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Beating the rap
The Vatican and Prati too often get a bad rap when it comes to good food.
By Eleonora Baldwin
Guidebooks often portray the area around the Vatican and the adjacent Prati business district as a culinary wasteland. It's not. It can't possibly be. There are just too many mouths to feed. The Vatican is a colossal city-state high that's also among Italy's most visited tourist sites. Prati is white-collar territory that includes whole portions of the city's civil court system. Both are crowd magnets. In food terms, demand creates supply, and lots of it.
Your job is finding the gems, which around the Vatican can admittedly take some doing. Doing a little homework ahead of time helps. So does not falling prey to the many overpriced tourist traps located near the basilica or museum entrances. If a menu-wielding hawker tries to invite you in, steer clear. If you see photographed dishes in the widow beside menus translated in seven languages, walk away. The best Vatican-area meals are often in places located outside the immediate Vatican perimeter.
Discerning the decent from the dreadful can be hard for the uninitiated, with many visitors too tired to think straight. So here's a Vatican and Prati shortlist that you can tuck away and count on. For the sake of convenience, I've divided it into aperitivi and dining, coffee and gelato.
Aperitivo and dining
Bancovino Founded by Rome food blogger Francesca Romana Castellani, this deli-meets wine bar offers a richly stocked delicatessen counter with fine cured meats and superb cheeses, wines, liqueurs and a selection of craft beers. On the creative menu are meat tartares, risottos, chunky vegetable soups, and decent burgers. Dig deeper and you'll find suckling pig filet, confit duck leg, mesculun salad with sweet onion, and Sicilian blood orange marmalade. The wine-by-the glass list changes daily, a pleasant surprise. Cooked dishes can be packed for take out. • Bancovino Open Tues.-Fri. 10:30 a.m.-midnight, Sat.-Sun. 4 p.m.-midnight. Closed Monday | Via Pietro Borsieri, 27. Tel. +39.06.8767.3864.
Settembrini Settembrini offers a wide selection of dining options — and people watching possibilities (it's near state TV headquarters and attracts both media lovelies and literati). There's a tremendously beautiful outdoor seating area and a bookstore section with plush pillows, worn-in vintage sofas and illustrations by Swiss artist Alexandra Dufey. The cafè offers breakfast beverages, a good wine list, and a small but imaginative vegetarian-friendly lunch menu. The restaurant tends to go for new-wave rustic cuisine (tagliolini with crab, zucchini and mandarin orange, baccalà with Savoy cabbage, spicy 'nduja sausage). The fine tasting menu runs about €45 with the lunchtime buffet pegged at €12. There are also good sandwiches for a quick pit stop (my favorite panino is stuffed with capocollo, mustard, taleggio and cruschi peppers). • Settembrini The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner while the cafe operates daily from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. Closed Sunday | Via Luigi Settembrini, 21/25. Tel. +39.06.323.2617.
Pizzarium Don't expect to sit. Do expect to fight your way to the counter after waiting in line. That said, wee Pizzarium is probably the city's most lionized pizza al taglio (pizza by weight) spot. It has a cult-like following for good reason. The slow-leavened dough and fresh toppings are 100 percent organic and come in artistic combinations. If you can't make up your mind between fresh figs and prosciutto; mortadella and pistachio; sautéed broccoli rabe and sausage, or potatoes and mozzarella, you can opt for a trayful of samplers. There's also a nice choice of craft ales and chilled microbrews as well as freshly fried supplì with delectable fillings. • Pizzarium (no website) Open Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun. 1 p.m.-10 p.m. | Via della Meloria, 43. Tel. +39.06.3974.5416.
Sorpasso Perfect for a post-Vatican pit stop, this cafè, wine bar and restaurant offers a great menu of snacks, daily pastas, and great choice of wines. It opens for breakfast and runs through 1 a.m., serving brunch, lunch, merenda, aperitivo and dinner. There are nice cheese and salumi platters, but it's the Trapizzini (triangular pizza pockets) filled with cucina romana classics (tripe or meatballs) that take home the gold. Nice outdoor seating for al fresco munching. Free wi-fi. • Sorpasso Open Mon.-Fri. 7:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sat. 9 a.m.-1 a.m. Closed Sunday | Via Properzio, 31. Tel. +39.06.8902.4554.
Romeo Chef & Baker Part pizzeria-bakery and part modern hip eatery, high-tech décor Romeo is the joint love child of the youngest member of the Roscioli baking dynasty and celebrity chef Cristina Bowerman, who owns the Michelin star Glass restaurant. Romeo's cuisine is both daring and appealingly eclectic. It offers great sandwiches and by-the-slice pizza alongside the more high-end foie gras slider on a homemade roll (dressed with mango ketchup and passito flavored mayo). Pasta twists include the classic aglio, olio e peperoncino sprinkled with panettone flakes. There's also an entire salmon primer to choose from. • Romeo Chef & Baker Open daily 9 a.m.-midnight. | Via Silla, 26/a. Tel. +39.06.3211.0120.
L'Arcangelo Here you'll find cucina romana with an impeccable pedigree. Chef Arcangelo and his sommelier wife make diners feel at home by leaving toy cars and personal trinkets on tables, with family portraits decorating the walls and shelves of a cozy dining room. The menu is an ode to Lazio (and the chef's ego): dishes include "Arcangelo all'Inferno," seared squab, mustard, pears braised in red wine, toasted hazelnuts and incense smoke — beautifully presented on a single plate. Consider stopping by on Thursday for the best potato gnocchi you'll ever taste in your life. • L'Arcangelo Open Mon.-Sat. 1-2:30 p.m., and 8 p.m.-11 p.m. Closed Sunday | Via Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, 59. Tel. +39.06.321.0992.
Splendor Parthenopes Splendor Parthenopes is an ambitious Naples-inspired cafe, pizzeria and restaurant run by Neapolitan dining entrepreneur Luca D'Angelo and brand designer Antonio Romano. The décor is a mix of early 20th-centural Naples motifs and Belle Epoque Parisian bistros. On offer are breakfast, lunch, and dinner (served until late) with a menu that features pizza and an array of Neapolitan cliché dishes (plenty of Neapolitan products are also on sale). Aperitivo is the biggest lure, with mixology coups that include a house Martini with limoncello and cherry liqueur, an O'Blady Mary with yellow Datterino tomatoes from the Piana del Sele river, and the bizarre Caprese Martini, flavored with oregano and basil. • Splendor Parthenopes Open daily noon to 2 a.m. | Via Vittoria Colonna, 32/c. Tel. +39.06.683.3710.
Bar Sotto Il Mare This place offers a merrily laid-back, funky atmosphere with blue-arched rooms and 1970s wood paneling to go with rickety chairs. It's a Greek village-meets-"The Life Aquatic," with a menu that's heavy on simply cooked fresh seafood. Mood-lifters (along with a good wine list) include Grouper involtini wrapped in gossamer strips of Lardo di Colonnata and the Catalan-style lobster extravaganza (good for two). Both are a great prelude to homemade desserts. Friendly service and free wi-fi complete the scene. • Bar Sotto Il Mare Open lunch and dinner, Tue.-Sun; closed Monday | Via Tunisi, 27. Tel. +39.06.39728413.
Sciascia is where many flock for what's widely considered Italy's best cappuccino. My own vice is an addictive, steaming cup of caffè al cioccolato, an impressive espresso with fondant chocolate, served in a small cup. I often find myself surreptitiously licking away the last drop. • Sciascia Open Mon.-Sat. 7:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Closed Sunday | Via Fabio Massimo, 80/A. Tel. +39.06.3211580.
Castroni Volumes have been written on the wonders of this place, with its floor-to-ceiling shelves chock with high quality local and international gourmet foods. Celebrating its 80th anniversary, Castroni has a number of Rome branches. But only a handful roast and brew the eponymous beans. For an invigorating espresso boost, try their trademark Arabica blend, served in large demitasse cups, laced with a huge, creamy dollop of panna montata (whipped cream). • Castroni Open Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; closed Sunday | Via Cola di Rienzo, 196. Tel. +39.06.687.4383.
Vice Café The Gregorio VII flagship store (there's a Prati branch at Via Fabio Massimo, 64) produces superb gelato with flavors to spare (spiced chocolate, hazelnut and pistachio, mango, jasmine, lemon-scented cream with cinnamon and ginger). You can also find combos: butterscotch, vinsanto Antinori with cantucci dipping biscotti, and almond with banana and crunchy chocolate nibs. All gelatos are served in tubs or cones adorned with homemade lingue di gatto (sugar cookies) and terrific whipped cream, available plain or flavored with rum or Grand Marnier. • Vice Café Open daily 11 a.m.-1 a.m. | Via Gregorio VII, 385. Tel. +39.06.631.779.
Il Gelato Bistrò Maître gelataio Claudio Torcè is credited with having started Rome's gluten-free artisan gelato movement. Savory flavors — 150 in all, classic and gourmet — set his production above the rest. These flavors are especially suited to the non-conventional aperitivo known as aperigelato — in which Torcè's Italian ice is served not as dessert but as an accouterment to wine, beer and cocktails. So prepare your taste buds for gelato made from Gorgonzola, sweet bell peppers, Habanero chili, green tea, and even oyster and smoked salmon. These come served with veggie crudités, charcuterie, honey, nuts and even sushi. Purists can still get incredible mainstream flavors, among which stellar hazelnut, Zabione and pistachio. • Il Gelato Bistrò (no website). Open daily 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. | Circonvallazione Trionfale, 11. Tel. +39. 06.3972.5949.
Dei Gracchi Only seasonal fruits and ingredients are used in this artisan gelateria (no preservatives, additives or shortcuts). The gelato is churned daily, displayed in beautiful vats with daily production always includes non-dairy and gluten-free gelato. Favorite flavors are Cubano, chocolate with rum, apple-cinnamon, pistachio-meringue, white chocolate with walnuts, and fresh seasonal fruits, among which superb peach, wild strawberry and cantaloupe melon. • Dei Gracchi Open daily noon to midnight. | Via dei Gracchi, 272. Tel. +39.06.321.6668.
The Perfect Bun
The Perfect Bun is a refreshingly authentic take on American cuisine, which in Rome is so often represented by frozen wings and flat and lifeless burgers. The restaurant has ousted sleek Italian Bistro CO2 from its prime location at Largo del Teatro Valle and kept the classy, modern interior.
The menu is inspired by traditional diner fare and peppered with Tex-Mex dishes including a mean grilled chicken quesadilla. Salsa and guacamole are made fresh. Hamburgers and cheeseburgers are thick and juicy and come served with all the trimmings (including grilled onions!) on the promised perfectly round bun. Onion rings, fries, chicken wings, and chicken fingers are deepfried to clean, crisp.
Desserts are made in-house, and include the classics you just can't get anywhere else: a real cheesecake, cupcakes, and chocolate chip and sugar cookies.
The wine and cocktail list are comprehensive and service is appropriately American-style smiley. Nostalgia comes at a price. Expect to spend about €40 a head. Daily 6.30 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday Brunch. — Annie Shapero
Excellent traditional trattoria with excellent Bolognese cuisine. Very popular with locals. Nice atmosphere and good service. Dinner reservations required. Lots of nearby bars and enoteche. Open: 12-2:30 p.m. and 8-10:15 p.m. — David R. Deropolous
Founded in 1953, this is the kind of simple noisy trattoria that one hopes will never change. Near the Central Market they still buy from the same vendor families that served their grandparents. Now run by Mario Colzi’s sons Fabio and Romeo, count on good traditional Tuscan fare and interesting company at the table (they are communal). Vegetable soup is excellent, as is the olive oil — some locals buy their oil here it’s that good. Bistecca alla Fiorentina is their signature dish, plus 10 or so other main courses like duck, tripe, rabbit, or bollito misto (most range €5-12). Fish available only on Friday — try pasta with fresh tuna or shrimp, or grilled tuna with rosemary. Lunch only 12 p.m.-3:30. No reservations — prepare to wait (so democratic even Fabio’s wife has to get in line). House red wine, Chianti, is above average. — Judy Edelhoff