Central Rome is packed with great trattorias and hosterias serving classic pastas like cacio e pepe (spaghetti with Pecorino cheese and black pepper) and bucatini all’amatriciana (in which the tomato sauce is amped with dried red chilies and cured pork jowl). I sampled too many cacio e pepe to count, and the best I found was at Maccheroni (Piazza delle Copelle 44), a brightly lit spot with an open kitchen, charming chef and pushy waiters on a well-trodden path between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. The walls are lined with wine bottles, including some great Chiantis and Super Tuscans. But beware, they often try to stick out-of-towners at the horrible tables in the hallway. Push back with “Are you kidding me?” and demand a seat in the middle of the action.
My favorite trattoria turned out to be the 20-seat Il Bacaro (Via Degli Spagnoli 27), a cramped, dark tavern around the corner from Sant’Agostino on an obscure street that’s far enough off the beaten track that tourists rarely wander in. In nice weather, several extra tables overtake the street, where speeding Vespas almost nick your chair. Start with shaved peaches layered atop smoked goose carpaccio, then attempt to finish a tall mound of spaghetti swirled with prawns and zucchini flowers.
Most sightseers stroll right past hole-in-the-wall Cesaretto (Via della Croce 39) because it looks like a dump, with 10 seats squeezed into a closet meant for six, plus a dozen folding chairs wobbling in the street. But the joint is packed with bespoke-clad men who probably work at Valentino up the block. The Margherita pizza is thin and blistered around the edges, and the Florence-style T-bone steak is fatty and excellent, dressed simply with salt and pepper.
For the best people-watching in Rome, nothing beats the ivy-covered Caffe della Pace (Via della Pace 3), a combination coffee shop, cocktail bar and trattoria that’s been drawing crowds since the 18th century and acts as a magnet for socialites, politicians and movie stars of all caliber. The shaved-to-order salumis are the best. The coffees, lethal. But if you’re not on a first-name basis with the staff, the only way to nab a good table is to arrive unfashionably early.