntarelle is in season, I’ll have some after the lamb. If peaches or strawberries are in season, I’ll finish with those. 2 or 3 cups of café macchiato later, and it's “Il conto, per favore.” That’s my first lunch and it runs me about 40 or 50 euros.

For my first night’s dinner, I head out to a little neighborhood called “Monti” which is shoehorned in between Santa Maria Maggiore and the Forum. Before dinner, I make a pit stop at the rooftop terrace of the Golden Tulip Macenate Hotel on Via Carlo Alberto. It overlooks Santa Maria Maggiore and the view with a glass of Prosecco Conegliano in hand is pretty hard to beat, especially at the golden hour around sunset. A couple blocks away, there’s a little restaurant called “La Forchetta d’Oro” in Via San Martino ai Monti just off of Via Merulana. The owner does the cooking, there’s only 1 waiter (the same guy always) taking care of the 10 or 12 tables, and food that’s so unadorned and terrific, you’ll think you’re dreaming. Again, I’ve got my usual things I go for: I let the owner choose my wine because, like I said, that’s not my department. I start with a double-size order of perfect spaghetti con vongole veraci—tender little clams in their broth, wine & herbs. Then I take a look at the buffet set up in the center of the room and see of he’s got any of my favorites for the daily specials. If there’s roast pork with rosemary potatoes or polpettone (meatballs in ragu), I’ll order one of those. Or I’ll just scope out what my neighbors are eating and tell the waiter—“Give me some of that, please.” For dessert, I have panna cotta with raspberry sauce, a couple of brandies and that does it. The bill comes to about 30 euros. They are open 7 days – it’s just those 2 guys and, frankly, I don’t know how they do it. The food is always great, and the place is mobbed with local working people at both lunch and dinner, so you need to either reserve or get there very early. Otherwise, you won’t get a spot.

Full disclosure: I’m passing along La Forchetta and taking a chance on it being overrun for the simple reason that this place and these guys have a special place in my heart. I stumbled upon La Forchetta during my first trip to Rome 5 years ago. It was the summer of 2001—that last pristine summer before 9/11. I had just been laid off from a dotcom job in New York’s Silicon Alley with 6 months severance pay, uncontested unemployment, and not a care in the world. I figured, what the heck, I’ll spend the summer in Rome and look for another job in New York after Labor Day (yeah, right)! Anyway, I blew into town not speaking 1 word of Italian and was too much of a scaredy-pants to eat by myself in any place other than pizzerias. Until I serendipitously wandered into La Forchetta. I found the people so friendly and the food so good, I ate there every night until I got myself acclimated to Rome. I now speak halfway-decent Italian and I’ve eaten all over Italy, but I’ll always love La Forchetta the best.

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  1. That was great. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for the write-up. When in Rome, we stay at the Mecenate Palace Hotel, so having your rec on La Forchetta is great, as it is so close to the hotel. Will try it in December when we go. Do you know of other restaturants in that area which you would recommend? Agata e Romeo is nearby, but recs I have received say too expensive, too little food.

      Next time you are in the Monti area, check out l'Arte del Pane bakery on the corner of Via Merulana and Largo Leopardi. They have wonderful treats and great chocolate. Also handy for a quick carry-out meal which they will heat up for you.

      Not far from that area, heading down Via Cavour just southwest of Santa Maria Maggiore is Ristorante da Robertino on Via Panispernia 231. Robertino is a nice man (hope he is still running the place) who offers a wonderful assorted seafood platter as an antipasto. Fantastic octopus (best I have ever eaten and you would not know it's octopus from the taste) and other assorted seafood goodies which he cooses for you. A full plate of that and you might not need anything else. I also recommend his house wine - a chilled bottlen of Frascati.

      Going down Via Cavour almost to the Forum, an old favorite for a very inexpensive good meal is Valentino, near corner of Via dei Serpenti. They offer a low-price tourist menu which is quite filling. My absolute favorite is their grilled liver, which almost tastes like a steak.

      6 Replies
      1. re: CJ
        jackie Coffee

        Hi, CJ,

        Thanks so much for Valentino— liver done the right way is one of my favorite things to eat—that’s one thing I did not know where to find in Rome, so I’ll absolutely check it out. I’ll be going again the first week of October.

        As for Agata e Romeo, I’ve never eaten there because 1) it’s way out of my price range, 2) I’m very much a traditionalist when it comes to Italian food and A&R has a rep for doing unexpected, new-fangled things with food (albeit brilliantly, I hear), and 3) you need to reserve there and I typically don’t reserve anyplace I go because my itinerary is too likely to change. Rome being what it is, you can never rely on anything you want to see being open when it’s supposed to be—so I never know what neighborhood I’ll be in at any given time. So I just go with the flow and consider this part of the charm of the place.

        A very good little place in Monti is La Cicala e La Formica (the Ant and the Grasshopper) at Via Leonina 17. They do Lazio/Roman style very well for about 25 euros per person. If you Google it, you’ll find a link with their menu. (I don’t think the Chowhound site supports weblinks unless you do something special which I don’t know how to do.) The first time I tried to go there it was a Saturday night, I had no reservation, and I had been caught in a cloudburst and looked like a drowned rat. Of course they turned me away—I don’t blame them. I’d have turned me away too. No problem—the best pizza a taglio in Rome is right down the street at Leonina Pizzeria. I went back for lunch a couple of days later (still no reservation, but dressed presentably) and boy oh boy, I had melanzana agrodolce (sweet & sour eggplant) and strachetti di manzo (beef strips in gravy with arugula) that knocked my socks off.

        I don’t have any other gems in Monti, but if you want to hoof it over to Trastevere (where most of Rome’s bad restaurants are concentrated, in my opinion), there’s a Sicilian place called “La Gensola” which I can vouch for with full confidence. I much prefer southern to northern Italian cooking—the more rustic and pesanty the food, the better I like it. If you happen to be a pasta with sauce kind of person (which I am in spades), you’ll be very happy at La Gensola. That’s my pasta place and everthing on the menu is sublime. It’s at 15 Piazza della Gensola. If you get lucky, maybe they’ll have sartu di riso on the daily specials. This is a molded rice dish stuffed with tiny little meatballs in a tomatoey sauce. Yum!

        Thanks again for the leads & buon appetito!

        Jackie Coffee
        New York City

        1. re: jackie Coffee

          Thanks for the additional rec in Monti. Have you ever tried Ristorante Marcello near Via Veneto (2 blocks in from v. Veneto on Via Aurora between v. Ludovisi and v. Lombardia)? We never miss eating there on a trip to Rome, sometimes go twice during the same trip. In addition to the menu, they offer a set meal: antipasti consisting of multiple bowls of assorted vegetables and other goodies: grilled zucchini, carrot and pea salad, cipollini, ricotta, lentils, etc. "a volonta"; primo course is 3 different pastas in 3 different sauces on a platter; secondo course is a huge hunk of roasted veal served with roasted potatoes. Also offer mezzo-carafes of good house wines. In December 2003, wife and I ate this meal with 2 wines for 60 euros. Everyone I have ever recommended this place to has enjoyed it and said so. Try it next visit. We'll be there in December.

          1. re: CJ
            Jackie Coffee

            Thanks, I've heard of it & I'll try it. I appreciate the tips. I can tell you know of what you speak. :-)

            1. re: CJ

              I can't disagree more about Ristorante Marcello. Based on, perhaps, another version of this same recommendation, we went there in May 2006. There was nothing particularly wrong with the food, but nothing to make it stand out either. The menu was as straightforward and generic as could be -- it was as if they were worried that if they put something unusual or interesting on the menu, the tourists filling the place might be scared off. You could get the same menu and the same meal in 50 run of the mill Italian restaurants in New York. In short, in a city filled with wonderful authentic regional food, don't waste your time on something as dull as Ristorante Marcello.

              1. re: gbEvan

                Chacun à son gout! I never said it was an extraordinary place for Italian specialties, but it is good for a filling and enjoyable meal. At least 10 people to whom I have recommended Marcello have said they enjoyed it a lot and several went there multiple times, as have we. It's one of many places we have eaten at in Rome where we try various cuisines.

                1. re: gbEvan

                  ok, so where around via veneto would you advise for the same sort of budget?

          2. Jackie: Like you, I haven't seen any discussion on Al Pompiere on Chowhound, which I treated as though this special place would remain my secret. I visit Rome each year around Christmas and a visit to Al Pompiere for the baccala, stuffed zucchini blossom, puntarelle, and carciofi all giudea is like a visit to an old friend.

            I enjoyed reading your post yesterday and, when I just looked to see if there were any follow-ups, you mention another of my favorites: La Gensola.

            Thanks for the post; It took me back to Rome.

            1. Google finds around 25 Chowhound posts about Al Pompiere. Though they seem to have been misplaced in the move.

              1. AGATA E ROMEO is the worst waste of money in Rome