When in Rome... eat with the Romans

by Anne.Hanley

The Italian capital has Michelin shrines aplenty – but for a taste of how locals eat, head for Prati (near the Vatican), the Ghetto and Testaccio, for pizza, Jewish specialities and hearty, meaty fare

Rome boasts some dauntingly chic restaurants, with a fair number of Michelin stars. These are the places to steer clear of if you want to find the locals tucking in with gusto. Traditional Roman fare is earthy and rough, and while a high-end establishment might be fine for a very special occasion, when a Roman wants a hearty meal, he or she looks for a lot of substance… and style be damned.

This will often mean heading out of the centro storico and into semi-central districts such as Testaccio, where the now-defunct municipal abattoir once provided the raw materials for those most Roman of dishes: coda alla vaccinara (ox-tail in celery broth), animelle (fried pancreas and thymus glands) and pajata (veal or lamb intestines with the mother’s milk inside). In this colourful neighbourhood with its lively morning produce market, these and other offal treats are still eagerly consumed both in such spit-and-sawdust places as Augustarello (about €30 a head without wine; closed Sun) and in exclusive eateries such as Checchino dal 1887 (€60; closed Mon).

Bridging the gap is Da Felice (€35; closed Sun evening), recently given an industrial-chic makeover but still the haunt of market traders and assorted locals whose high-decibel mealtime antics make this an exciting sensory experience. For a romantic stay just a short walk from Testaccio, the Hotel Sant'Anselmo on the leafy, calm Aventine hill is perfect; doubles from €180.

Romans – of all denominations – are also proud of their Jewish culinary tradition, with its line in deep-fried vegetables, most notably the magnificent artichokes – carciofi alla giudia – which are squashed, head-down, into boiling oil to create edible “flowers” of crunchy leaves with a deliciously soft heart. The Ghetto, a warren of old lanes between via della Botteghe Oscure and the Tiber Island, is the place to indulge. Tourists tend to head for Da Giggetto (€40; closed Mon), and very pleasant it is, with its outside tables and ringside view of Portico d’Ottavia – part of a temple built by the Emperor Augustus in honour of his sister. In-the-know locals make a beeline for the anonymous doorway of tiny, simple Sora Margherita (€30; closed Mon) where the menu is strictly limited, the portions generous and the price very fair indeed (€30; closed Mon). Don’t miss the tonnarelli cacio e pepe, pasta strands heaped with tangy sheep’s cheese.

In these penny-pinching times, the humble pizza (which in Rome comes on a thin, crispy base) is an essential cheap carb-fix – though here again, it is to the pizzeria sotto casa (downstairs) in residential areas that locals tend to turn. In the Prati district, beneath the Vatican walls, Isola della Pizza (€25; closed Wed) is a heaving dough factory serving a great rendition, though regulars in the know sometimes fail to get further than the never-ending plates piled high with antipasti misti (mixed starters) of all descriptions. The four-star Hotel Farnese, just a few blocks away, has a roof terrace with a glorious view; doubles from €180.

In Testaccio, cavernous Da Remo (€18; closed Sun) is another ear-shattering venue, but unique in the buzzing slice of Roman life served up. More central, and more chic, ‘Gusto (€25; open daily) serves thicker-based pizzas to crowds of locals for whom this very first establishment to “go design”, more than a decade ago, has been accepted into the traditional canon. Arguably the best pizza of all – enjoyed, without a doubt, in the company of only locals – can be found at La Gatta Mangiona (€22; open evenings daily), a 20-minute ride from the centro, almost to the end of the number 8 tram line. Bright and cheery, it offers a gourmet range of toppings on its light, airy, slow-rise bases.

Il Bocciofilo (€30; closed Mon), a well-hidden shack just five minutes’ walk from piazza del Popolo, is exactly what the name says: a club where old men go to play bocce – bowls. In the grounds is a family-run bar-restaurant, open to all-comers. With its vine-covered verandah out the back, it serves the kind of simple and ever-changing soups, pasta dishes, meat and fish that you usually find only out in the countryside. It is anything but refined, but it has that quality that Romans treasure most: it is genuino. Just a short distance away is the Casa Montani – a gorgeous, five-roomed designer b&b where doubles start at €180.

RESTAURANT CHOICE

Augustarello (+39 06 574 6585), via G Branca 98.
Checchino dal 1887 (+39 574 6318, www.checchino-dal-1887.com), via di Monte Testaccio 30.
Da Felice (+39 06 574 6800), via Mastro Giorgio 29.
Da Giggetto (+39 686 1105, www.giggettoalporticodottavia.com), via Portico d’Ottavia 21A.
Sora Margherita (+39 06 687 4216), piazza delle Cinque Scole 30.
Isola della Pizza (+39 06 3973 3483, www.isoladellapizza.com), via degli Scipioni 43.
Da Remo (+39 06 574 6270), piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice 44.
‘Gusto (+39 06 322 6273, www.gusto.it), piazza Augusto Imperatore 9.
La Gatta Mangiona (+39 06 534 6702), via Ozanam 30.
Il Bocciofilo (+30 06 361 0570), via Flaminia 86.

Anne.Hanley

I have been writing about Italy for over 25 years for papers (Sunday Telegraph, Independent), magazines, news agencies and – most prolifically – travel guides, editing many editions of Time Out's Venice and Rome guides.

I pitched up in Rome in 1984, thinking of staying for a year or two; but I've never managed to drag myself away from Italy. After 20 years in the Eternal City, I'm now in the wilds of the Umbrian countryside where I continue to edit guides, and design gardens (www.laverzura.com).

Of all Italy's glorious cities, Venice is undoubtedly my favourite: I love its unique beauty and that special feeling of complicity it gives anyone who gets to know it well. I make sure I visit the lagoon city three or four times a year: sometimes for a few days, occasionally for weeks. Any excuse will do: an article to write, a garden to look at, my Time Out Venice guides to update, a new hotel to check out, or just a much-loved restaurant with a pavement table and a view I find myself hankering after. What never ceases to amaze me about the place is how, despite my constant visits and endless exploring, every time I go there, I happen across something new. There’s always a reason to return to a city that reveals its secrets so slowly but so surely.

My Venice

Where I always grab a coffee - The selection of excellent coffees at the Caffè del Doge (Calle del Cinque, San Polo 609, www.caffedeldoge.com) means that there’s always the perfect cup to match my mood.

My favourite stroll - With construction work at the Punta della Dogana finally over, I can once again do my walk; the view across to San Marco from this easternmost end of the Dorsoduro district is stunning.

Fiction for inspiration - Donna Leon’s Commissioner Brunetti crime novels show this American writer’s excellent knowledge of the city. But I have a sneaky affection for Henry James’ wordy The Wings of the Dove.

The most breathtaking view - The spectacle from the campanile (bell tower) of San Giorgio Maggiore is heart-stopping. But the view from the Molino Stucky Hilton’s Skyline bar (Giudecca 810, www.molinostuckyhilton.com) is pretty good too – and you can enjoy this one with a glass in hand.

The best spot for some peace and quiet - When busy Venice gets too much for me, I hop on a vaporetto to the Giudecca and wander through to the boatyards and echoing alleys on the southern side. So atmospheric.

Shopaholics beware! I find the purposeful bustle and real Venetian spirit of the food morning market at the north-western foot of the Rialto bridge quite wonderful, even if I’m not buying.

City soundtrack - Anything by Vivaldi is the obvious choice here in his city, but I also find the works of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli very fitting. These 16th-century composer-brothers wrote works for performance in St Mark’s basilica in the 16th century.

Don’t leave without…trying to round the column: looking at the Doge’s palace from the lagoon side, go to the third column from the right. To one side, stand with your back against it; now try to walk around it without falling off the pavement. I’ve never managed.