Rome is a city of classic fare and ancient flavors, of cacio e pepe and carbonara, artichokes and wild greens, fire-crisped pizzas and silky gelato—and, of course, divine wine. But Rome is also a city of tourists, which means that an unforgettable meal isn't always guaranteed in the Eternal City.
"Four million Romans live in Rome, while tourists crowd in the center," says Count Giovanni Bonmartini Fini, a Roman local and winemaker with a 500-year family history making and exporting Italian Pinot Grigio. "For the best food experiences, get out of the center and experience what we eat in our many neighborhoods."
Rome is a sprawling tangle of ever-expanding neighborhoods, but despite its growth, there's still a simple, old-world mentality when it comes to culinary culture.
"Our foundation is [we eat] what's in season, what's nearby. We've never left that," Bonmartini Fini says. He's a locavore without trying; seasonality dictates dinner. "People talk about the local food movement, and that's [a mind-set] that has always been here. When it's artichoke season, everyone is eating artichoke. Pizza with artichoke, salad with artichoke, pasta with artichoke, meat with artichoke."
Go to one of Rome's famed open-air markets, and you can tell the time of year by what's in stock. "My absolute favorite market is one of the ugliest, but it has incredible options: Il Mercato di Via Riano near Ponte Milvio [a 2,000-year-old Roman pedestrian bridge]. Some of my favorite stands are the fresh seafood caught by brothers and wild mushrooms harvested by a little old lady," Bonmartini Fini says.
Bonmartini Fini insists on being properly caffeinated before food shopping—and what Italian would disagree? He's devoted to his neighborhood espresso bar in the leafy residential area of Parioli. "Il Cigno is a five-minute walk from my home and run by my friends. It has the best macchiato and pastries. My absolute favorites are the cornetto integrale con miele, a whole-wheat, honey-filled croissant, or the decadently amazing cornetto alle mandorle, a marzipan-filled croissant."
Besides mainlining shots of espresso (always drunk standing up at the counter), Romans stay hydrated via the city's many ice-cold, spring-fresh drinking fountains nicknamed nasoni, or "big noses."
But back to stuffing our faces: There's always an Italianate locality to Rome's dining-out culture: "When we go out to dinner in Rome, it's not like, 'Are we going to get Japanese, Indian, Chinese?' No. The question is: 'Are we going to eat Tuscan, Sardinian, Piedmontese, Umbrian, Roman?'" Bonmartini Fini says.
More often than not, the answer is Roman. Some of the very best cucina Romana is casual. For the city's famous thin-crust pizzas, Bonmartini Fini lets his two teenage boys choose: "Al Gallo Rosso is packed with Roman teens and has paper-thin crust, wood-oven pizzas. You can't spend more than 15 bucks there.
"If my wife, Scilla, decides, it's La Sagrestia, located on the side of the Pantheon, a non-touristy pick in a tourist-dominated area."
For special occasions, the choice is usually seafood, since the fish is shockingly fresh—and even more shockingly expensive. (It's often charged by weight at a restaurant.) "Scilla and I love to celebrate down the street from our home at Ai Piani, a wonderful Sardinian fish restaurant."
There are plenty of spots for native dishes like Rome's classic carbonara, which gets its velvety texture from farm-fresh, raw egg yolks cooked into the still-hot pasta. (Unlike in America, there's no cream in sight.) "If you ask 10 Romans where to get the best carbonara, you will get 10 different answers. The dish is always made with just eggs and bacon, but every carbonara is different because we have six different ways of saying 'bacon' in Italian.
"My favorite is always Trattoria Perilli in Testaccio," Bonmartini Fini says. Set in a working-class neighborhood, the often-packed Perilli's is where the owner—a gentleman well into his 90s—can still be found bringing out dishes of carbonara and bottles of wine. Most of the wine Bonmartini Fini makes under his Barone Fini brand is exported to the U.S., but Perilli's serves Barone Fini Valdadige Pinot Grigio alongside its legendary rigatoni alla carbonara.
Since 1497, the Bonmartini Fini family has been producing Pinot Grigio high in the Italian Alps, where the grapes grow natively and superiorly. Because of this and the naturalist cultivation methods, Barone Fini Pinot Grigio has a DOC designation, a stamp of integrity and authenticity stipulated by the Italian government. DOC regulations preserve the quality of traditional gastronomic products all across Italy (see Parmigiano-Reggiano). "It's not an opinion; this is a government distinction," Bonmartini Fini explains.
In Rome, wine is drunk to complement food—its intention isn't to dominate the meal, but instead to improve it. Coupling heavy pasta with a refreshingly acidic grape varietal is one move you'll see replicated night after night in Rome. "You need acid and crispness to cut and clean your palate. And the Pinot Grigios from this area [Trentino-Alto Adige]—even though they're naturally balanced with minerality—they still have the strength to clean your palate."
Another debate among Romans is the superlative gelato shop. "Every Roman has their own version of the best. The most famous is Giolitti, which is over a hundred years old.” This less-than-secret, old-world gelateria is worth the hype with an array of flavors including Italian wedding cake, Champagne and stracciatella (a more serious version of chocolate chip). Bonmartini Fini has his own trick: "I always get three different chocolates on a cone."
A dinner out in Rome is bookended by a classic aperitivo and digestivo. For an aperitivo, Bonmartini Fini drinks a spritz or a glass of bubbly Franciacorta (a sparkling wine from Italy's Lake District) at the Hotel Eden's rooftop bar ("the best view of Rome") or, if he's in the mood for something buzzy, at Ciampini in Piazza di San Lorenzo in Lucina. As for a post-dinner digestivo, he turns to a bittersweet amaro, a dark, herbal liqueur that's increasingly popular stateside.
The one thing Bonmartini Fini can't help you with in Rome? Wine bars. "Listen, I make my own wine, so I'm not so good at going to enotecas."
Nicole Trilivas is a New Yorker living in London and writing about travel and food. Follow her at @nicoletrilivas.
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