A local friend organized a dinner last night at Agustarello in Testaccio. It's the sort of place the people who claim to prefer modest traditional places frequented by locals would love, except that our meal was awful. Involtini of beef filled with greens were watery -- as in, you had to press each bite down with your fork to squeeze out the water before eating, and the meat was mushy. My mezze maniche all'amatriciana were essentially tasteless, which is quite a feat. Franco's cavatelli in sugo di coda were blah, and of course he compared them unfavorably to the divine tonnarelli in sugo di coda served at Checchino. There was more. But the place is in a real neighborhood (though Testaccio is getting less real by the minute it seems), frequented by locals, and the menu passes for as traditional as can be (b-o-r-i-n-g) though the real Roman tradition is a lot more interesting. The service was unfriendly, the tables and chairs uncomfortable. We got the check immediately after the terrible involtini were cleared away and went for gelato, which is what you do in Rome after a bad restaurant to try to save the evening. When we got home we checked the SlowFood guide and saw that Agustarello was no longer listed, but I don't know how long ago it was dropped.
My point is not to trash a popular restaurant, even though my Roman husband and I found it appalling, but to provide an example of how locals can convince themselves that practically anything is good and are not always the best people to advise. Once again I would urge visitors not to be so quick to dismiss "fine dining" in favor of tradition. Assuming you can afford it, Agata Parisella's amatriciana at Agata e Romeo shows up Agustarello's €10 version for the ripoff it is. And finally, when in Rome, I say have fewer but better restaurant meals. The non-restaurant alternatives are many and good.