Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Italy >
Mar 15, 2012 09:12 PM

Living for Roman food and I don't know how to eat.

I'm coming to study in Rome for about 6 weeks starting in late May and I'm confused (and very giddy).
I've done quite a bit of reading so far, but I have some general noob-ish questions.

1. I'd like some culinary advice on neighborhoods. I'm currently considering Trastevere and Centro Storico(sp?) but don't know if I'm barking up the wrong tree.

Because I'll be there for over a month, it's not important to be near anything other than good food. A good food neighborhood has a good market or two and lots of varying options. From reading, Rome doesn't seem to be too terribly neighborhood specific, but I can't tell for sure.
If I was staying longer, it'd be no problem to move around but with such a short time, I'd like to get it right the first time. Will I be happy anywhere?

2. How does one eat in Italy? I'm very happy to just eat whatever's available at whatever times, but I'm curious if this is right or wrong:
- There are different types of places that are open at different times and they are for eating different types of food?
Examples I might understand: I can get pizza (round) usually for dinner, but the pizza (by size) is available all the time? Wine is for dinner and table wine is good. Buffet lunches are popular and can be good or really bad? Some places siesta between 2ish and before dinner?

And of course, this is all changing nowadays too right ?

Any advice is appreciated and thanks in advance.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. These are all important questions but you have not provided a crucial element for the equation. Do you speak any Italian? If you Google Roma mercati rionali, you will eventually find a rather laconic list of all the municipal markets and can plot them on a map. However, I think the best compromise for you might be either Prati or Trastevere or possibly, further out but well connected, Monteverde Nuovo (market at Piazza S. Giovanni di Dio). You do want to be in an interesting area. The middle-class peripheral areas probably have more food shopping than the center, but less of general interest. I wouldn’t recommend the area that gravitates around Campo de’ Fiori, though you'll want to explore it. Rome is very conscious of its neighborhoods, which all have a municipal market and a mini-city hall.

    As for how to eat, I have written about this so many times, I'm not going to do it again, but I hope I will be forgiven for recommending one of my own books, the Rome volume in the Williams-Sonoma Foods of the World series. The introduction provides an overview of the neighborhoods and types of eateries. Yes, things are changing owing largely to increased exposure to other countries, the greater difficulty of living near where you work, and the dearth of mothers staying home to keep house and cook lunch.

    2 Replies
    1. re: mbfant

      Thanks Maureen! I'll check out the books. I saw your website too and was thinking about a tour at some point.
      I did forget the language didn't I? Oops!
      I don't speak a lick. I can do English and poor Japanese and Spanish but I doubt those'll be much help although the Spanish should help in reading Italian I hope.

      Prati is the area north of Testavere, above the Vatican? That's even closer to my school!

      1. re: lost squirrel

        Trastevere. If you're so interested in the Roman neighborhoods, get a map and learn their names. And start studying Italian today or you'll never eat right.

    2. What maureen says. I can definitely recommend the book, too, btw.
      Read heidi at 101 cookbooks blog - she stayed in testaccio for a longish time about a year ago and wrote several posts about it. I, too, would suggest either testaccio or prati as good food and very well connected areas.
      And: wine is not only for dinner but lunch as well. Table wine is not good. A lot of peeps, and you, might be happy with it, but that it is good is a wrong notion. Very rarely is it good.
      If we are talking about trattorie and such, they don't siesta but close between lunch and dinner service, which is usually between 3-3:30 and 7:30-8:30. Don't eat too early, 8:30 or 9 is a good time for most places.

      1 Reply
      1. re: vinoroma

        Gotcha vinoroma, thank you. I think I'll take a leap and trust you based on your handle!

        I'm looking forward to trying these table wines. Cheap wine here in Tokyo is about $6 a glass and is usually not very wonderful.

        I hope I can meet a few of you Italy board regulars when I come over.

        EDIT: vinoroma, I just found your website too! I hope I can swing a tasting sometime during my stay.

      2. What Mbfant and Vinoroma have said.

        Two more aspects to consider: your appetite and your budget. If either is limited, it will not be possible for you to eat two full-course meals a day in restaurants. But Romans don't either, and they will often order only two courses, one of which will be a primo or a secondo. For inexpensive meals, consider pizza al taglio or a panino that you can have made up in the deli section of most supermarkets; even sit-down pizza in the evening is an inexpensive option. There are take-out places for prepared foods, which are also available in most grocery-store deli sections. A tavola calda, something like a cafeteria, is inexpensive and open throughout the day.

        It's true that quality wines, sometimes also available by the glass, are better than house wines (in carafes or bottles) and have much less of a mark-up than in the US or (I assume) Japan, but mineral water, flat or fizzy, is an inexpensive and perfectly acceptable alternative to wine. Beer is often the preferred option with pizza, but it will possibly cost more than wine, as will soft drinks in restaurants.

        If you're in Rome for six weeks, you do not have to and may not want to eat only Roman food. There are restaurants in Rome that specialize in other regional cuisines: Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, Sicily, Campania, Le Marche, Sardinia. The regional restaurants are not all equally good, but some are very good indeed. And there are fish restaurants. Although Rome is close to the sea, fish, with the exception of only one dish that I can think of, is not part of traditional Roman cooking. It's best eaten in restaurants that specialize in it, and it will always be more expensive, whether priced by the portion or by weight (per etto or hg or 100 g). Ethnic food is also available, but it varies very widely in quality.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Octavian

          Excellent advice Octavian, thank you.

          You're correct that I won't stick strictly to Roman food. I've never really spent much time in Italy or even any part of Europe so I hope to get a broad range of things down my throat and into my stomach.

          One large meal a day will probably be sufficient for me, and if it's not then I'll just have to remind myself how expensive it is to buy more clothes to fit my expanding waistline!

        2. Some modest thoughts:
          • Find a (cheap) place close to school.
          • Make friends with your neighbors.
          • Familiarize yourself with local mass transit.
          • Shop local, shop every day. Use your fractured Italian. Only good things can happen.
          • Load your smart phone with map/transit apps. Have a good data plan or prepare to go broke.
          • Pay for (almost) everything with cash.
          • Always carry a mesh or a canvas bag with you so you can transport stuff you buy.
          • Your Roman colleagues can show you a lot but they are not teachers so you have to pick up things as you go. Hang out with your Roman colleagues.
          • You can observe a lot just by watching (Yogi Berra said that).

          just my two cents.

          7 Replies
            1. re: steve h.

              Good advice steve, thanks.

              Any recommendation for Eat Rome vs Rome for Foodies?

              1. re: lost squirrel

                Since both authors are frequent posters on this board, you will just have to get to know both and see which one thinks more like you. Really you should get both, read everything you can, and make up your own mind.

                1. re: mbfant

                  Thanks to Maureen and the other seasoned posters on this thread--and for all they have done over how many numberless threads about Rome. Their expertise is matched only by their goodwill. This post did get me thinking about "preparing" for a food life in a city like Rome: what would we find, say, on an Italian version of Chowhound (if there is one) in the way of local knowledge/advice from Italian expat experts in New York responding to a query form an Italian novice headed for a stint in New York who wanted to eat well, and live a native? Love to see it from my NY hometown vantage point.

                2. re: lost squirrel

                  What Maureen (mbfant) said. Many of the regular posters on this forum are published authors or connected in some way to the food/wine industries. It's pretty cool when you think about it.

                  Having said that, you are your own person and advice should only take you so far. In Rome, unlike Paris, it's OK to screw up. Don't obsess, don't be afraid of failure. Be secure in the knowledge that you'll do things better when you return.

                  1. re: steve h.

                    You're right Steve, it is VERY cool. We have a few 'professionals' on the Japan board which is nice, but you Rome guys and gals have a lot of great resources. I'm pretty jealous!

                    1. re: lost squirrel

                      Sorry I didn't see your post until now. Hope it's not too late to add to your reading list.

                      You would do well to read the Lazio section of Fred Plotkin's classic book, Italy for the Gourmet Traveler. Unlike restaurant-focused guides and apps, it instead goes into a lot of detail about the classic cuisine of Rome and customs of eating in Rome, which sounds like exactly what you are looking for. Included in the book are recommendations for well-run restaurants where these dishes are reliably on the menu but restaurant recommendations are really not the point . The point is to familiarize you with the landscape of eating in Rome (and every other part of Italy in other sections.)

                      Since you are likely venture beyond Rome during your stay, and since you seem eager to know about food in Italy other than Roman food, this book is a great investment because it will answer your questions about eating customs in detail, certainly for Rome.

                      You should also take a look at David Downie's food books on Rome. You can look at them on Amazon. It's possible that you will feel more in sync with his tastebuds and approach than others. As suggested above, this is a trial-and-error process when it comes to finding people who share your chemistry and sensibility in something so personal as eating.

              2. Books will be helpful for you before your trip, but the best way to get to know Rome and her food is just to explore. Everyone has different tastes. For me what is important at a restaurant is a good wine list and good wine glasses. A lot of the trattorias in Rome have horrible glasses followed by horrible table wine. However there are so many excellent places to eat from street food to haute cuisine. Since you are going to be in Rome for awhile I do suggest getting out of the city for day trips for food, culture and wine. Just outside of Rome there is an amazing wine culture and Romans flock to the Castelli Romani every weekend to eat and drink. Aovid Arriccia and the porchetta scene. A person from Castelli Romani wouldn't be caught dead eating there. It is geared towards Roman tourists who don't know a thing about good food and less about wine.
                As for the market in Campo de Fiori, I like the market. It is bloody expensive, but then again I live in the Castelli Romani so I think everything is expensive in Rome! It is very colorful and I love getting fresh squeezed pomegranate juice in the winter. There are plenty of markets that are cheaper and larger, but it is nice for being in the centro storico. Also nearby is Roscioli, you must eat their caponata.

                5 Replies
                1. re: SarahMayWineinRome

                  Where in the Catselli would you recommeedn going? Frascati? Marino? Montecompatri? If Romans themselves head to Arriccia for a Sunday lunch, say, how would this automatically --by itself--disqualify the place? Used to be you followed locals, this case folks from the city of Rome., to places they enjoyed. No guarantees of course, but still. And since much of the Castelli is so close to the city, even to the point of being commutable, doesn't that blur the line between city boors and local saints?

                  1. re: bob96

                    Well, we recently attended an event in Ariccia (spelled Ariccia), which we reached conveniently by train plus a not-bad walk. It was a roundtable on Biodiversity in which my pal Oretta Zanini De Vita, food historian, was a speaker. Afterward, in the great Italian style known well to me from my choir-singing years, our little gang stood outside in the cold wondering where to go to eat. Everybody wanted porchetta, and believe me, these were not "coatti." So Franco grabs the mayor, who had also attended the event, and asks him where to eat. He sent us around the corner to a trattoria and everybody was thrilled, including Oretta, who is as exigent as they come. Unfortunately I don't remember the name and inexplicably didn't write it down, though hope springs eternal that one day I will find its card around the house. It's easily identifiable once you're inside because there's the head of a water buffalo mounted high on the left-hand wall over a refrigerator. Can't miss it.

                    In any case in general it's certainly true that there are locals and then there are locals who have a clue where to find decent food. I have expressed myself at length on many occasions on this.

                    1. re: mbfant

                      The difference is that you went to a trattoria-not a fraschetta.

                      1. re: SarahMayWineinRome

                        I am well aware of the difference. The point was that a group of exigent Romans had an enjoyable traditional meal, with porchetta, in Ariccia.

                        1. re: mbfant

                          I never implied that you didn't. Peace.