These family-run restaurants serve two glorious courses, plus bread and wine, for under 22,500 lire ($12)
Even in the Eternal City's third millennium, you can still enjoy a feast fit for a Roman emperor for less than $12! And how? By hunting down a handful of traditional Roman osterie, those down-home, family-run restaurant holdovers from a 1950's Fellini film. We list several below, but to find your own, just listen for the clink of glasses and the murmur of Roman dialect issuing from behind strings of beads hanging in a doorway with no sign and no menu posted. Pop your head inside and a beaming papa will stride over to welcome you, ushering you to a communal table while his son abandons the soccer game on TV to slice bread to fill a basket for you. Mamma shuffles out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron and asking with a feisty smile, "So, what do you want?" to which you reply, "What do you have?" and she inevitably answers, "I got spaghetti!" So you order the spaghetti. The food will be simple, hearty, and delicious, the wine homemade, the atmosphere convivial, and the bill a fraction of that in a proper restaurant.
What we're going to call a "full meal" - whether it be a fixed-price menu or a la carte - consists of at least both a first and second course, water and/or wine, bread, and cover charge, that lovely Italian invention of adding a dollar or two to the tab simply for the privilege of sitting down to a basket of bread. At the current exchange rate of 1,877 lire to the dollar, you can spend 22,500 lire and still come in under the $12-per-person radar.
Below are some of my favorite budget eateries, from a holy hospice run by lay sisters to a trattoria frequented by the families of convicts, from Rome's greatest pizzeria to a classic wine bar, from an old-fashioned, German-style beer hall to a modern cafeteria-like tavola calda (literally, "hot table"), and from a dirt-cheap enoteca (wine shop) near the Pantheon to tiny osterie (small, family-run restaurants) hidden in Trastevere's back alleys, like our first selection:
Da Augusto, a rough-and-ready osteria tucked between Trastevere alleys Vicolo delle Cinque and Via del Moro, at tiny Piazza de' Renzi 15. Full meals a la carte, including wine, from $8.90.
Crowds of locals pack into the Silvestri family's storied osteria - one of the last cheap Trastevere restaurants undiscovered by the tourist hordes - for a spot in one of the three cramped rooms or at the communal picnic tables set out on the cobblestones of the tiny piazza. You'd do well to peruse the hand-scribbled list of dishes posted out front before heading in, for after spreading the wax paper on your table and plunking down a carafe of the house wine, the brisk, brusque, but efficient waiters (Augusto, his wife, and their adult children) will expect you to know what you want without bringing you a menu. Most regulars start off with the cacio e pepe (spaghetti garnished simply with Parmesan and cracked black pepper), the hearty and lightly spiced rigatoni all'Amatriciana (tossed in fresh tomato sauce spiked with peperoncino and pancetta bacon), or stracciatella (egg-drop-and-Parmesan soup). Follow it up with a quarter roast chicken, huntsman-style rabbit, braised veal chops, involtini (stuffed rolls of meat or fish), a succulent abbacchio (spring lamb), or pajata (calf's intestines). Augusto's is closed Saturday at dinner and on Sundays.
Cavour 313, an old-fashioned wine bar at Via Cavour 313, near the Forum end. Mixed cheese or salami platter with wine from $6.90; full meals from $9.60.
This gourmet wine bar of old pedigree is lined with dark wood benches and paneling, its ceiling a grid of double-stacked shelves crowded with wine bottles. The wine list features more than 800 labels, around a dozen of which are available at any given time for tasting by the glass for $1.60 to $2.65. To accompany your vintage, order a mixed platter of cheeses ($5.30, or $6.90 for fancy selections) or cured meats, all of them handcrafted regional specialties from across Italy, like ubriaco di Piave (sheep's cheese aged in wine), wild boar or deer prosciutto, or Calabrian sopressata salami. Dishes of the day-gourmet selections like swordfish carpaccio, couscous laced with 12 spices and veggies, or smoked duck breast-run from $3.80 to $7. Closed Wednesdays.
Da Mario, a Trastevere trattoria at Via del Moro 53-55, renowned for its $9.60 fixed-price menu, including wine.
Mario's is a typical tratt of rough-beamed ceilings, Roman prints and postcards, and one of the cheapest set menus in town. That $9.60 prezzo fisso includes a first course of spaghetti alla bolognese (with meat sauce), spaghetti all'Amatriciana, or penne arrabbiata (in a "hopping mad" tomato sauce spiced with peperoncino); a second course of half a roast chicken diavola (literally, "devilish," as in devilishly spicy), roast turkey, a veal cutlet alla milanese (breaded and fried), or boiled or fried baccal... (codfish); plus a salad or cooked vegetables, fruit, a quarter-liter of white Velletri wine, a half-liter of mineral water, service, bread, and cover charge. All for $9.60! A la carte prices run $3.20 to $6.40 for scrumptious selections such as rigatoni alla pajata, risotto with porcini mushrooms, penne pugliese (pasta with broccoli), or roast goose in a mushroom sauce.
Il Delfino, a tavola calda (literally "hot table," a kind of self-service cafeteria) at Corso Vittorio Emanuele 67, on the northwest corner of Largo Argentina. Fixed-price menus, including wine, $7.50 to $9.80.
Fast, cheap, and open all day, this modern cafeteria-style joint two blocks from the Pantheon has long been a budget standby for tourists and locals alike. The $7.50 menu buys you pizza, dessert, and a drink; $8.80 gets you bread, fruit or dessert, and two dishes: pick from pasta in tomato sauce, penne with tuna, vegetable soup, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, seafood-studded risotto, a breaded porkchop, or Roman-style fried artichokes. Tack on $1 for a glass of wine, or $1.60 for a small bottle of wine, a beer, or a soda. If you're homesick, they also do a $5.30 American breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast with butter and marmalade, and fruit juice or cappuccino. You can even go cheaper ... la carte: pizza slices and calzone run $1 to $1.60, pasta and meat dishes $3.20 to $5.30. A whole spit-roasted chicken costs only $6.40, or get half of one for $3.20 ($4.25 with potatoes). Closed Mondays.
Da Giovanni Osteria e Cucina, a hole in the wall at Via della Lungara 41A, a sunken road parallel to Lungotevere Gianicolense, between Trastevere and the Vatican. Average meal a la carte, with wine, $10.65.
Giovanni's is such a warm and friendly little osteria that it's easy to forget that many of its clients, aside from a cadre of neighborhood regulars, are relatives just coming from visiting inmates at the nearby Regina Coeli prison. Stefano and Domenico (always in their white waiter's coats) bustle about the cozy room serving the 12 tables of hungry customers heaping plates of fettucine (egg noodles) or agnolotti (tortellini) in tomato sauce, trippa alla Romana (tripe chopped and served with tomatos and sage), pollo alla cacciatore (chicken stewed with tomatoes and olives), roast coniglio (rabbit), or a bistecca di vitellone (yearling veal steak). The house wine comes from the Castelli Romani south of Rome, and with no reservations accepted, there's always a clump of people patiently waiting just inside the strings of plastic beads hanging in the doorway. Closed Sundays and in August.
Fraterna Domus, a religious hostelry at Via Monte Brianzo 62/Via del Cancello 9, off Lungotevere Marzio, several blocks north of Piazza Navona. Fixed-price menu $10.65 without wine, $11.70 with wine.
You ring the front doorbell promptly at 7:30 p.m. (1 p.m. for lunch), and a member of the lay sisterhood that runs this hospice appears to accompany you down to the basement refectory, three small rooms neatly laid out with sturdy pine furnishings. This is comfort food all'Italiana: rich vegetable noodle soup or fusilli in ragout, porkchops sided with boiled potatoes and roast eggplant, a salad, and fresh fruit. With the smiling sisters trooping out course after course, it starts feeling like a holiday meal with the extended family. Reservations are required (tel. 06-6880-2727). Closed Thursdays.
Enoteca Corsi, an old-fashioned enoteca from 1937 at Via del Ges - 88, off Via del Plebescito. Meals from $11.65.
This old wine shop serves basic dishes in both its original 1937 storefront and at the long common-seating tables in the fan-cooled room next door. The chalkboard menu, which changes daily, features dishes like tepid pasta and potato soup, orecchiette ("little ears" pasta) all'Amatriciana, Roman-style tripe, baked zucchini flowers stuffed with meat, saltimbocca, and roast veal with potatoes. The $11.65 meal above includes any first and second course plus the cover charge. If you drink tap water, you'll stay under the $12 radar; opt for a quarter-liter of wine at $1.60, and you'll go 25[cents] over. Closed Sundays and in August.
Ai Banchi Vecchi, a working-class restaurant at Via dei Banchi Vecchi 129, near Vicolo Sugarelli. Pizza and beer from $7.45; full meals from $11.72.
Neighborhood shopkeepers and furniture restorers fill the ladder-back chairs in this laid-back trattoria west of Campo de' Fiori. The prices push at our $12 envelope, but the portions are huge and the cooking a cut above standard osteria fare. Among the hearty dishes you'll find rigatoni with gorgonzola, ravioli in a nut sauce, one of Rome's tastiest bucatini (thick, hollow spaghetti) all'Amatriciana, straccetti con rughetta (beef strips with torn arugula), and steak fillets in a curry sauce. For dinner, you can go light with pizza and a bargain fritto misto ("mixed fry") of potato croquettes, rice balls, and zucchini flowers. Closed Sundays and in August.
Da Baffetto, a legendary, convivial pizzeria at Via del Governo Vecchio 114, on the corner with Via Sora. A pizza and a half-liter of wine from $5.30.
Everyone from local students to international movie stars lines up outside Baffetto's doors for what just may be the best Roman-style pizza in town. One small room, lined with white ceramic tiles and snapshots of celebrity patrons, wraps around the wood-fired brick oven just inside the entrance, while two more dining rooms are squirreled away upstairs. This is a pizzeria, not a restaurant, so all they do is the traditional Roman, crisp, thin-crust pizza. It comes in three sizes with your choice of toppings (a small, plain "pizza margherita" costs $3.20; a fully loaded large runs $8). For $2.65 more you can add an appetizer of bruschetta (slabs of peasant bread grilled, rubbed with garlic, drizzled with olive oil, and topped with chopped tomatoes) served with white cannellini beans and mushrooms. As a true pizzeria, it opens only for dinner (6:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.) and is closed Sundays November to April.
Birreria Peroni, a 1906 Italian beer hall owned by the country's leading brewery, at Via San Marcello 19, just off Piazza SS. Apostoli, one block from Via del Corso at the Piazza Venezia end. Full meals, beer included, from $6.
Fans swirl overhead in the summer, when the huge windows are opened to give passersby glimpses of the sepia-toned frescoes ringing the room. The art deco wall paintings feature sportsmen-themed cherubs knocking back frosty mugs and inscriptions of brewery wisdom like "Beer makes you strong and healthy" and "Who drinks beer lives to be 100." Elbow a spot at a tiny wooden table between lunching businessmen to pack in lasagna, meatballs with potatoes, or roast chicken. The German-style arrosto misto ("mixed roast") platter is piled high with sausages, roast meats, and goulash. Visit the buffet for goose salami, stuffed olives, beans with tuna, and marinated artichokes. All dishes cost $2.10 to $6.10; beer goes for $1.30 to $2.60. Best of all, there's no cover charge or service: everything is included in the low prices. Closed Sundays, Saturday lunch, and August.
Tre Archi, a trattoria with crisp linen tablecloths and home cooking, at Via dei Coronari 233. Fixed-price menu $12.25.
It's remarkable that Tre Archi, just a block off the northwest end of Piazza Navona, has been virtually undiscovered by tourism: its $12.25 fixed-price menu is one of the most inclusive in town. You get a first course of cannelloni (pasta tubes stuffed with meat), spaghetti alla carbonara (sauced with bacon, eggs, and Parmesan), or soup, followed by roast chicken or veal, salad or roast potatoes, dessert, a half-liter of water, a quarter-liter of wine, and even an espresso at the end.
Sora Margherita (Piazza Cinque Scole 30, east of Via Arenula). A primo, secondo, and wine runs $13.30 at this signless little osteria in the heart of Rome's Jewish ghetto.
For more than 40 years, Margherita Tomassini has spent her mornings hand-rolling gnocchi and stuffing fresh agnolotti (meat tortellini) for the lunchtime crowds here. The olive oil and white Velletri wine comes directly from the family farm. Her patented polpette (meatballs) first appeared 20 years ago for the benefit of her infant son but at the urging of her regular patrons found their way quickly onto the regular menu. Margherita also does the most heavenly parmigiana di melanzane in town, burying the eggplant slices in mozzarella and baking them for hours in tomato sauce.