In a city where the recipes often predate the buildings, Rome's best meals are marvelously simple. We unearth five quintessential trattorias where the cucina romana is home-cooked, the company is homegrown, and the owners are happy (enough) to have you.
To be clear, Lucia, the gruff proprietress, and her husband, Tonino, an older man of few words, do not want you here. They will do everything they can to dissuade you from waiting for a table. Ignore their pleas and stick it out—normally it takes no more than 20 minutes. When you finally gain entry, you'll see what all the fuss is about: The small space is unassuming, but in spite of the owners' shtick, it's incredibly inviting. Beyond the simple cork walls, the smells of simmering sauces waft out from the kitchen. Once you have a table, Lucia changes her tune entirely: Now you're part of the inner circle, not one of those suckers waiting outside. If you're lucky, it will start raining and you can hunker down for the better part of the afternoon. This is the rare trattoria where you are welcome to eat, drink, and eat some more with no regard for the time—or the growing line. Best dish:Rigatoni cacio e pepe. Ask for it with spaghetti instead of rigatoni so the sauce sticks to the pasta better; they're usually happy to make the switch. When the bowl arrives—drizzled in olive oil, with black pepper and a small mountain of freshly grated pecorino cheese—stir the ingredients together until you're left with the most delicious take on mac and cheese you've ever tasted. Via della Madonna dei Monti 79, 011-39/06-474-5325, rigatoni cacio e pepe $9.50, closed Sundays, cash only.
Armando al Pantheon
Next year, Armando's will be celebrating its 50th birthday, which is saying something for a restaurant in one of the most trafficked piazzas in Rome. The atmosphere is on the romantic side of classic; walls are decorated with paintings, some lovely, some less so. Armando's sons currently own the place, and you'll see them every night, Claudio in the kitchen and Fabrizio working the front of the house. Pressed tablecloths and mood lighting elevate Armando's beyond your typical trattoria, making it a favorite for special dinners. And while the menu has all the traditional staples, the most popular items are somewhat fancier: duck with prunes, guinea fowl, and pasta dishes that steer more toward mushrooms, truffles, and earthy, woodsy flavors. Best dish:Tagliolini al tartufo. A bowl of fresh pasta comes topped with a generous helping of rich black truffles from Abruzzi or Umbria and a touch of olive oil. It's normally served as a first course, but nothing on the secondi list will be more delicious, so feel free to make it your main. Salita dei Crescenzi 31, 011-39/06-6880-3034, tagliolini al tartufo $27, closed Saturday nights and Sundays.
Osteria Qui Se Magna
Romans like their restaurants bright, and Osteria Qui Se Magna, which roughly translates to "Here you eat well" in Roman dialect, is one of the most intensely lit. It may look like a cafeteria when you first walk in, with red-and-white-checked paper tablecloths and daily specials written in marker, but the place is packed every night with young families and artist types in ironic glasses who aren't too thrilled that you've discovered their little secret. A dedicated family operation, the restaurant is known in the neighborhood as Da Valeria despite the fact that Valeria's son and daughter, Paolo and Pina Zecchino, currently own it. The recipes, however, remain precisely as they've always been. Best dish:Pasta alla mafiosa. This is a heaping bowl of rigatoni corti tossed with tomato sauce, eggplant, and creamy ricotta. Don't make the beginner's mistake of eating it as it's presented: The pros know to mix it all until the ingredients melt together into a gooey sauce. Via del Pigneto 307A, 011-39/06-274-803, pasta alla mafiosa $8.25, closed Sundays.
Da Lucia is on one of those Roman streets that you see in movies: a tiny cobblestoned block with 500-year-old palazzi; laundry hangs out of the windows, and lightbulbs sway overhead. You half expect to see Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck dining at an outdoor table. In other words, this place is all charm. Da Lucia is hardly a secret (you'll see plenty of guidebooks on the neighboring tables), but unlike many trattorias, the food hasn't suffered. The menu is simple, with the ever-present selection of pastas and meat dishes; the antipasti are the real reason to come. On a nice night, be sure to ask for a table outside, and then start with the pecorino e miele (cheese and honey) or alici al limone (anchovies with lemon juice) and a bottle of vino rosso della casa. The owner, a bald man known simply as Uncle Ennio, is as likely to scowl at out-of-towners as he is to send over a tiramisu on the house. Don't take it personally—it's all part of the show. Best dish:Spaghetti alla gricia. A bowl of warm spaghetti is piled high with freshly grated pecorino cheese, cracked black pepper, and several chunks of salty, perfectly fatty pancetta. Vicolo del Mattonato 2B, 011-39/06-580-3601, spaghetti alla gricia $11.50, closed Mondays, cash only.
Da Tonino al Governo Vecchio
It's hard to find this place. For one thing, it has a couple of monikers: Da Tonino, Trattoria di Antonio Bassetti. Also working against you is that if it's not lunchtime, you're likely to walk right by its nondescript glass doorway. Plan to arrive in the early afternoon, when a small, smartly dressed crowd queues up outside, and be prepared to wait a little while. The restaurant isn't much bigger than a dorm room, and after half a dozen trips, we've still never seen an empty table. Businessmen, politicians, and local merchants pour in for a bowl of pasta and a carafe of the house red wine. The tables are packed together; the owner, Antonio Bassetti, barks orders to his waiters; and the whole place hums with a steady flow of hungry Romans, most with napkins tucked into their dress shirts. Then, suddenly, by 3 p.m., only a few stragglers remain, one or two tables of non-Italians. If Antonio starts to look at you funny, that's why: Lunch is over, and he's ready to go home. Best dish:Rigatoni all'Amatriciana. Done al dente, the rigatoni here is as good as any in the city. All'Amatriciana is a mildly spicy tomato sauce with pancetta, a classic Roman dish. The other specialty of the house is rigatoni alle melanzane, pasta tossed with eggplant, tomato, garlic, and olive oil. Via del Governo Vecchio 18–19, 011-39/333-587-0779, rigatoni all'Amatriciana $9.50, closed Sundays, cash only.
ROME NEIGHBORHOODS 101
Several years ago, Trastevere was considered off the beaten path by Roman standards. But the remove had its own appeal, and the neighborhood became a destination unto itself. Still, Trastevere maintains its characteristic charm: late-night bars, yapping dogs, and old-school Italian mamas chatting to each other from their windows.
Get there: Tram 8 from Largo di Torre Argentina to Piazza Mastai.
While Piazza Navona proper is dominated by tourist shops and caricature artists, things are far more authentic just a few blocks away. For example, via del Governo Vecchio, the street Da Tonino is on, has vintage clothing stores, jewelry boutiques, and tiny wine bars—and not a caricature artist in sight.
Get there: Bus 40 or 64 from Roma Termini to Largo di Torre Argentina.
Yes, that's a McDonald's over there, but don't let it get to you. This neighborhood, smack in the heart of the city, revolves around an undeniably stunning 2,000-year-old church, and even the tour groups passing through can't detract from the sheer beauty of it all.
Get there: Bus 40 or 64 from Roma Termini to Largo di Torre Argentina.
Just behind the Colosseum, Monti is characterized by tranquil, ivy-covered palazzi and quiet, hilly streets. In the warm-weather months, the sidewalks fill up with well-dressed Italian families out for an evening stroll and young children playing soccer in the piazza.
Get there: Metro Linea B from Roma Termini to Cavour or walk the seven minutes.
Originally home to railroad workers who lived here while building the tracks that now run into the middle of the city, Pigneto later inspired Italy's finest filmmakers, like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roberto Rosselini, who filmed here. Today, it's probably the least touristy pocket of Rome—full of art students, documentary filmmakers, and the cafés they frequent.
Get there: Bus 105 from Roma Termini to Via Casilina.