Like any major European capital, Rome has its share of three-star gourmet shrines and trendy bistros, but the essence of Roman cuisine is the sort of simple, robust peasant fare that doesn't necessarily register on the foodie radar. With Rome's multifaceted cultural and historical offerings, few people come here exclusively for the food. Many restaurants can coast on the tourist trade and turn a profit despite mediocre fare, rude service, and jacked-up prices, and so it can be tricky to find genuine cucina Romana -- though the real deal is soul-satisfying indeed.
Hunt around in the narrow street behind the Trevi Fountain for Al Moro (Vicolo delle Bollette 131; tel. 39/6-6783495), a slightly dowdy family trattoria that has drawn discriminating locals, including Frederico Fellini and his compagnos, since 1929. It's worth enduring the gruff patrone and exclusive regulars to sample such authentic specialties as the crispy roast baby goat flavored with fresh rosemary, the spaghetti Al Moro (aka carbonara, which they claim to have invented here), or a fork-tender milk-fed lamb stewed with fresh tomatoes. On a secluded square in the historic Jewish ghetto area, the classic place to enjoy a deep-fried artichoke (referred to as carciofi alla Giudeca, or artichokes Jewish-style) is family owned Piperno (Via Monte de'Cenci 9; tel. 39/6/68806629; www.ristorantepiperno.com), a mellow taverna that has been around since 1856. Along with the crispy fried artichokes and the fritto misto vegetariano (a sampler of Jewish-style artichokes, cheese-and-rice croquettes, mozzarella, and stuffed squash blossoms), Piperno serves delicious hearty pastas (the mellow gnocchetti alla matriciana is a specialty), seafood, and veal dishes.
Near Piazza Navona, acclaimed Il Convivio (Vicolo dei Soldati 31; tel. 39/6/6869432; www.ilconviviotroiani.com), a chic white dining room in a beautiful 16th-century building, is known for its market-inspired modern cooking. Seasonally changing menu items might include caramelized tuna with chestnut honey, ginger, green pepper, rosemary, and green apple purée, or tagliatelle with a white pork ragout, wild asparagus, and ginger. Yet even at this high-end restaurant you can find some touches of classic cucina Romana, like the salt cod with tomato confit, olives, and artichokes. For a more casual and less expensive meal in the same area, there's always Pizzeria Baffetto (Via del Governo Vecchio 114; tel. 39/6/6861617), a bustling, eternally popular no-frills spot in a scruffy-looking corner building (you'll recognize it by the lines of people outside waiting for a table). These pizzas are typically Roman style with a crisp, thin crust; the house special is generously topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, mushrooms, onions, sausages, roasted peppers, and eggs. (If Baffetto's full, pop around the corner to La Montecarlo at Vicolo Savelli 12, run by the daughter of Baffeto's owner.)
Down in the rapidly gentrifying working-class neighborhood of Testaccio, more and more trendy bistros and bars are opening up in old converted warehouses. Yet close to the outdoor food market in Piazza Testaccio -- already an essential stop for anyone who loves food -- traditional cucina Romana is alive and well at Da Felice (Via Mastro Giorgio 29; tel. 39/6/574-6800), a spiffed-up neighborhood trattoria serving time-honored favorites such as tonnarelli cacao e pepe, chunky egg-rich pasta tossed with crumbled sheep's cheese and black pepper; or bucatini all'amatriciana, hollow spaghetti in a sauce of tomatoes, onion, pancetta, and pecorino cheese. The cozy, whitewashed cellar of Checchino dal 1887 (Via di Monte Testaccio 30; tel. 39/6/5743816; www.checchino-dal-1887.com) began serving workers from the area's former slaughterhouses in 1887, and the menu still features succulent butcher's leftovers -- dishes such as rigatoni con pajata (pasta with small intestines), coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew), fagioli e cotiche (beans with intestinal fat), and, in winter, a tender wild boar slow-braised with prunes and red wine.
Across the Tiber in bohemian Trastevere, Sabatini (Piazza Santa Maria 13; tel. 39/06-5812026) is a welcoming neighborhood trattoria with homey beamed ceilings and stenciled walls. It's a great place for seafood (spaghetti with seafood sauce, grilled scampi), delicious pastas, chicken and veal dishes (try pollo con peperoni, chicken with red and green peppers), and, of course, oxtail stew -- the mark of any bona fide ristorante cucina Romana.
Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers in our Italy forum today.