Special To

ROME — Living in Rome I get a lot of visitors. When I first lived here, it became annoying, to the point where I considered hiring a bellman. I once had 13 houseguests at my place in 16 months. But, as an old high school classmate once told me, “John, if you didn’t want visitors, you should’ve moved to Milwaukee.”

Since then, my visitors are staying elsewhere but they all ask me the same question, like what’s the best ride at Disneyland? It’s: Recommend a good place to eat in Rome?
This is Rome. It’s like asking a Coloradoan where’s a good place to ski. I can not find a reliable source for a ballpark figure of how many restaurants, trattorias, osterias, pizzerias and enotecas with aperitivos are splattered all over the city. However, I can count on one hand how many bad meals I’ve had here. I had a bad pizza in my Testaccio neighborhood and one in the student neighborhood of San Lorenzo. I once had some bad pasta in Trastevere across the river.
That’s it.
Every place else has been high quality and reasonably priced with excellent service. That’s why blogging about my five favorite places to eat in Rome has taken longer than Barry Bonds’ old home run chase.
However, I felt it’s about time I made a list. I’ve lived here nearly three years. It’s nearly 4 1/2 if you count my first stint from 2001-03. I should be my friends’ No. 1 gastronomic source.
Cutting down to five required some ground rules. I ruled out pizzerias. In Rome, that’s a whole other category.  I also included nothing that’s listed in Lonely Planet. I trust Lonely Planet’s restaurant recommendations but I’ve walked on every path in Rome. The best restaurants are on the paths less beaten, even by LP.
Making it easier is including a disclaimer that these may not be the five best in Rome. They may not even be my five favorite if I went back to all of them with a more critical eye. I may have a whole new list in six months. The depth of restaurants in Rome is that good. But these are five of MY favorites and I’m secure in giving this list to anyone and insuring them that they’ll enjoy themselves. They also will not feel ripped off as I did in Denver on a trip this fall.
So cut this out. Put it on your refrigerator. When you’re hungry and out of food or have a hankering for Italian, don’t call Papa John’s. Get on the Internet and book a flight to Rome. The restaurants will make it worth it.
(The list is in alphabetical order. I tried ranking them and got too hungry to finish the list.)


Ar Galletto, Piazza Farnese 104, 06-686-5498,, 12:30-3 p.m., 7:30-11 p.m. The first thing I tell friends visiting is to avoid eating on the big piazzas. They’re ripoffs. They serve mass produced food for mass tourism with prices to match.

Ar Galletto is an exception. It is on Piazza Francese, my favorite piazza in Rome with the 16th century Palazzo Farnese serving as the French Embassy hovering over you. The piazza is one block off teeming Campo dei Fiori where barkers holding menus try luring you into said sub-par restaurants. 

Ar Galletto’s structure has been around since 1500 when it served as an inn for the Borgias, the Italian-Spanish family of nobles who became powerful during the Italian Renaissance. The romantic atmosphere alone makes Ar Galletto one of my favorites. Sitting outside in the huge piazza, with a giant fountain in the middle, you’re far enough from Campo dei Fiori’s noise to enjoy your privacy.

Ar Galletto has all the traditional Roman favorites at slightly higher prices than trattorias. Basics like pasta carbonara are 11 euros while more elaborate gnocci al limone e gamberoni (rice with lemon and prawns) are 16. Plus there are lots of seafood choices. Try an antipasto called pata negra: bruschetta with ham, honey and pine nuts.


La Fraschetta di Castel Sant’Angelo, Via del Banco di Santo Spirito 20, 06-6830-7661,, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. From cozy to chaos. La Fraschetta, on a small side street in Centro Storico, is a traditional Roman trattoria that takes Italian family style dining to party heights. It’s small and crowded and loud. Signs in Roman dialect adorn the red and yellow walls, a decorative ode to the owner’s obsession with his beloved A.S. Roma soccer team.

Dishes are served for groups to share on long picnic-like tables. Unlike “Italian family style” restaurants in the U.S., the quality of food remains as high as with individual servings. The spaghetti carbonara, perhaps the trademark Roman dish, is fantastic. So is the house wine which doesn’t taste nearly as cheap as the price.

Halfway through the evening, the staff starts singing traditional Roman songs. Don’t be afraid to clap along.


Enzo al 29, Via dei Vascellari 29, 06-581-2260, I pick this solely for one dish: pasta carbonara. It is Rome’s signature dish. Every trattoria carries it. Located on one of the most romantic streets in trendy Trastevere, tiny Enzo al 29 has the best carb I’ve ever had. They use guanciale (pig’s cheek) from Amatrice, the town devastated by the earthquake but still producing great food products; pecorino romano cheese from the Lazio countryside; organic eggs and black pepper from Sarawak in Malaysia. 

It’s creamy. It’s rich. It’s bitey. It reminds me of why carbonara is Romans’ favorite dish. And it’s only 10 euros.

It’s named after the previous owner who died in the ‘80s but was known for three things: his love for the A.S. Roma soccer team, his penchant for horse gambling and his friendly manner around the tables that the new owners have continued.
 Call ahead. Reservations are a must.


 Dishes are served for groups to share on long picnic-like tables. Unlike “Italian family style” restaurants in the U.S., the quality of food remains as high as with individual servings. The spaghetti carbonara, perhaps the trademark Roman dish, is fantastic. So is the house wine which doesn’t taste nearly as cheap as the price.
Halfway through the evening, the staff starts singing traditional Roman songs. Don’t be afraid to clap along.
Mamma Venerina, Via Giovanni Vitelleschi, 44-46-48, 06-9259-3537,, open 24 hours. This is the standby for my girlfriend, Marina and me, when we can’t decide where to eat and want to relax in subtle elegance. The white tablecloths and classy waiters in ties give this place near the Vatican a feel of old Rome. It’s where you think Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck will walk in at any minute.


The spaghetti with pancetta and mushroom sauce is my favorite, but first try one of its specialties: ravioli Mamma Venerina or the taglioni all’astice, round pasta similar to spaghetti with astice, a poor man’s lobster with bigger pincers. 

Come on a warm night for the great outdoor seating on a quiet side street in historic Borgo Pio. Don’t worry about reservations. It’s open 24 hours. 



Hostaria da Settimio, Via di Val Tellina 81, 06-5823-0701, noon-3 p.m., 7-11:30 p.m. Up in the leafy neighborhood of Monteverde, above Trastevere and away from tourists, this typical Roman trattoria is great for group outings. The menu is dotted with a variety of rigatoni and fettuccine dishes, plus my favorite, homemade pappardelle al cinghiale: flat, fat noodles in wild boar sauce. It sells for 7 euros. I paid $25 for this at Venice in Greenwood Village, the Denver suburb, and it wasn’t half as good. Start off with one of their signature suppli, fried rice balls filled with cheese. 

The prices are as big a selling point as the quality of the traditional Roman fare. No primo piatto(first course) is more than 8 euros; no secondo piatto is more than 12. 

Reservations are required. It’s always packed. But rein in your guests. The restaurant tries charging you for people who don’t show.


john-colosseum-closeup(John Henderson has been a brilliant sports and travel writer for most of his adult life, although some would claim he never has become an adult. On Jan. 10, 2014, he retired after 23 years at The Denver Post and moved back to Rome where he lived from 2001-03 as a freelance travel writer. During his Rome stint he also wrote a light-hearted book about starting a new life in a new country —  with a long-distance girlfriend — called “American Gladiator in Rome: Finding the Eternal Truth in the Infernal City.” Currently John writes a travel blog called Dog-Eared Passport ( that chronicles his life in Rome, and his travels around the world. In 2003, he was last seen in Rome kicking and screaming as The Denver Post dragged him back to the paper he first joined in 1990. In his second stint in Denver, however, he says he  had some of the best 10 years of his career.  He covered national college football, six Tours de France, swimming and soccer in the Summer Olympics and figure skating in the Winter Olympics. Don’t laugh. Figure skating got him to Russia three times. He also wrote a traveling food column called “”A Moveable Feast” based on John eating everything from caviar in Russia to fried insects in Cambodia. The insects are still preferable to the bacon cheeseburger at the Hooters in Tuscaloosa, Ala.) he covered the Colorado Buffaloes from 1990-95, the Denver Broncos from 1995-97, the Colorado Rockies in 1997 and Major League Baseball from 1998-2001. Henderson worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 1980-90 and the mercifully defunct Fournier Newspapers in suburban Seattle from 1979-80. He is a proud 1978 graduate of the University of Oregon,  which was just one mile from where he grew up in Eugene.)