It took me a long time to come to terms with a critical dining fact in Rome: even at “the best” restaurants, not all dishes are created equal. Some can be excellent, some good, others terrible. And a restaurant need not be flawless in order to be considered beyond reproach by local gastronomes or even critics. It can even hold a Michelin star and turn out very lame dishes. Open Colonna’s insipid Jumbo Quail comes to mind: popcorn encrusted quail called “Jumbo”, cuz, you know, in America everything is supersized and everyone eats popcorn (or so I was told by my server).
I used to visit restaurants and order whatever I was in the mood for but eventually learned to look around at what others were eating, ask the advice of the server or chef, and make my decision based not on what I wanted to eat but what the restaurant wanted to serve. Having grown up in the restaurant business in America, I always assumed that running a good business meant doing everything on the menu equally well. But that’s simply not how things work here; things are just different (understatement). Here are some hard-earned tips that will help you get the most out of your Roman dining experiences.
Get the fritti
Order the fried things is generally my advice in all gastronomic matters, but in these places, the fritti are so good, you absolutely must order them: Sforno, La Gatta Mangiona, Pizzarium, Tonda (avoid the artichokes unless the Roman variety is actually in season-Feb-May).
Don’t skip the antipasto
The raw, cold, and hot antipasti at Tempio di Iside could make a meal on their own (but leave room for more!). These starters are expensive but well worth the investment. Trattoria Monti’s sformatini (a sort of flan) are always very good.
The crowd pleasers
If you are dining with a group and need to satisfy a lot of tastes, there are some crowd pleasers out there that are accustomed to dealing with varied dining habits and also do a lot of dishes very well. Enoteca Provinicia Romana comes to mind.
Skipping these dishes would be a horrible horrible mistake
Some places excel at one or more dishes to the point that there is little point in ordering anything else. For example, at Er Quagliaro you must order quail. Da Danilo’s carbonara and strozzapreti with lardo and pecorino di fossa are amazing. L’Arcangelo’s suppli’, cacio e unto, and gnocchi alla matriciana are excellent. You would be insane to miss Vitaliano Bernabei’s porchetta at Panificio Bonci. And the burrata, carbonara and amatriciana at Roscioli are perfect. The primi at Trattoria Monti are always great and the oxtail at Checchino is, as well.