By Eleonora Baldwin
ining in Rome, a richly culinary city, has always presented a multitude of possibilities. But the lure of beloved cooking can produce and equal and opposite reaction if things don't go as planned: profound disappointment.
Every city demands that you learn a little about its food and cultural scene before taking the plunge. Since Rome is quirkier than most, my first advice to travelers is that they study local habits, customs, and traditions, and also make an effort to learn a few words of the language. The more prepared you are, the less you're surprised, and prone to paranoia.
Italians are easily flattered. They'll go out of their way if they see a foreigner willing to accept local ways rather than guard against them. Remember that.
Here's my shortlist of tips on what to avoid and look out for when eating out in Rome. Some of the points also touch on more general issues that can bring down an entire trip.
Avoid "Evergreen" restaurants: These places feature "tourist menus" in a multitude of languages, many with strange photos of badly styled food. Many often station waiters outside to help reel in customers. Though off-putting, they still teem with disgruntled tourists, their noses planted in guidebooks, many seeking an enlightened food experience they'll never find in such a place. Be observant. If no locals are in the dining room or patio, go elsewhere. If your neighborhood is dotted with similar looking restaurants, all featuring tourist menus, extend your range. Find a place where you can choose a few characteristic dishes from a small, well-balanced menu.
Beware Technicolor: Blue gelato, bright orange and pink flashy checkered tablecloths, and UVA-tanned wait staff do not make a quality meal. The colors a place chooses and the way it welcomes its patrons is a crucial window into food and service quality. Colored gelato means chemicals and air have been pumped into the frozen delight. Cheap polyester table settings, paper napkins and gaudy colors tend to distract and divert attention from dubious dishes. Attention grabbing tricks can also mean carelessness in the kitchen. If your especially friendly waiter (with plucked eyebrows) is fixated on your cleavage there's a good chance he might fumble the order.
Note positioning: Avoid eateries and cafes near major tourist sites and monuments. Though the term touristy can be misleading, it's sad but true that some of the worst meals in the city are often served near popular spots. Cheap ingredients, poor quality service, poor hygiene, and inflated prices are the unfortunate norm. There are exceptions. Armando al Pantheon, only 10 steps from the architectural wonder, serves some of the city's best cucina romana; Caffè Propaganda , a three-minute walk from the Coliseum, offers fine pastries and boasts a good mixology department; Baccano, a block from the Trevi fountain, serves up fragrant breads and excellent pasta dishes.
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