This city is full of amazing food. The highlights are the three Roman pastas (carbonara, cacio e pepe, amatriciana) but there are dozens of other local specialities (see our guide to ordering from an Italian menu). The good news is that eating at restaurants in Rome is relatively cheap – if you go to where the locals eat, you can usually get a really delicious 2- or 3-course dinner including wine for around €20-25 per person, or around €10 for lunch. Given the quality of the cooking and the ingredients, that’s an absolute bargain.
Unfortunately though, there are also some horrendous food joints in Rome that are set up to do nothing more than rip off unsuspecting travelers. Tourists generally have more money in their pockets than the locals, are unfamiliar with what restaurants normally charge, and are sometimes less discerning about the food than people who live here.
The worst experience this author has had in Rome was near Piazza Navona, being served a frozen supermarket spaghetti meal reheated in a microwave oven, and being charged nearly €30 just for that one plate of slop.
Below are six tips to help you spot obvious tourist traps and avoid them. Of course not all of these warnings apply to every bad restaurant, and occasionally some good places have some of these attributes too, but below are some broad brush-strokes that can help you avoid the absolute worst end of the spectrum, and to enjoy the higher-quality, lower price food that the locals do.
1. Watch out for people inviting you in
This is the absolute #1 giveaway. Any restaurant with any kind of reputation will never have to resort to hawkers outside trying to smooth-talk or flirt you into their premises. While there may be exceptions to the other signs, this one’s absolute 100%. As Douglas Adams once said: “it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it”. Similarly if people are insisting you visit their restaurant, then by no means should you fulfil their request.
2. Check if you are less than 200 yards from a famous attraction
This is an absolute certainty. Any restaurant that can afford to be near the Trevi Fountain or the Spanish Steps is going to have to charge an absolute fortune to pay the vast rent on their premises. Such restaurants could be in the fine dining category, of which there are several wonderful examples in Rome, but the majority are in the category of “gouge unsuspecting tourists for every penny we can get”. If you want to eat well for a fair price, head away from the major attractions. Every year there are outraged newspaper stories about people who got charged something like €65 for a bowl of ice cream because they sat down at a restaurant table in Piazza Navona.
3. See if the menus are laminated
This one’s a bit more controversial as there are few excellent establishments scattered around the city that have chosen the two-sided single-sheet laminated menu as the way to display their fare – particularly more modern establishments that are trying a new take on Roman classics – but the majority of good Italian restaurants are steeped in tradition and will present the menu (and wine list) in book format.
4. Is there a menu in English outside?
There’s nothing wrong with having English-language menus – sometimes even the most traditional trattoria has a translated menu that they can dig out of the back for you (though if the number of English menus in the establishment outweighs the Italian ones that’s a bad sign), but displaying one outside says “we care more about tourists than Romans” – and they’ll likely price upwards and skimp on ingredients accordingly.
5. Check if there are Italians in the restaurant
This one should be obvious. If every single table is full of a United Nations of tourists, and there’s not one word of Italian being spoken by the diners, then the owners are clearly not catering for local tastes.
6. See if there are pictures of the food
A habit beloved of fast food joints, not classy restaurants or beloved local eateries. Ask yourself why any self-respecting Italian restaurant would need to show its local customers what a plate of rigatoni looks like?
7. Is there Salt and pepper on the table?
The last one is the most subtle, and is for the purists only. In Italian culture, it is expected that the seasoning of any dish is the job of the chef, not the diner. Therefore Italian restaurants rarely put salt on the table, and never put pepper on it. If you see salt and pepper on the table before you arrive, then the restaurant is definitely not intended for Italians. Let alone ketchup and so on.
To avoid such places, just walk down the lanes or alleyways near the major attractions to find somewhere that avoids any of the tell-tale signs on this page, and you will likely have a wonderful dining experience. Sometimes 5 minutes’ walk is all it will take: for example from Piazza Navona head for five minutes down Via dei Coronari or Via del Governo Vecchio for and dive into the alleyways and tiny piazzas there to find some amazing authentic hole-in-the-wall places.
If you really want to eat like a local, jump on public transport (or get a taxi) and travel three or more stops away from Termini. Find a random trattoria wherever you arrive you’ll be amazed at the price and quality. We recommend Da Enrico near Bologna metro station, and Osteria Bonelli near the Berardi stop of the RMG streetcar line from Termini.