My clients often ask me where to eat. Some ask before coming to Rome, per email; some ask after the tasting, which makes things complicated. Some have budget concerns, some want the recommendations to be in a certain area, some are interested in specific foods and yet others have dietary restrictions they need to watch out for. But without an exception, what all of them ask for is a restaurant that is not touristy. Some mean this to be “not catering completely to tourists” and some would rather they are the only tourist in the place.
I get it, I really do. When I am traveling, I do not want to sit immersed in a sea of other travelers either - restaurants that cater only to tourists (whether by choice or by circumstances) sooner or later end up serving a certain type of global cuisine, maybe a bastardized, dumbed down, rounded-off version of the local food or an uninformed and unsuccessful version of a foreign one. For a long time I also followed the misleading guideline of following the locals, thinking where locals eat will be the best food. Trust me when I tell you: it ain’t so, almost nowhere and definitely not in Rome.
Let me give you some facts*: Rome has a population of 2,7 million. There are about 12 million tourists to Rome every year, about 8,5 of this foreign. Only about a quarter of Italians go out to dine at least once a month. Half of this is to a pizzeria. The money Italians are spending on eating out is constantly decreasing. (Indirectly related, the money Italians are spending on food in general is constantly decreasing, too). For most Italians eating out is a matter of convenience that needs to remain cheap. They do not expect great food, they want it to be something they recognize and acceptably well-cooked. Most Italians believe food cooked at home is the best (though the increasing consumption of cheap and processed food products belies this to be objectively true, that is a discussion for an other day).
So when you ask me where to eat, my criteria is first of all the quality of the food. I will then consider your budget, area, special interest and dietary restrictions as well as availability of the venue. The number of tourists frequenting the restaurant will not be a criteria. I will not send you to the restaurant by the Spanish Steps that only sees tourists, where they overcook their pasta, add cream to their carbonara, offer salmon dishes and artichokes in July because that is what the clients ask; but I will send you to the restaurant where I had dinner last week, although every single other diner around me was a tourist, and although I will not go back**, the food was good, actually very good. That is an extreme case, sure, but most places where I send you, there will be a couple of other tables with tourists. It is just statistically not possible for it to be otherwise, especially in the era of the internet. When you see them, smile, give a little nod acknowledging how lucky you both are to find a restaurant in Rome that has great food, and then enjoy your dinner.
If you really want to be the only tourist in a restaurant, looking at the above facts-paragraph, I’ll need to send you to a pizzeria in Tor Bella Monaca neighborhood of Rome, where you’ll need to take 3 buses and a train, traveling over 15k from the Pantheon in the center, taking about 1,5 hours. You can have a pizza for 5 Euros there, it will be rapidly leavened, with tomato sauce from China and an industrial cheese-like substance on it, will give you heartburn all night and make you drink a gallon of water. I just checked the reviews, they are in Italian, English, Spanish and Russian. I guess it is a unicorn, the restaurant in Rome that never has tourists.
*: I want this post to be easily read, understood and remembered. I looked for the newest numbers, which are not always from the last year. I rounded the numbers. There is no precision in my numbers. But they do the job. I have sources for all of them.
**: The owners were so set in their ways, their explanation of dishes perfunctory, the wines they recommend catering to a perceived global taste, although the ingredients and execution of the dishes was very good and the cellar had some very nice wines. I presume this way of dealing with guests is born out of their dealings with tourists who do not care if they use pancetta or guanciale for the pasta dish or where the artichokes come from, i can really see how the best intentions can be ground-down in the daily struggle.