Dining in Rome: Some Myths and Tips

I typically have very enjoyable dining experiences in the Eternal City.  That being said, I occasionally have a bad meal, and yes, I’ve been ripped off once or twice. To help you on your way to wonderful dining in Rome, there are some myths that I’d like to address (some have a grain of truth, others do not), as well as share some dining tips.

Myth #1: You must eat a multiple-course meal. Not true. There is a perception that you must have a starter, a pasta course, a meat course, and a dessert. Perhaps this was true 30 years ago, but no longer (a common theory is that portion sizes have increased). Order what you want, and do not be embarrassed to share a dish or pass up a course. If you’re still hungry, you can always order more. In addition, many high-end restaurants offer tasting menus. Even though tasting menus’ portions are small, we’ve found that sometimes the quantity of food, including various little “compliments of the chef” treats, can become overwhelming. Once again, don’t be afraid to order a-la-carte and to share a course, or skip one.

Pasta at Cesare al Casaletto … where I have starters and pasta and wine, and am completely stuffed!
Pasta at Cesare al Casaletto… where I have starters and pasta and wine, and am completely stuffed!

Myth #2: English on the menu automatically means bad food. Not true. There are a lot of savvy chefs in Rome who have lived abroad, traveled, and also recognize the value of social media to bring people to their restaurants.  And, they recognize that Rome is an international city that lives off of tourism. So, you’ll increasingly see menus that have English translations, and this does not necessarily mean they are a rip-off or a tourist trap.  But, use common sense…

This is one sign in English that would make me run the other way (while laughing)
Spotted in Rome

Personally, I’d say the number one time to run from a restaurant is when they have an aggressive tout out front and there’s not a local to be found within 100 yards.

Myth #3: Places around high-tourist areas tend to be over-priced and of lower quality. Grain of truth. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, although none comes to mind. It’s common sense: places renting space right on Piazza Navona, or across from the Trevi Fountain (recently tourists were charged 42 euros for ice cream sundaes near the Trevi and were confused because they hadn’t read the menu) or the Colosseo, or around the Vatican Museums, are going to pay a premium, so they are going to charge more. When prices are real cheap, the reason is probably poor quality food. Going just a few blocks away may mean you find better food at better prices.

Myth #4:  Some places in Rome will rip you off. Grain of truth. Roman restaurants are required by law to post menus with prices. Always check the prices, and if there is any confusion, ask! Some places have different prices for take-away food, and you don’t want to be confused between the different prices. Also, when buying fish and certain cuts of meat, you may be charged by the “etto” (gram), so a whole fish (or steak) can be very costly! And, don’t assume anything is complimentary.  Particularly in high end restaurants, you may be asked if you want a starter drink of champagne. If you don’t ask how much, you may have a shock when you see the bill. And, ALWAYS check the bill before you pay. I didn’t one day when dining at the place across the alley from the apartment, and days later discovered the bill prices were a far cry from the posted prices. To add insult to injury, the food was horrid.

Myth #5: I can wander into any cute little place in Rome and have a decent meal. Not true.  In my experience, when wandering into a place by chance, versus going to a place I’ve researched a bit, I’m more likely to have an underwhelming meal. Which leads to some tips.

Tip #1: Do some research. I particularly recommend you have a plan when you’re eating in high-tourist areas, such as around the Colosseo or the Vatican areas. There are some fabulous resources for researching food in Rome. Our guests receive our Rome Information Packet, which has quite a few suggestions on dining. You’ll also find several books on food and dining in Rome in the apartment, as well as access to Rome foodie apps. There are also some terrific blogs about the Rome food scene. Parla Food and Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome are first-rate places to start.

Sorpasso, a new favorite, near the Vatican, which we found after doing a bit of research -- and it is terrific!
Sorpasso, a new favorite near the Vatican, which we found after doing a bit of research, is terrific!

Tip #2: Make some reservations. Reservations are much more “the norm” for dining in Rome than, for example, in the states. Many good places in Rome will have space for their repeat, local clientele, but will not have space for a walk-in tourist — unless you called ahead and made a reservation. And, I tend to always call anyway to make sure places are open so that I don’t go there and find it closed for a vacation or that their hours have changed (in other words, don’t trust the website!) Some restaurants take on-line reservations; others can be booked through DiningCity, and others require a good old-fashioned phone call.

Trattoria Dal Cavalier Gino - it looks casual, but because it's very good, simple food (see top photo) and reasonable, reservations almost always needed, and usually a few days in advance!
Trattoria Dal Cavalier Gino – it looks casual, but because it’s very good, simple food (see top photo) and reasonable, reservations almost always needed, and usually a few days in advance!

Tip #3: Eat depending on the season, or even on the right day, and find out what is the best. Rome’s food varies with the season. In spring, I reach for the artichokes, but not so in winter. On Thursdays, it’s the traditional day for gnocchi, while Fridays is for fish. And, do your research on what is best at a particular restaurant — there are usually several dishes that are fabulous and a few that are not, even coming form the same kitchen.

A favorite seasonal treat - Roman artichokes!
A favorite seasonal treat – Roman artichokes! From Colline Emiliane

Tip #4: Eat on Roman time. Romans eat lunch between about 12 and 2; after that the kitchen may well be closed (although you can usually find places serving simple things such as cured meats and cheese, or take-away pizza, after lunch time). Aperitivo, which roughly translates as cocktail time, usually starts around 6 p.m. It is common to go one place for aperitivo then head elsewhere for dinner afterwards. Drinks are almost always served with a small snack, and some places have substantial snacks, sometimes for free or at very good prices. Dinner is usually late, starting about 7 p.m., but there are even a handful of restaurants that don’t open until 9 or 10 p.m.(!).

Tip #5: Know your Roman dining norms:

– Breakfast is usually just a quick coffee and pastry standing at the bar. Typically you order first and pay at the register, then give the receipt to the barman. Expect a higher charge to sit at a table.

– There is no longer a “pane e coperto” charge for being seated at a table, but there is a bread charge. If you don’t wave the bread basket away, you will be charged, whether you eat any bread or not. But, feel free to tell your waiter you don’t want the bread basket, and then it should not be on the bill.

– Often a glass of tap water is requested to wash down the morning coffee (un po’ d’acqua per favore). But at the dining table, tap water is NOT the norm despite the fact that Rome has good water. Indeed, you’ll get a strange look if you ask for tap water, or ice water. Instead, your choices are bottled water, either with (con gas) or without carbonation (senza gas). Bottled water is usually very reasonably priced.

– Stay away from soft drinks at meals – they are usually very expensive! Get a few at a grocery if you must have your soda fix.

– Coffee usually comes after dessert, and the old adage of no cappuccino after Noon still stands.

– Be prepared for Rome time. Waiters are taught not to hurry guests, so that bill may take a long time. You have to ask for it and be patient.

– Know that tipping in Rome may be VERY different from tipping where you are from.  See my recent blog post on the subject.