For a traditional trattoria or osteria in a city like Rome, a great location can be a killer. Rents rise quickly near famous landmarks and on picturesque piazzas, and the temptation to abandon locals and appeal to the packs of tourists grows. Familiar neighborhood mom-and-pop eateries are usually left with two ways to cope. Some, like Armando al Pantheon, up their game and emerge more polished and sophisticated. Others evolve into caricatures of their former selves.
But take a detour into the right neighborhood — sometimes a few steps down a side street are enough — and it’s possible to stumble upon a neighborhood trattoria run by the same family for generations, still using classic, time-tested recipes.
These places — unpretentious trattorie and osterie (the line between the two styles of casual restaurant has all but vanished) — occupy a nostalgic middle ground between a bustling pizzeria and the refined delights of a restaurant. The door creaks when it opens. The tables and chairs don’t match. Faded photos of family members and long-time patrons hang on walls. And from the kitchen there is a heady, comforting, piquant smell of garlic, herbs, and olive oil used to flavor and soften undesirable cuts of meat or entrails and rustic vegetables pricier places would refuse.
“We really only have five primi and five secondi,” said 52-year-old Cristina Pernasetti, the gregarious matriarch of Da Oio a Casa Mia, a signature eatery in Testaccio, a neighborhood rich in classic Roman food. The facade to Da Oio a Casa Mia is so nondescript that I advise friends to count three city blocks from the nearest stop light rather than trying to spot the name above the door. The interior is like a movie set, with checkered tablecloths, ceramic plates on the walls, and a crowded bar.
The doors of Enoteca Corsi open onto a small side street between the Pantheon and the Forum, two of Rome’s most popular attractions.
“I think it’s been good luck for us to be hidden away a little because it’s allowed us to resist thinking we’re a big deal,” said Fabrizio Corsi, 77, the enoteca’s gruff co-owner. The locale started out as a wine shop in 1929 and moved to its current location, a former post office, six years later. It is divided into two parts, the more charming of which looks like a temple to wine, with thousands of bottles on display. Corsi said he takes pride in the fact that on any given day his clientele might include nobility, politicians, celebrities, and laborers.
The 19th-century French writer and philosopher Stendhal was an enthusiastic visitor to the Eternal City, where he sometimes stayed around the corner from modern-day Enoteca Corsi, on Piazza della Minerva. His references to Rome abound with descriptions of shared tables, easy conversation, and simple, hearty, and flavorful food. Despite the Vatican casting its shadow over the city, Stendhal once marveled: “In Rome there are more taverns than churches!”
That’s no longer true. It seems like every year, one or two of Rome’s old-style trattorie and osterie either closes its doors, loses its way, or reinvents itself. But one of the benefits of that trend is that the places that endure are usually the most genuine reflections of the neighborhoods that host them.
Rosanna Borrelli, 79, is a former housewife from San Lorenzo, near Sapienza University of Rome, opened by the Vatican in 1303. In Borrelli’s youth, she was known for her cooking, and in 1989, after the death of her husband, an electrician, two family friends approached her about starting a trattoria. The result? Tram Tram opened its doors two years later in a building that since the 1930s had housed a tavern — the name of previous occupant Bottiglieria Ramponcino is chiseled into the architrave outside. The trattoria’s name is an homage to the city trams that still rumble by at regular intervals, and vintage seats and luggage racks from a decommissioned tram partly furnish the space.
Borrelli is one of three generations working together at Tram Tram, along with daughters Antonella and Fabiola and grandson Gianluca. One evening, 21-year-old Gianluca pointed to a framed photo of his mother, aunt, and grandmother hanging on the wall only a step or two from where it was taken: “My mother was pregnant with me in this photo,” he said proudly.
Tram Tram’s menu is a compelling mix of traditional Roman dishes with a few seafood offerings from Puglia, in southern Italy, where Borrelli’s parents were born. Even approaching her 80th birthday, Borrelli works most days, though she cut back on her hours a few years ago on her doctor’s advice. Ducking into the kitchen now and then to check on the progress of a fig crostata, she said she has no plans to cut back further.
“If I like what I’m doing and the customers are happy, why would I stop?” she asked.
Ar Grottino der Traslocatore is in Garbatella, a neighborhood built on the cusp of Rome’s historic center during the city’s post-World War I development boom. It has such a Roman-sounding name — in the local dialect, the “l” in a word like “al” or “del” becomes an “r,” and the sounds are shouted rather than spoken — that Italians from other parts of the country chuckle when they hear it. Roughly translated, the name means “In the Moving Company’s Little Grotto.”
Outside, the lone sign visible from the street reads simply, “Trattoria Romana.” Two or three steps away is a small staircase that leads down into the “Little Grotto” of the 1924 structure, complete with shiny tiled walls, red-and-white tablecloths, and wrought-iron shelving, bearing olive oil and wine, that lines the arched ceiling. Food is passed from the kitchen through a small window. Until 10 years ago, the trattoria was so Roman it listed its offerings on a listino di prezzi — price list — because the word “menu” comes from French.
Chiara Broccucci, 30, who runs Ar Grottino together with her sister, Francesca, and father, Franco (he’s the former mover who gave the place its name), is passionate about the trattoria’s place in neighborhood’s history. I asked her what dish she’d recommend to a first-time visitor, and she rattled off three or four ideas before settling on coda alla vaccinara, a canonical Roman oxtail stew. “Get me talking about coda and it’s like the pope talking about St. Peter,” she said.
Chiara’s grandparents, Benito and Marisa, founded Ar Grottino back in 1967. It hasn’t changed much since then, and she said that, if it were up to her, it would remain more or less unchanged until her children or maybe her grandchildren were running things. But when pressed, she did admit there was one modern concession the family was considering.
“Well,” she said, “we are talking about putting in Wi-Fi.”
For more about trattorias, watch this video.
Eric J. Lyman is a sommelier, former chef, and Rome-based freelancer focusing on current affairs, features, and commentary.