Rome: A Wine Lover's Guide
The cheat sheet to what's new in the old city.
Rome is nearly 3,000 years old, yet despite millennia of history, the city has never shaken its Bacchanalian propensities. In ancient times they were manifested in wine-fueled banqueting and lawless revelry. The city was covered with vineyards as part of the estates of the rich.
In the Rome of today, love of great wine, food and good times is on full display. Over the past 25 years, this city of 2.7 million residents has grown in confidence, wealth and sophistication. Increasingly choosy Romans and culinary-versed visitors demand new and improved restaurants, wine bars, wine institutions and education.
“More wine is sold in Rome than in any other part of Italy and as the country’s biggest wine parket, it offers the most diverse selection of varieties and styles from all regions of the peninsula,” says Claudio Arcioni, president of the Arte dei Vinattieri association of wine shops. No Italian city can match Rome for the density of enoteche.
Unlike Florence, Turin and Verona, which are immediately associated with the excellence of their nearby wine zones—Chianti, Barolo and Valpolicella, respectively—Rome occupies a region that is largely ignored from a wine point of view. The region of Lazio does have pockets of innovation in the Castelli Romani, some 20 miles south of Rome, where historic wineries such as Fontana Candida are based; also at the Casale del Giglio winery 40 minutes from Rome with its excellent Mater Matuta, an 85-15 Syrah-Petit Verdot blend; and at Falesco with its Linea Lazio wines. Otherwise, there’s little wine news to report from Lazio.
Fortuitously, Rome’s wine-neutral status means that you can find that obscure bottle of Gravner Ribolla aged in amphora instead of oak, or taste a passito dessert wine from the most remote corner of Pantelleria island with a simple nod (or stern holler) to the waiter. Sometimes, it is easier to find a regional wine in Rome than it is in its place of origin.
FACCIAMO IL VINO GUSTO
Options for tasting wine and taking culinary classes abound in the eternal city. An important wine-and-food center is Gambero Rosso’s Città del Gusto (City of Taste), located in an 86,000 square-foot warehouse in the Marconi neighborhood. Visitors can watch top Italian chefs perform their culinary arts, or attend a wine workshop and a cooking school for amateurs and professionals.
Don’t miss a trip to the massive Eataly recently opened in the abandoned Ostiense air terminal on the south side of the city. The food halls on the second and third floors showcase oven-baked pizza, fried rice balls and an artisanal brewery.
The Rome International Wine School hosts tastings, dinners and classes as well as full courses and wine trips. Another popular Rome-based wine institution is the Italian Association of Sommeliers or A.I.S., located in the Rome Cavalieri Hilton. It boasts a full calendar of wine events throughout the year. For more informal wine tastings, visit Enoteca Costantini on Piazza Cavour. One of Rome’s oldest and most celebrated wine bars, it also hosts wine courses.
In Rome, where traditional eateries cohabit with modern, innovative restaurants, the visitor is encouraged to try thefull spectrum, with this caveat: Rome’s culinary specialties are not for the faint of heart. Many recipes come from a poor people’s tradition in which fresh meat and prime cuts were not often available. In its place are macabre meals, usually consisting of the discarded parts of animals, deep-fried or smothered in sauce and generally beyond visual recognition. It is known as cucina di quinto quarto, or “fifth quarter” cuisine because the poorest quality of meat was given to butchers to round off their pay and they in turn sold it to the neighborhood osterie.
Among the favorites are cervello fritto (golf-ball sized fried lamb brain patties), trippa alla romana (slices of calf intestines in tomato sauce), lingua di vitella in salsa piccante (veal tongue in a spicy sauce) and coda alla vaccinara (stewed ox tail). All-time favorites are pasta dishes made with cubes of guanciale (bacon that comes from the pig’s cheek) and topped with Pecorino Romano cheese. Two examples are bucatini all’amatriciana (red sauce) and spaghetti alla gricia (white sauce). Some of the city’s most refined traditional dishes come from Rome’s Jewish ghetto. The carciofo alla giudia, or crispy fried artichoke, is delightful.
Until recently, these Roman specialties were safeguarded by tight tradition. Much changed when German chef Heinz Beck came to town in 1994. His three-star Michelin rating opened the way for celebrity chefs and innovative techniques in Rome. Beck runs the kitchen at La Pergola, still considered Rome’s best restaurant, and he remains one of the most influential gastronomic figures in the capital and the nation.
Rome has plenty of traditional osterie, but now it also has restaurants like La Rosetta with seafood specialist Massimo Riccioli and the Osteria di San Cesario with chef Anna Dente.
Whether you go for the choice cuts or the quinto quarto, Rome’s food and wine scene promises variation, sophistication, tradition and enormous personality.
Rome's culinary specialties are not for the faint of heart. Many recipes come from a poor peopl's tradition in which fresh meat and prime cuts were not always available.
The Restaurants of Rome
The restaurants listed below represent the winners of an informal poll conducted to identify Rome’s best wine and food venues. Questionnaires were sent to 27 wine agents and distributors who operate in the capital on behalf of major wineries selling wines for estates such as Donnafugata, Marchesi Mazzei and Castello Banfi.
BEST OVERALL FOOD AND WINE EXPERIENCE
Agata e Romeo: This husband-and-wife team concentrates on modern-traditional dishes such as zucchini flowers stuffed with herb-infused ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano and saffron.
Cesare al Casaletto: Located in the Monteverde neighborhood, this excellent but informal trattoria serves some of the best cuisine in the capital. The wine list emphasizes Lazio and central Italy (no Web site).
Il Convivio: Angelo Troiani deconstructs traditional recipes with extreme technical precision to underline the quality of his primary ingredients. A 150-page wine book lists 2,500 bottles.
Il Pagliaccio: At the heart of central Rome, colorful, romantic decor sets the stage for a gourmet meal combining Italian and Asian flavors. Chef Anthony Genovese has traveled the world, and brings his experiences back to the table.
La Pergola (Editor's Pick): Voted number one restaurant in Rome, year after year. Chef Heinz Beck blends technical expertise with a deep consideration of flavor and texture. A fine selection of wine is presented with the tasters’ menu or from the extensive international cellar. Not only Rome’s best food, but also its best views.
“ANNAMO A MAGNÀ” (“LET’S EAT”)
Of what does the happy life consist,
My dear friend Julius? Here is a list:
Plain food, a table simply set,
Nights sober but wine-freed from fret,
A wife who’s true to you and yet
No prude in bed, and sleep so sound
It makes the day come quickly round.
—Martial, 1st century Roman Poet
RESTAURANTS THAT OFFER THE BEST TRADITIONAL ROMAN CUISINE
CHECCO ER CARETTIERE: Located at the heart of the bohemian Trastevere neighborhood, this eatery’s black and white portraits of Dolce Vita movie stars accent authentic Roman cooking.
MATRICIANELLA: All the Roman classics can be had here. Owner Grazie Lo Bianco takes great pride in her 700-bottle wine selection.
OSTERIA DI SAN CESARIO: About one hour by car from the center of Rome, but well worth the wait in Roman traffic. Chef Anna Dente’s family runs the local butcher shop and in 1995, they opened what many consider to be Rome’s best traditional food restaurant.
TRATTORIA SORA LELLA: You can count on excellent home-cooked Roman fare at this upmarket trattoria located on Tiber Island.
RESTAURANTS THAT OFFER THE BEST VIEWS OF ROME
IL PALAZZETTO RESTAURANT & WINE BAR: A stunning view of the Spanish Steps. Italian fare with a traditional Roman accent and a 400-bottle Italian wine list.
RELAIS PICASSO/BRAMANTE TERRACE/ROOF GARDEN: On the top floor of the Hotel Raphael near Piazza Navona. Request the Terrace or Roof Garden in suitable weather; they put the curvaceous dome-filled Roman skyline right before your eyes.
BEST WINE BARS
CASA BLEVE (Editor's Pick): A Roman lunchtime institution where politicians and office workers mingle over excellent Roman cuisine and local wines. Great for fast lunches or at cocktail hour.
PALATIUM: Lazio’s official “enoteca regionale.” Lazio wines and food products can be sampled at the downstairs wine bar or upstairs restaurant (no Web site).
ROSCIOLI: What was once a neighborhood bread bakery has been transformed into an extremely fashionable wine bar with topnotch food (no Web site).
SETTEMBRINI: Excellent wine and food in the trendy Prati neighborhood.