Despite a dozen trips to Italy over the years on both business and leisure, I had somehow contrived to have never visited the Eternal City. Though familiar from countless movies, documentaries and history books, I was still filled with a sense of excitement and anticipation as we touched down in Fiumicino airport. Could the city possibly deliver on the promise of all those embedded images and associations? Would the magic be there?
The first thing to say is that Rome lives up to its billing in every way, with a collage of sights, sounds and smells that is immediately evocative, even for those like me who have only seen it in the movies. Yes, seemingly thousands of young Romans do take their – and your – lives in their hands as the weave through impossible traffic on scooters, massed crowds of tourists (even in November) clog the streets to the extent that they, and not cars, rule the roads, and the sound of music and aroma of coffee is everywhere.
Deciding where to stay for the first timer is difficult. Rome has several distinct neighbourhoods, each with its own attractions, and whilst not huge distances apart, they are strung out across the city and on either bank of the River Tiber. In the end we chose the district around the Spanish Steps, east of the Vatican City and north of the historic centre, and I think it was a really good choice. Everything was within walking distance with the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps all within an easy stroll, and both the ancient Rome of the Colosseum and Forum and the Vatican City reached within 30 minutes on foot. There is also a huge variety of shopping and dining options in this lively and well served part of the city.
A bed for the night
There are hugely expensive hotel options around the Spanish Steps, an area crowded with designer boutiques and expensive jewellers. But with 5* palaces going for 500 Euros per night, we went mid-market, and what a great choice it was: the Hotel Mozart just off of the Via del Corso had been recommended and we chose one of its ‘Vivaldi Luxury Rooms’ which are housed in a separate building around the corner on the thronging Via del Corso. Although the street outside teamed with people from morning to night, our spacious and elegant room looked on to an interior courtyard and was wonderfully peaceful and quiet overnight. The super-king bed, well-appointed Jacuzzi bathroom, hot and powerful shower and fast free wifi all added up to a terrific choice at around 150 Euros per night. The air-conditioned room had all mod cons within an ancient framework – and included a very good breakfast too.
Over three days we ‘did Rome’, seeing the essential sights, though on this visit we decided to save the Vatican’s interior – the churches and museums – for another time rather than cram in too much. So this guide should be useful to those planning a weekend in Rome to do something the same. Sights like the Pantheon, Colosseum and Trevi Fountain are wonderfully evocative, and the plethora of churches and galleries tucked around every Roman corner is breathtaking. But like every major tourist centre, surrounding streets are crowded with street hawkers, tatty gift shops and ropey restaurants offering cheap fodder for the masses. So before heading to Rome I did considerable research, and then just about as much again through pounding the pavements, to test drive some restaurants that offered really good food and wine options for the more discerning visitor. There are places in this mini-guide to suit all budgets, and every one of them within minutes of some of Rome’s essential must see attractions.
The map right shows the relative positions of the restaurants to each other and to some of the major Rome attractions. But please note the map is not to scale (not even remotely!) but will hopefully be useful. Hotel Mozart is a just north of Via Vittoria, on the corner of the Via del Corso.
And just a word on tipping in Italian restaurants: few places, even at the top end of dining, add a service charge. And in truth percentage tipping, whether it be 10% or 15%, is not the norm in Italy. Tips are not automatically expected, but of course a few Euros is always appreciated, and more if the service really pleases.
The Spanish Steps & Trevi Fountain
A) Imàgo, Hotel Hassler, Piazza Trinità dei Monti, 600187. Tel. +39 06 69934726
Imàgo sits at the top of the Spanish Steps, has a Michelin star, and is housed within one of Rome’s most exclusive 5* hotels. From its sixth floor location it offers an unbeatable panorama of Rome. Nobody should come here expecting a cheap night out, so before the food, a word on prices that are as breathtaking as the views: each 75cl bottle of mineral water costs 11 Euros, and an espresso is 8.50 Euros. Indeed dinner for two ran to 370 Euros before service, and that choosing very modest wines. Plush and spacious, a dedicated lift whisks you to one of the city’s most exclusive dining rooms where Francesco Apreda runs a slick operation serving refined, contemporary Italian cuisine. Apreda worked the dining room at regular intervals throughout our dinner, chatting with what seemed to be many regulars. A tasting menu at 140 Euros is on offer, but we opted for a la carte where starters come in around 30 Euros, mains around 50 and desserts around 25. A lovely selection of canapés was served as the Champagne ‘chariot’ arrived, the choices including Krug and Dom Perignon by the glass, though we settled on the delightful, dry and creamy Franciacorta Brut Natur from Gatti. At 17 Euros per glass it was around half the price of the cheapest Champagne alternatives. After a lovely little amuse of a pumpkin cream with an unusual cappuccino sauce, my first course was arguably the highlight of the meal: Tuscan ribollita raviolini with tangerine and green tea flavoured seared lobster. The little raviolis were creamy and earthy with their bean and soft bread filling, the chunks of lobster strewn across the plate deliciously delicate and the balance of tangerine – not as sharp as lemon or lime – and green tea adding subtle grassy notes. It was light, fresh and delicious. For my main course saddle of deer came as a thick steak, and was suitably prepared for a late autumn dish, cooked in Morellino wine with blackberry crust, and a dark sauce with wild mushroom and chestnut, thought perhaps enriched a touch too much with a slightly grainy dark chocolate too. We drank the excellent Brunello di Montalcino from Col d’Orcia, organic, lightly gamy and full of berry fruit that matched perfectly. After a tasty little pre-dessert that involved a fruit and crunchy nut soup with a buffalo milk cream and marshmallow, I couldn’t resist “Suspended Baba”. This turned out to be a very good and boozy rum baba, which sat on a disc of crystal clear caramelised sugar, suspended (as promised) over a bowl of spiced rum jelly and almond cream – smash the ‘glass’ with your spoon so the baba falls through into the lovely and piquant liquid. A clever and tasty dish. Espresso was excellent (as it should be at those prices) and petit fours good. We left feeling this had been a wonderful first evening in Rome, our window table offering views over the roof-tops of Rome’s major buildings floodlit late into the night. Just be aware that in absolute, cold-light-of-day terms you are probably paying 50% more than a meal of this standard might cost at ground level. Open daily.
B) Life, Via della Vite 28, 00187. Tel. +39 06 69380948
For me, another no-brainer for my next visit, a gem just off the crowded shopping streets of Via del Corso close to the Spanish steps, this is a cool, contemporary restaurant with an outside terrace and airy, comfortable interior. Very competent chefs served up healthy portions of modern, refined Roman and Italian classics from an open kitchen. These included thin crust pizzas, at very moderate prices, and there’s a very good wine list too. It is a fairly minimalist but welcoming place, and we settled in with good breads and olive oil whilst perusing the menu. There are a few tasting menu choices, including a seasonal black truffle menu, that range from around 50 to 75 Euros per person, including wine. We dined a la carte, starting with a bottle of mineral water and of Feudi San Gregorio’s Fiano at 23 Euros. My starter was exceptionally good: a creamy and heavenly soft warm burrata cheese (Puglia’s softer, more decadent cousin of Mozzarella) encased in a sesame-studded filo case, served with blanched asparagus and soft, 40-month aged Patanegra ham. It was sensational, the soft, stringy cheese and the al dente crunch of the asparagus against the yielding ham and brittle crunch of the pastry. Next I chose “artisanal gnocchi” which were delicious in texture and flavour, served with artichoke hearts and crisp slivers of more crisply fried Patanegra. Topped with lashings of Parmesan, it was another simple but soulful and tasty dish. Finishing off with a selection of homemade ice creams, the bill for two came to 90 Euros which was a bargain for really good food served by smiling and welcoming staff in chic but understated surroundings – and the calm of being just a few minutes stroll off the beaten track. Open daily.
C) Il Gabriello, Via Vittoria 51, 00100. Tel. +39 06 69940810
Tucked into another quiet side street near the Spanish Steps and surrounded by upmarket shops, Il Gabriello is run by the ever present Claudio Conti and presents a really comfortable, cosy but stylish space in a vaulted basement. Crystal chandeliers and original artworks add some glamour, and a library of wine and food books as well as a display of iconic bottles of wine express serious foodie credentials. I really enjoyed my evening here, but have to say that a couple of things didn’t quite hit the mark. I felt that of all my Rome experiences there was a slightly glib, slightly superficial feel to the operation. We settled in with good breads and a bottle of Jermann’s Vinnae, a delicious, lightly oaked blend of mostly Ribolla Gialla with Tocai Friulano and Riesling, chosen from an excellent list. At 26 Euros it was well priced. My first course was probably my best: a simple Primo Piatti of ricotta-filled ravioli with sage and butter, in a sauce enriched to nutty perfection by plenty of grated Parmesan. It was delicious, the pasta perfectly cooked, the sage adding lovely flavour and the sauce creamy but with great depth. My main course was mildly disappointing: roasted fillet of turbot baked under a potato shell. In fact the slightly bland fish was swamped by twice the volume of potato ‘scales’. Those on the perimiter were crisply burnt and delicious, but those nearer the centre were barely cooked through. I have to say that my partner’s strips of seared tuna were pronounced delicious. My dessert was a real disappointment: described as vanilla ice-cream with caramelised almond, but in fact it was an impenetrable, deep-frozen ball and rather tasteless, the whole thing feeling very much like a mass-produced product served straight from the deep freeze. Reading back, this is a very negative review, but as we settled the bill of 100 Euros the truth was that the evening had been a real success: the ambiance and surroundings are lovely, the wine and bread were excellent and the starters delicious. I suspect Il Gabriello deserves a second chance – and I would give it one on my next visit to Rome. But no ice-cream. Closed Sundays.
D) Osteria Gusto, Via della Frezza 16, 00187. Tel: +39 06 32111482
A whole block just between the Via del Corso and The Tiber seems to be more or less taken up by the Gusto operation that is a big artisanal foodie venue of wine bars, shops and restaurants. The osteria is a comfortable, place with an industrial chic vibe, white tiled walls and stripped floors, a large cheese store room in one corner and a display of freshly baked dolce on the counter. At lunch we had a couple of glasses (generous pours) of a Sicilian Cataratto from a choice of around 30 wines by the glass, and I started with deep fried zuchinni flowers, stuffed with ricotta and anchovy. Three huge portions were too much, but the crisply fried batter and salty/creamy filling was delicious. After, a primo piatti portion of ravioli with sage, butter and ricotta filling was just right – and delicious. Deep fried sage leaves added crunch, a decadently rich butter and Parmesan sauce added nutty depth of flavour. I finished off with a homemade take on a cheesecake, served in a little kilner jar and topped with caramel, though some delicious, freshly baked shortbread biscuits were served with coffee, so maybe the cheesecake was a step (and thousand calories) too far. 89 Euros including a 15% service charge – the only automatic service charge of the trip. Service was pleasant, efficient, if a little impersonal.
The Pantheon and Piazza Navona
In fact, restaurant “B”, Life, from the section above is equidistant between the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon so is an excellent option requiring only a 10 minute stroll. Finding a lunch spot even closer to the Pantheon and Piazza Navona was proving a challenge, especially on a Sunday when many of the less touristy restaurants are closed. We waded through a sea of bored looking touts, trying to shepherd tourists into their chequered table cloth and wicker ‘fiasco’ Chianti bottle-adorned restaurants which offer three course meals for 10 or 12 Euros.
E) Enoteca con Cucina Sec, Via della Vetrina 12, 00186. Tel: +39 06 6868093
On the point of giving up and heading for a less busy part of town we spied Enoteca Sec, small and obviously very new with a stylish interior sympathetically marrying the ancient exposed brick walls of the building with designer bits and pieces of lighting and furniture. The menu looked good and as we surveyed it the charming owner Simone came out to gently explain it was his family’s business, recently opened, with everything cooked fresh from scratch. The deal was sealed and we settled in with a basket of warm sourdough bread, a bottle of free mineral water, and from a nice handwritten list, a bottle of Falanghina Beneventano from Campania, a perfect fruity and fresh white at 15 Euros to match the dishes we had already chosen from the short menu. We shared some lovely homemade tuna pâté, studded with sun dried tomato and capers and enriched with a little mozzarella, then both chose dishes from the seasonal black truffle menu, mine a very simple but wonderfully al dente tagliatelle, and my partner rigatoni with a carbonara rich with Slow Food approved ham. We were informed that the homemade tiramisu was a must, so we did, and creamily rich (and maybe another lunchtime step too much) it was too. Simone and his equally charming sister Laura brought two espressos on the house to complete a hugely enjoyable lunch with a total bill of 59 Euros.
The Colosseum and Roman Forum
A day spent visiting the ancient Roman centre of the city is unmissable, and a day pass to visit the Forum, the Colosseum and Palantine Hill is 12 Euros very well spent. It is tiring too of course, as the area is a pretty big one and there can be considerable climbing, so a decent lunch is a must. That is potentially where a problem lies, as most of the restaurants directly facing the entrances to the these main attractions are very unappealing, mostly cheap food joints with fading photos of generic dishes, chain smoking touts trying to lure you in and laminated menus in every known language. Though feet were aching, we wandered on just a couple of blocks from the Colosseum entrance down Via San Giovanni in Laterano and turned right to find this decent little family run pizzeria and restaurant.
F) Naumachia, Via Celimontana 7, 00187. Tel: +39 06 7002764
Moderately crowded with local business people and a few other tourists on a Monday lunchtime, Naumachia looked much more inviting than the places opposite the Colosseum and through the open door I could see a large, well-stocked wine fridge with some pretty good bottles, so we took the plunge. This was a simple and tasty meal – definitely not a destination restaurant, but one I would happily use again if in the area. I started with some deep fried courgette flowers and ricotta, which were tasty, though the batter was a little heavy and not the tempura-style puffy lightness I had hoped for. My partner’s simple bruschetta of tomato and basil was good. I moved on to egg fettuccini with homemade sausage and tomato, which was again substantial, hearty and full of flavour. The pasta was well cooked and the spicy sausage in a rich ragout satisfying, washed down with a very quaffable Sicilian Nero d’Avola at 4.50 Euros per glass. My partner had a homemade tiramisu which from my stolen spoonful was yummy, if a little light on coffee liqueur. Espresso was good to round off a satisfying lunch for 44 Euros all in. With a list that runs to over 70 wines someone here takes their vino pretty seriously too. Open daily.
Enoteca Palatium, Via Frattina 94, 00187. Tel: +39 06 69202132
And finally, not a review but a tip to bear in mind. This wine bar and restaurant is located mid-way between the Spanish Steps and Colosseum and is run by the Lazio regional authority as a showcase of local food and wine. Although we didn’t have the opportunity to visit on this brief trip, the menu and wine list is posted outside and looked really interesting, and the place itself offers a cool, sophisticated and modern space.