Romantic notions to the contrary, Rome has plenty of bad restaurants. And while you may know how to avoid the losers on your home turf (mauve walls, a kiddie menu), the semiotics of i ristoranti are not the same. Here’s what we’re looking for: charm, authenticity, local ingredients, moderate prices. Most Roman restaurants look perfect from the outside —but watch out for these telltale signs.

  1. Linen-free tables and paper napkins. Usually a bad sign for more than a snack. Italians love good linens, and most decent restaurants cover tables with two layers —a solid with a printed or damask topper.
  2. Restaurants where you hear more English than Italian.
  3. Laminated or otherwise permanent-looking menus affixed outside. Better choice: handwritten chalkboards featuring daily specials.
  4. Menus perfectly translated into English. Or translated into several languages. Not foolproof, but very bad translations can mean very good food.
  5. A limited selection of seasonal contorni (side dishes).
  6. American-sounding Italian dishes. Meatballs, tomato sauce, and pepperoni are red flags. French fries don’t count; they’re often served as a side with steak.
  7. Restaurants busy before 9 p.m. Real Italians dine late. The best places don’t rev up till 9 or 10.
  8. Lots of asterisk-marked dishes. An asterisk usually means the food is surgelati or congelati (frozen). Look for the note in small type at the bottom of the menu.
  9. No real kitchen. Certain sidewalk cafés around the major piazzas are fine for people-watching and snacks, but the food may be nuked or recently thawed. Asterisks abound.
  10. Any pizzeria without a forno a legno. A wood-burning oven is a must.

The Perfect Roman Restaurant

Cantina Cantarini is a tiny, family-owned restaurant in a quiet neighborhood. Monday through Wednesday it serves meat; Thursday through Saturday fish. Chef Luigi, who lives around the corner, has run the kitchen for 37 years.

Here’s why it fits the profile:

  • Small menu in the window in Italian, with bad English translation
  • Contorni are seasonal and inexpensive
  • Nearest tourist attraction is a 15-minute walk away (Trevi Fountain)
  • Tables filled with locals
  • English not spoken, though waiters know enough English to help
  • You can see the small but lively kitchen from your table
  • Cost for four courses, including a bottle of house wine: 35 euros per person

Cantina Cantarini
Piazza Sallustio, 12
00187 Rome, Italy
(011 39) 06/485528

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