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Worst meal in years (locals schmocals)

mbfant Sep 17, 2010 02:12 PM

A local friend organized a dinner last night at Agustarello in Testaccio. It's the sort of place the people who claim to prefer modest traditional places frequented by locals would love, except that our meal was awful. Involtini of beef filled with greens were watery -- as in, you had to press each bite down with your fork to squeeze out the water before eating, and the meat was mushy. My mezze maniche all'amatriciana were essentially tasteless, which is quite a feat. Franco's cavatelli in sugo di coda were blah, and of course he compared them unfavorably to the divine tonnarelli in sugo di coda served at Checchino. There was more. But the place is in a real neighborhood (though Testaccio is getting less real by the minute it seems), frequented by locals, and the menu passes for as traditional as can be (b-o-r-i-n-g) though the real Roman tradition is a lot more interesting. The service was unfriendly, the tables and chairs uncomfortable. We got the check immediately after the terrible involtini were cleared away and went for gelato, which is what you do in Rome after a bad restaurant to try to save the evening. When we got home we checked the SlowFood guide and saw that Agustarello was no longer listed, but I don't know how long ago it was dropped.

My point is not to trash a popular restaurant, even though my Roman husband and I found it appalling, but to provide an example of how locals can convince themselves that practically anything is good and are not always the best people to advise. Once again I would urge visitors not to be so quick to dismiss "fine dining" in favor of tradition. Assuming you can afford it, Agata Parisella's amatriciana at Agata e Romeo shows up Agustarello's €10 version for the ripoff it is. And finally, when in Rome, I say have fewer but better restaurant meals. The non-restaurant alternatives are many and good.

  1. SarahMayWineinRome May 1, 2012 04:08 AM

    I don't think it is so much how you are dressed but personality. My husband and I look like bums compared to most people. Hey, we are "farmers." I spend money on wine and food not clothes. Hell, I am a terrible wife and my husband has been known to walk around with shirts that are missing buttons. That being said, he happens to have a winning personality and we have never been to any restaurant in Rome, Lazio or anywhere except Alto Adige that we were not giving the best food and best service because he becomes BFFs with the staff and cook. I have had some of my best meals in the Castelli Romani in total dumps. Also maybe in Rome it is different but on a sunny day at Lago di Nemi lots of Genzanese people walk down the hill ( the side with no road) to picnic on the beach. Old men walk down with tiny grills.

    1 Reply
    1. re: SarahMayWineinRome
      s
      swimmom May 2, 2012 07:43 AM

      At the risk of I-don't-know-what on this very interesting thread -- where would you eat on a budget with perpetually ravenous teens? We will be going to Rome for the museums and history, not for fine dining, and sleeping in Parioli (so that neighborhood is a dinner option; not a lunch option). Our kids would not be seeing the museums and the history if the fine dining were a mandatory part of the budget. The target price is 10 to 15 Euro per person without wine. We are receptive to all options, including supermarkets and street food (but hoping to avoid Subway and McDonald's while in Rome, of course). I just had a fabulous piece of supermarket quiche in Paris. We are flexible. The one thing we are not flexible about is that the football player in the group needs large, frequent amounts of food.

    2. n
      noradailey Apr 24, 2012 07:26 PM

      Wow! Any food post that gets this many replies makes me so excited about my five weeks in Rome next month. All this passion about food. What a city this must be. I hope I get to meet some of you regular posters. Wear name tags.

      1. mbfant Sep 20, 2010 10:45 PM

        Let me try to summarize some advice to visitors dining in Rome:

        - Try to corroborate all recommendations, preferably at least twice.

        - Do not be a reverse snob and shun fancy places for the sole reason that you think they don't offer good local food; the quality of the local food depends on the quality of the ingredients and the local top chefs, who use the best ingredients, often offer the best of many traditional dishes.

        - Don't try to spread yourself out among several different very similar mid-level restaurants. Adopt one or two and become a regular, albeit short term.

        - Remember there are alternatives to restaurants, very much part of the traditional Roman food scene. Examples are pizza al taglio or bars for lunch, wine bars or gelaterie in the evening if you have had a full meal for lunch. Two full meals a day is a lot of food and a lot of time sitting in restaurants. If you spend less on Meal A, maybe you can spend more on Meal B.

        - You do not need to mortgage the house to get a decent lunch.

        - A picnic doesn’t have to be a full-dress affair. Go to a shop and buy pizza bianca or bread and ask them to put prosciutto in it, stick it in your backpack and go to the nearest park. There will probably be a fountain with excellent, free water too.

        - Romans are not naturally hospitable (yes, of course there are many exceptions). The default position is to save the best for your regulars and skimp on the customers who appear to be just passing through, never to return. This is why developing relationships gets better results than seeking variety.

        - Rents and salaries for restaurants can't be reduced. It's much easier to cut costs by reducing the quality of the food.

        - Khakis and polo shirts are fine for both sightseeing and lunch practically anywhere.

        - The Italian fantasy family trattoria where they will welcome you with open arms and Mamma will make it her personal mission to fatten you up does not exist in the center of Rome. You may still find it elsewhere, but as those Mammas die off, they are being replaced by their children and grandchildren, who have traveled the world and see things differently and know about lemongrass. They also may lack Mamma's skills and je ne sais quoi. The SlowFood listings for Rome are pretty slim for a city this size, which is an indication of the difficulty of finding the sort of place everybody wants.

        - There are, however, numerous hard-working good moderately priced restaurants that rise above the average, and most of them have been discussed here, or at least in the Italian guidebooks. If you can't read Italian, ask for help. You think someone on the boards won't reply to the question "What does Gambero Rosso like in Rome this year?"?

        - Do your homework and know what dishes are typical of Rome and what are traditional but rare on menus (so you'll know them when you see them). Order conservatively in traditional places.

        - Remember that the Roman trattoria is essentially an alternative to eating at home, strictly a neighborhood place. Many very good places are thus practically interchangeable and there would be no point in leaving your neighborhood to go to eat in a similar place across town, except if you were visiting someone over there. They are thus almost by definition not destination restaurants. The last thing anybody wants is a lot of foreigners sending e-mails to reserve months in advance because someone posted on the Internet that "Da Marcantonio" (doesn’t exist) has the best carbonara they ever tasted. The place will change its character. It may attain a mythic cult status it doesn’t deserve. And then it will be perceived as a tourist restaurant. If you find the holy grail, remember Indiana Jones.

        16 Replies
        1. re: mbfant
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          LotsC Sep 21, 2010 04:02 AM

          Quite agree. Although I've always been brought up when in France or Italy to have a proper lunches and dinners and just not to eat between meals (Ok when in Italy I might be tempted by a mid afternoon gelati!) I just cut back on the pudds (desserts for the non English). So 2 courses at lunchtime and 2 at dinner, and no puds! Childhood holidays were always spent driving round France and Italy 1* Michelin for lunch and 2/3* for dinner. Very spoiled I know but it was a great way to learn about enjoying food and to hate all forms of junk food.....

          1. re: mbfant
            steve h. Sep 21, 2010 10:10 AM

            Nice summary.

            1. re: mbfant
              b
              bob96 Sep 21, 2010 08:00 PM

              Many thanks. Maureen, maybe you should head to Naples for a needed break after having to answer the same questions over and over and over--to say nothing of the meter-long lists of places you and others are always being asked to comment on. Over and over and over.

              1. re: mbfant
                t
                therealdoctorlew Apr 15, 2012 05:48 PM

                Will be going to Rome for the first time in 40+ years. This post is the most valuable food-related advice I have found!

                Thanks, mbfant!

                1. re: therealdoctorlew
                  mbfant Apr 15, 2012 11:04 PM

                  Thank YOU. I went back and read the whole thread again and have to say I still believe everything I wrote. Some high-end restaurants have added bargain lunches (Agata e Romeo has a lunch for €35).

                  And the other day I complimented a friend from Parma (who has lived in Rome for decades) on her adorable but comfortable-looking shoes. She nearly jumped for joy that someone noticed and appreciated them and then launched into a diatribe about how Romans don't know how to dress. As a New Yorker (despite my decades in Rome), I had to agree. Fashion advice for Rome lunches and dinners: no tank tops for men, no legible T-shirts or gym shoes in the evening, no short shorts for anybody. Is that so hard?

                  And finally, many moderately priced restaurants in the center of Rome are discussed here. Opinions and preferences vary, but most do an honest job and please many people. But if you can afford one or more of the high-end places, don't avoid them on the sole grounds that you're afraid that fine crystal is somehow incompatible with Italian food.

                  1. re: mbfant
                    b
                    BuckyE Apr 20, 2012 07:33 AM

                    Hello, Maureen! This is a fun thread. The last paragraph ("fine crystal") is my favorite. Loie likes to have lunch at the Enoteca Capranica. I have no idea if it's on anyone's list of good places in Rome, but we just like sitting there and having the service and the --by me, always tasty-- food. Costs an arm and a leg, but once every few years, what the heck!

                    Bucky Edgett

                    1. re: BuckyE
                      b
                      barberinibee Apr 20, 2012 12:00 PM

                      @BuckyE,

                      I'm unaware that anyone on Chowhound -- or anywhere! -- has ever implied (or even thought) that fine crystal is somehow incompatible with Italian food. Did you really have that impression? Most people's idea of a storied Italian restaurant is not only fine crystal but silver chafing dishes, peach tablecloths, fresh flowers and jacketed waiters. Far from being reverse snobs, I think many people coming to Chowhound who are headed to Rome are simply asking a different question.

                    2. re: mbfant
                      b
                      barberinibee Apr 20, 2012 02:33 PM

                      I probably just shouldn't have revisited this thread, since it irritated me as much on a revisit as it did the first time.

                      I did want to add, however, that I've found Romans to be more interested in enjoying their food than focusing on what's under the table on other people's feet -- and this was very obvious to me on a recent visit to Rome when a foot injury forced me to wear gym shoes to dinner in Rome, and no one in the restaurants, staff or fellow diners, paid any mind.

                      But as I indicated to others, most people already understand before coming to Rome that some restaurants in a city are fancy, some are not at all, and some are in between, so that the type of dress depends on where you are going. I was in New York in February (with a much better foot!), and people were not dressing to go to dinner unless they were going to a fancier restaurant. What people need is specific advice about which restaurants are which if they are new to a city.

                      As I posted elsewhere in other threads, my recent experience in Rome, in private homes and in restaurants, is that Romans are gracious. But I have found this true throughout Italy. This afternoon, over coffee in Genova, my husband said to me, referring to our relocation to Italy: "This has really been so easy." I am always surprised when others portray Italy as a place difficult to get the hang of, or as not accepting strangers, or expecting conformity. Maybe we lucked out by knowing a different bunch of Italians, but it seems unlikely.

                      We look forward to our next visit to Rome.

                      1. re: mbfant
                        t
                        therealdoctorlew Jun 10, 2012 01:26 PM

                        Well, I'm back, and Maureen's trattoria advice was spot on. Similar menus all over the city. So we ate at the place down the block from our hotel 3 times. First time: Great food, Great service. Second time: Great food, "Welcome back." By the third time, we dropped in at 9:30 PM, ate very well indeed, and got a discount on the check because we were regulars!

                        (Osteria Barbarini, if you want to know.)

                        1. re: therealdoctorlew
                          mbfant Jun 11, 2012 05:05 AM

                          Thrilled! Thanks for reporting back.

                      2. re: therealdoctorlew
                        b
                        barberinibee Apr 20, 2012 11:54 AM

                        @therealdoctorlew,

                        I was not in Rome 40 years ago, but I was in Rome this January and can report that Rome is a cosmopolitan city. My own view of the advice above is that Rome tracks with every cosmopolitan city I can think of. when it comes to restaurants and the range of what they offer in terms of price, ambience, dress of clients, etc That is to say, if you feel comfortable with dining norms in any major world capital of the last 40 years, you know all this already.

                        1. re: barberinibee
                          p
                          petergins Apr 20, 2012 02:58 PM

                          This is one of the best threads, and most helpful as we plan our trip. Above all it's helping to manage expectations and like visiting any great city (or living in one) there's also the adage "expect the unexpected". . Despite bouts of "irritability" it's a valuable discourse with some new recos to boot. 3 more weeks: will artichokes still be great?

                          1. re: petergins
                            b
                            barberinibee Apr 20, 2012 04:41 PM

                            Glad everybody is having fun. You'll have to ask the local schmocals about the artichokes. Chowhound's Italy board goes back and forth about the value of their advice. Half the time locals are regarded to be the worst people to consult. The other half? Everybody is supposed to defer to local expertise.

                            I do agree with mbfant's standard "big city" advice to corroborate all recommendations, to be aware that restaurant recs change from year to year, to go back to favorite neighborhood restaurants in a city, to occasionally eat the local urban street food in lieu of two restaurant meals per day, and to remember that high-rents have an effect food prices in big cities.

                            But when it comes to expecting the unexpected in the big cosmopolitan, eternal city of Rome, if based on this thread your expectation is that Romans are not naturally hospitable (who is? but they're socialization is better than most urbanites), that you won't see Romans dressed casually for dinner (including athletic shoes), that other's footwear is an occasion for jumping for joy or ruined appetites among Roman gourmets, that a family-run trattoria is a fantasy and defies the definition of destination eatery, then my view is you're in for some total surprises (all pleasant).

                            1. re: barberinibee
                              p
                              petergins Apr 20, 2012 05:54 PM

                              Thank you--life's good and I like steveh's comment above about "life at 5 knots", especially when on holiday. That is why we're not going to go crazy to see everything/go everywhere, but hit some highlights and soak up what makes Rome Rome since it's been 40 years (!). But after reading another thread with all the back and forth about Nerone, we're determined to try it and see for ourselves--though forewarned is forearmed

                              1. re: petergins
                                b
                                barberinibee Apr 21, 2012 04:22 AM

                                I ate at Nerone in January and liked it, if that means anything. I especially liked their antipasti of vegetables, all of which were fresh and bright, and it included a torte of artichokes, as I recall.

                            2. re: petergins
                              pikawicca Apr 20, 2012 05:39 PM

                              Artichokes should certainly still be great in 3 weeks.

                      3. steve h. Sep 17, 2010 04:36 PM

                        This is an interesting thread. I have a lot to learn.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: steve h.
                          b
                          bob96 Sep 19, 2010 10:06 PM

                          So do I. Maybe I'll just go to Naples instead.

                          1. re: bob96
                            z
                            zerlina Sep 20, 2010 02:29 AM

                            Good idea. I just read a (positive) review by a collaborator of the aforementioned Stefano Bonilli of Osteria da Tonino on Via Santa Teresa a Chiaia, where lunch costs 15 Euro, wine (half-litre) included. Only open for dinner on Friday and Saturday, for a few Euro more.

                            1. re: bob96
                              jen kalb Sep 20, 2010 06:49 AM

                              I suspect the way to go in Rome is to stay and eat outside of the historic center.
                              that puts you in a non-touristed zone just as you would just about anywhere in Naples. Note, the Santa Lucia area of Naples is just as touristic ally impacted as Rome, Id stay away from there, too.

                              1. re: jen kalb
                                b
                                bob96 Sep 20, 2010 09:16 AM

                                Actually, in Naples a few years ago we were doomed to stay in Fuorigrotta, past the Stadio San Paolo, but ended up discovering a very local trattoria near the Campi Flegrei FS station with good pizza and basic Neapolitan dishes, in a friendly, overlit room filled with no tourists but many local families. The Solopaca by the bottle was 3 euros. Great times.

                                1. re: jen kalb
                                  l
                                  LotsC Sep 20, 2010 09:54 AM

                                  I think one problem of eating in Italy is that the quality is not consistent - 10 people can go to restaurants and have really strong experiences and then somebody has the opposite. I discussed this once in Florence with a hotel owner and they said it is true so much depends on who is in charge of the kitchen.....you see if so often on these boards. I've spent 2 weeks just outside of Siena and 1 night at Papei the food and service is fantastic, 3 nights later it is if not diabolical, not too far behind. Likewise places like Maccheroni in Rome and countless other places I could mention. Food ('scuse the pun!) for thought!

                                  1. re: jen kalb
                                    steve h. Sep 20, 2010 02:29 PM

                                    My general MO is to dine locally (my neighborhood) and be a repeat customer. It's amazing how food/service improve when you're a regular. Shopping for food every day has an added benefit beyond freshness: folk see you, get to know you and smile. It makes a difference.

                              2. erica Sep 17, 2010 02:32 PM

                                Many thanks for a valuable post. I am a bit puzzled by your comment that this menu was traditional but boring, but that the real Roman tradition was more interesting....can you explain what you meant? Thanks again! I think this is yet another example of why we need an updated Fant trattoria book!

                                27 Replies
                                1. re: erica
                                  b
                                  barberinibee Sep 17, 2010 02:41 PM

                                  mbfant,

                                  I also appreciate your post, but I think you misinterpret what travelers new to Rome are asking when they post here about "restaurants locals go to".

                                  They are on a budget and looking for place to eat delicious food unique to Rome, and would appreciate some guidance about which moderately priced restaurant serves better food than a tourist trap.

                                  Many people traveling cannot afford to eat at high-price restaurants. Roman hotels and admission fees to sights are not cheap. Even people on a generous budget cannot drop 200 per meal every night on a trip, and many quite understandably don't want to cook their own meals!

                                  When people visit New York, I know how to tell them which restaurants serve good food and which restaurants don't -- even thoug I preferred my own home cooking when I lived there. I now live in Liguria, and I can do the same for my neighborhood. Some moderately priced restaurants around here are distinctly better than others. Some are tourist traps, some are not.

                                  It is very helpful that you frequently point out that the best food in Rome is either (a) home cooked or (b) very expensive. But If you have no recent experience of mid-priced restaurants serving good Roman food, and thus don't know which ones are better than others, just say so.

                                  I get the impression from reading your many posts that the only restaurant food you like in Rome is very high-end and expensive, and is creative and exciting chef fare, rather than homey. Many people posting here can't afford that. Some don't want that. Have you any recommendations for them if they want to taste real Roman food without heading to the fringes of Rome?

                                  In some posts you say you won't wait on line to eat a highly recommended pizza al taglio. In other posts you scold people unwilling to travel far from their hotels to get a foodie-creative dinner. It is getting hard to discern what your recommendations are based upon other than your subjective preferences for expensive fine dining in Rome.

                                  I reiterate that I appreciate your posts. But if you don't make a practice of eating at mid-priced restaurants in the center of Rome that offer traditional menus -- since that is what a lot of people traveling to Rome are looking for -- what is your basis for dismissing the whole concept of eating where native Romans like to eat most days when they can't eat at home?

                                  1. re: barberinibee
                                    o
                                    ospreycove Sep 17, 2010 03:08 PM

                                    Ask any Italian Where is the Best..(fill in blank) they will invariably say "At my Mother's house"; so amswer is get to know some Italian "locals" very well and get invited to Mama's!!!! We have several friends in Sulmona, abruzzo, and find it difficult to keep up with all the invites from their families. This is a real treat for us, as most families have their own or own sources for wine, salumi, preserved fruits, etc,

                                    1. re: ospreycove
                                      b
                                      barberinibee Sep 17, 2010 03:11 PM

                                      ospreycove,

                                      I've asked many Italians where "the best" this or that is, and many steer me, not to their mother's house, but to a very expensive restaurant, serving very refined and subtle versions of the local specialty.

                                      1. re: barberinibee
                                        o
                                        ospreycove Sep 17, 2010 04:53 PM

                                        Or their best buddies restaurant.....lol. Actually, the Italian thing of Mother adoration is ingrained, as many Mama's boys or Bambolino will attest to.

                                    2. re: barberinibee
                                      mbfant Sep 17, 2010 03:36 PM

                                      In a recent post I recommended La Campana and Grano, two midpriced centrally located places. I think that people often get hung up on restaurants and divide their budget evenly among midpriced restaurants when they would probably eat better and have more fun if they spent less at lunch and a bit more at dinner (or vice versa). If you have a decent Roman lunch, all you need in the evening is a gelato. I don't believe I ever said I wouldn’t wait in line for pizza al taglio, but I certainly won't wait in line for sit-down evening pizza. That doesn’t mean I don't eat pizza. It means I go where I don't have to wait in line. My local takes reservations, and I assure you there's nothing fancy about it, but it's great.

                                      I think if you lived in Rome for 30 years, as I have, you would be a little fed up with the trattoria scene too and seek a little stimulation for your restaurant buck. But I've been to Checchino twice this week, and I still find plenty of excitement in their bucatini alla gricia. I could scarcely dismiss eating at places Romans like to eat. I'm practically a Roman myself, and my husband is a Roman. We like Nerone, for example, but many posters here have complained about it. When we go, we're Professore and Maureen and the owner knows what we like, so of course we do better. This sort of inequality is inherent in the Roman trattoria. I think this bears pointing out.

                                      I do like expensive restaurants, but I also like pizza, bars, tavola caldas, and a great many trattorias. And I certainly don't eat at all that many expensive restaurants or very often. I usually cook at home, which I understand tourists can't always do.I do argue against the prejudice that keeps people away from the upscale places that they think are pretentious because they expect to find the genuine food at the lower levels. But often the best traditional food -- never mind the "foodie-creative" as you put it -- is to be found at the very places seekers of tradition shun. I think that's worth pointing out. Just as it's worth pointing out that a great many places that appear to be that grail of locally loved genuine, et cetera, serve lousy food.

                                      1. re: mbfant
                                        b
                                        barberinibee Sep 18, 2010 06:02 AM

                                        Thanks for elaborating, mbfant. After several dozen years of eating lunch out every day in New York City, and watching the eating scene there deteriorate, especially in certain cuisines and categories, I understand perfectly what you are recommending as a strategy for eating well as a visitor to Rome.

                                        Overall, after reading innumerable posts about Rome, I think foodies looking to Italy for a food-centered holiday might do much better choosing an Italian destination other than Rome. But even so, I still imagine many food lovers hope to someday taste good versions of classic Roman dishes that are unavailable outside Rome, and they are well-advised to pony up the extra pennies for quality. But cost and pretentious aside, a ristorante is stlll not always the kind of dining experience a traveler to Italy seeks or enjoys, for perfectly acceptable reasons to me. I'm not fully persuaded that inequality in service is a feature of the trattoria only. Plenty of travelers complain about being treated shabbily at ristorante in Rome, even when dressed well and speaking Italian. But even tossing that aside, most ristoriante are working hard to provide a completely different kind of dining than offered in other Italian eateries.

                                        It may be necessary to face the disappointing truth that the homey but delicious trattoria serving classic Roman dishes just can't be found or named anymore. I'll try to resign myself to eating in ristorante when in Rome, but I imagine I will still give the recommendations of locals a flyer too, fully forewarned of the risks.

                                        1. re: barberinibee
                                          z
                                          zerlina Sep 18, 2010 07:40 AM

                                          As I've said before, nomenclature has little or nothing to do with anything any more. Both Grano and La Campana call themselves ristoranti. Many places that used to be trattorie have renamed themselves ristoranti. The only thing that changed with the change of name was the prices: They went up.

                                          Between Agustarello at 40 Euro per person and Agata e Romeo (100 Euro), there is Checchino (60 Euro). It has never disappointed, and service has never been less than professional (with the exception of one grumpy old waiter who might be as grumpy with Romans as with visitors). But homey in the checked-tablecloth sense it is not.

                                          1. re: zerlina
                                            b
                                            barberinibee Sep 18, 2010 10:50 AM

                                            I'm not talking nomenclature either, or even price, and I've yet to see a checked tablecloth in an Italian home.

                                            I am just pointing out that it is a different kind of experience of being in Rome if you have to commit to a lunch reservation, if you have to change into different clothes and shoes in the middle of the day in order to feel comfortable entering a restaurant, if in the evening it is recommended you eat a gelato (which I don't even like) rather than share a meal with wine in an intimate cozy space with your companion.

                                            When I am in Rome without a kitchen or an invitation to someone's house for a meal, I like to sit down twice a day in a relaxed, comfortable place and eat nice Roman food where there is a friendly owner who takes an interest in my eating pleasure. I don't care what it's called and I don't mind paying for it, but 60 euro per person per meal or 100 per per person per meal is a sacrifice if I am there for several days. Less expensive places with good cooking may no longer exist in Rome. . I don't know. I do know that Romans frown upon picnicking, so if I'm hungry I'm going to have to go to an eatery to sit down and eat (I'm not going to start dragging food back to my hotel room).

                                            So I'd like to know which less expensive eatery is more enjoyable than the next, and I'm still inclined to ask the locals where they like to eat. I realize some local yokels may recommend an eatery with lousy food, so I now know it is a good idea to consult Slow Food and other guidebooks before rather than after going there to eat.

                                            But I don't think I'm unusual in wanting to sit down in the middle of the day in Rome and enjoy nice food at a comfortable price in an atmosphere where I'm made to feel at home, and repeat the experience at dinnertime.

                                            1. re: barberinibee
                                              mbfant Sep 18, 2010 11:23 PM

                                              Oh for heaven's sake! I don't know where to start!

                                              Romans disapprove of picnicking? Please! The city is full of great shops and gorgeous parks! Even the most curmudgeonly Romans can't blame you for adding 2 + 2. I confess I did once speak sharply to some American youths once who were eating (you could hardly call it picnicking) sitting on the curb in front of my building (i.e., where cars park and dogs do their business). I told them there was a gorgeous park a block away and they replied they were fine and did it bother me, to which I replied, to no effect, that indeed it did.

                                              Go back and change clothes for lunch? What are you wearing? Rome is very informal and casual clothing is normal. Almost anything decent enough for walking around a city full of churches you might like to drop into is decent enough for the vast majority of restaurants. (I am enough of a pterodactyl that I still think city clothes should be different from beach clothes, but beyond that have no objection to informality and comfort.)

                                              There are many lunchtime alternatives to restaurants (whatever they call themselves), including the great institution of the tavola calda, many of which have tables where you can rest. The Volpetti shop has one around the corner. At many bars too you can sit down and have something warm and substantial. If you want to go to two restaurants a day, the most suitable places in the center are well known to the guidebooks and the readers of this board and many have been discussed at length.

                                              Whether Grano and La Campana describe themselves as ristoranti or as trattorie has little to do with what they actually are. Trattoria is a big category and overlaps at either end with tavola calda and ristorante. It's better to look at what places do than what they are called. Grano is a friendly casual restaurant serving excellent quality in pleasant surroundings. You can eat as little or as much as you like. When I first went to La Campana, in 1968, it was something of a special-occasion place, very traditional but above average in quality, ambience, and price. Today it's average (not a quality judgment), still traditional, and very much the sort of place visitors seek. My last few meals there lacked the magic of the dinners decades ago, but that's neither here nor there. It's a good old place.

                                              I am writing today from Cagliari, where I'm on vacation with my husband and two American friends on a visit from Boston. We wound up for dinner at a place we'd have walked right past had it not been recommended in the Slow Food guide. The sign said trattoria-tavola calda and it looked like pretty much of a dump, but we had fabulous fish cooked by the elderly husband of the lady who served us and told us stories about the family photographs displayed. It was, in short, that holy grail everybody looks for. You are unlikely to find such a place in Rome, much less central Rome (Slow Food's Rome listings are pretty meager and not all the places are any good), where ma and pa are likely to be cynical and cutting corners and impatient with tourists. The price was €75 for four. Anyone who finds such a place in Rome would be insane to post it on the Internet.

                                              1. re: mbfant
                                                b
                                                barberinibee Sep 19, 2010 02:47 AM

                                                mbfant, just relax and enjoy your vacation.

                                                I knew somebody would jump on my remark about being appropriately dressed into a 100 per head restaurant. Most women I know, including Roman women, wear nice clothes and shoes to spend a morning in ruins and churches that would still leave them underdressed to walk into a Roman eatery that charges 100 euros per head. Also, even people not picnicking on a residential doorstep are discouraged from picnicking in many places tempting to do so in central Rome.

                                                After irritably posting so many times that it isn't realistic to go to Rome and expect to enjoy good food and ambience in the center for a happy price, you now seem doubly irritated that someone concluded you must be right, and are even more irritably posting all the possibilities for enjoying good food and ambience in the center of Rome -- although at the end, you seem to be back to square one. Even at the risk of having you blow, I disagree that if someone finds great food at a low price in Rome they'd be insane to share the information on Chowhound.

                                                1. re: barberinibee
                                                  b
                                                  barberinibee Sep 19, 2010 07:29 AM

                                                  PS:

                                                  After a few hours reflection, I regret my own irritated tone in the above post and don't wish it to be my last words in this thread.

                                                  I do think the advice to spend more for good food in well-regarded if expensive restaurants in Rome is solid advice to food lovers, even if that means skimping elsewhere in the food budget.

                                                  I do think a grand lunch in Rome is worth tracking down and paying for if you are coming to Rome for the food as much as the sights, and that reputable guides more reliably steer you to the best meal than simply entering a crowded eatery.

                                                  I am concerned that first-time travelers to Rome not get the impression that the best clothes for a full-day of sightseeing in Rome in all weathers are also the best clothes for dining in a 100 euro per head restaurant, and vice versa. This has nothing to do with slobbiness, beach clothes or tuxedoes. Few people dressed to eat lunch in an expensive Rome restaurant will be comfortable heading out afterwards in those same clothes and shoes for hours of walking in Rome. Most people nicely but sturdily dressed for a full day of sightseeing, especially in warm or rainy weather, will feel wrongly dressed walking into a very expensive Roman restaurant. People might want to plan and pack accordingly.

                                                  I also want to (politely!) add that my experience of picnics in Rome is that they require more planning than picnics in New York , Paris or London, cities where you easily find lots of take-away options (with utensils provided), plenty of green space in the center, plenty of places you are welcome to sit down alongside office workers who are also enjoying a picnic lunch that day. My experience of Rome is that the bars and restaurants colonize best outdoor spaces, parks are not always well-maintained or only a few steps away, people are understandably discouraged from using historic buildings as picnic seating. Assembling a delicious picnic beyond a slice of pizza may mean shopping in more than one place before stores close for the lunch hour and coming up with your own utensils.

                                                  I think part of my irritability with this subject (and I hope no one gets too irritated with me for raising this point) is my sense that if a new poster came on Chowhound to report that they had eaten at Augeustrello without first consulting Slow Food, or reading the menu (or checking out the furnishings before sitting down), no one would be much surprised to hear they ended up unhappy. I don't know if everybody can be happy with the handful of Roman eateries highly recommended by Maureen and others on Chowhound, and in the Slow Food guide, but most visitors to Rome are visiting the city for such a short stay, they probably don't need more than the names of one or two fine places to eat anyway.

                                                  1. re: barberinibee
                                                    z
                                                    zerlina Sep 19, 2010 07:53 AM

                                                    About dress, which you seem to be partcularly insistent about: Have a look at the third photo in this blog entry:
                                                    http://blog.paperogiallo.net/2010/03/...
                                                    The man on the left is Stefano Bonilli, founder of Gambero Rosso, and the man on the right is Massimo Bottura, owner-chef of Osteria Francescana, a Michelin rwo-star restaurant in Modena that costs 110-150 Euro per head. Do you seriously think anyone "nicely but sturdily dressed" would feel "wrongly dressed" compared to either? (Bottura changed for lunch - into chef's whites - but I very much doubt that Bonilli did.) Modena is, if anything, more formal than Rome.

                                                    1. re: zerlina
                                                      b
                                                      barberinibee Sep 19, 2010 12:50 PM

                                                      Sorry, I don't get it. Are you implying they are dressed like slobs so that's what to do?

                                                      It's getting hard to keep up with exactly what is being recommended here as a strategy for enjoyable eating in Rome for tourists -- the recommendations keep shifting. Sometimes it is drop a lot of money on one meal a place even if its fancy and otherwise eat gelato if you're on a budget. Other times it is you don't need to dress up for a fancy place. You can go for a picnic or a tavola calda -- or quit imagining the locals dress up for lunch. Or what?

                                                      I have the funny feeling that the founder of Gambero Rosso can walk naked into any restaurant in Italy he chooses, while an American women who might need thick soled shoes to pound the uneven pavements of Rome all day are well advised to change into different shoes if they don't want certain people staring at their feet with rage while they dine at beloved Roman fancy establishments.

                                                      Visitors to Rome living out of a carryon travel bag and who plan activities other than eating could use some practical advice about how to execute some of the above recommendations, rain or shine, whether its combining tourism with fancy restaurants, or picnics.

                                                      1. re: barberinibee
                                                        jen kalb Sep 19, 2010 01:18 PM

                                                        the guys in Zerlina's link look scruffy but hip and they will "fit in". Americans, brits or whatever wearing big white, colored or shiny athletic shoes, gym type tank tops,shorts or bright colored LLBean garb and its ilk will feel a little out of place. Italy is the place to wear your black wardrobe. In cool weather my husband always wears his tweed sportscoat. I will have on pants and walking shoes or sandals, never heels on the cobblestones. For lunching or casual dining I dont think its necessary to dress up (i.e. dresses or jewelry, tie etc) just to dress unobtrusively enough that you will not feel out of place or show disrespect to others. However, If I am going to a fine restaurant in Italy, I will dress as in New York..

                                                        1. re: jen kalb
                                                          steve h. Sep 19, 2010 03:38 PM

                                                          jen wounds me to the quick: my LL Bean clothes (khaki trousers with cuffs and button-down Oxford shirts) are daily armor when in Rome. Brooks Brothers blazer at most dinners, shoes made of leather. A tie, when required, to show respect.

                                                          LL Bean is OK in my book.

                                                          1. re: steve h.
                                                            z
                                                            zerlina Sep 19, 2010 05:00 PM

                                                            There isn't a restaurant in Rome that I know of that *requires* a tie, not even La Pergola.

                                                            1. re: zerlina
                                                              steve h. Sep 19, 2010 05:21 PM

                                                              I like to show respect at certain restaurants near our little rental apartment near the Campo. Il Drappo is one of them. It's a brother/sister shop. Very old school. The cooking is Sardinian, the room is small and handsome. This is not a high-end restaurant. Rather, it's one that is special. Diners seem to show a measure of respect in the clothes they wear and the way they conduct themselves. Are ties required? no. Will I wear one next time there? yes.

                                                            2. re: steve h.
                                                              b
                                                              badwaiter Sep 19, 2010 05:06 PM

                                                              Let's see if I can keep this chow related...

                                                              I'm always bummed when I manage to drop some Azteca from Il Massimo del Gelato in Milan on my LL Bean wrinkle resistant oxford. There's not a better shirt to spill food on while touring.

                                                              1. re: steve h.
                                                                jen kalb Sep 19, 2010 05:39 PM

                                                                LOL!!

                                                                Im not really talking about their "business casual" garb, we all wear some of that, right, its good value conservative clothing. Im talking about the bright colored stuff that looks like golf or sailing clothes. Do you wear hot pink or lime green???

                                                                Agreed on Leather shoes (walkers or other).

                                                                1. re: jen kalb
                                                                  steve h. Sep 19, 2010 05:43 PM

                                                                  I know. Just having a little fun. Boat shoes are leather, too!
                                                                  Sailors, for the most part, are a pragmatic bunch. Power boaters, on the other hand, go for the bling.
                                                                  Life at 5 knots is pretty cool.

                                                              2. re: jen kalb
                                                                b
                                                                barberinibee Sep 20, 2010 04:15 AM

                                                                Regarding this clothes discussion:

                                                                I think most people posting on Chowhound will be inclined to err on the side of caution when it comes to how to dress for a Roman restaurant for a lunch they know is about to cost them hundreds of dollars. I think very few will leave home with just LL Bean outfits, let alone shorts and tank tops, if they're making a plan to follow Maureen's advice. Most travelers already pack just one or two outfits that are more upmarket-looking than simple streetwear, along with shoes to match, to wear to upmarket restaurants. If they wear these outfits to lunch, not dinner, in Rome, I think they will probably want to change clothes before embarking on the typical afternoon of sightseeing in Rome, which not infrequently is hot (or raining). And they will need to plan their day in Rome accordingly. And I really doubt many can pull off the fab-casual scruffy Italian look. They'll just look scruffy and be embarrassed.

                                                          2. re: barberinibee
                                                            pikawicca Sep 21, 2010 08:35 PM

                                                            We had no problem finding great places to eat in Rome, at all price points. We never considered dressing up for lunch, and never felt out of place. I really don't understand your angst.

                                              2. re: barberinibee
                                                jen kalb Sep 17, 2010 07:17 PM

                                                Im not sure exactly what Maureen is saying except that she has a VERY mediocre meal at Agusterello which is a place that local folks who might reasonably have been relied up recommend. Coming from her, its a very important piece of info which warrants consideration when choosing a restaurant in Testaccio.. PS it has not been in Slowfood at least since before 2004 (thats the date of the oldest book I now have)

                                                I think M real disappointment and disgust with having a terrible meal after having favorable expectations shines through. And locals dont always know the best places - some locals arent very critical. We had a couple of rather weak low budget meals on our last Roman visit at packed inexpensive places and while they had some good points they really didnt measure up to the better moderate budget places (i.e.good trattorias like Armando, la Campana and Monti which did measure up and serve delicious food) All the poor restaurant in NYC Chinatown full of Chinese people or french people sitting in sidewalk cafes on the Left Bank attest to the fact that locals dont necessarily shun mediocre restaurants..

                                                As visitors to Rome looking for Roman cuisine, we dont want to waste our meals on bad cooking. I think M can be forgiven for throwing up her hands in frustration and recommending a more expensive place that always does its dishes well after a terrible meal.

                                                1. re: jen kalb
                                                  b
                                                  barberinibee Sep 20, 2010 04:27 AM

                                                  jenkalb,

                                                  I actually didn't know how to respond to your post before, but I'd like to now. I am surprised how much this thread has bothered me -- and I do apologize to everybody for my multiple botched attempts to express clearly just why that is -- but I hope this nails it;

                                                  Maureen's first post was not simply expressing irritation with an inexcusably lousy meal. It was expressing irritation at people searching for a dining experience in Rome that she devalues, and attempts to get people to change those values -- I guess out of her sincere conviction that they will eat better in Rome if they do.

                                                  I don't wish to change Maureen's convictions, but I think she is woefully misunderstanding other people's values about dining, and misrepresenting other people to boot. Lovers of good dining experiences headed to Rome don't avoid places like Agata e Romeo because they dismiss the restaurant as pretentious. They avoid it because they fear the experience of eating there will be sterile even if the food is good. They aren't traveling all those miles to Italy to eat at destination restaurants that they suspect are cut off from the everyday life of Rome.

                                                  In addition, for many travelers, long sit-down meals in Italy are about romance, reconnecting intimately with a partner absent the chores of home, and one of the few moments of genuine relaxation in what otherwise can be a fairly stressful and overbusy day. They simply don't want a formal restaurant for their vacation or romantic holiday with its added unfamiliarities and tensions, and a $500 bill can tend to act as be a mood killer. It doesn't begin to sound like fun.

                                                  I am enough of a "pterodactyl" to actually admire foodies and gourmands who hesitate a long time before paying several hundred dollars for a single lunch, and who first seek alternatives. For many people with very fine food values and tastebuds, the fact that they can afford such a lunch still doesn't make it sound enjoyable to them.

                                                  So people who value all around good dining are right to ask "Where can I go in Rome to have the kind of dining experience I think I'd most enjoy?" I for one am glad they're asking and keep asking!

                                                  If the truthful answer is "You can't find what you are looking for in Rome," then that's the truth. Sad but true. Maureen is just the messenger and I'm not here to kill the messenger.

                                                  But when what is tacked on is: "And if anybody ever finds it, they'd be insane to reveal it" -- to me that is a food culture that has gone insane. That's not the food culture I want to see survive or dominate. It's a food culture I want to see end. I want to see more restaurants in Rome where locals eat deliciously at modest prices and visitors are welcome to join them. I want to see more opportunities in Rome for Americans to relax over a wonderful meal whose bill matches their dwindling resources.. I want those things to be easy to find. If I find them, I'll share them. I'm not on a crusade, but that appelas to me as a better culture than the private pleasure above all culture I grew up with and left behind in favor of a country that is -- at least outside of Rome -- struggling to keep some values of sharing when it comes to food vibrantly alive.

                                                  If Maureen feels misunderstood, then sorry. I am certain she is more complex than a few off-hand internet remarks. But to hold up her own choice of a bad restaurant as proof other people are applying the wrong values when looking for enjoyable dining in Rome doesn't strike me as words of wisdom or even helpful overall to food culture. It sounds to me those other perhaps naive-about-Rome people have the more appealing food values, but I've no reason to believe their tastebuds are not as sharp.

                                                  1. re: barberinibee
                                                    z
                                                    zerlina Sep 20, 2010 06:17 AM

                                                    I think there are some basic misconceptions here and in some of your other posts.

                                                    Fact: An experience in Visso in the hinterlands of Le Marche (population 1250) is not easily transferred to larger, more touristed centers and certainly not to Rome (population 2.85 million and about 15 million tourists per year).

                                                    Fact: Neither Maureen nor you can change Roman food culture. Maureen doesn't want to, and you do, but that's largely immaterial.

                                                    Fact: Romans do not like eating surrounded by tourists. Read some online Italian review sites. If the review is negative, it's simply "Too many tourists." If the review is otherwise positive, it's something like "Despite the many tourists..."

                                                    Fact: The tourist trade keeps many Roman restaurants in business, and many have sold out to the tourist trade. Some Roman restaurants, though, prefer to hold on to their local trade: they will *not* encourage tourist trade, they will *not* extend a warm welcome to tourists (although most will give tourists professional service if said tourists demonstrate a modicum of knowledge or interest about the food offered), they will *not* welcome being touted in Internet forums. There is a small to very small percentage of Roman restaurants that have managed to walk a fine line between tourist trade and local trade. The ones in the mid-price range that have managed it have been mentioned here time and time and time again.

                                                    Fact: In Rome, the low-price alternatives are either tourist traps (see Der Pallaro) or as dead as the proverbial dodo bird. Again, read Italians and Italian food blogs on the subject. The "trattoria di ‘na volta" and “der posto dove se magna bene e se spenne poco" no longer exist in Rome.

                                                    1. re: barberinibee
                                                      j
                                                      jenniferjames Oct 3, 2010 09:00 AM

                                                      Tend to agree with the "if you find a good restaurant don't post about it" concept. 6 years ago we were recommended to Hosteria dei Bastoni for a quick lunch after visiting the Vatican. The calamari fritti and tiramisu were simply delicious. We went back there last week with much anticipation and it has deteriorated into a "factory" catering to people who follow Rick Steves. We were aghast at how the quality had dropped. To top it off a group of about 30 Rick Steves tour group descended on the restaurant and you could not hear yourself think. They just swarmed over the small dining room, completely oblivious to anyone else there, talking loudly, shouting back and forth between tables. They completely over-ran the small restaurant. With a kitchen the size of a postage stamp, it must be hard for them to prepare fresh, quality meals for such a large group so they must be preparing the food in advance. The tiramisu, was soggy and instead of coffee they must have soaked the sponge fingers in water. It was the worst experience. But I should say the calamari fritti was still good. Everything else was bland.

                                                2. re: erica
                                                  mbfant Sep 17, 2010 03:38 PM

                                                  If you compare Agustarello's menu with Checchino's or the very different Palatium's you'll see what I mean about the former being boring.

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