Although I've been to Italy's capital many times, it was only until recently I figured out how to get the most out of this city eating and drinking wise. Obviously, you will want to steer clear of the super touristy zones such as Trevi fountain, the Spanish steps, the Colosseum/Forum and focus on the more authentic Roman quarters such as Trastevere, Testaccio, Ponte Milvio and the Jewish Ghetto on either side of the Tiber (Tevere) river. Here are some of my favorite places to drink and eat in Rome.
Thanks to Sici, Mario, Memfi and the lovely barista of Bgallery cafe for these great recommendations.
Checchino dal 1887 (Via di Monte Testaccio 30, Testaccio)
My first stop on my latest trip to Rome was Checchino dal 1887 with my friend Mario Farulla. Checchino has been family run since its inception, with the latest generation being headed by manager Simone Mina. Checchino is in fact the oldest restaurant of Rome still run by the same family.
Simone explained that Checchino was born in 1870 on Monte Testaccio (also called Monte dei cocci), an artificial mound in Rome made of testae (cocci in Italian), fragments of broken ancient Roman pottery. In the beginning, Checchino sold only wines, salumi and other uncooked goods. The restaurant was located in the cellar, the perfect spot for storing wines due to its nearly constant and cool temperature throughout the year. Then in 1887, the family obtained its first Osteria con cucina license, and took advantage of its proximity to the slaughterhouse which opened in 1890 and remained active until 1975.
Checchino became famous for serving the quinto quarto, which means the fifth quarter, the offal of butchered animals. Until modern day, the division of meat in Rome was made in the following way: the first quarto was sold to the rich nobles, the second for the clergy, the third for the Bourgeoisie and the fourth was for the soldiers. The lowest class proletariat could afford only the entrails, the quinto quarto.
The poorest workers at the slaughterhouse, the vaccinari (ancient term for butchers), were often paid with these leftovers, which they brought to the nearest eateries to cook up. This is exactly how the traditional cuisine of Checchino was born. This poor Roman style cooking has not only had influence on restaurants in Rome but has also sparked a new trend, a renaissance of "quinto quarto" trattorie including the iconic Trippa in Milano.
The highlight among the first courses is the Testaccio specialty Rigatoni with pajata, a savory sauce made with tomatoes, lamb intestines and a sprinkling of Pecorino. If you want something less extreme, opt for the well-made Carbonara.
One of Rome’s most historic dishes, the Coda alla Vaccinara (oxtail stewed in tomato sauce with celery, pine nuts and other ingredients) was invented at Checchino. Not surprisingly, this is their best dish, which takes over 6 hours to cook on a low flame. The meat is so tender, it melts in your mouth. Also, don't miss out on the great Roman cheeses and cured meats.
The service is impeccable at Checchino, with the elegant Simone clad in a flamboyant but elegant jacket and tie leading a group of white jacketed waiters. I was impressed with their wine serving ritual, which I've only seen a few times in Michelin-starred restaurants. In addition to a great selection wines (600!), you can choose from a wide range of grappas from Nonino to finish your meal. If you're lucky enough to experience Checchino with Farulla, you may be granted a tour of the historic cellar, including the tasting of some truly rare homemade liqueurs and amaros
But that's not all. As it turns out, Simone is a skilled bartender and happens to be the European brand ambassador for Botran rum. He has recently set up a bar counter upstairs to serve great rum, but also some interesting cocktails such as his long list of Martinis. Checchino is an absolute must visit not only for the food and drink, but to discover the history of the important Roman cuisine.
JERRY THOMAS Speakeasy (VICOLO CELLINI 30)
Why is Jerry Thomas Speakeasy in the world's 50 best bars? It's quite simple - this is the sexiest cocktail bar in the world. From the moment you make it past the mysterious but intimidating door ritual, this bar will blow you away with its beauty and charm. The wallpaper, the couches, the bar, the bathroom, the waitresses - everything here is eye candy. Gregory Camillò and the team work wonders in their cramped stations behind the bar. It’s always best to go with a classic or one of Jerry’s twists on classics, which in some cases are better than the original. Check out the House Martini or Improved Aviation.
Drink Kong (Piazza di S. Martino Ai Monti 8, MONTI)
Every moment I’ve spent with Patrick Pistolesi, whether it be judging the Jameson competition with him, or attending a unique Marian Beke guest shift in the world’s smallest bar, has been truly memorable. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the chance to visit one of his bars. After the Blue Blazer event in December, me and a few other cocktail journalists were lucky enough to be given a tour of his new bar project, Drink Kong.
Drink Kong is actually 4 bars in one. As you walk through the main doors, you enter the main room. The backbar is right in front of your eyes, which is designed to lure in the cocktail loner like myself and grab a seat up at the bar counter. If you’re on a date or with a group, check out the stunning lounge to the left of the main bar, with comfy chairs and spectacular lighting. If the party atmosphere in the main bar isn’t enough, head to the right to the Kong room, with a small stage for live rock and jazz music. Keep going deeper into the bar, as the best is yet to come. Behind stealth sliding Japanese doors is the Omakase room, a relaxing, reservation-only space designed for small groups, where you can best experience Patrick’s idea of mixology.
Pistolesi seeks to train novice and experienced drinkers alike on how to best understand the five basic tastes: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami. In this way, we can better interpret the elements that make up a cocktail, which will in turn aid us in choosing a drink best suited to our personal palate. The menu at Drink Kong helps the customer develop their instinct by only listing the spirit and the taste profile, but making no mention of the other ingredients. A visual stimulus is provided by the color of the page: for example, a guest who selects the drink on a green page is likely to prefer a lighter concoction, while someone who chooses red is looking for something bolder.
Regarding the drinks, they are stellar. My personal favorite is Fantasticus, the drink that looks like a Martini but tastes like a heavenly Daiquri. The cocktails are complemented by addictive bar food, whether it be classic Italian cold cuts, pastrami sandwiches chinese bao or dumplings.
Compliments to Patrick for creating something new, fresh, and most of all fun. Drink Kong and its series of contrasting yet harmonious rooms are something that must be experienced by the cocktail enthusiast.
Freni e Frizioni (Via del Politeama 4/6, Trastevere)
Every night out in Trastevere must end with a drink with Riccardo Rossi at Freni. You can't sit down at the bar, so for lone wolves like myself, you need to mingle with the other clients to truly appreciate this bar. But at Freni, this is by design. Everyone at Freni e Frizioni is here for a good time, including the friendly staff and bartenders.
Given the high volume nature of the bar, I expected a mediocre drinking experience but it was exactly the opposite. From the new menu, you can’t miss the Lupo Alberto (Alberto the Wolf), dedicated to the famous Italian comic book (and gummy candy). With vodka, Baijiu, blue curacao, passion fruit, lime and wild berries liqueur, it tastes just like the delicious candy that accompanies the drink! It’s sweet but tasty as fuck and it’ s no surprise that it’s the best seller at Freni. Is 2019 officially the year of blue cocktails?
Baccano (Via dell Muratte 23, Fontana di Trevi)
Despite the touristy location near the beautiful Fountain of Trevi, Baccano offers an authentic Italian food experience. A must try are the fresh oysters, followed by either the delicious Carbonara or Tagliatelle alla Bolognese. I suggest eating up at the bar, where the talented bar staff headed by Mario Farulla will make you a fantastic concoction to be enjoyed before, during or after your supper. Ask Mario about his "miscelazione estrema" (extreme mixing) art form and prepare to be amazed. My favorite drinks on the night were his Royal Negroni (Martini Bitter Riserva 30ml, Martini Rubino 30ml, Star Of Bombay 30ml, Regal oyster brine 2.5 ml, Bergamot & Bayleaf vaporized essence, Maldon salt dehydrated Grapefruit) and House Rob Roy (JW blue label 45 ml, Cocchi dopoteatro 30 ml, Fernet 10 ml, Luxardo cherry brine 2.5 ml, Luxardo maraschino cherry garnish). Joining Mario behind the bar is Alessio Giovannesi as head bartender. Try his Jungle Thai, a great Thai twist on the daiquri which is in the running for Bacardi Legacy.
On my most recent trip, I joined a memorable meal along with other bar flies Clinton Cawood, Le Cocktail Connoisseur, Drinks Enthusiast, The Cocktail Lovers, Babis Kaidalidis and Blue Blazer, which included a spectacular Risotto all’Acquerello with Barolo and ox cheek.
Barbershop speakeasy (Via Iside 2, Colosseum)
The Barbershop, just east of the Colosseum, is a sexy speakeasy located underneath a seemingly real barber shop. Walking down the tight stairway, your eyes will be drawn towards the most beautiful backbar in Rome, located at the end of the narrow rectangular underground room with an arched brick ceiling.
This is how a Roman speakeasy should look with vintage eye candy everywhere: comfortable sofas, chandeliers, candles, statues are among the details at Barbershop. The hip crowd is made up mostly of locals - unfortunately tourists, other than yours truly, have yet to really discover this magical drinking den.
Browsing through the beautiful menu, a massive book featuring signatures and classics, you will have a hard time selecting your first drink. I suggest asking for either bar manager Joy or the charming waitress Karin for guidance.
Head barkeep Federico is a pleasure to chat with up at the bar. The world traveler and all around nice guy made me one his drinks, La Plaka, with "Barber Scotch mix", sweet vermouth, Mastika liqueur and absinthe. It's a delightful meditation worthy Manhattan-style cocktail with complex peaty notes from the scotch.
La Punta (Via Santa Cecilia 8, Trastevere)
Thanks to a collaboration between the boys of Freni e Frizioni and Jerry Thomas, Rome now has an awesome bar specializing in Agave-based drinks. I stumbled upon La Punta accidentally, as it is located near one of my favorite parts of Trastevere, Piazza Santa Cecilia. Upon entering the brightly lit bar, my eyes were immediately drawn to the outdoor-style light bulbs running along the ceiling above the bar. La Punta feels like a high end Agaveria that you could find in Mexico city. The bar area is beautiful, with well lit bottle racks and a tiled bar counter.
My favorite cocktail at La Punta is the silky and smokey Mala Education with mezcal, grapefruit juice, rhubard, agave honey, habanero bitter and egg white. Amazingly, every drink I’ve had at La Punta was great, even if they were made by several different bartenders. This is a testament to depth of the bar team and the well-managed drinks program by Cristian Bugiada and Roberto Artusio.
Trapizzino (PIazzale Ponte Milvio 13, Ponte Milvio)
Trapizzino, which now was several locations around Rome to fill the high demand, specializes in trapizzini, which are triangular sandwiches made of pizza crust and filled with typical Roman specialties like Pollo alla cacciatora, Roman artichokes, Coda alla vaccinara (Roman oxtail stew) and meatballs. My favorite was the pollo alla cacciatora, followed by the meatballs with tomato sauce.
I Fritti de Sora Milvia (Via Cassia 4, Ponte Milvio)
For one of the best supplì in Rome, try Sora Milvia, 50 meters from Trapizzino in the Ponte Milvio quarter of rome. My favorite is the cacio e pepe followed by the amatriciana.
Roma Sparita (Piazza di Santa Cecilia 24, Trastevere)
It was thanks to Anthony Bourdain and his show No Reservations that I discovered the best cacio e pepe in the world. For me, their tagliolini cacio e pepe served a bowl of parmigiano reggiano is the best dish on the face of the planet. Roma Sparita also makes amazing puntarelle and carciofi alla Giudia. A must try when in Rome.
Pecorino (Via Galvani 64, Testaccio)
Thanks once again to Sici for directing me towards Ristorante Pecorino in Testaccio (Via Galvani 64). This family-owned restaurant and is frequented mainly by Romans, which is always a good sign. Run by an old Roman couple, Pecorino is a nice alternative to Da Felice, which is always packed.
Order the Fettucine alla Gricia, perhaps the best pasta alla gricia in Rome. If you want to break with tradition, try the gricia with fave (fava beans).
Da FELICE (Via Mastro Giorgio 29, TESTACCIO)
You will find the second best cacio e pepe in Rome at Felice in Testaccio. Here they are served with thicker tonnarelli which add more enjoyment to a dish traditionally served with spaghetti. You will be amazed as the waiter does the final mixing of the cacio e pepe in front of you (see video).
Sora Margherita (Piazza delle Cinque Scole 30, GHETTO)
Recommended by my good friend Cristina, this restaurant located somewhere in Rome serves one of the best artichokes alla Giudia. To avoid ruining the place, I was told to keep its name a secret. Sorry Cri. Upon entering, you aren't really sure if you entering a chinese laundromat or a restaurant. This place is cramped and always packed but that adds to its appeal. My favorite dish is the fettucine cacio e pepe. The fettucine are hand made in the restaurant and have a texture which is amazingly al dente. To experience heaven on earth, add ricotta to your cacio e pepe order (see below). I also highly recommend the agnolotti with ragù.