The old saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, but when it comes to dining out, this can be notoriously difficult.
Central Rome, and her distinctly unique neighborhoods, are packed full of tourists from all over the world. There are over 1200 hotels to choose from in this city, and all the people staying here need somewhere to eat. Nearly 5000 restaurants are all too happy to feed the hoards and masses, and too many of these places do so by offering mediocre food at high prices. What’s sad is the tourist market is all too willing to pay, and most of the time they don’t even know their experience is anything but authentic.
Good places do exist, and finding one can be considered a great accomplishment. Unfortunately, unless you know what you’re missing, you probably won’t even realize it. Most restaurants in any tourist area (not just in Rome) are counting on this, and restaurateurs are banking on your ignorance. Here are a few tips to keep your dining experience authentic, enjoyable, and within budget.
1) Avoid the gimmicks
Free wifi is great, but when presented with a choice on a street full of identical looking restaurants, is complementary access to Facebook going to help you make a decision on where to buy your dinner? If a generic tourist restaurant needs free internet to bring in customers, the food is probably not a primary concern.
2) Multilingual Signage
Kudos to the restaurant owner for wanting to attract international clientele. Unfortunately this is also a red flag for any customer looking for an authentic experience. In any Italian city, there are still going to be more Italians living there who also need to eat something, and any restaurant owner who blaltenly encourages foreigners to walk in the door is likely not too interested in sharing authenticity.
3) The Beckoning Proprietor
Walking down the street in your favorite city you may be browsing menus, move along to the next place, and then the next where a maitre d’ is smiling, standing on the sidewalk inviting you to dine in his humble establishment. What at first might seem like a romantic gesture of genuine hospitality, is in fact a pathetic attempt at convincing unsuspecting potential customers to eat mediocre tourist food. Keep walking. No restaurant worth anything needs to beg people to eat there.
4) The Picture Menu
Worse than the multilingual menu is the notorious picture menu. Designed in a genuine attempt to help customers who may not know the names of menu items, the purpose usually backfires on anyone who knows what they’re doing. Photos of over sauced pastas tend to have an unappetizing effect on customers, but that doesn’t stop the tables filling up with people wolfing down barely edible plate after plate.
5) Lack of cheap wine
Unless you’re looking for upscale dining, or a Michelin star, you shouldn’t have to be forced to buy wine by the bottle. Wine is something of a phenomenon in this country. Italy is to Wine as Germany is to Beer. Maybe even more so. As such, everywhere you go will serve house wine you can order by the quarter liter. 1/4 for one person, 1/2 liter for two. Yes expect to pay more in a touristy area, but do NOT sit down at a restaurant that only has 1/2 bottles starting at 14€. You’ve been had.
With these tips in mind, remember that given no other choice, even at tourist trap restaurants, you can still eat a good meal. Just know it won’t be that authentic experience you are entitled to having journeyed from afar to experience new sights and culture. If however you don’t mind eating bad food at exorbitant prices, I’m sorry to say you’ve missed the point.
When asking for a recommendation from your concierge, don’t take the business cards he has on standby. Instead ask “where do you eat?” and go there. Nothing makes our hearts sink faster than being let down by a seemingly good recommendation, only to walk into a restaurant totally devoid of locals.
Take a longer walk. Get away from the main drag, the piazza, the waterfront. Find anywhere away from the hotels, the monuments, the shopping. Your best and most authentic dining experiences await down that back alley, or behind the apartment block. Follow the locals, and remember that the best advertising here is word of mouth, and not multilingual neon signs.