Romantic notions to the contrary, Rome has plenty of bad restaurants. And while you may know how to avoid the losers on your home turf (mauve walls, a kiddie menu), the semiotics of i ristoranti are not the same. Here’s what we’re looking for: charm, authenticity, local ingredients, moderate prices. Most Roman restaurants look perfect from the outside —but watch out for these telltale signs.
- Linen-free tables and paper napkins. Usually a bad sign for more than a snack. Italians love good linens, and most decent restaurants cover tables with two layers —a solid with a printed or damask topper.
- Restaurants where you hear more English than Italian.
- Laminated or otherwise permanent-looking menus affixed outside. Better choice: handwritten chalkboards featuring daily specials.
- Menus perfectly translated into English. Or translated into several languages. Not foolproof, but very bad translations can mean very good food.
- A limited selection of seasonal contorni (side dishes).
- American-sounding Italian dishes. Meatballs, tomato sauce, and pepperoni are red flags. French fries don’t count; they’re often served as a side with steak.
- Restaurants busy before 9 p.m. Real Italians dine late. The best places don’t rev up till 9 or 10.
- Lots of asterisk-marked dishes. An asterisk usually means the food is surgelati or congelati (frozen). Look for the note in small type at the bottom of the menu.
- No real kitchen. Certain sidewalk cafés around the major piazzas are fine for people-watching and snacks, but the food may be nuked or recently thawed. Asterisks abound.
- Any pizzeria without a forno a legno. A wood-burning oven is a must.
The Perfect Roman Restaurant
Cantina Cantarini is a tiny, family-owned restaurant in a quiet neighborhood. Monday through Wednesday it serves meat; Thursday through Saturday fish. Chef Luigi, who lives around the corner, has run the kitchen for 37 years.
Here’s why it fits the profile:
- Small menu in the window in Italian, with bad English translation
- Contorni are seasonal and inexpensive
- Nearest tourist attraction is a 15-minute walk away (Trevi Fountain)
- Tables filled with locals
- English not spoken, though waiters know enough English to help
- You can see the small but lively kitchen from your table
- Cost for four courses, including a bottle of house wine: 35 euros per person
Piazza Sallustio, 12
00187 Rome, Italy
(011 39) 06/485528