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Rome doesn’t like change. Case in point: Most of the best Rome restaurants are really no-frills affairs with rickety wooden tables and often paper tablecloths where the waiter tallies up your bill right there at the end of the meal. Sure, you can find haute Italian—and it’s not bad—but Italian cuisine was born in the home and some of the best Rome restaurants make you feel like you’ve just walked into someone’s living room. Oh yeah, and if you have a hankering for something “ethnic,” save it for when you get home. In Rome, it’s nearly all Italian—that is, Roman—or nothing at all. Which is all part of Rome’s charm.
Neighborhood: Monti Price: Expensive
Elegant, yet casual, this spectacular restaurant near the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is run by the Camerucci family who serve up dishes from their home region of Le Marche, on the east coast of the Italian peninsula. The Trattoria Monti's narrow dining room is only big enough for a handful of tables, so make a reservation, especially for dinner since this quaint little restaurant is one of the best places to eat in Rome. First-timers should get the Parmesan cheese tortino, a luscious soufflé or the coffee-coaster-size ravioli stuffed with cheese and a semi-cooked egg. There’s also heartier fare like hen cooked in lard or cod laced with saffron.
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Neighborhood: Testaccio Price: Expensive
The name doesn’t lie: this famous restaurant really has been around for over a century. Located in Testaccio, the Checchino, one of the top Rome restaurants, had a synonymous relationship with the slaughter house that graced the neighborhood (it has since moved to the hinterlands of the city). Many slaughterhouse workers were partly paid in meat—and not just any meat; they would get the “fifth quarter”: the tail, the intestines and stomach, among others—and the restaurants in Testaccio, including Checchino, would offer to cook it for them. Thus, the birth of many classic Roman dishes. Today, you can dine at Checchino and eat those traditional Roman recipes, including pajata—veal intestines with the mother’s milk still inside—and braised oxtail.
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Neighborhood: Piazza Navona Price: Expensive
Elevated, nouvelle cuisine has not really hit Rome like other capital cities, but Il Pagliaccio, located in the warren of streets in an area behind Piazza Navona, does it very well. The quiet, elegant dining room is the domain of chef Anthony Genovese who cooks up small portions with bold flavors: coffee-glazed oysters; risotto with lamb sweetbreads, ginger and mint; and pigeon breast with grapefruit are a few examples of the innovation coming from the kitchen. Dishes can be ordered a la carte or as part of a 10- or 12-course tasting menu.
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Neighborhood: Testaccio Price: Moderate
There once was a time when few people could get into this Testaccio restaurant. That’s because owner Felice played strict face control: If he didn’t like the look of you—and he didn’t like the look of most people—he waved you away. But Felice is now dead and his son has a more democratic way of running Da Felice: If there’s an available table and you have enough money to pay the bill, you’re in. The food here, as one would expect from this most Roman of neighborhoods, is Roman to the core. Daring eaters can’t go wrong with roasted lamb’s head or veal stew, but more sedate fare includes meatballs in tomato sauce and oven-baked anchovies. Enjoy dishes unique to the region at one of the best Rome restaurants.
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Neighborhood: Trevi Price: Moderate
The “Hills of Emiliana,” referring to the region just north of Tuscany, Colline Emiliana, is famous for its cuisine. The white tableclothed dining room belies the casual atmosphere here, which is set on a backstreet and so discreet you could walk by without ever noticing this family-run place. Start off with the signature tortellini alla pana, a truffle-dusted pasta with cream sauce, or sample the pumpkin-stuffed ravioli at one of the best places to eat in Rome. The slow-cooked leg of veal accompanied by buttery mashed potatoes is comforting enough to assure a post-prandial food coma. The wine list, as one would expect, offers several nice options from Colline Emilia, as well as all over the Boot.
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Neighborhood: Trastevere Price: Moderate
Locals love this Trastevere restaurant for the dish it has become most known for: spaghetti alla gricia (cheese, olive oil, pancetta). But there are other reasons to make sure Da Lucia is on anyone’s eating itinerary. Lucia is long gone, but her family still runs the place with love and care (as they have been since World War II). Outside tables in the quiet alleyway are nice, but the wood-bedecked interior is even better—Da Lucia is one of the few (affordable) top Rome restaurants that doesn’t blast bright lights in diners’ faces. Which infinitely makes it a great first-date spot.
Neighborhood: Testaccio Price: Budget
It’s hard to get more salt-of-the-earth than Da Remo. And that’s a good thing about this inexpensive Rome restaurant. So cozy up to the table covered in a paper tablecloth and order one of only a few pizzas available. Simpler is always better when it comes to authentic Italian pizza and the Da Remo’s margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil) is hard to beat. For the insatiable eater, start off the meal with a couple suppli—fried rice balls with a molten mozzarella center—and then wash it all down with a carafe of the cheap, but drinkable, house red wine.
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Neighborhood: The Ghetto Price: Budget
This diminutive restaurant is one of the best places to eat in Rome. It’s a true find—that is, if you can actually find it. Located in a darkened piazza between the former Jewish Ghetto and the Tiber River, the Sora Margherita's façade lacks proper signage—which makes it all the more special. The interior consists of a handful of Formica tables crammed together as Mamma Margherita or her long-time protégés cook up classic Roman and Jewish-Roman dishes—including homemade, hand-rolled pastas—from a visible walk-in-closet-sized kitchen. It's technically a "cultural association," which means you'll be asked to become a member. Fill out some cards (and maybe pay an association fee of one euro each) and you’re in.
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Neighborhood: Trastevere Price: Budget
Tucked down a tiny, curving alleyway in the Trastevere neighborhood, Dar Poeta has become something of a Roman pizza institution, which you’ll figure out once you see hungry mobs outside. So come early or be prepared to wait. The pizzas here range from classic—margherita, marinara—to offbeat: the spicy, bean-topped “Mexican” pie is better than it sounds. There are also variations on the theme of bruschetta: thick bread topped with tomatoes and basil or pumpkin spread.
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Neighborhood: Monti Price: Budget
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It’s easy to walk by this Rome restaurant on a narrow cobbled alleyway in the charming slightly-off-the-tourist-radar neighborhood Monti. But that would be a mistake. Not only is Vecchia Roma, or “Old Rome,” as the name translates, one of the most affordable restaurants in the city, the quality of the classic Roman dishes are good. Spaghetti carbonara, for example, is done just right: the eggs not too runny or too cooked. Pizzas are super thin with appropriately tangy tomato sauce. The interior, crammed with tables (as well as incongruous art on the walls), fills up quickly so be prepared to wait for this top Rome restaurant.
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