Head to Rome and you’ll find family-run trattorie, bossy nonnas, and independent artisans are thick on the ground. But so too are many of the problems that have traditionally plagued Italy’s capital city, from traffic to corruption. However it’s increasingly easy to find yourself in a corner of the city that seems almost, well, cosmopolitan. In the midst of economic crisis, Rome’s most determined entrepreneurs are managing to open boutiques, galleries, and restaurants, while trends long taken for granted in other cities (artisanal beers, vintage stores, cafes with wi-fi, for instance) have started to break through Rome’s ancient Aurelian Walls. For that matter, some of the ruins themselves are even getting a facelift: most famously, Tod’s, the luxury shoe company, has agreed to sponsor the restoration of the Colosseum.
None of that’s to say the essence of Rome has changed — thankfully. If anything’s eternal about the Eternal City, it’s that it will always be as chaotic, messy and, yes, occasionally backwards as it is stunning, inspiring, and full of art and history. But it’s proof the city can be a little more dynamic than many think.
For a sense of that energy, just take a stroll through Monti. This ancient quarter is a stone’s throw from the Colosseum, bursting with hip galleries, cool bars, vintage boutiques as well as old-school enoteche (wine bars) and restaurants. Every couple of months, there’s a new opening — which, for a neighbourhood this small and a country this deep in economic crisis, is pretty impressive.
In the evening, the area bustles with its diversity of residents: elderly grandmothers finish their shopping for la cena, youths gather and gossip around the fountain of the little piazza, trendy locals spill out of hip enoteche, and artisans stand outside their stores for a break, greeting the passersby they know by name.
So, to see Rome as the locals do, you must experience both the up-and-coming cool quarters and the ancient sites. Be awed by art — not only in the Vatican and the Borghese Gallery, but in Rome’s contemporary MAXXI and MACRO, too. In one of the city’s many independent boutiques, pick up a purse or coat that’s on the cutting edge in terms of style, but handcrafted in a workshop in the back of the store. Or eat timeless tortellini recipes in a chic cafe.
Right now, Rome offers a little bit of (almost) everything. So enjoy la dolce vita — just as the locals do.
Food glorious food
From cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta) to coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew), traditional Roman cuisine remains a staple of the city’s restaurants. Locals still flock to family-run trattorie hoping for a carbonara just like their grandmother used to make. These days, though, Rome’s restaurants boast more than cucina romana.
A series of restaurants have brought Rome’s cuisine to new heights of creativity (and price), including All’Oro, which reopened near Piazza del Popolo in January, and Il Pagliaccio, one of just three Rome restaurants to have been awarded two or more Michelin stars. But it was the opening of Romeo last year that really whipped Rome’s foodies into a fervour. The chefs behind two of Rome’s most-revered institutions, Roscioli and Glass Hostaria, have joined forces to produce a menu that could include, say, ravioli filled with Castelmagno cheese, pumpkin mousse and hazelnuts, or a panino of foie gras with mango ketchup.
Of course, Rome’s classic cuisine is still going strong — best picks are Ristorante Matricianella and Armando al Pantheon in Centro Storico (historic centre). The tiny trattoria Trattoria da Danilo continues to serve what many locals call the city’s finest carbonara, while it’s hard to beat the bucatini all’amatriciana (tomato sauce) at Osteria Fernanda, over the Tiber in Trastevere, or at Da Bucatino, in the old slaughterhouse neighbourhood of Testaccio. For traditional Roman pizza (crispy, thin-crust) try La Montecarlo, next to Piazza Navona, or Li Rioni, near the Colosseum.
Take authenticity a step further and shop at one of Rome’s best outdoor markets. The Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio, open daily except Sundays, is good, while the weekend market around the corner from the Circus Maximus, run by the association Campagna Amica, sells produce from Rome’s Lazio region.
Roscioli: Via dei Giubbonari 21. T: 00 39 06 687 5287. www.salumeriaroscioli.com
Glass Hostaria: Vicolo del Cinque 58. T: 00 39 06 5833 5903. www.glass-restaurant.it
Romeo: Via Silla 26/a. T: 00 39 06 3211 0120. www.romeo.roma.it
All’Oro: Via del Vantaggio 14. T: 00 39 06 9799 6907. www.ristorantealloro.it
Il Pagliaccio: Via dei Banchi Vecchi 129a. T: 00 39 06 6880 9595. www.ristoranteilpagliaccio.com
Ristorante Matricianella: Via del Leone 4. T: 00 39 06 683 2100. www.matricianella.it
Armando al Pantheon: Salita dè Crescenzi 31. T: 00 39 06 680 3034. www.armandoalpantheon.it
Trattoria da Danilo: Via Petrarca 13. T: 00 39 06 772 00111. www.trattoriadadanilo.it
Osteria Fernanda: Via Ettore Rolli 1. T: 00 39 06 589 4333. www.osteriafernanda.com
Da Bucatino: Via Luca della Robbia 84. T: 00 39 06 574 6886. www.bucatino.com
La Montecarlo: Vicolo Savelli 13. T: 00 39 06 686 1877. www.lamontecarlo.it
Li Rioni: Via dei Santissimi Quattro 24. T: 00 39 06 7045 0605.
Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio: Via Galvani and Via Aldo Manuzio.
Mercato di Campagna Amica del Circo Massimo: Via San Teodoro 74. www.campagnamica.it
Although Rome isn’t a 24-hour city, its nightlife is much more varied than it looks at first glance. To take on the city as the locals do, ignore the touristy Campo de’ Fiori and head instead toward Piazza Navona. On warm nights, the crowd at Bar del Fico spills out onto the tiny piazza of the same name. Further down the road, the wine bar Etabli feels a little more grown-up — and its fireplace and cosy couches make it a better bet come winter.
Even more popular with the locals for drinks and dancing is Monti, near the Roman forum. Hotspots include the funky Casa Clementina and the Black Market ‘cultural association’. But Monti’s real institution is the ever-crowded enoteca Ai Tre Scalini, with its convivial atmosphere and great wine list. Further up the street, hole-in-the-wall jazz lounge Charity Café is great for live music (a rarity in Rome).
Undoubtedly, though, Rome’s coolest crowd finds itself in off-the-beaten-path, graffiti-splattered Pigneto — especially at Circolo degli Artisti. Gigs, usually of alternative music, take place nearly every night. Another cult favourite, a bit closer to the centre, near Porta Maggiore, is Micca Club, which hosts themed parties — think cabaret nights with 1950s and ’60s music, live burlesque shows, and vintage markets — with excellent cocktails and a gourmet aperitivo spread.
There are still plenty of places in Rome where you can grab a quiet glass of wine. Local favourites include Testaccio’s L’Oasi della Birra, with its wide variety of aperitivo (included with your drink for €10/£8.50); Enoteca Provincia Romana, with wine and food sourced from Rome’s environs; and Il Goccetto, a cosy, wood-panelled enoteca, home to around 800 Italian and foreign wine labels.
All of those options aside, in the summer, there’s only one real destination: the river. From mid-June to the start of September, the annual Lungo Il Tevere Roma means the Tiber is lined with more than a kilometre of stalls, many of which are bars and clubs.
Bar del Fico: Piazza del Fico 26. www.bardelfico.it
Etabli: Vicolo delle Vacche 9. T: 00 39 06 9761 6694. www.etabli.it
Casa Clementina: Via Clementina 9. T: 00 39 33 4709 6385.
Black Market: Via Panisperna 101. T: 00 39 33 9822 7541. www.black-market.it
Ai Tre Scalini: Via Panisperna 251. T: 00 39 06 4890 7495. www.aitrescalini.org
Charity Café: Via Panisperna 68. T: 00 39 06 4782 5881. www.charitycafe.it
Circolo degli Artisti: Via Casilina Vecchia 42. T: 00 39 06 7030 5684. www.circoloartisti.it
Micca Club: Via Pietro Micca 7a. T: 00 39 0 06 8744 0079. www.miccaclub.com
L’Oasi della Birra: Piazza Testaccio 41. T: 00 39 06 574 6122.
Enoteca Provincia Romana: Via del Foro Traiano 82-84. T: 00 39 06 699 4023. www.enotecaprovinciaromana.it
Il Goccetto: Via dei Banchi Vecchi 14. T: 00 39 06 686 4268. www.ilgoccetto.com
Lungo il Tevere Roma: www.lungoiltevereroma.it
Piles of style
Steer clear of Via del Corso, a central thoroughfare that’s become choked with chain stores you can find anywhere. Instead, head to those neighbourhoods where independent boutiques and artisans still abound.
In the heart of the centre, explore the side streets around Piazza Navona, down to Campo dei Fiori, like Via del Governo Vecchio and Via dei Cappellari. Admire Italian creativity at PaolaVolpi Gioielli, where recycled objects like bolts, nuts, and even industrial oil filters transform into funky and surprisingly pretty jewellery; find the perfect plate or vase for your mantelpiece at Le Tre Ghinee, where artist Susy Pugliese handcrafts modern, not-your-traditional-Tuscan-style ceramics; or poke through vintage men’s and women’s clothes and accessories at itty-bitty Bohemienne.
For those craving a taste of la dolce vita-style shopping, the Spanish Steps quarter is ideal. Top designers (Chanel, Fendi, Gucci) are mixed in with smaller boutiques and shops. And not all prices are sky-high. Handmade suede flats or wedges at Via del Babuino’s Barrila Boutique, for example, start at about €60 (£51). But for the ultimate insider experience, ring the bell at Armando Rioda, a leather workshop where artisans have been making belts, purses, wallets and more for nearly 65 years; you can design your own, and prices (starting at €50/£43 for a simple wallet) are more than fair.
In Monti, meanwhile, you’ll hardly recognise a single shop name; instead, streets are chock-a-block with independent artisans and boutiques. Favourites include Le Gallinelle, where chic dresses, pants, jackets and more are handcrafted in the onsite workshop for very reasonable prices; Nora P, with stunning furniture and homeware that would give any flat the perfect Boho-chic feel; or Blue Goose, with a lovely collection of designer vintage clothes and accessories. On most Sundays, some of Rome’s best young designers and vintage dealers sell their wares at MercatoMonti — with everything from retro sunglasses to handmade jewellery on display.
PaolaVolpi Gioielli: Piazza dei Satiri 55. T: 00 39 06 687 3366. www.paolavolpi.com
Le Tre Ghinee: Via del Pellegrino 90. T: 00 39 06 687 2739. www.letreghinee.com
Bohemienne: Via dei Cappellari 96. T: 00 39 06 6880 4011.
Barrila Boutique: Via del Babuino 34. T: 00 39 06 324 5046.
Armando Rioda: Via Belsiana 90, 2nd floor. T: 00 39 06 6882 4406.
Le Gallinelle: Via Panisperna 61. T: 00 39 06 543 543. www.legallinelle.it
Nora P: Via Panisperna 220/221. T: 00 39 06 4547 3738. www.nora-p.it
Blue Goose: Via del Boschetto 4. T: 00 39 06 4890 6738.
MercatoMonti: Via Leonina 46. www.mercatomonti.com
Top 10 local tips
01 Many restaurants close on Mondays, while independent shops and artisans often shut on Sundays, and on Monday from 12:30pm until 4:30pm.
02 Visit the Borghese Gallery, then stroll through the Villa Borghese, Rome’s Hyde Park. www.galleriaborghese.it
03 Buy a BTI pass (€16.50/£14) for three days’ unlimited travel on trams, Metro and buses. www.atac.roma.it
04 Visit the Basilica of San Clemente, a 12th-century church, built on top of a fourth-century church built on Roman ruins. www.basilicasanclemente.com
05 Plan your sundowner — try the glass-roof bar of the Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese, gazing down at terracotta rooftops and spires. www.sofitel.com
06 Hire a bike or stroll along the scenic Appia Antica. www.parcoappiaantica.it
07 Skip the line at the Vatican museums and Colosseum by booking online. www.coopculture.it mv.vatican.va
08 Refill water bottles at the city centre’s nasoni drinking fountains — cheaper and greener than buying.
09 Visit Aventine Hill’s churches, peek through the keyhole at the Piazza of the Knights of Malta and get a framed view of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.
10 Pick any of around 100 creative gelato flavours at Il Gelato di Claudio Torcè. www.ilgelatocentrostorico.com
On screen: 1953’s Roman Holiday, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love.
Books: Rome: The Biography of a City, by Christopher Hibbert. RRP: £20.
Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, by Robert Hughes. RRP: £10.99.
RomeEscape Short Term Apartments and Vacation Rentals in Rome
Rome Escape – Via Antonio Salandra, 18 Rome – Phone +39 0662207182 | www.romeescape.com
WorldEscape – Phone +1-(646) 233 1537 | www.worldescape.com/rome-hotels-apartments/
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Published in the May/Jun 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)