July 13, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Where Rome’s insider food queen Katie Parla eats in her hometown

11 min read
Getty Images Rome, Italy (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Credit: Getty Images

Food writer Katie Parla has dedicated her life to Roman food and hates tourist food traps. Here are her insider picks from comfort food at Tram Tram to gelato at Otaleg.

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Rome: eternally beautiful, eternally touristed. In 2023, a record 35 million visitors trooped through the Eternal City to see iconic sights like the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum. Rome’s restaurants are no less touristed, with lines down the ancient streets for TikTok-trending pasta alla carbonara and tourist trap restaurants with multi-language menus. Combined with central Italy’s soaring summer heat, it’s enough to make you lose your appetite.

We spoke to Katie Parla, renowned Rome-based food writer and tour guide, to help us skip the insanity and find Rome’s best insider eats. A champion of Rome’s gritty outer quartieri (districts), Parla is “obsessed” with getting visitors out of the centre. “If you need to eat Roman classics within 100ft of the Pantheon, I can help you,” she says. “If you need to sit in the Pantheon square to do it, I’m not your person.”

Despite her distaste for tourist food traps, Parla, who moved to Rome in 2003 and describes her 21-year “obsession” with her adopted hometown as “not rational”,  is forever enthusiastic about its culinary scene. “We’re in such an exciting moment,” she says. “In the era of Covid, while there was a little contraction of the restaurant world, we have this resurgence now where you have pizza-by-the-slice joints [and] an incredible array of thoughtful coffee bars with great pastry programmes that also do savoury things at lunch.”

Parla loves Rome’s traditional flavours – cod, guanciale (pork jowl), fava beans, artichokes, the quinto quarto (offal) – and its classic dishes like cacio e pepe, but encourages visitors to step outside of the touristy centre and their culinary comfort zone. “I don’t have time for any g*dd*mn tourist traps and neither should you,” she declares. 

Here are Parla’s favourite insider eats in Rome.

Alamy Rigatoni alla pajata is just one of the delicious Roman comfort foods served at Tram Tram in San Lorenzo (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Rigatoni alla pajata is just one of the delicious Roman comfort foods served at Tram Tram in San Lorenzo (Credit: Alamy)

1. Best comfort food: Tram Tram (San Lorenzo)

Roman food is comfort food, so Parla’s first pick is Tram Tram, a family-owned trattoria in the San Lorenzo neighbourhood, adjacent to Termini train station.  “Total bomb trattoria,” says Parla. “It’s on one of the more aesthetically challenged streets in Rome, but the food within is incredible.” 

How to spot a tourist food trap

“Touristy food has no identity behind it. A bunch of random Italian dishes slapped on the menu responding specifically to a tourist demand [like] Bolognese and Alfredo and pasta e fagioli and carbonara and pesto, which is what you would find in an airport; not in a quality food place in Rome.”

Tram Tram, a San Lorenzo institution since the 1940s, is situated on a graffiti-streaked block near a ring road leading to the city’s bleak outskirts. “San Lorenzo suffered during the Second World War,” Parla points out. “People forget that Italy lost the war.”

The trattoria, true to its name, is found near the neighbourhood’s tram tracks. “The owners are lovely,” says Parla. “You’ll find Roman classics, like rigatoni with pajata (calf rennet) but then you’ll also find fave e cicoria (fava beans with chicory greens).”

Parla also notes that Tram Tram is vegetarian and pescatarian friendly – a rarity in pork-rich Roman cuisine. “And it feels like you walked into like an old-school workers’ cafeteria, decor-wise,” adds Parla. “So, it has this very unassuming, super-down-to-earth feel, but the food is excellent and the wine list is spectacular. And it’s affordable.”

Website: http://www.tramtram.it/

Address: Via dei Reti, 44, 00185 Roma RM

Phone: +39 06 490416

Facebook: Tram Tram Osteria

Alamy Pantera in Garbatella is a new pizza by the slice joint in Garbatella that serves old school slices (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Pantera in Garbatella is a new pizza by the slice joint in Garbatella that serves old school slices (Credit: Alamy)

2. Best pizza by the slice: Pantera (Garbatella)

When to visit

“People sleep on visiting Italy in the winter. It’s actually magical and it’s 65F (18C) at Christmas the last few years.”

Parla’s current ultra-insider pizza by the slice tip is Pantera, found in sleepy Garbatella. “‘A classic slicery,” she says. “They have the rossa (pizza with tomato sauce) with an herb oil and garlic drizzle on top. Super simple.”

Pantera is owned by the Trecastelli brothers, renowned for their Neo trattoria, Trecca, and their modern craft beer/natural wine bar Circoletto. But Pantera? “Old school,” says Parla. “You get that ham and cheese pizza. The potato slices with rosemary; it’s crispy and it’s chewy and it’s so satisfying. Super affordable.” Also old-school are the supplì deep-fried risotto balls that, as Parla notes, come in just the traditional tomato-and-mozzarella variety. “There aren’t 15 different flavours,” says Parla. “Not hating on that; I like that. But we’re talking about a place that opened maybe seven months ago but feels like it’s been there for a long time.”

Parla also loves the location. “You’re in walking distance of the Garbatella public housing structures, which are just so stunning and so characteristic of the architecture that defined Rome in the early 20th Century.”

Andrea di Lorenzo A Rota in Tor Pignattara serves delicious Roman-style personal pan pizza tonda in classic and gourmet varieties (Credit: Andrea di Lorenzo)Andrea di Lorenzo

A Rota in Tor Pignattara serves delicious Roman-style personal pan pizza tonda in classic and gourmet varieties (Credit: Andrea di Lorenzo)

3. Best sit-down pizzeria: A Rota (Tor Pignattara)

In Italy, not all pizza is created equally.

“Rome has many, many pizza styles,” explains Parla. “The everyday fast food is sold by weight in slices; eaten standing up. But we also have wood-fired pizza spots that do round personal pies that are rolled flat, crushing the bubbles. They don’t have the raised edge that Neapolitan pizzas do. A Rota in Tor Pignattara is so excellent.”

A Rota is helmed by Sami el Sabawy, formerly of Pizzarium. “The leavening is perfect. The toppings are delicious,” says Parla. “They’ve got a great range of fritti (fried starters); in Rome, we don’t start with pizza, we eat fried things first. I love their fiori di zucca (zucchini blossoms) with mozzarella and anchovy inside.” She adds, “They definitely do classics; you can get a capricciosa (pizza with artichokes, mushrooms, ham and olives) but they also do a monthly pizza… Something that isn’t a classic but it’s bringing you great Italian ingredients and toppings on a light and crispy base.”

The family-friendly spot also attracts “lots of couples”, says Parla. “It’s a cute date spot because they have a good wine and beer selection. You can bring your grandma… It’s great. Everybody goes.”

Ristorante da Michele Rome may not be known for its seafood, but Da Michele in San Paolo has excellent quality fresh fish dishes like its excellent fried sardines (Credit: Ristorante Da Michele)Ristorante da Michele

Rome may not be known for its seafood, but Da Michele in San Paolo has excellent quality fresh fish dishes like its excellent fried sardines (Credit: Ristorante Da Michele)

4. Best seafood: Da Michele (San Paolo)

“Not the [famous Neapolitan] pizzeria!” Parla clarifies. “We’re in San Paolo; the neighbourhood where the Saint Paul Outside the Walls basilica is located.” And this Da Michele is a family-owned seafood restaurant.

Seafood? In offal-obsessed Rome? “Unbelievable quality fish,” emphasises Parla. “Which in Rome is a challenge. Even though we’re 13 miles from the sea, a lot of the fish is not local or fresh. Da Michele, I don’t know who their plug is, but they have an excellent purveyor of fish coming from the Lazio coast.”

Parla’s description of Da Michele’s fish dishes is a siren song: “Crazy delicious fried anchovies to start,” she says. “Excellent in-season puntarelle (chicory) with alici fritte (fried anchovies); a twist on the typical salted anchovy dressing. Then there are super-simple classics like sauteed mussels; delicious, plump, juicy. Spaghetti with vongole veraci (carpet-shell clams) and verza croccante (crunchy Savoy cabbage); adding a little bit of seasonal produce into a classic. The frittura di paranza (fried mixed catch); excellent.”

Parla also champions the French-influenced wine list and the festive vibe. “Whenever I go, there’s always someone celebrating their 99th birthday,” she says. “This is where you take your great grandma. You bring a cake, you fill the place with balloons and everyone in the place ends up celebrating with great-grandma.”

Edoardo Iervolino Parla loves Menabó in Centocelle for its creative, contemporary takes on Italian dishes (Credit: Edoardo Iervolino)Edoardo Iervolino

Parla loves Menabó in Centocelle for its creative, contemporary takes on Italian dishes (Credit: Edoardo Iervolino)

5. Best for a break from carbonara: Menabó (Centocelle)

Sometimes you need a break from traditional Roman food. “We all do,” admits Parla, whose next pick, Menabó, is in the rugged urban sprawl of Centocelle – the former stomping grounds of Roman culinary power duo Marco Baccanelli and Francesca Barreca of Mazzo (now in San Lorenzo). “Menabó is the best for restrained contemporary Italian,” says Parla, of the stylish bistrot run by brothers Paolo and Daniele Camponeschi. “It doesn’t serve a specific regional cuisine. They’re doing roasted pork neck with spicy caponata (eggplant and potato stew). Those things exist independently in Italy, but they’re being joined here.”

Parla also cites the Menabó’s picchiapò (boiled meat) – “instead of beef they do it with veal” – and their macco di fave (fava bean stew), made with chickpeas. “They do pici [pasta] with mussels with tomatoes and friggitelli (shishito peppers) and lemon zest,” says Parla. “The menu changes all the time but not in a way that’s forced. They’re really dialing things in seasonally and through repetition, they perfect things. You might find some Roman influence, but what they’re really looking at is all of Italy; great ingredients and then bringing them together in delicious ways.”

Getty Images Cesare al Pellegrino in Rome's city centre boasts not just delicious food but its owners' signature wine list (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Cesare al Pellegrino in Rome’s city centre boasts not just delicious food but its owners’ signature wine list (Credit: Getty Images)

6. Best old-school comeback: Cesare al Pellegrino (Roma Centro)

But as much as Parla loves exploring Rome’s outer quartieri, there are some restaurants in the city centre she believes are worth wading through the crowds… and you won’t have to queue. Like her next pick, Cesare al Pellegrino, just off Piazza Navona.

“It’s always surprising to me how easy it is to get a reservation at Cesare al Pellegrino,” says Parla. “It’s on Via Pellegrino and in one direction, you have hundreds of people standing in line for Osteria Fernanda and on the other, you have dozens of people in line for Barnum. Barnum is very good, but I’m not waiting in line for coffee, sorry.”

“You just walk up to the counter and order coffee and don’t have to sit down and wait!”

Cesare al Pellegrino is the current incarnation of the 1930s trattoria Settimio al Pellegrino. “It became super famous when [Anthony] Bourdain went there on Parts Unknown,” says Parla. “When the couple [who ran it] retired, an incredible couple took it over – Maria Pia and Leonardo from Cesare al Casaletto.”

The tiny tavern stays true to its pre-war pedigree and serves satisfying classic Roman dishes like picchiapò and Roman-style cod. “What Cesare al Pellegrino provides is the dope wine list that Leonardo and Maria Pia are known for,” says Parla. “It’s not a super-ambitious menu that’s trying to do everything. They have retained Settimio’s meatballs, which are basically smash burgers. Yeah, that place rules. It has online booking, which is a game changer.”

Getty Images Otaleg in Trastevere produces super natural and super delicious gelato (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Otaleg in Trastevere produces super natural and super delicious gelato (Credit: Getty Images)

7. Best gelato: Otaleg (Trastevere)

“It’s gelato spelled backwards,” says Parla of this teeny gelateria in beautiful, tourist-flocked Trastevere along the banks of the Tiber River. “It’s in Trastevere’s more residential area. It’s super magical and all the flavours are perfect, especially the fruit sorbets. And I’m usually a pistachio lady, so if I’m getting fruit instead of pistachio that really says something.”

Tip

“I would say with one exception – Barnum – if there’s a line, it’s not good. It’s famous on TikTok. I’ve never encountered a great place that also has a long line – yet.”

Otaleg – “this narrow little hole in the wall, exposed beams” – is run by gelatiere Marco Radicioni. “His flavours are really spectacular and the ingredients are so good,” says Parla. “It should have a line of 100 people but there’s usually no one even there. He uses a very restrained amount of sugars, so instead of blasting your palate with sugar to mask the bad ingredients, which is what most gelato shops do, it’s the amount of sugar that’s necessary to enhance the experience, to enhance the flavour without losing any of the nuance.”

Parla’s challenge for the “adventurous traveller”: Otaleg has a second location in Monteverde Vecchio that also does pastry and coffee. 

Getty Images Beautiful Trastevere is heavily touristed, but you can walk right into Parla's paninoteca pick – and have great local wine (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Beautiful Trastevere is heavily touristed, but you can walk right into Parla’s paninoteca pick – and have great local wine (Credit: Getty Images)

8. Best panini: Trapizzino (Trastevere)

For a solid, non-social media viral Roman paninoteca experience that won’t have you queuing around the block, Parla recommends Trapizzino; Stefano Callegari‘s barrier-smashing culinary mash up of pizza and a tramezzino (triangular bar sandwich).

“There are multiple locations,” says Parla. “But there’s one in Trastevere that has table service and also the most insane Lazio wine list. No one is on point like they are… And you can go there and have [amazing] wine and then your sandwich is a pizza pita for five bucks. 

Trapizzini are cones of pizza dough, stuffed with Roman and pan-Italian ingredients, like pollo alla cacciatora (chicken and tomato stew) and eggplant Parmesan. “But if you need to dip your toe in the offal pool without committing to a whole plate, they’ve got tongue with parsley sauce,” says Parla. “It’s just a fun, clever Roman food invention. Everyone wants to eat in Trastevere and honestly most of the food in Trastevere is so grim. That place is just always super consistent [and] spot-on. Chaotic service, but if you’ve been in Rome for five minutes, you know, that’s the norm.”

Getty Images Yes, it is possible to get a delicious, quality meal near the Trevi Fountain (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Yes, it is possible to get a delicious, quality meal near the Trevi Fountain (Credit: Getty Images)

9. Best for cheeky couples (or people who can’t get a reservation at Salumeria Roscioli): Baccano (Trevi Fountain)

If you wanted to impress, you could book a table at the viral Salumeria Roscioli – a month in advance. Or you could waltz into Baccano around the corner from the Trevi Fountain instead.

“The chef from Roscioli moved there,” says Parla. “It’s this elegant space with tableside tiramisu. Fancy Romans go there. And everyone’s gonna go to the Trevi Fountain anyway; they might as well have a good meal while they’re doing it.”

Baccano’s ultra-chic menu ranges from Scottona beef burgers to a rainbow of cheese offerings, as well as chef Nabil Hassen‘s signature pastas, like homemade gnocchi with pesto and calamari, or spaghetti with butter and anchovies. “The ambiance is curated, the pastas are insane,” says Parla. “You can just walk in and eat at the bar. Sometimes when you’re on a date night, you just want to have something light and quick so you can be sexy. So you don’t have to sit down for all the courses but just get a cheeky pasta, a glass of wine and be out… It has a huge number of covers so you can usually just walk in.”

Apart from its romance-adjacent bar, Baccano has table seating, inside and out. For people who aren’t in a rush.

BBC Travel’s The SpeciaList is a series of guides to popular and emerging destinations around the world, as seen through the eyes of local experts and tastemakers.


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