This is Rome, where restaurants are as ubiquitous as guys selling selfie-pods (yes they are a thing now, and yes, of course I bought one).
And just as it’s difficult to know whether the selfie-pod guy is really giving you his best price, knowing whether the restaurant you sit down at is any good can be a mystery.
Yes, you’re in the capital of one of the world’s most famous ‘foodie’ countries, but finding a good quality, good value restaurant in Rome is not as easy as you might think.
Up to ten million people a year visit the city, mostly for just a few days, so it’s likely that most people will only eat in a given restaurant once.
This means many restaurants want to attract lots of passing tourist trade, without having to put any real effort into building up a faithful clientele by offering great fresh food.
They’ll work on the superficial – red and white tablecloths, fancy décor, all the gorgeous little touches so that you expect to feel like Lady and/or the Tramp in that spaghetti scene… but actually, they offer a menu of cheap, frozen ready meals, heated up and arranged on a plate. Disaster.
You just want to eat some delicious, fresh Italian pasta or a great quality Roman pizza, but may instead end up being served something that you could have bought for €3 in the supermarket down the road -and paying upwards of €13 for the privilege. I know this because I’ve paid it myself.
That’s not the Rome you want, and it’s not the one I want for you!
Don’t fear; there are ways to avoid this. Here are some of my best tips – lessons learned the hard way – for finding the best Rome restaurants and enjoying every meal you eat in the Eternal City…
Restaurants that serve up frozen meals are required by law to tell you this on the menu, marking the meal with an asterisk. If you see the star, you’re paying for a ready meal on a plate.
Some people are ok with this, and will happily sacrifice freshness and home-madeness for a spot at the side of one of Rome’s most beautiful piazzas. Foodies, however (you know who you are!) wouldn’t dream of it.
My tip? By all means, go to the beautiful piazzas. Enjoy them. Then take a little stroll into the tiny lanes that surround those piazzas, and find a place with a small menu – one that doesn’t show you photos of your food.
This is an easy trap to fall into – you’ll walk a lot when you’re in Rome. You’ll be really hungry by lunchtime and ravenous again in the evening, and if you are in tourist area (which is likely because the whole place is a tourist area), you’ll have a lot of restaurants to choose from.
Hungry people make poor restaurant decisions, especially when it’s a needle-in-a-haystack situation that they’re too low in blood sugar to deal with properly. Don’t end up disappointed and €30 down.
My tip? Get a slice of pizza, a panini or a gelato from somewhere (aperitivo if it’s dinner time), and sit and eat it somewhere pretty. Only look for a meal when you are comfortable and not cranky/desperate.
When you are on the hunt, and if you don’t have any restaurant recommendations – or indeed any clue where you are, look for Michelin, Gambero Rosso, or Slow Food recommendation stickers in windows.
Michelin stickers don’t have to mean Michelin stars (or Michelin star prices), but rather that the restaurant has been reviewed and recommended by Michelin – a trusted, reputable source.
My Tip? If you hit the Rome Jackpot and find a few nice looking places near each other, all with the stickers you were hoping for, hover for a moment and engage my next tip to avoid ending up with food envy.
The prize is the food. Look at the plates. Watch what is being brought to people. Watch how people are eating it – it’s easy to see when people are really enjoying their food.
Watch their faces. Listen to them too; if they sound Roman or at least Italian, then you could be on to a winner. Eating where the locals eat is usually a good idea.
My tip? Subtlety. Try not to freak anyone out while watching them eat. It’s bad manners.
Proper planning prevents poor pasta. Get online before you go, and read some of the excellent food reveiws written by people who know what they’re talking about.
You will find out about little trattorias that you might not otherwise find, you’ll learn about some of the tourist traps to avoid. Write down the names and – crucially – the addresses of the places you’d like to try.
My tip? Rome’s a big city, with many similarly-named restaurants – it gets confusing. If you categorise your restaurants by area, you’ll be laughing. I would go so far as to say mark them on a map so you know when you’re near enough to one.
No really, I mean it. I want to go back to Rome and do it all again with this lesson learned.
Go for aperitivo. You can still use the above tips to choose where to go of course, but if budget is your primary concern, savvy travellers and Romans go to some of the fabulous bars that serve aperitivo in the evenings.
Buy your booze, eat for free, and mingle with the locals in a bustling and informal atmosphere. It’s trendy, fun, delicious and nice to the purse.
My tip? Treat yourself to a fancy cocktail – in Gusto they cost around €10 and they’re worth every cent – especially when the food is free!
Flights to Rome
- Dee Murray