It used to be very easy to keep up with Rome's restaurant scene since nothing ever changed. The same comfortable and reliable trattorie and ristorante where you could dependably order up heaping plates of carbonara and saltimbocca were seemingly as timeless as the Colosseum.
While those old standbys are still around, they now have to contend with an exciting explosion of new places that have opened in the past two years. Restaurants, panini shops, street-food stalls, bakeries, and cocktails bars are popping up all over the city, helmed by a younger generation of Romans who are returning home after stints abroad, bringing freshness, modernity, and genre-defying dishes and dining experiences to this ancient city.
Via Velletri 35
Almost from the first night it opened in 2013, this pocket-size restaurant has become one of the most difficult tables in town to book. In a male-dominated industry, 24-year-old chef Alba Esteve Ruiz, formerly chef of appetizers at Spain's celebrated El Celler de Can Roca, has created something rather out of the ordinary. With only 20 seats, the dining room opens to a glassed-in kitchen where Ruiz works her magic. The attraction here is the pairing of inventive and sophisticated cooking normally found only at Michelin-starred restaurants with an affordable fixed-price menu in a relaxed and informal setting.
Specialties include her own version of Mediterranean nigiri, which balances a raw red prawn atop a filet of San Marzano tomato with a dollop of gelatinized soy; Coppa di Alici, pairing briny anchovies with candied red peppers and almonds; and Ruiz's own spin on Tiramisu with layers of vanilla cream, hazelnut biscuit, mascarpone merengue, and a dark chocolate sable finished with Sicilian Fior di sale and espresso gelée. Lunchtime is a steal, with a four-course tasting menu costing 20 euros (excluding wine). Don't miss: Burrata-topped shrimp tartare served with pistachio biscuit. Note: Make sure you reserve. While I was there they turned away the mayor of Rome.
Photo: Mezze maniche con coda, noci e pesciole al tartufo (pasta with oxtail, walnut, and green baby peaches with truffles)
Largo Dino Frisullo
One of Rome's great forgotten monuments is the ex-slaughterhouse. Located at the edge of the Testaccio neighborhood, this 19th-century complex is a crumbling, magnificent urban archeological wonder. Happily, bits and pieces have been resurrected over the past few years—a small grocery store, exhibition spaces, and a bar have all opened on the site—and the most recent arrival is Stazione di Posta, a restaurant and cocktail bar located amid the former cattle stalls. Cobblestone floors and wide steel windows frame the light-filled industrial space.
The kitchen, overseen by chef Marco Martini, pairs rigorously sourced local organic ingredients from a nearby farm with modern and creative cooking. A recent antipasto: cabbage, guanciale, and mushrooms tossed with a snowy mountain of shaved ricotta salata—earthy and rich, and decidedly porky. Don't miss: Ajo e ojo di mare, fat spaghetti tossed with a shellfish reduction and sprinkled with dehydrated mussel powder, Chef Martini's own version of the traditional garlic and olive oil pasta. Outside seating, weather permitting.
Photo: Courtesy of Stazione di Posto.
Via Madonna dei Monti 16
Rome's latest trend? Street food. While we've always had pizza bianca—ubiquitous here in the Eternal City—recently different regional specialty foods have been showing up. One of the hot spots is the Monti neighborhood where Antonio Menconi is introducing the oft-forgotten but much-loved street foods of the Ligurian coast. Farinata—a finely ground chickpea-flour batter carefully poured into a huge shallow pan then slipped into the fire-stoked oven—is the big seller. The massive sizzling-hot pancakes are cooked quickly, sliced into wedges, and then dusted with black pepper before being wrapped in paper, making for a perfect portable snack.
At lunchtime you'll also find testarolo, Tuscan wheat pancakes cut into lozenges, tossed with pesto, and sprinkled with aged sheep's-milk cheese. Don't miss: The best bruschetta in town—thick slices of artisanal bread toasted and drizzled with bright-green extra-virgin olive oil.
Photo: Neccio di castagne (chestnut crepe). Courtesy of Dall'Anto.
Via Crescenzio 84
The area around the Vatican is a bit of a food wasteland. So many tourists head to and from St. Peter's and the Vatican Museum that most bars and restaurants cater to this transient and touristy crowd. The debut of Zanzara, steps away from His Holiness, changes all that. Aimed at the tony and sophisticated inhabitants of the neighborhood, Zanzara was opened by the owners of the Balthazar look-alike Baccano, across the river.
The space reads more French bistro than Italian trattoria—tiled floors, wrought-iron bread racks, and bentwood café chairs seem imported straight from the Left Bank—but the menu travels all over the place. While there are plenty of Italian plates, from gnocchi to osso buco, Zanzara also serves tempura-fried cod, hot dogs, and Hungarian goulash—and it's open from breakfast through cocktails and dinner. The trio of three mini hamburgers is one of the most popular mains, but I love Zanzara's mini rosette: bite-size Roman rolls stuffed with things like truffle-flecked mortadella, Parmigiano, and other treats. Don't miss: Tagliolino burro e Alice del Cantabrico, a heavenly tangle of homemade pasta, butter, and anchovies.
Via Domenico Panaroli 35
Vincenzo Mancino takes the words local and sustainable very seriously. If it's not from Lazio, you won't see it for sale in his small grocery shop in Rome's Centocelle neighborhood. Even though the shop is in a far-flung residential area, people make the trek here for the incredible quality of his cheeses, cured meats, bread, and pasta. Mancino's banking on this to draw people to his newly opened restaurant, Pro Loco, which is attached to the store and furnished with antiques and mismatched wooden tables and chairs.
Using the same carefully sourced organic and local ingredients—liver sausages, herb-encrusted sheep's-milk cheese, and crackling-covered porchetta straight from the Frascati hills south of Rome—he's developed a menu that changes daily but always speaks Roman. Hearty dishes like sausages and potatoes, veal stew, and roast chicken pair well with seasonal sides like escarole with pine nuts and raisins or baked radicchio. Don't miss: The pizza, which is served only in the evenings, includes toppings like Amatriciana and Gricia, which make ample use of home-cured guanciale.
Via Fratelli Bonnet 5
Vineria Litro is only the latest opening in the Monteverde neighborhood, which has become a culinary destination out of the center of town. This leafy residential area is a short walk (uphill!) from bustling Trastevere. While Litro does serve food—including a good selection of cured meats and cheeses (like Conciata di San Vittore, a raw cow's-milk cheese aged in a crust of 15 herbs for 90 days) and a changing rotation of daily soups and rice dishes—the main event here occurs in the glass. The owners have focused on hard-to-find natural wines, as well as an impressive collection of vermouths and mezcal. Rome's best mixologist, Pino Mondello, oversees the cocktail menu, which makes this one of the most relaxed and well-mixed happy hours in town. Don't miss: Bevanda spiritosa, an old-fashioned mix of artisanal sodas like spuma or gazzosa with a heavy splash of white wine (natural, of course.)
Photo: Crema di zucca (pumpkin soup). Courtesy of Vineria Litro.
Via delle Rose 54
Marco and Francesca (a.k.a. The Fooders) have been cooking some of the best food in Rome for the past few years. Working mostly "underground" at pop-ups around town and at special events, they've finally opened their own place in the Centocelle neighborhood. Not quite a restaurant but more permanent than a pop-up, the 10-seat room hosts dinners six nights a week and lunch on Sunday. A rough-hewn wooden table runs down the center of the small dining room, and guests sit down together on spartan (but comfortable) chairs.
The food is straightforward, perfectly prepared, and reasonably priced. Dishes like Norma Rivisitata, a lasagna made with eggplants, tomatoes, and a fluffy cloud of ricotta salata, are like recipes you wish you had inherited from your Italian nonna, if she were a young, hip chef. Don't miss: Mazzo, of course, offers meatballs, the trendiest items on Roman menus these days. Theirs are made from a mix of ground pork and veal, smothered with a sauce of sweet onions, and served with a side of crispy, roasted, slightly spicy potatoes.
Photo: Courtesy of Mazzo.
Sometimes, when you're in a new town, don't you wish that someone would invite you over for a dinner party at their house? Well, even if you don't know anyone in town, you can join the locals for a meal through the Home Food organization. Home Food pulls together talented and inviting home cooks (called Cesarine) all over Italy, and booking a meal with them is the best way to sneak a peek into what Italians are doing for dinner.
The cost is minimal and just about covers expenses, since the main point of the association is to bring cultures together over the table. That said, food is the most important thing, and all the Cesarine are passionate cooks who bring traditional recipes to the table and are happy to share recipes. As an example: One of the Cesarine cooks from her home in the historic Palazzo Orsini and mixes strips of fresh pasta with zucchini blossoms, pumpkin, mint, and ricotta. After a classic rustic Roman stew, the meal ends sweetly with her special dessert: pears baked with ricotta and chestnut honey. Sign us up.
Photo: Guests enjoying a meal in the home of one of the Cesarine in Rome.
Via Leonina 77
Aperitivo time in Rome used to mean a glass of wine or, if you were lucky, a Negroni. But lately a new generation of mixologists have been not only honing their martini and Manhattan skills but also developing a new breed of Italian cocktails based on homegrown spirits like amari, grappa, and bitters. 2Periodico, in über-trendy, borderline hipsterish Monti, is one of the best places to sample some of these cocktails while you people-watch. Located in a renovated body shop, the wide-open front doors and spacious interiors are still roomy enough to fit a car but now accommodate a mishmash of vintage finds, including 1940s kitchen cabinets, linoleum-topped tables, and a dozen comfy chairs and couches, all assembled around a stage where live music happens every evening. Don't miss: You can end the day with a Negroni Sbagliato, a Negroni made with prosecco in place of the gin.
Photo: Valerio Mirabello deejays during brunch. Courtesy of 2Periodico.
Piazza del Paradiso 56/57
This jewel box of a shop is only steps away from the chaos of Campo de Fiori. Andrea De Bellis hails from Ferran Adrià land, having worked in Spain with the master, but he fine-tuned his pastry skills in France. And in fact De Bellis' exquisite pastries look anything but Italian. For chocolate lovers, there is the Assoluta: a hazelnut and cocoa cookie topped with 70% chocolate mousse and covered in a milk chocolate ganache. His series of dolce al bicchiere include cupfuls of rich puddings with crumbly and nutty toppings. Don't miss: 1000foglie Bar, a pair of paper-thin flaky pastries spread to order with your choice of creamy fillings.
Photo: 1000foglie alla crema. Courtesy of Pasticceria de Bellis.