Meet Gianni—basketball stomach, basset-hound eyes, and a mustache the size of a small woodland creature—the proprietor of what seems to be a Roman culinary speakeasy. Tonight, Gianni’s serving fried zucchini flowers, steaming carbonara, and beef stew—all for next to nothing. We’re in his home kitchen—a really big gas stove and three tables all in one room. Look around: dozens of pictures, family heirlooms, and an ancient radio playing tinny Italian pop. Tonight’s cast: five locals arguing football, one seedy type smoking cloves, and a drunk Romanian outside playing the accordion. We can’t tell you the location (there are license issues), but here’s a hint: Start at the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere and walk four windy blocks west. Two carafes of wine in, Gianni is bragging about his bambini; by the time he sends around a bottle of jet fuel he calls grappa, the arguing locals, the seedy type, even the accordion player, are belting out Italian folk songs. “Gianni! Sing ‘That’s Amore’!” you beg him. He smiles as if to say, “What the hell are you talking about?” and then it really hits you: It’s time to go home.
THE TOP FIVE
In a bizarro world parallel to New York restaurant culture, Romans snub any place deemed “trendy.” Instead, old-school trattorias top the food chain. Get the house wine (there’s no other kind), don’t eat the bread (it’s a little stale), bring cash (they don’t take plastic), and be careful with the menu (trippa alla Romana, often translated as “typical Roman food,” is, more accurately, “boiled cow stomach”).
1. Taverna Romana Da Tonino
e Lucia (39-06-474-5325).
Lucia will send you home, barking that the wait is too long. Politely refuse her advice and stand outside until she relents and shows you in—to a bustling crowd and the best bowl of carbonara in all of Italy.
2. Hosteria Gran Sasso
“Da Paolo” (39-06-581-2393).
Everyone is “Dottore” whether or not he’s a doctor; the bathroom isn’t outside to the left, despite the pranks Junior likes to pull on newcomers; and the spaghetti alle vongole is spectacular.
3. Da Tonino al Governo Vecchio (39-333-587-0779).
The glass storefront is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. Go during lunch, when Tonino stuffs his patrons full of all’ arrabbiata, lamb, and vats of house wine.
4. Hosteria Romana (39-06-474-5284).
The owner is as proud of Romana’s history as a World War II stronghold as of his fettuccine. Best to let the owner choose your menu: It will start with antipasti misti, end with sips of limoncello, and in between, a blur of funghi porcini and bistecca.
5. Da Lucia (39-06-580-3601).
The spaghetti alla gricia (cheese, olive oil, pancetta) will make you weep with joy.
In recent months, thanks to a tradition passed down from Milan, Rome’s wine bars have started serving up some of the best (free) food in the city. And we’re not just talking about olives the size of golf balls or deliciously salty homemade potato chips, which are standard fare at any self-respecting Roman bar. No. Wine bars offer a ten-course meal for the cost of a drink. Imagine Max Fish with free food from Babbo. Places like Ferrara Enoteca (39-06-583-33920), ’Gusto Wine Bar (30-06-322-6273), and Freni e Frizioni (39-06-583-34210) dish out wheels of Parmigiano, bowls of pasta, platters of lamb chops, and other hearty sustenance for the price of a Nastro Azzurro. Just don’t go on your way to dinner—you won’t make it.
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