Food is one of the many reasons that visitors flock to Italy, enticed by the wealth of meats, cheeses, and vegetables that the Mediterranean diet has to offer. Yet, in major tourist destinations visitors without the proper tools can fall victim to overpriced, low-quality food that can ruin the ideal of what Italian cuisine can be. With a plethora of dining choices, how can one distinguish the good from the bad? We looked to the experts who lead our culinary tours in Rome to give some easy tips for helping you get the best out of your meals while in Rome. And while nothing is foolproof, paying attention to some of the mentioned rules can help narrow the margin for error when planning where to spend your money in Rome. Best of all? These rules don’t have to be just Rome, or Italy, specific. Most apply to cities around the world, so give them a try and let us know if they helped you make some savvy choices during your vacation.
1. Avoid dining near major tourist destinations
Our first tip is valid for almost any city worldwide, yet is always worth repeating. Stay away from eating at establishments close to a major monument or in a famous square. Even Roman tourists were shocked at the sticker price after dining in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, which goes to show that large bills can happen to anyone. Just remember that the prices on the menu are reflecting the prime real estate of the restaurant and to always read the fine print. Any surcharges that may sneak up on you? Remember, you are paying for that view and/or convenient pit stop. Generally speaking most restaurants located close to major monuments get such a high volume of hungry travelers that the quality of the cuisine is greatly diminished, though this is not always the case. One exception, Armando, is located around the corner from the Pantheon, yet is the location of our annotated dinner in Rome due to the quality of the cuisine.
2. Avoid restaurants with hawkers outside or tourist menus
Tourist menus that promise incredible deals, such €8 for a five-course meal, drinks included, should arouse suspicion. Taking into consideration the reality of food costs, one may suspect something is afoul, such as low grade ingredients or attempting to rid the kitchen of food that has probably exceeded its shelf life. Restaurants with pictures on their menus or signs are also to be avoided. Unlike Japan, where food displays and photos are the norm, restaurants with pictures typically cater to tourists exclusively, a sign that the food quality will be lower. Anyone who has visited Rome will also be familiar with staff situated outside, calling passersby to come inside for a meal. This is a typical give away of a restaurant to be avoided. In general, high quality establishments keep their clientele with their food and have no need to drive traffic from the streets.
3. Don’t leave home without an expert in your pocket
One of the joys of modern technology is the ability to access local experts quickly and efficiently via apps. Simply downloaded an app onto your smartphone before you depart gives a safety net when you arrive, ensuring that you’ll be with the most up to date, accurate information on the best eats in town. Some of our favorites for Rome? Katie Parla’s Rome and Eat Rome.
4. Avoid establishments without trusted recommendations
SlowFood and Gambero Rosso are two organizations that reward restaurants of quality. While both have guides one can purchase, it’s also as simple as looking for the organization’s sticker on the front door of the restaurant when you walk in. Both were founded in Italy, with SlowFood now a worldwide organization, and help diners recognize excellent cuisine. SlowFood in particular rewards restaurants with local, sustainable practices that connect with the community, while Gambero Rosso also runs a well-respected cooking school.
5. Avoid restaurants with out of season cuisine or dishes that are not really Italian
The classic Italian diet is all about seasonal cuisine and restaurants will typically be rotating their menus as the seasons change and new, fresh ingredients become available. A menu with out of season ingredients, such as mushrooms in July or strawberries in December, can be a sign that the restaurant is not up to the highest standard. Not sure what’s in season when? See this post on Parla Food for a succinct list. By the same token, it’s best to be suspicious of restaurants that claim to be classic Italian, yet have non-Italian dishes on the menu. That fettucine Alfredo you have been craving? It’s actually not a classic Italian dish, so if present on the menu is a sign that the proprietors are catering to the American palette instead of giving you the local Italian food you want.