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Mar 14, 2012 08:20 AM

Report from Rome -- Dining on our Own

We just returned from a week in Rome, with eating well a major goal of our trip.

We usually travel in Italy with lists of restaurants from Chowhound and similar sources as our guides.

We did that again this trip, but quickly found that – given the size of Rome and the lack of an unlimited budget for taxi fares – our resources were not as helpful as they are in smaller, more easily navigated towns and cities.

We found, inevitably, that we were, at mealtime, in a part of Rome for which we had no clear guidance for eating. So we developed a strategy that almost invariably helped us find a restaurant where we were that also provided a memorable dining experience.

Our first rule was, never eat at a restaurant that promised burgers, NY-style pizza, or anything else designed to look familiar to the casual tourist. We were really surprised – and scandalized -- at the number of these places we ran into.

Our second principle was, never eat at a restaurant within 3 blocks of a major tourist attraction. We violated this rule only once, and had the least memorable meal of the trip.

Our third rule was, never eat at a restaurant that had someone outside hawking the food and encouraging folks to come in. We figured that if the food on offer could not make it in the marketplace without aggressive marketing, we wanted none of it.

We skipped a restaurant hear the Trevi Fountain on this basis, even though it claimed to be in the Michelin Guide, and learned later that the place had fallen on evil times, and our concerns were well-grounded.

Our fourth rule was, to look for stickers on the windows or doors that showed the restaurant was recognized by Italian dining organizations.

By following those rules, we had a number of really enjoyable and memorable dining experiences.

Here is what we found. For lunch on day one, we ate a fine anchovy salad, a pasta all’amatriciana, and a delicious grilled fish with roasted potatoes at Ristorante Papagio (Via Capo d'Africa), several blocks from the Coliseum.

For dinner that night, we had the most memorable meal of the trip, at La Pace del Palato, on Via del Teatro Pace, several blocks from the Pantheon, including another delicious anchovy salad, an artichoke ravioli, and an order of meatballs in a rich sauce. This was a small place, with splendid service, complimentary prosecco, and a welcoming staff.

Our second day, we grabbed a quick bite of acceptable pizza at Caffe Doria (Via della Gatta) on our way to the Galleria Borghese, and for dinner ate at Il Chianti (Via Del Valatore), near the Trevi Fountain. We avoided Al Presidente, in Via in Arcione (see above, Rule #3), and chose Il Chianti, which was fine, for a farrow and bean soup, pappardelli with boar sauce, and a shank of lamb.

The food was good, solid, well-prepared, but not really memorable. Maybe it was still too close to a tourist attraction (see Rule # 2, above).

The next day, we were wandering south of Piazza del Popolo, and stopped for lunch in Buccone (Via di Ripetta) for lunch. This is chiefly a very well-stocked wine store, but they also had food, so we had delicious platters of antipasti misto, one meat, the other grilled vegetables. I would not go here for much else – we saw the owner heating pasta sauce in a microwave, but the food we had was delicious, well-chosen, and well-served.

That was a Sunday, and near our apartment the only thing we found open was a chain bar/diner/catering service called Il Pappagallo, the Parrot Bar (Via Gregorio VII) where the food was a reminder that not all food served in Rome is memorable, or even very good, but we turned the occasion into an opportunity to sample the wide range of digestifs they had at the bar.

The next day, a Monday, we did the Vatican museums and had pizza (OK) in the Vatican for lunch. Dinner took us to Trastevere, where near the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, w found Ristorante La Scala (Piazza della Scala) for a really splendid meal of risotto with mushrooms and sausage, of spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and zucchini flowers, and of salt-crusted sea bass.

Tuesday found us in the Quirinale neighborhood, where we found Ristorante Berzitelle (Via delle Quattro Fontane) for lunch and thoroughly enjoyed stuffed zucchini flowers, calamari with tomatoes, peppers, and whole red peppercorns, linguini with Sicilian red shrimp, and swordfish with rosemary, olives, and red peppers.

That evening, we were agan back in our neighborhood, south of Vatican City, and found Le Vele, an elegant chiefly seafood restaurant (Piazza Pio XI), for mussels, ravioli with ricotta and ham, and a potato-crusted turbot.

Our last day, we wandered from the Campo di Fiori along the Tiber through the Ghetto area and into Trastevere again. We had lunch at a wine bar in the Campo (of which the less said the better), but had dinner back in Trastevere at Trattoria Da Enzo, a small and modest place that features locally grown food. We thoroughly enjoyed fried artichoke, pasta cacio e pepe, and oxtail in a chocolate and tomato sauce.

We ended our Italian travels with a splendid pear tart, and with renewed confidence that—while we are grateful for all the guidance we can get from other diners about good restaurants – we are able to spot places to eat that are promising and usually deliver memorable meals.

In fact, writing about our dining experiences has made me very hungry. Time for lunch!

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  1. Ah, to be in Rome without restaurant recommendations! What fun! I'd probably go with even fewer rules than you. Some tasty restaurants are hiding in plain sight right next to tourist attractions in Rome, and hamburgers on the menu are not a deal-breaker for me.

    I recently had a similar but slightly different experience than yours: I ended up in Rome with an injured foot that forced me to give up my plans to eat at highly-recommend restaurants all over town and instead eat at the ones I could least painfully hobble to. Some in the immediate vicinity were in fact famous and others not so. I enjoyed one of most recommended the least, and one of the never-heard-of ones was a lot of fun.

    Alas, no one will believe you ate good food, but glad to hear you enjoyed your heretical adventure in Rome!

    1. Of course i am glad you enjoyed what you ate and that is the most important thing.
      But for the sake of future travelers reading this, i have to point out that i do not understand you saying "in a part of rome for which we had no clear guidance for eating" - but then go on to list very central locations in rome for each of which there are at least 3 recs on these boards. Choosing not to go with the recs is perfectly ok, but fact is there are recs. And the area you were in was small and rather easy (and cheap) to navigate, if you care, with some minimal prior preparation.
      Just my german side trying to set things straight. As said, important is you found good places to eat, and there are some new names there to consider. Have recently read about pace del palato, seems to be very interesting.

      13 Replies
      1. re: vinoroma

        It's all good. Recommendations are good, discovery is good. Slavishly following consensus favorites from frequent posters here on Chowhound/elsewhere? Not so good.

        I subscribe to the "reasonably informed/go figure stuff out for yourself/know your neighborhood/visit places more than once" school.

        It all works.

        1. re: steve h.

          And learn to take the buses. Taxis are far from the only option.

          1. re: mbfant

            I learned to love Rome's buses when I discovered I really needed them -- but after a meal?

            Not for me. :(

            (Although I don't care for a taxi ride after a meal either.)

            It maybe that jnwall honed down a list of the most recommended restaurant destinations, not all of which are nearest the sights, and then set out sightseeing not realizing that some of the ones near the sights would be closed on Monday or some such. Or that taking a bus to and from some restaurant on the other side of town would mean missing their reservation for the Galleria Borghese.

            I think what is being described is a fairly common error in travel planning: Putting considerable thought into assembling a list of great-sounding restaurants and suddenly finding yourself starving and footsore when you're not near any that are open. At least they didn't drop their standards entirely and plotz at the first sidewalk cafe they saw.

            1. re: barberinibee

              Hey, guys, many thanks!

              There I was, thinking I was all clever and resourceful in dealing with the challenges of eating well in a large and unfamiliar city.

              Instead, it turns out, I was actually stupid and a bad travel planner. I'm sure I needed to know that.

              I am second to none in the value I place in the recommendations I get for dining in strange places from the colleagues here at Chowhound. I have found them helpful and worthwhile while eating all over Europe and the USA.

              But, in a large and unfamiliar city, and with the challenges of dealing with a language in which I am not fluent, and with maps that are not all that well-detailed and helpful in finding the many small streets of an older city, and with a public transportation system that requires knowledge of streets and directions, finding specific restaurants at specific locations is not all that easy.

              On the other hand, the danger of lists and boards like Chowhound is that out of the thousands of restaurants in a city as big as Rome there comes to be a list of THE places to eat, and everyone has to go only to the places on that list, and the conversations come to be about whether this or that one of the places on the list was in fine form or off its game the specific night one showed up, etc.

              That's a different conversation from the one I want to have, which is about discovery and surprise and making sense of the riches of a place's culinary culture.

              When I realized I was spending lots of valuable time in Rome shuffling lists and maps, and when I realized we could discover places we liked on our own, I threw away the lists and folded the maps. It was very liberating.

              Now, if the smart phone with the GPS on it had not broken just before we left, too late to replace it before our flight, I might be telling a very different story.

              1. re: jnwall

                Your story is heartening - I greatly admire the chowhounds who have great "chowdar" and are good as smiffing out the best food or who at least have confidence in trusting their instincts over lists and guidebooks and recommendations.

                There ARE lots of restaurants in Rome and certainly many that are not on anybody's radar. the idea that there is A LIST is idiotic. but for someone is serious about enjoying classic examples of the local food to benchmark their experience to, recommendatons from knowlegeable folks are valuable. thats really what this board is about, not to be prescriptive.

                as a compulsive planner I tend to bundle up my restaurant planning with our other plans, and make sure I have some ideas in mind for lunch before we set off for the day. Its always fun to explore the eating options in different neighborhoods, and less stressful to be somewhat prepared.

                thanks very much for your report and new recommendations!

                1. re: jnwall

                  Just a quick question i forgot to ask earlier: have been racking my brains what the anchovy salad is you mentioned/had twice. Can you give some detail (how was it prepared, an italian name maybe if you remember, maybe a pic)? Am drawing a blank what it could have been!

                  1. re: vinoroma

                    Vinoroma, thanks for your question. My wife and I would love to know the recipe as well.

                    We tried to figure it out while we were there, and asked the wait staff at both Ristorante Papagio, where we had it first, and also at La Pace del Palato, where we had a variation on it.

                    I'm afraid our Italian and their English were not up to the task, though we did establish that the main ingredient was anchovies.

                    I can describe what we had. It was a mound of fish and greens (perhaps parsley), sliced thin, mixed together with -- we thought -- olive oil and seasonings.

                    On top both times we had it was a crown made of an arrangement of sticks of thinly sliced firm white vegetable, which we could not identify, though -- based on the texture and flavor -- might have been raw parsnip or turnip.

                    We really tried to find out what this vegetable was, but here our Italian really failed us.

                    The anchovies had been filleted and then sliced cross-wise into thin strips, then mixed with the greens. The fish skin glinted in the light.

                    If you can figure out the ingredients, please let us know. We lament most especially, here in the USA, the difficulty of finding anchovies like we have in Italy.

                    But we keep trying.

                    1. re: jnwall

                      Hmm, what would be very local and seasonal is a puntarelle salad, but then the main ingredient would be the vegetable and the anchovies just in the dressing. Like this:
                      Unfortunately palato del pace's website doesn't list anything remotely similar to your description in the menu (outdated websites a very common problem in italy). But the owner of papagio is my neighbor, i'll see if i can see and ask him.

                      1. re: vinoroma

                        That would be wonderful! Thank you. Yes, we checked Palatio del Pace's website as well. I think it was on their specials menu for the night we were there.

                    2. re: vinoroma

                      I have found some notes we took while eating at Ristorante Papagio and note that we said this salad had sliced anchovies, mache, and sundried tomatoes. With the crown of sticks of white vegetable on top. Maybe that will help you identify it. JNW

                      1. re: jnwall

                        Anchovies, mache, sundried tomatoes and parsnip or turnip? I can't say I've ever come across it, and it's not a classic Roman combination. (Neither restaurant calls itself Roman; Papagio says Mediterranean and predominantly fish; Pace del Palato says national.) Maybe the owners are related? Maybe one "borrowed" it from the other? It's surprising that you came across the identical unusual combination in two restaurants.

                    3. re: jnwall


                      Sorry if you thought I was calling you a bad travel planner. I was trying to defend you!

                      My defense of you was intended to be underscoring that there is a danger in compiling a list of places oft-recommended as the "best" places to try the classic dishes of the region. Like you said in an earlier post, that can work when you are in a town with an historic center as big as, say, Bologna, because you are usually never more than 20 minutes away by foot from any place on the list. In large cities, no.

                      In recent years, in large cities, I've tried to make my restaurant choices first and pick my lodgings based on maximal proximity to my restaurant choices. It worked really well for me in Naples.

                      I do think much of restaurant-recommending -- even from the greats -- gets couched in terms of "this is THE place to try _________", or "the preparation of ______ here is the gold standard" -- so people lose sight of the forest for the trees.

                      But overall I share your feeling about eating in Rome. I think Chowhound's regular Rome posters are not wrong to point out that there is a lot of mediocre food in Rome, and that the best is confined to a number of really dedicated, skilled and talented restaurants. But there is also a lot of good food in Rome, in enjoyable settings, and given the hazards of even the best restaurants having an off-night, it doesn't surprise me you found good meals and the added pleasure of liberating in your approach, and have gained Italian travel wisdom through the process.

                      I think it is fun to be in Italy, not just Rome, without a guide.

                      1. re: barberinibee

                        barberinibee says, "I think it is fun to be in Italy, not just Rome, without a guide."

                        Amen to that!

                        Its fun to be in Italy, guide or no guide. I can't wait to get back.

                        And we will draw on Chowhound expertise, plot our choices on a map -- great idea - in advance.

                        AND we will take a GPS. AND we will trust both serendipity and our sense of what promises to be a good restaurant, on the fly.

                        Thanks for all the help.

            2. The cool thing about Rome is that you'll be back.

              1. Excellent report - just the kind of inspiration I needed! My husband and I were in Rome the summer of 2009. I did extensive meal planning with a few choices left to chance. We only had a couple less than memorable meals...but nothing cringe worthy (besides the horrible service we experienced at Colline Emiliane).

                We're returning (hopefully) next March with our two preteens and I've decided to let serendipity rule (to a certain extent). For instance, we will probably make reservations our first and last night. That being said, I'll probably have a list of options for each neighborhood tucked in to my purse (I won't be able to help myself).

                Very excited to try the puntarelle salad this trip as it was out of season on our last.

                Again...great stuff!