‘How do you cope with the tourists?” is a question that you get used to when living in Rome. But the truth is, for most of my time there, I hardly saw them. My first apartment was a stone’s throw from the Vatican, which meant that the local shops all sold rosary beads and holy water rather than bread and milk. But after learning that lesson, I quickly abandoned the centre in favour of the city’s more lively, and liveable, neighbourhoods.
In that sense, I’ve always seen Rome as two places. One is a spectacle that millions visit every year, with its monuments and crowds and cobbled streets, and the other is a city where the paint is peeling and the bins overflow, but also where you’ll find the best restaurants, the only bars worth drinking in and crucially, all but the richest of Romans.
The Colosseum is a wonder; and, even after walking past a Bernini fountain a thousand times, it still leaves me speechless. But they’re only a small part of this incredible city’s identity. Contemporary romanità, to borrow a word from Italian, is to be found in the messy, modern sprawl to the fringes of the famous sites, and the contrast to be found there is the perfect antidote to downtown’s mire of guided groups, selfie sticks, and gladiators clad in plastic armour.
L’Oasi della Birra
This bar has one of the best beer selections in the city but, as it’s part of a wine shop, there are also plenty of options for those who prefer the grape to the grain. The bar has seating outside facing a lively piazza but most regulars sit indoors because they mainly come for the aperitivo buffet, which is enormous. All too often in Italy, these consist of limp pasta in lifeless sauces or various forms of flavourless bread, with a focus on quantity rather than quality, but at L’Oasi della Birra there’s a plethora of tasty snacks on offer, from fresh buffalo mozzarella and other cheeses to cured meats and baked dishes.
• Piazza Testaccio 38-41, Mon–Sat 8am-1am, Sun 6pm-1am, on Facebook
Mattatoio di Roma
Formerly an annex of Rome’s museum of contemporary art, Macro Testaccio, the Mattatoio di Roma is a large complex of refurbished buildings that was once Testaccio’s slaughterhouse. It offers a refreshingly contemporary alternative to the more obvious and ancient attractions that most people associate with the city. In keeping with the neighbourhood’s reputation for nightlife, it’s occasionally open until midnight when there’s a show on, so it’s a good way to squeeze in a little bit more culture. Exhibitions change regularly but the building alone is worth a visit and still boasts many of its original features, including animal pens and a system of meat hooks on overhead rails. Next door, La Città dell’Altra Economia regularly runs cultural events of its own, usually focused on sustainability and ecology, and is a good spot to grab a bite to eat or a drink.
• Piazza Orazio Giustiniani 4, opening hours vary, mattatoioroma.it
Al Ristoro degli Angeli
Garbatella is a leafy residential area just south of Ostiense, one of the city’s main stations. It’s popular with Romans for its distinctive architectural style, and for the abundant selection of places to eat among its warren of narrow streets (often made narrower by the local penchant for laissez-faire parking). Under an archway, just off a hectic piazza and across the road from the Teatro Palladium, Al Ristoro degli Angeli is, for me, the perfect neighbourhood restaurant.
It’s in an old Ente Comunale di Consumo (Municipal Consumer Body), a kind of state-run shop created in the 1940s and 50s to serve working-class areas and limit inflation, and the decor is a mix of mid-20th century furniture and curiosities, ranging from an antique pizza transporter to theatre memorabilia and a collection of Star Wars toys. The ever-present owners are a treat and the staff are always friendly, it has a lively atmosphere and is cosy and informal, but the quality of the food and the small but excellent selection of wine lends the experience a sense of occasion. The menu is a celebration of Roman classics, sometimes with the proprietor’s personal twist. That’s not something that’s done lightly in these parts, where recipes for regional staples are treated more as canon than guidelines, and changes usually result in heated debate. But here, the touch is light and in the case of the cacio e pepe, a rich pasta dish made with pecorino cheese and black pepper, the addition of a wafer made from melted cheese is a welcome flourish rather than a violation of tradition.
• Via Luigi Orlando 2, open for dinner only, closed Sunday, ristorodegliangeli.it
Casetta Rossa is part social centre, part restaurant, run by a group of activists from a small, single-storey red building – from which it gets its name – in a spacious garden covered by thick canopy of trees beside the Parco Cavallo Pazzo. It runs a wide range of cultural events, and is a popular destination for locals on summer evenings, when dining outside is as much a necessity as a pleasure. Expect an uncomplicated menu that changes seasonally and is based on local, fresh produce. Booking is strongly advised.
• Via Giovanni Battista Magnaghi 14, closed Monday, Sunday lunch only, casettarossa.org
Held at weekends in old industrial sheds just off the hectic via Ostiense, this vintage market is a treasure trove of Italian fashion. Unlike with a lot of secondhand shops, there’s very little tat on display, and while the old ball gowns may not be to everyone’s taste, you’re likely to trip over a pre-loved Fendi bag or two as you dash to that rack of uber-cool 1970s coats. And best of all, proceeds go to charity.
• Via del Porto Fluviale 2, Saturday 5pm–7pm, Sun 4.30pm–8pm, on Facebook
Rome’s non-Catholic cemetery has some illustrious residents, from Antonio Gramsci, one of the founding fathers of European communism, to Belinda Lee, a now almost forgotten English actress who was a huge film star in the 1950s. Most visitors come to see the poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley but there’s a wide selection of fascinating lives to ponder, including an African-American anti-slavery activist and an atomic physicist. The most impressive of all the cemetery’s memorials is known as the Angel of Grief and is the work of William Wetmore Story, an American sculptor who made the statue for his wife.
• Via Caio Cestio 6, Monday-Saturday 9am-5pm, Sunday and public holidays 9am-1pm, cemeteryrome.it
A visit to the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls is a good way to take in some papal splendour without the crowds or the queues of the Vatican. Constructed on the site where Saint Paul is said to have been buried following his decapitation, it’s the second-largest church in the city after Saint Peter’s. Parts of it were built by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century, though most of the current building dates from the mid-1800s, after a fire destroyed much of the building. Many of the internal treasures were saved and the result is a rich mix of contrasting styles that conveys the basilica’s long history.
Across the road, the kitchen at Trattoria Zampagna does much the same for the city’s culinary history. It’s the ideal place for a lazy lunch, with a reasonably priced menu full of old Roman reliables, served in large portions with a minimum of fuss. The carbonara and the bucatini all’amatriciana never fail to impress, and when in season the artichokes are a must. If a second course is in order, the coda alla vaccinara, slow-cooked oxtail with tomatoes and a large amount of celery, is about as Roman as it gets. According to local tradition, certain days bring special dishes, so expect handmade gnocchi on Thursdays, baccalà (salt cod) on Fridays and Roman-style tripe on Saturdays.
• Via Ostiense 179, on Facebook, closed Sundays
Flavio al Velavevodetto
The Quinto Quarto (Fifth Quarter) refers to offal, with which butchers were traditionally part paid for the animals they slaughtered. As a result, the cheap cuts play a huge role in Roman cooking. And Testaccio, just south across the Tiber from touristy Trastevere, is the spiritual home for such dishes: it used to be the city’s main meat processing district. The area has been at the heart of trade in Rome since ancient times, and the main hill around which it grew up, Monte Testaccio, is actually a spoil heap of broken amphorae – ceramic containers used to transport goods – from the time of Emperor Augustus onwards.
Flavio al Velavevodetto, one of Testaccio’s best restaurants, sits at the foot of that hill, just across the road from the crumbling ruins of AS Roma’s first stadium, and the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Back at the restaurant, some of the interior walls have been replaced with glass, allowing diners to ponder the age and origins of those neatly stacked clay pots, buried so many centuries ago. The main draw, however, is the food. Along with the classics, you’ll find sweetbreads, tongue, fettuccine with chicken giblets and a plate of rigatoni with pajata, the intestines of unweaned calves that still contain mother’s milk and produce a creamy sauce when cooked in a tomato base. The roasted rabbit cacciatora is also exceptional.
• Via di Monte Testaccio, 97, lunch 12.30pm-3.00pm, dinner 7.45pm-11.00pm, ristorantevelavevodetto.it
Felice a Testaccio
This is another favourite in Testaccio. Many swear that Da Felice’s cacio e pepe with tonnarelli (square spaghetti) is the best in the city, but if such a cheesy sauce isn’t your thing, don’t worry because there’s not a bad dish on the menu. For the more adventurous, pajata is also available, or rigatoni with an oxtail or slow-cooked lamb sauce. This restaurant has been around since 1936 and has a dedicated clientele, so book a day or two in advance.
• Via Mastro Giorgio 29, lunch 12.30pm-3pm, dinner 7pm-11.30pm, feliceatestaccio.it
This stylish cocktail bar run by two friends in the ground floor of a residential building has a great outdoor space for evening drinks in warmer months. The interior decor is full-on hipster, and as such could really be in any big city these days, but the courtyard space, surrounded by old apartment blocks with faded paint and crumbling plasterwork, is typical Rome, making it a perfect option for anyone looking for an aperitivo with a local vibe, or late-night drinks. The cocktails are superb and there’s a small but excellent selection of food.
• Piazza Geremia Bonomelli, 9, Tues-Sat 6pm–2am, Sunday 10am–midnight, latteriagarbatella.com
BA, easyJet, Ryanair, Jet2, Alitalia, Jet2, Flybe and Vueling all fly to Rome from several UK airports from £38 one way.
Where to stay
Hotel Caravel in Garbatella is a design hotel with doubles from €65 room-only. B&B A Casa a Testaccio has doubles from €60 via booking.com.
See the sights
A new €18 Rome S.U.P.E.R. ticket allows access for seven days to seven sights, including the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Forum, plus a selection of previously off-limits attractions, such as the frescoed villas of Livia and Augustus, and the usually locked tiny Tempio di Romolo. Buy at coopculture.it.