Restaurants in Rome: Dining in Valentino’s Rome

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2009/Jan. 2010 issue of Dream of ItalyUpdated 2018.

As with any film production, there were moments of extreme difficulty during the making of my recent documentary, Valentino: The Last Emperor (now available on DVD). Principal photography on the movie took place in 2007 and 2008, and, for those twenty-four months, my crew and I shadowed the maestro of Italian high fashion at work and at play, mostly in Europe, where Valentino has homes in Italy, Switzerland and England. The city in which we spent the most time was Rome, where Valentino, until his retirement in July of 2008, had his fashion house and main residence.

Valentino was a challenging subject for a filmmaker. He is a perfectionist with very high standards, and very little patience for anyone’s agenda but his own. Though he had agreed to be the star of my movie, I am quite sure that he did not know how challenging a film shoot can be when he agreed to take the starring role. Film shoots go haywire: there are moments of frustration as equipment misbehaves. There are soundmen, and P.A.s and grips and producers and wires and cables and scuffed metal cases laying about.

All of this chaos imposed on the designer’s otherwise very ordered and aesthetically correct world caused more than a few meltdowns. The star, on more than one occasion, quit the movie, which was rather inconvenient, as tens of thousands of dollars were being spent on every shoot. Even in the final cut, you can see Valentino furiously declaring his departure from the set.

I am often asked if the stress got to me, and, if so, how I dealt with it. My usual answer is, “downward dog.” I intensified my yoga practice during this time.

But the real answer is that, as long as we were filming in Rome, which was the majority of the time, I was fine. The film crew was always relieved when things went wrong in Rome, because I was always in a Zen-like state of calm. As my producer, Matt Kapp, frequently said to me, “There is no explaining how much you love this city. You are a different person here.” I like to think I am relatively even-tempered no matter where I am, but something about Rome fascinates me endlessly, and also amuses and sooths me.

I can occupy myself in any Roman street at any time of day or night, staring at the pattern of the blue-gray paving stones, or inspecting the elegant font used for the signs above the stores, or giving myself an Italian spelling lesson, looking at the ubiquitous professional nameplates: “Psicologo,”Ortodontista,” “Veterinario.” Then there is the endless parade of Roman characters: elegantly suited business men with their carefully knotted ties, the street sweeper in his stylishly worn coveralls, the gaggle of nuns, the pair of priests, the grandma in her cardigan and sensible shoes, the elegantly uniformed Carabinieri. It is all “Felliniano,” as the Italians say.

On a typical day when I saw my movie melting down around me, I would suggest to Fred Tcheng, the co-producer of the film, that we take a walk from the fashion house, next to the Piazza di Spagna, across town, to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, where the crew apartment was located. Along the way, we would stop in a bar for aperitivo, and, further along the route, stop for dinner in a ristorante or a trattoria.

Frequently we summoned friends to join us. By the end of aperitivo, during which we compared notes on the day and planned for the following day, I was cured of any frustration. Almost every night, perhaps while passing the lit Pantheon or the white wedding cake Vittorioano monument in the Piazza Venezia, I said to myself, “Even if this movie goes down the drain tomorrow, I will have gotten to live in Rome.”

Either you get it or you don’t. There are some people who are passionate about Florence and don’t want to confront the chaos and absurdity of Rome. You can’t talk these people into loving the capital, with all its contradictions: staggeringly unattractive sprawl on its outskirts, frustrating traffic, a somewhat provincial population, all counterweighted by breathtaking architecture in the centro storico, exquisite walking streets, and examples of bella figura decorating each cafe, restaurant and piazza. (The rough equivalent in the U.S. might be the lover of Los Angeles vs. the lover of San Francisco.)

There is not enough space here to elaborate on the architecture of Rome, or to explain how to best gorge on Bernini or Caravaggio masterpieces, or to systematically cover the joys of particular neighborhoods. I love them all, from sublime to brutishly, Fascistically ugly. I am going to, instead, focus on the food, which, in any event, is the organizing theme of any Italian’s existence.

When friends ask me for touring advice for Rome, I simply tell them to divide the day in two, pick a place for lunch, and a place for dinner, and walk to and from each. Get lost on the way and take in what you stumble upon. Any attempt to sightsee in an over-organized way (especially in a taxi) kills the joy of the Roman experience: The discovery of the infinite layers of detail as street gives on to a piazza, piazza gives on to another street, and so on. If you hit a Caravaggio church along the way (and it’s actually open), all the better.

In each of these piazzas and streets are restaurants, trattorias, pizzerias, biererrias, bars, gelaterias, and various other food places. There is a certain inscrutability to Rome that sometimes makes it hard for the untrained eye to zero in on the finer establishment. The first rule for determining what place to chose is that the more simple or more antiquated the eating place, the better it will be.

“Rome,” as a rich and sophisticated Roman put it to me, “is not fancy.” Romans don’t care what the interior of a restaurant looks (the indifferent deployment of florescent bulbs takes some getting used to) if they know the food is going to be good, and no Italian will willingly eat bad food in his own city, or country, for that matter.

Before I start to dole out recommendations, I will volunteer the answer to a question I am frequently asked: Where does Valentino like to eat in Rome? The truth is that Valentino rarely goes out in Rome, and prefers to eat at home. This is for a very good reason: He has a great chef. There are very few homes in the world with a better kitchen than Valentino’s, and fewer still where the linens, the china and the table decorations are so carefully considered. Every meal is served with white gloves (even when the maestro dines alone), and there are always, in the proper Italian manner, four courses: antipasto, primo piatto (usually pasta or risotto at his table), secondo piatto, and then dolce (Valentino eats dessert with every meal, whereas most Italians end lunch and dinner with fruit).

I have dined out with Valentino several times in Rome, and it has almost invariably been at the venerable Dal Bolognese (39-06-3611426), in the Piazza del Popolo. It is easily the most elegant and glamorous restaurant in Rome, and it is precisely the place where you would expect to find Valentino, seated in the downstairs dining room, next to one of the windows.

If you are led upstairs, you should be insulted, as that is reserved for tourists. But it would probably be fruitless to complain. Dal Bolognese is an excellent restaurant, and one of the few in Rome with any pretense at all. In this way it is more like the well-heeled restaurants in Paris, which have a way of systematically making strangers from foreign lands feel like worthless serfs.

The other Roman restaurant in which I have dined with Valentino is Al Moro (Vicolo delle Bollette, near the Trevi Fountain; 39-06- 6783495), which was also a haunt of Fellini‘s. This is virtually a private dining club in some respects, once the refectory of the intellectuals, artists and powerful businessmen, now a hybrid Star Chamber and tourist haunt. Those from the dwindling old guard who still go to Al Moro are seated in the front room. If you make it into the second room, you are still being smiled upon. The third room: Siberia.

Al Moro’s décor is unchanged since at least the ’50s, and the food is Roman to the core. (Fellini cast the late owner as Trimalchio in Fellini’s Satyricon.) Valentino would not order the specialty, spaghetti al Moro (a form of carbonara with red pepper instead of black), but I would strongly suggest you do have this. The specialties of the season are laid out on a table in the front room. If you order based on these raw materials (say, a basket of porcini or fava beans), you cannot go wrong.

Dal Bolognese and Al Moro more or less complete the list of old-line Roman restaurants (at least outside of hotels) with any hauteur that is to be taken seriously. They are both gems from the golden era of modern Rome. Sort of like Le Cirque and La Grenouille are to New York.

There is another strata of great Roman restaurants, however, where the food is just as good, and the more free-wheeling live-and-let-live ethos of the city prevails. These are the places I would navigate toward every night after our shoot days. They are really treasures, and many of them have been operating for generations, serving the very cultivated palates of the locals, who view the ritual of the shared meal with family and friends as sacrosanct.

A note on the cuisine of Rome: It is known for its literal gutsiness, a reliance on organ meats. Tripe, fried brains, livers. The cuisine is more refined in the north and directly to the south, in Naples. This is not to detract from Roman cooking, but there is not an equivalence to be drawn between Paris and Rome in this respect. Rome was a very poor city for centuries before it became the capital of Italy, and its cooking still reflects this on the level of ingredients. (Some trattorias hang signs in the windows to announce the days they serve tripe.)

The refinement of the humble Roman dishes, perfected over generations, is something to behold. Italians still eat seasonally, and it would be a mistake to order peas in the winter, if they are offered at all. Menus will tell you when items are frozen, as the respect for fresh foods in ingrained in the culture.

One of the greatest restaurants in Rome is a Tuscan restaurant, called Nino (Via Borgognona 11, near the Piazza di Spagna; 39-06-6795676) When La Dolce Vita was in full swing, Nino was packed with movie stars and socialites, along with the politicians and aristocrats who occupy the palaces in the tridente, between the Tiber and the Spanish Steps.) Nino was first recommended to me by Gore Vidal, who lived within walking distance of the Via Borgognona for decades. Gore would have the bistecca fiorentina and the Tuscan beans. There is also the carciofi alla romana, the vignarola (a dish based on fava beans and peas, native to Rome, made only in the spring), and the fritto misto, all Roman items.

As Nino is a short walk from the Valentino office, this became the canteen for the production, and the restaurant to which I headed when I was especially in need of cheering up after work. The room is the essence of Roman restaurant simplicity: wood paneled, bright sconces, and starched white tablecloths. The waiters, in their white coats, are perpetually on point. The manager of the establishment sits at a desk in the middle of the dining room, carefully adding the bills and watching over the till. (Very Roman!) When I return to Nino after absences of many months, I am greeted like a regular who lives in the neighborhood.

When Nino was in our lives for too many consecutive nights, we would walk a bit out our way to the Piazza Farnese and take a table at Ar Galletto (Piazza Farnese, 102; 39-06- 6861714), a venerable Roman trattoria that is a beloved open secret among the denizens of the Campo dei Fiori area. I cannot think of a better example of a typical Roman place, serving all of the dishes for which the city is famous. Spaghetti carbonara, bucatini all’Amatriciana, carciofi alla Romana, braised lamb and a cut of lamb chop called scottadito (burnt fingers).

Around the Pantheon is a fine restaurant called Da Fortunato al Pantheon (Via del Pantheon, 55; 39-06-6792788). Fortunato is frequented by Roman senators and important politicians, as it is the best restaurant closest to the Senate offices. It was slightly too stuffy to drop into with our camera bags and tripods, but it is impossible to go wrong in this restaurant. When you leave, you are steps from the Pantheon, and sprinting distance from Caffe Sant’ Eustachio, the greatest coffee bar in city.

Across the piazza of the Pantheon, called Piazza della Rotonda, there is a much less formal restaurant, called Armando al Pantheon (Salita de’ Crescenzi, 31; 39-06-68803034), which is very Roman, very good, and half the price of Da Fortunato. Armando proves the rule of Roman dining: soccer posters and idiosyncratic decoration are often the earmarks of a good restaurant.

Gino, a small trattoria tucked in to Vicolo Rossini, (about a 7-minute walk from the Pantheon; 39-06-6873434), which I heard about for years but could never find, is known by everyone who lives in the center of Rome, although it’s such an institution they often don’t even know the place has a name. Roman friends referred to it as “that really cheap place near the Parliament where everyone goes.”

When I finally found Gino, I was alone at lunch time. I took a table and read a newspaper. There was no menu, just some dishes of the day, which the waiter (who is the son of the late Cavaliere Gino) recited for me. By the end of lunch, I found myself having a second lunch at the staff and family table, where the chef was bringing out special dishes made from leftovers. They were extraordinary (especially a kind of beef and potato salad with green beans and chili peppers). The grand dame of the place and I bonded that afternoon, and now we have a very cordial relationship which has been ritualized with the delivery of shot glasses of amaro after each meal. Cavaliere Gino was from Abruzzo, so the amaro is also from Abruzzo.

Gino is one of the last of a vanishing breed of trattorias, which served the kind of food found in the typical Italian home. An authentic trattoria has no written menu, and the ordering process is often part of a conversation with a waiter who, if you live in the area, you know. Certain days of the week in Rome bring, inevitably, certain dishes: Thursday is gnocchi. Friday is baccala. Saturday: tripe.

Near the Piazza Barberini, with its exquisite Bernini sculpture of Neptune, is a well-known restaurant called Tulio (Via San Nicolo; 39-06-4745560). It’s a place favored by journalists and politicians, with a very buttoned-down interior, and very good Tuscan food and sea food. Even though the restaurant has a certain formality to it, there is no Al Moro-like sentencing to inferior rooms here. Sometimes I dropped in to Tulio unannounced and checked the cameras. As a rule, most Romans call ahead to reserve tables, often even at their neighborhood places. It’s a good idea to call in a reservation if it’s at all possible.

If for some reason the nightly walk across Rome could not take place, we consoled ourselves with a dinner at one of the restaurants in the area of Piazza Vittorio (this is the same market square where many sequences from The Bicycle Thief were filmed.) Off the piazza are a few neighborhood places that have survived the sea-changes of the area, technically called Esquilino (the Esqualine hill). This part of the city has gone from bourgeois to rough-and-tumble, and now is heading back toward bourgeois again.

Trattoria Morgana (Via Mecenate, 19; 39-06-4873122), which features lumache, snails, and Trattoria da Danilo (Via Petrarca, 13; 39-06-77200111), were our Piazza Vittorio standbys. The latter would submit to providing us with take-out, which is a concept not widely known in Rome. I hated to seem like the ugly American making brutta figura, demanding food to go, but they were nice about it, and sometimes we were too exhausted to sit down to a restaurant meal.

After dinner around Piazza Vittorio, we often headed to venerable Palazzo del Freddo (Via Principe Eugenio, 65; 39-06-4464740), an enormous ice cream parlor, which claims to be the oldest and largest gelateria in Italy. The current location has been a landmark in the area through good times and bad.

The ten restaurants listed here are only the beginning of a long list, discovered over the years, always on foot. Rome, which markets itself as eternal, mercifully does not change a lot. I have never returned to the city to find a restaurant has gone out of business. The good ones endure, though I fear for some of the trattorias, lest the mom and or pop pass on and the next generation should decide to abandon the business. This has been the pattern for the last 30 years.

I was very happy to live in Rome and make a movie about one of its icons. I would return to do it over again, even to relive the frustrations. Of all of the compliments I have received from viewers of Valentino: The Last Emperor, the one I have been happiest to hear is that the movie is a love letter to Rome. It was very much intended to be.

— Matt Tyrnauer  

Matt Tyrnauer is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and the director of Valentino: The Last Emperor.