I haven't been to Rome in over 20 years, but here's the thing about visiting old European cities, the big attractions, well they're still there.
There's still the Spanish stairs where mostly just tourists hang out and take pictures. The Trevi Fountain still has people flinging coins over their shoulders. The Vatican, the Forum, the Colosseum - all still there. All still beautiful.
So instead of focusing on the details of the main attractions, I'm going to talk about the eating highlights near them. After all, you can't see all the city sights without some sustenance and I like to think of the food in Rome as an attraction unto itself.
Near Piazza Navona and Pantheon
On a small street, a little north of the Piazza Navona and Pantheon is Ristorante La Campagna, which will beat most restaurants in the heavily touristy areas that will have pictures on their menu in case you don't know what spaghetti looks like.
La Campagna's room is simply outfitted with a few Italian pictures hanging on neutral walls. Like most Italian restaurants, they could stand to use a dimmer switch so it doesn't feel like you're eating in a football stadium.
Service was extremely attentive and friendly and I'm not sure if that's just because I was dining alone that night and being waited on by an affable Italian man, but it did earn me a free glass of Limoncello at the end of the meal, but no, I didn't agree to a subsequent date after.
There was an English menu and though there were other Americans in the dining room, there were also equal amounts of Italians in between. I took my nice waiter's recommendation by starting with an artichoke that he described as stewed. It was tender and served with just a little lemon and olive oil. I loved the simplicity and freshness of using these few, but quality ingredients.
I continued with a generous helping of tagliolini, smothered in a warm tomato sauce and fresh anchovies, topped with just grated Pecorino. The saltiness of the cheese and anchovies combined well with the well rounded tomato sauce.
Rome's La Campagna offers a very nice, simple, but well prepared meal for a good price, and if you're lucky you may even get a date or some free limoncello out of it.
Near the Vatican
After hours exploring the riches and grandeur of the Vatican Museum or St. Peter's Basilica, you will definitely be in need of a pick me up and if you're like me, you'll be ready for a glass of wine. Sorpasso is the place to go to fulfill all your needs.
It's a great wine bar with a changing selection of pasta, plates of salumi and daily specials. I was there with a friend for a late lunch and it was filled with Italians doing the same. English isn't as readily spoken here, but sometimes that's a good thing, as long as you can identify some of your favorite ingredients in Italian, or point to someone else's plate that you like.
I was also happy to find a selection of salads since sometimes vegetables can be hard to find amidst the carb heavy menus. We weren't that self-righteous though as we had blue cheese, pear and walnuts on our greens that we dressed with our own oil and vinegar. It was exactly what I wanted.
I had a well executed wild boar oreccheitte. The slightly acidic tomato sauce balanced the heavier meat and the Pecorino was the icing on my carb cake.
After this refresher, you'll be ready to climb the 551 stairs to the dome of St. Peter's Basilica like we did, because this view is worth it.
Near Campo de' Fiori
Campo de' Fiori is a bustling open air market by day and party place by night where you might be able to find a street performer swinging flaming nunchucks or you can find that dancing Gangham Style doll you've been looking for. Touristy, yes. Good fun for a drink, yes again.
While the entertainment value of Campo de' Fiori is high, the food quality is low, but not too far off the plaza is another understated, solid Italian cucina, Ditirambo. This small, two room place is warm and inviting. Service, again, friendly and English was spoken.
I began with a perfectly cooked octopus that was tender with a little crunch from the grilling - simple and sublime, though it was hard to compare with the more decadent potatoes topped with salty cheese and truffles. You'll never eat another potato chip again.
Mains ran the gambit of a fish with radiccio to ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta, sprinkled with whole capers. Everything was well made, fresh, and reasonably priced.
Dessert was drinks on the plaza afterwards.
Also close to the Campo is an even bigger hit, and probably my favorite restaurant of the trip, Roscioli. Roscioli is part deli, part restaurant. The tables are scattered between an extensive salumi and cheese case and a large selection of wine and vinegars.
I was happy to have four others with me that night so we could sample quite a few things. We didn't follow much of a pattern as our starters hit several parts of the menu, but also allowed us to still get another plate. As much as I like to eat, I wasn't ever able to do a traditional Italian order of pasta followed by a big meat main, though I'd usually order a starter then pasta, and it was plenty of food, and no one in the restaurants cared about what we ordered or didn't.
I continue to dream about all of our appetizers at Roscioli. The burrata was silky smooth and the shaved truffle on top took it to a not of this world place. The meatballs were tender pillows filled with a smoked ricotta which you could smell before it arrived at the table. It added to the tender and succulent dish, served with polenta cakes and tomato sauce.
Cacio e peppe delivered all the goods and then some - slightly chewy noodles were bathed in its juices with Pecorino and fresh black pepper. Three ingredients never tasted so good. Other winning pastas included the Carbonara and spaghetti with a fatty pork bacon that melted like cotton candy in your mouth. What can I say, but OMG.
It wasn't my idea for dessert, but who can turn down cannoli and gelato.
A spectacular meal that I'm already wondering when I can repeat.
Near Borghese Gallery, Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain
This last restaurant was a runner up in one of my favorites category, Colline Emiliane. While the food at Roscioli was probably the best, Colline Emiliane wins for best service and owners.
We were waited on by the son of the operation. He eventually pointed to his mom who was busy running around the dining room kissing people on both cheeks while serving desserts she had made that morning for all to eat. His dad was doing more of the same - air kissing guests, slicing fresh prosciutto. It felt like we were at someone's house for Sunday supper, complete with dogs under tables. The family has had the restaurant since 1967 and our young waiter said it will eventually be his, and this was something he seemed quite proud of.
This is the type of place where different tables were talking to each other and drinking bottles of wine on a Sunday afternoon, much like we were. The pasta carbonara melted in my mouth and the ravioli looked like it might have even had mama's fingerprints on it. I was thrilled to have a side of olive oil and garlic rich spinach. Mama wants to make sure we eat our vegetables.
Just like she wants us to eat our vegetables, we couldn't turn down her beautiful, handmade desserts. The lemon meringue was tart and sweet with a chewy layer of stiff marshmallow on top. The chocolate cake was warm and like a rich brownie.
Colline Emiliane is a great family operation and one that I anticipate will last through many more generations.
It's hard to talk about Rome and not talk about pizza, but there were so many good places all over the city for a slice. I love that you can cut off as much as you like and grab a slab to go.
I have to say though, one of our best pies was from a little spot we stumbled across in the center of town where we watched a woman rolling dough for hours right in front of us. She was prepping pasta for dinner service, but she had done all the same for us in the morning to make our great wood fire oven pizza.
We hadn't quite anticipated all the ingredients we received, but we were happy nonetheless.
Same theory of abundance for pizza, applies to gelato. There's just too may great places, but man, I did learn some appreciation as I had some really sub par gelato near the Trevi Fountain. Look for small, artisanal containers for the gelato versus large industrial size barrels which are often made using powder. No powder people.
And I'll leave you with that final bit of dessert from Roma. Arrivederci!