Finding great Italian food in Rome is not as easy as it once was. The days of "you can never get a bad meal in Italy" never really existed, but right now it's a lot easier to eat poorly there than it used to be. One little snag is the integrity of Italian restaurant critics. Be wary of local guides: Critics often care more about what they gain from sending tourists to their pals' places than what a visitor, who will be in another city tomorrow night, thinks of dinner.
Your best best is to check out the straight shooters like Katie Parla. A trained sommelier who has lived in Rome since 2003, she holds an M.A. in Italian food and culture. She blogs at ParlaFood.com and has an app called Katie Parla's Rome.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Is it a myth that Italians generally are pickier about their food than Americans?
Katie Parla (Rick Poon)
Katie Parla: I think once upon a time you could say that Italians had great palates because the ingredients that they were consuming were local and seasonal. Things that don't travel very far just tend to taste better. But that has really changed in the past decade or two. Now, because of the financial crisis, people are more attracted to what they perceive as value than flavor.
LRK: What form does that take?
KP: You find that the portions in restaurants have grown, while the ingredients that go into them have diminished in quality. People are willing to overlook that for cases in which they leave a restaurant feeling full. People still do want to go out and have their dining rituals and spend time with their friends and eat. They can't afford to have multiple meals every month out at restaurants, so they make up for this by just really diving into huge portions at lots of local places.
LRK: There are still little places all over the country where the food can be quite exquisite and not very expensive.
KP: Definitely. It's important to know where to go. You hit the nail on the head -- a lot of local guides or locals in Rome know that when they send you to a place, you're probably moving on to another city or not coming back. They're less interested in your experience than maybe the kickbacks they might receive.
Parla's picks for great food in Rome
1. Mordi e Vai – Testaccio Market
Nuovo Mercato Testaccio, Box 15, Via B. Franklin, 12 E
There's been a fantastic rebirth in street food culture. Hundreds of years ago, people used to do a lot of eating out on the street, simply because there weren't facilities to cook inside their houses or houses were fire-prone. Now because of the financial crisis and because of this niche movement to eat quality things, you have the rise of street food stalls.
There's a fantastic place in the New Testaccio Market called Mordi e Vai. You can go and get a sandwich with bits of oxtail or boiled beef and it's all drenched in this really delectable oil. They sell really flavorful things for a price that everyone can afford -- these sandwiches cost 3 euros.
Via Statilio Ottato, 110/116
3. 00100 Pizza
Via Giovanni Branca 88
Stefano Callegari opened this fantastic gourmet pizzeria called Sforno in Cinecittà, a neighborhood in Rome.
The second business that he opened, 00100 Pizza, was a little hole-in-the-wall, pizza-by-the-slice shop that really took off because of his street food invention called the trapizzino. It's a spongy piece of flatbread that's sliced open and filled with braised meat stews or chicken with bell peppers, typical Roman mains that are transformed into a portable and inexpensive form. The trapizzino now is served in restaurants all over Rome.
4. Cesare al Casaletto
Via del Casaletto, 45
I think everyone wants that fantastic trattoria meal or classic pasta dishes like an eggy carbonara. You must visit Cesare al Casaletto; it's a fantastic place. It's so easy to get to; it's outside of the center, but it's at the very end of the 8 tram. For 1.50 euros you're transported to this really fantastic, homey, Roman environment.
They do spectacular fried appetizers, really great meaty names like meatballs and oxtail, and the wine list is sensational. You must start with the fried appetizers -- just get fried everything. Every item from the fried appetizer menu should be on your table before you even think about your pasta course and main. For the trattoria meal, Cesare is the place.
Via della Meloria, 43 (near the corner of Via Cipro)
The case at Pizzarium
Pizzarium is one of the most important places to eat. It's a hole in the wall -- it's like 300 square feet including the prep space -- and that's where Gabriele Bonci has turned pizza by the slice into an art form. Vogue dubbed him the Michelangelo of pizza.
You can get really fantastic pizza rossa -- it's a simple, long, leavened pizza base with a really lovely, olive oil-rich, tomato sauce. The other pizza that you must try there is the pizza with potatoes. It's of a ubiquitous topping in Rome, but here it takes on a completely new consistency. The potatoes are amazingly flavorful; they sort of melt into the dough with the cheese. Pizzarium is certainly a must-visit.
Via Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, 59
You can unify amatriciana sauce and potato gnocchi in one location. It's called L’Arcangelo, and he makes the most perfectly, pillowy, potato gnocchi on Thursdays. He dresses it with guanciale, cured pork jaw-rich sauce, tomatoes that are cultivated in his hometown just outside of Rome, a really fantastic, sharp pecorino cheese and a little bit of black pepper. It's spectacular.
7. Sciascia Caffe
Via Fabio Massimo 80/A
It's in zero guidebooks, but it is a spectacular coffee shop in the Prati district. Prati is beside the Vatican -- it's an overlooked neighborhood. Sciascia's been in business since 1919. They roast their own beans, which is, of course, important, but their baristas are also are very skilled. They have this long historic tradition. By far the best coffee in the city.