In a world dominated by global brands, Rome still abounds with small, characterful boutiques and delis. From Italian cheeses to shoes, oil paints and ecclesiastical cloth, the Eternal City has it all
So accustomed are we to street names losing touch with their original meaning, it comes as quite a shock to walk down via dei Giubbonari ("Jacketmakers' Row") in Rome and see that it is still lined with clothes shops. Turning into piazza Monte di Pietà, you will find the Monte di Pietà (the city's municipal pawn shop, founded in the 15th century) still handing out loans to the desperate.
Continuity is very much in the spirit of a city where, despite the arrival of hypermarkets and global brands, there are still centro storico streets almost entirely occupied by raffia-weavers, or furniture restorers, or cloth merchants. A few things have changed, of course: the key-cutters moved out of via dei Chiavari years ago, and via dei Cappellari ("Hatmakers' Lane") is now full of antique shops. Nevertheless, one of the joys of shopping in Rome is its connection with the past and its fierce resistance to the mall and the standardised, branded outlets that you see everywhere else.
Here, you will still find jewellers' or bookbinders' that have been in the same premises, and run by the same families, for over a century. Yet Rome also has small contemporary design outlets and curated fashion and accessory shops to rival anything in Paris or London. To find them, you need inside knowledge. Here is my guide to 10 of the best-kept, one-off shopping secrets in the Eternal City.
In funky via del Boschetto, Wilma Silvestri’s bohemian boutique sells ultra-select vintage and own-brand new clothes and accessories for women and men. The shop was once a polleria, where you bought chicken – the walk-in fridge is now the changing room. Via del Boschetto 76 (+39 06 488 1017, www.legallinelle.it)
Before stepping up to the big-label shoe brands around via Condotti, head for this nondescript corner shop near Campo de’ Fiori, which stocks a great range of well-made, fashion-conscious womens’ footwear at very reasonable prices. Another good place for bargain fashion shoes is Testaccio market, where a whole aisle is taken up by stalls offering last year's models at last decade's prices. Via dei Pettinari 86 (+39 06 687 5670).
I have a friend in New York who orders two pairs of cardinal-red wool socks from this venerable ecclesiastical outfitters every year. Gammarelli – established in 1798 – has a cult following beyond the Roman Catholic priests and nuns who form its core market. While they may baulk at selling you a bishop’s mitre if you’re not actually a bishop, you don’t need to provide Vatican ID to purchase socks, rosary beads, lengths of gilded fabric (designed for trimming altar cloths) and other clerical gewgaws. Via di Santa Chiara 34 (+39 06 688 01314)
The ultimate artists’ supply shop, this cave of wonders was founded in 1875. Even if you’re not an artist, it’s worth a look just to marvel at the burins and easels, the ley figures and sable brushes, and the rows of jars containing powdered colours straight out of a Renaissance manual: burnt umber, Terra di Siena, Pompeii red and even lapis lazuli. Via del Gesù 74 (+39 06 678 4477, www.poggi1825.it)
Doyenne of Rome’s cult homegrown fashion designers, Susanna Liso has a flair for combining elegance with wearability. Season after season she produces striking yet easy-to-wear designs – tailored and knitted – in colours and cuts that make a statement. Via Pie’ di Marmo 17 & 33 (+39 06 679 2240, www.susannalisoperletartarughe.it)
This is one of those shops that’s all about good taste. The owner sources contemporary jewellery from European designers, with the emphasis on innovative or recycled materials – such as a leafy necklace made from old bike tyres. She also carries a few scarves, handbags and exquisite ceramic vases. Such is the quality of the selection, it’s very difficult to come away empty-handed. Via del Gesù 73 (+39 06 679 3199)
If you’re feeling flush and want to take a really special gift back from Rome, head for Massimo Maria Melis, who specialises in jewellery in the "archaeological" style: gold pendants, brooches, rings, necklaces and earrings either imitating or inspired by Etruscan, Greek and Roman originals. Via dell’Orso 57 (+39 06 686 9188)
Moriondo & Gariglio
Inside this sin-red cocoa boutique, hand-made chocolates are displayed like diamond rings. Elaborate party pieces and presentation boxes of chocolates testify to this choc-artisan’s illustrious history – they were once official confectioners to the House of Savoy. They also do delicious things with nuts. In the run-up to Christmas, the shop is full of fur-coated dowagers stocking up on marrons glacés. Via del Pie’ di Marmo 21 (+39 06 699 0856)
The worn wooden counters and cast-iron columns of this former draper’s provide an ideal, understated setting for the small – but, for Roman fashionistas, essential – range of printed T-shirts, crisp shirts and jeans sold here by the Perfetti brothers. In light Japanese denim, low-cut, and distressed without being silly, these jeans have no rival in the Eternal City. Via San Pantaleo 68-69 (+39 06 688 02547)
The ultimate Roman deli, Volpetti is filled with everything that’s best in Italian cheeses, cured meats, preserves and a host of other edibles. Chatty staff will tempt you with a shaving of pit-aged pecorino or hand-dried beef, relating the production process and providing the CV of the wizened farmer responsible for the culinary delight. Unless you want to spend, spend, spend, the trick is to taste, smile – and then get the two or three things you really came for. They ship all over the world – useful if you’re battling with a miserly luggage allowance. Via Marmorata 47 (+39 06 574 2352) www.volpetti.com
Three good shopping hotels in Rome
Teatro Pace 33
Handy for the funky mix of alternative fashion boutiques, secondhand emporiums, design shops, jewellers and artisans that cluster in the Piazza Navona and Pantheon areas, former cardinal’s residence Teatro Pace 33 has 23 mostly spacious, elegant rooms done out with laid-back antique elegance. There’s no lift, but at least you get a spectacular staircase to haul your suitcases up: a colonnaded oval ramp designed by a pupil of Bernini. Doubles usually start at about €140 a night, but there are special offers and last-minute reductions. Via del Teatro Pace 33.
On the leafy Aventine hill, two minutes’ walk from Volpetti (see above), the Sant'Anselmo is one of those relaxed, welcoming, romantic mid-range hotels that you could recommend equally well to grandparents or grandchildren. It’s difficult not to feel at home in this 34-room warren with its delightful garden, especially since a 2005 refurbishment which spruced up what had, until then, been a glorified pensione. This new, more contemporary slant is on display – especially in some of the themed bedrooms, such as the one carved out of the former gardener's shed, which now features a bathroom with sunken stone tub and LED-lit starry ceiling. Two other nearby hotels, Villa San Pio and the Aventino, are part of the same group, but for my money the Sant’Anselmo is the one to book – it just has more character. Prices start at about €150 a night in low season. Piazza Sant’Anslemo 2.
If you want to splash out and be right on via Condotti (Rome’s main fashion drag), Portrait Suites is the smart option. Designed by Tuscan interiors maven Mchele Bonan, this discreetly chic bolthole opened in 2006 and is part of the Ferragamo hotel group. It has a tiny lobby and very little communal space – all the better to focus attention on the 14 large, tastefully contemporary suites, done out in greys, creams and earth tones set off by the occasional strong splash of lime green or shocking pink. The hotel’s real calling card, though, is the roof terrace, which is open only to hotel guests. Well-stocked with loungers and lanterns, it’s an absurdly romantic venue for an evening’s tête-à-tête beneath the stars. Suites start at about €350 a night with breakfast – which is served in one’s room. Via Bocca di Leone 23.