Little Italy: 10 small, quirky places to go shopping in Rome

by Lee.Marshall

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.

Le Gallinelle

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)

Borini

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).

Gammarelli

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)

G Poggi

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)

Le Tartarughe

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)

Materie

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)

MMM

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 glacésVia del Pie’ di Marmo 21 (+39 06 699 0856)

SBU

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)

Volpetti

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.

Hotel Sant’Anslemo

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.

Portrait Suites

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.

Lee.Marshall

I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (www.maxxi.beniculturali.it), due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?