How to negotiate eating in Rome
I am just beginning reading some posts and doing some research. It is very overwhelming there are soooo many restaurants! A lot of people tend to have every meal planned out based on their tours for the day (or vise versa). Of course being a chowhounder I am very interested in great food and value, but kind of assumed most of the food is great in Rome (but expensive). After some reading it seems not so.
I am wondering how much planning do you recommend? If I wing it, will I be disappointed? My SO will go nuts if I have every meal planned LOL! I am thinking maybe a general list of places around the city that we can hit depending on where we are is the way to go.
I can't imagine a schedule of restaurants so rigid that it eliminates the spontneous discovery. When I've been in Italy, I combine the two. Lunch is usually a decision made on the spot after reading menus in windows, dinner is more apt to be a place I've planned (and found on the map, BTW). You are seldom apt to find absolutely awful food. Don't know where you are, but compared to London or NYC or Oslo (which is insanely costly), it's no worse and nearly always better.
I think your idea of a handful of restaurants outlined by geographical area is quite logical. And if you have not been to Italy before, be prepared for long leisurely lunches and even longer closing-for-lunch hours in many non-restaurant places. It came as a major shock to me my first time round. (A little rest for tired feet?)
Most of the food in Rome is decent, not great. You have to work to find the really good stuff, which includes comparative analysis of all the posts and blogs and guidebooks you're reading. I think a number of the restaurants recommended here are pretty bad, but sometimes I get tired of being the curmudgeon, so I'm not going to tell you which ones. You might go with the majority and love them. But that is not the point. You want to know how much to plan. The answer is, plan one meal for most days (or all), wing the rest. There are very good bars, tavole calde, shops for picnic fixings, light lunch places, and you will do fine. If you've had a good lunch and want to go light in the evening, you can have pizza (considered a light meal) or go to a wine bar or something like that. Some tavole calde are open in the evening, and don't forget the takeout option too (though usually not from restaurants). The field has opened up quite a bit in the last few years, with many more options (the choice used to be essentially between a ristorante and a trattoria).
Now, your reservations. Yes, you need them, almost everywhere in the evening, especially on weekends, but do not obsess. I don't want to tell you the restaurants are interchangeable, but if you go to Armando instead of Monti, for example, your stay in Rome will not be diminished. Likewise if you go to Il Convivio instead of Il Pagliaccio, or vice versa. Romans tend not to reserve very far in advance, but then you might get a nasty surprise if you're counting on someplace for Saturday evening and haven't planned ahead.
What you don't want to do is wind up asking your concierge for a recommendation (I am not knocking all concierges of course) or wandering around aimlessly and winding up at a trattoria chosen just because it's the one with an empty table just when your feet are about to give out -- though I can think of worse reasons for choosing a place to eat, and that might just wind up your favorite meal. As I said, don't obsess.
Great advice @lemons and @mbfant.
I will plan and reserve dinner and wing the rest with a decent list. We are coming from a small mountain town, I suspect we will be very pleased with the food. What time should we plan dinners? I suspect it is much later than we are used to.
Any recs for inexpensive dinner in Trastevere? We are staying in this district and will have one meal there.
What about going 'out' in Rome? What is popular? nightclubs? wine bars? We are in our mid 30s.
When I was living in Rome (which I stopped doing about a year and a half ago), the two restaurants in Trastevere I always went to were Aristo Campo (not to be confused with the sandwich shop of the same name in Campo De Fiori) and Al Fontanone. At Aristo Campo the food is a little more creative and slightly less traditional (these qualifiers "little" and "slightly" are really important, as you may have to be quite familiar with Roman food to notice the difference) which is either good or bad depending on how much proper Roman food you've had by the time your night out in Trastevere comes around.
Aristo Campo also has an incredible Montepulciano as their house wine for 10 euro a liter. Most places in Rome, you can't go wrong with the house wine. I don't think I've ever so much as glanced at a wine list anywhere in the city, but (like most other Italians) I'm not one of those people who goes around sniffing and swirling my wine instead of drinking it, so there are those who may disagree with me.
Al Fontanone, on the other hand, has the best cacio e pepe (a very traditional Roman pasta dish) in the city. They also, if memory serves, have pagliata which, if anything, is even more traditional, though it requires an adventurous attitude (being made of, ahem, non-traditional cuts of meat like much Roman cuisine of working class origin).
As for places to go out, it depends on what you're looking for. Testaccio is great for thumpy music and overpriced drinks (er, not to give away my opinion of it, or anything). Trastevere has an amazing cheap little bar called Bar San Calisto where you can get big bottles of Peroni for not much more than in the supermarket (as well as 2 euro shots, if you're young enough for that to appeal). It also has a few really good little birrerie (that is, places to drink beer), most notably a place called "Ma che siete venuti a fa'?" (very Roman, roughly translated means "what the hell did you come here for?") which has a lot of great beers from all over the world. I'm not aware of any dedicated wine bars, as Italians (or at least Romans) are only recently getting into the whole "drinking without a meal" thing, and wine is for lingering over dinner with. There are also loads of cocktail bars and the like in the same area. Wandering is good.
Outside of Trastevere, Irish pubs have been cropping up all over Rome in the last 30 years or so, so you'll find a lot of those, filled with a mixture of natives and ex-pats. There's a great pub quiz on Mondays at Scholars' Lounge (which, on other nights, is mostly full of American study abroad students), and a great open mic night at The Fiddler's Elbow on Thursdays. There are some good little quiet after-hours places near the Fiddler's, though they're hard to get into if you haven't met someone who regularly goes there at one of the pubs before-hand, as they are only legally able to be open as late as they are by being "private clubs" that have buzzers and membership cards. One in particular, on the corner of Via di San Martino ai Monti, has great Belgian beers and the like.
In San Giovanni/Re di Roma area is another place with an excellent beer selection and very knowledgeable staff, called Stone Age. It's on Via la Spezia if memory serves.
It appears other people have different experiences from mine, but I have never in my life booked a table in Rome unless I was with a large group. I suppose "better safe than sorry" is a good rule of thumb, but the food is always better at the places where the staff barely speaks enough English to understand someone calling to book a table anyway.
Stay away from anywhere with a colorful laminated menu in five different languages posted outside. It's better to point at a bunch of incomprehensible words on a page and get something unexpected but delicious than to know exactly what you're ordering but get a mediocre, barely edible version of it (probably frozen and microwaved) because "hey, tourists don't know any better, they'll love it whatever" is a far too common attitude in Rome.
thank you for the recs @tricoteuse. I will check out some of the places mentioned, especially in Trastevere. I am starting to realize, that 'nightlife' will probably mean lingering over a late dinner, which I am fine with, it is just very different for me to think of starting my meal at 8 or 9pm each night.
I will definitely stay away from the tourist trap restaurants.
How is the general acceptance among Italians, to non Italian speaking? How about Romans? Will we struggle in restaurants? Feel like fools with our poor accents and wrong terms, looking in our dictionaries?
You will be fine. Rome has been seeing tourists for a long time. In general (every tourist has some less positive experiences) If you are oriented to the local specialties and behave appropriately, you will be welcomed, and your efforts to speak italian appreciated. On our early visits we certainly felt more welcome in Rome than in Florence or Venice, where bank officers etc (this was in the days of changing money) always switched into english immediately when we started speaking Italian.
Also remember you have to be selective in Trastevere - there are a lot of rather touristic inexpensive restaurants there. Do a search of the board or the Restaurant page and you will find some good ones.
Yes, don't obsess! But one thing I'd suggest, is go through these boards and pick and choose what sounds good to you. Then come back with your short list and we'll all chime in and give you advice. I think it's always better to have some sort of plan, even if it's just for a few dinners.
There are great places where you can get good value, so don't be discouraged.