Where to eat in Rome when there’s no avoiding the tourist traps

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I once wrote down a quote (I can’t remember who it was by) that went something along the lines of: “Sex is like Shakespeare: even when it’s bad, it’s still a damn sight better than the alternative.” The same is probably true of food in Rome: even if you’re in an over-priced pizza joint that’s equidistant from the Vatican, Colosseum and Spanish Steps, it’s still not going to be that bad. And yet, like everything, there are degrees: there are thinner, crispier pizzas and fatter, flabbier pizzas; there is better value for money and worse; and not all carbonaras are created equal.  

spaghetti alle vongole - Rome
Spaghetti alle vongole from Osteria der Belli in Trastevere

And while it may be easy to sort the guanciale from the bog-standard bacon outside the tourist centre (the Romans will undoubtedly see to that), in the tourist traps it’s not so simple… Hence why, on my most recent trip to Rome (my third this year), I devised my guide to where to eat near the top tourist attractions. As always, thanks to Maria from HeartRome and all the bloggers at Eating Italy for their wonderful tips and insights into being a foodie in the Eternal City!

Where to eat near the Colosseum

I stayed in Celio (the district just south of the Colosseum) for the duration of this trip, so needless to say I found the most hidden gems in this area. For ultra-thin Roman-style pizza, head to Li Rioni – as we discovered on our first night after a delayed flight and an apartment check-in process that took an hour (I kid you not!), their oven is fired up till nearly midnight. Phew.

Possibly my favourite find of the trip was Divin Ostilia: a tiny wine bar that sells all sorts of Italian wines by the glass (including an excellent Montepulciano d’Abruzzo). Very sweetly, the guy who ran the place invited us to the bar’s four-year anniversary a couple of days later. We had to turn him down because we would be back in Amsterdam by then. But I felt like I’d acquired my own local in the few short days we’d been there – he treated us like regulars even though we weren’t. I didn’t get to eat at Divin Ostilia, but the Honey Badger did one night and declared their Melanzane di Parmigiana to be the best he’d ever tasted. So there!

Oppio Caffe - Colosseum
My view of the Colosseum from Oppio Caffe – sweet!

If you want to get really close to the Colosseum (i.e. have an actual view over it), while you’re tucking into some Italian fare, stop by Oppio Caffè at Happy Hour between 5.30 and 10 pm. You pay €12 for your first drink, but it includes unlimited food from the aperitivo buffet. It’s nothing special, but handy if you’re on a budget and still want to make the most of the major sights!

Finally in the Celio area, if you’re looking for cocktails, head to Propaganda. It has a hipster vibe that you don’t get nearly as much in Rome as you do in Amsterdam, so it feels modern more than traditional. Bear in mind, though, that the Italians like their cocktails bitter: Aperol, Campari, Martini Rosso and assorted bitters are the order of the aperitivo time of the day. Those with a sweet tooth: you have been warned.

Propaganda - Rome
The somewhat hipster Propaganda

Where to eat near the Vatican

Continuing the aperitivo theme, at drinks o’clock near the Vatican head to La Zanzara. Again, get your Aperol Spritz on, but this time you can expect a raft of little snacks to follow. I’ve not eaten dinner there, but La Zanzara was one of my favourite aperitivo experiences in Rome. Probably because, had we stayed, we’d have been too full from all the snacks to eat dinner anyway!

Aperitivo - Rome
Free food at aperitivo o’clock!

Speaking of dinner, afterwards we moved onto Il Sorpasso: a restaurant specialising in high-quality cured hams and Italian cheeses. You can get your pasta here too, but the menu is a little more creative – so it’s worth branching out into beef tartare (surprisingly popular in Rome) or one of their salads.

Where to eat near the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon

I didn’t spend a lot of time in this area, but I did find one hidden gem: we stumbled across Il Bacaro while wandering through some backstreets looking for flip-flops to buy (mine had broken; the Honey Badger just forgot his). It’s half-covered in a canopy of green, leafy, trailing plants that form a soothingly cool natural shade right above the restaurant’s outdoor tables. The prices were extremely reasonable for the area (you’re still not going to pay above €10 for a bowl of pasta, and frequently less), and the house wine by the glass was delicious. I loved their smoked beef carpaccio. I liked the mosquitoes rather less.

Il Bacaro - Rome
Leafy shade outside Il Bacaro

Where to eat near the Spanish Steps

Another tip from the lovely HeartRome, Ginger is a bustling lunch spot on the street running between Via del Corso (shopper’s heaven; claustrophobe’s nightmare) and the Spanish Steps. They don’t take reservations; you simply turn up, give your name to the person at the front desk, and wait for your table – usually only around 10 minutes. Efficient, fresh and simple, they have plenty of lunch options – including this hearty porchetta sandwich.

Porchetta panini - Ginger - Rome
Super-size porchetta baguette for lunch at Ginger

Where to eat near the Campo de’ Fiori

The day I hit Campo de’ Fiori (a square featuring a market that’s sort of touristy and sort of authentic-feeling at the same time), I was all Italian-ed out. So I shunned my usual diet of pasta and pizza for a good old burger. Open Baladin serves just that, plus lots and lots of craft beers on draft. It all tasted good – I was just a little shocked by the prices. €5 for a beer, and €14 for a simple burger in a bun? Ok, it came with bacon and cheese, but no chips ‘n mayo? I guess you pay a premium for having a non-Italian day!

Open Baladin burger - Rome
Burger and beer at Open Baladin

Where to eat in Trastevere

Another “stumbled upon” moment was Cajo & Gajo – a simple Roman hosteria not far from the touristy Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. We had fabulously crispy fried artichokes, a Roman speciality – but don’t make the mistake of trying to drink wine at the same time; artichokes make all wine taste like mint. Weird. The Honey Badger then had what he claimed to be the best carbonara he’d ever tasted, while I went for the cacio e pepe: another Roman speciality involving nothing but pasta, pepper and Pecorino. Luckily, these went great with the local Lazio wine. Crisis averted.

Also worth popping into (if only for their sea bass carpaccio) is Osteria der Belli, close to the same square. Their fish is excellent – including the aforementioned sea bass, octopus carpaccio, and spaghetti alle vongole – as well as their ravioli.

Osteria der Belli - Trastevere
The sea bass carpaccio at Osteria der Belli is SO good

For a drink beforehand or afterwards, try Baylon Cafè. I ordered one of their cocktails (the Tex Mex – not cheap at €9), but they also do plenty of wines by the glass and aperitivo-style drinks. The food menu looked nice too (they have various whole legs and shoulders of ham hanging above the bar) but as I didn’t eat any of it I can’t vouch for it. If you try it, let me know!

More information on the places mentioned:


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