Upon moving to Rome a few years ago, I was shocked (and disappointed) by how easy it was to get a bad meal in the Eternal City. Wasn’t this Italy, I wondered, land of fresh-not-frozen, highly seasonal ingredients and endearing mamas toiling in the kitchen to create perfect, no-frills plates that please the palate? Wasn’t this the country where the Slow Food movement launched? Where the idea of the locavore existed long before the word even did?
Yes and no, I learned. In a city as visitor-packed as Rome, it’s easy to get a death-warmed over reheated pizza, a soggy panino or a plate of overcooked insipid pasta at a tourist joint masquerading as an authentic spot. And even at many of Rome’s best restaurants, you need careful guidance to make sure you order the right things off the menu.
I was at a loss. But then I met Katie Parla. A Yale-educated, New Jersey native who’s spent the last 17 years living in Rome, Parla’s become one of the city’s most sought-after, English-language foodies, with a much-read blog, serious Twitter and Instagram followings, and an in-person guiding business that’s raved about. She’s become a gastronomic Rome go-to for everyone from Mario Batali to Mark Bittman, Andrew Zimmern to Alice Waters, all of whom trust her advice and appreciate her willingness to tell it like it is, whether tearing down a longtime institution or building up a talented newbie.
In her cookbook Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City (Clarkson Potter; $30), with a foreword by Batali himself, she culled and adapted the best recipes for local dishes both classic and contemporary from her favorite chefs, bakers, and barkeeps. It’s a tour de force of kitchen inspiration, but at the same time, a carefully curated guidebook to Rome’s best eateries. Herewith, Parla offers advice on where to eat in the Italian capital right now, and what to order while there.
Top Five Places to Eat in the Italian Capital
Why Go: Although just 15 miles from the sea, Rome offers cuisine that’s largely meat based, and good seafood spots are few and far between. This amazing local restaurant, however, “works with fishermen from the nearby Pontine Islands,” explains Parla, “so everything served in the palatial dining rooms is the freshest catch in town.”
What to Get: Parla goes for the crudi (raw starters), a parade of carpaccio, oysters and shellfish, followed by spaghetti with clams (“alle vongole”) or with sea urchin or razor clams, depending on what’s seasonally available. -Via dei Chiavari, 4/5, +39 06 686 5097
Why Go: Part delicatessen, part restaurant, part wine bar, it plates some of Rome’s top traditional pasta dishes, using only the best ingredients. The Roscioli brothers’ culinary empire also includes a bakery and pastry shop, both nearby.
What to Get: “The classic pastas—gricia, carbonara and butter and parmigiano Reggiano—are best,” promises Parla. “The secondi [mains] are forgettable, but you shouldn’t have room for them anyway after starting with burrata, mozzarella, prosciutto, mortadella and butter and anchovies.” -Via dei Giubbonari, 21. +39 06 687 5287
Why Go: Chef Arcangelo Dandini, says Parla, “merges simple, humble roots with intellectual and elegant notions of gastronomy,” creating renderings of Roman comfort foods that “become incredibly light expressions of local flavors.”
What to Get: Parla heads here Thursdays for unbelievably cloud-like potato gnocchi with tomato, guanciale (cured pork jowl) and Pecorino Romano. She says his coda alla vaccinara (braised oxtail), influenced by a Papal recipe, is rich and deep, and she always starts with the supplizio, which pairs two fried croquettes with almond brittle. -Via Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, 59. +39 06 321 0992
Why Go: “A few hundred feet from the Trevi Fountain, the Romagnoli family has been serving seasonal Roman classics since the early 1920s,” reports Parla. It’s a favorite of local power players of all stripes, political and otherwise, and in-the-know visitors, too.
What to Get: During the fall season, Parla goes for mushroom and truffle dishes, while come spring, braised artichokes abound. “A year-round favorite,” she says, “is spaghetti al moro, the house twist on carbonara, featuring spaghetti tossed with eggs guanciale and chili.” -Vicolo delle Bollette, 13. +39 06 678 3495
Terre e Domus
(Aka Enoteca Provincia Romana)
Why Go: This amazing restaurant and wine bar—sponsored by the County of Rome, and celebrating local produce, meat, cheese and fish—is the rare delicious, well-sourced spot near the Roman Forum and right next to the Imperial Fora, making it Parla’s favorite for a lunch break while exploring the ancient monuments. Tables by the windows have the best views of the 100-foot-tall Trajan’s Column.
What to Get: She suggests the amatriciana (pasta tossed with guanciale and tomato sauce) and seasonal vegetable sides like spring’s vignarola (a fava, pea and artichoke stew) or winter’s puntarelle (Catalonian chicory), dressed with a garlic-anchovy sauce. - Foro Traiano, 82 Le Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini. +39 06 6994 0273