Although there are many great restaurants in the suburbs of Rome, these are not them. These top spots are all in the “centro historico”, the city centre of Rome. Handy if you are visiting Rome as generally this is where you will be staying.
My definition of a top Roman restaurant is one that:
- has been in operation for at least one hundred years
- is family run (usually by the second or third generation by now)
- specialises in traditional Roman cuisine (simple, fresh and offal based)
- has a menu that depends on what is available at the market that day
- does not depend on decor as a selling point. (Not for me the modern, sleek, sharply fitted out interiors with modern twists or re-inventions on traditional dishes. If I wanted those kind of restaurants I would go to Milan or Melbourne.)
So here goes, the top five are not in any particular order:
1. L’Hostaria Romanesca – Piazza Campo dei Fiori, 40 – 06 6864024
Don’t bother calling as you can’t book and if you are lucky enough to get a seat you will have to wait a long time often for your meals. It consists of one small room inside plus a square of the piazza. There is a sign on the wall written in local dialect warning about the wait and not to bother the chef with complaints. But it is worth it. Dishes are individually and lovingly prepared, and spilling over with food of the highest and freshest quality. The Spaghetti Carbonara, Pollo con Pepperoni (only found in Rome)/chicken with capsicum, and Fegato alla griglia/grilled liver are the best I have ever tasted. But everything on the menu is good, cheap, and cooked with care and attention to detail. Try any of the specials as they will be seasonal and based on the chefs traditional knowledge.
And while you are waiting you will have the spectacular Campo dei Fiori to watch – full of people, no cars, magnificent medieval buildings, and a statue of Giordano Bruno, the last person burnt to death there in 1600 for heresy. Reflect on how, if waiting for some spectacular Roman food while sipping wine and eating bread is the main problem you have at the moment, then life is much improved since 1600.
2. La Carbonara – Piazza Campo dei Fiori,23 .- 06 6864783
You will be lining up often with international movie stars and politicians to get a seat but it is not a pretentious or expensive place, just a Roman institution. At the other end of the piazza from L’Hostaria, it is thankfully much larger so your chances of eating there are greatly increased, and they take bookings. Again it produces very traditional, high quality Roman dishes with just a bit more flair (and prices) than the down market L’Hostaria. The Fiori di Zucca/fried zucchini flowers, Saltimbocca alla Romana (veal with proscuitto and sage) are the best I have ever tasted and the Carbonara is on a par with L’Hostaria. Again you will have the Campo dei Fiori piazza to look out upon and will be entertained by a parade of non-stop travelling musicians.
3. Il Bric – Via del Pellegrino 51, 06-687-9533
This one is around the corner literally from La Carbonara and has a gorgeously rustic, cosy, and wine filled interior, with a wine list that resembles an encyclopedia. It is often referred to as the “cheese restaurant” by locals as one whole window is dedicated to a range of melt-in-your-mouth French and Italian cheeses in such an array that stops passersby in their tracks. It gives the impression of being only a Vineria (wine bar) but has a full restaurant menu. It is fairly new (twenty five years old) and its decor does draw me in, hence the rules don’t always apply. But the combination of feeling like I am eating in someones lovingly kitted-out cellar, with high quality food based on traditional Roman and French cuisine, in a romantic and more tranquil atmosphere than the other two, gets me in every time I want something just a little more upmarket and refined, without feeling I have to forgo my casual Roman street-wear. Booking is essential.
4. Il Drapo – Vicolo del Malpasso 9, 066877365
Il Drapo is certainly the most upmarket, expensive, romantic and luxurious so far. It is great for a romantic dinner for two, or elegant get together with more. I notice that they tend to put couples and quieter parties together which preserves the atmosphere in some rooms, and makes others louder. The food is Sardinian based so you will get a slightly different menu but they are respectful of where they are (just around the corner from La Carbonara), and Roman cuisine is also honored. It is a peaceful and attentive experience compared to the above four. The food is fantastic, beautifully presented and you come out feeling like you have been refreshed and pampered with a belly full of excellent memories. My favourite here is the suckling pig in juniper berries. Bookings essential.
5. Da Luigi – Piazza Sforza Cesarini 23, 06 6865 946
I stumbled on this place when I used to live around the corner from it and noticed it was always full with lines of people waiting. Hence I usually had to eat dinner next door in a grossly inferior establishment. Da Luigi is packed full with Roman families who like to keep this place a secret. It is squashed along the side of a tiny piazza across the road from Piazza Navona. Here you will find reasonably priced, down-to-earth Roman dishes specialising in sea food. It is noisy and always crowded and there is nothing to look at, but the variety and good reliable quality of the food makes up for it. The booking system doesn’t seem to work so be prepared to wait for a table which is never very long.