Piazza Navona is at the heart of Rome’s historical center and is arguably the most beautiful square in the city. A stadium during the Roman Empire, the long oval-shaped piazza today is a treasure for Baroque Roman architecture, and is best known for Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers and architect Borromini’s beautiful Sant’Agnese in Agone Church. To the east of the square is the Pantheon, while to the west is nestled a small quarter of winding cobblestone streets and colorful storefronts. By day, people stroll quietly in and out of clothing boutiques, art galleries, and antique shops on Via del Governo Vecchio and Via dei Coronari, while by night the streets transform with a bustling nightlife.
Where to dine? Where to wine? Rule number one: Get out of the square! (Don’t even think about eating there!) Instead, make your way to the vibrant scene behind Piazza Navona starting from the street Via di Sant’Agnese in Agone.
Let’s start with pizza. We’re in Italy – no need to be picky, right? Wrong! With a steady restaurant clientele of tourists (or one-timer Italians), you’ll find more pizzerias than we’d like to admit looking to cut corners in their preparation, which usually means an unnaturally leavened pizza dough that results in chewy and hard to digest crust. Fortunately there are still a lot of proud “pizzaioli” out there that don’t cheat, and we have a particular favorite near Piazza Navona. If you like the thick-crusted Neapolitan pizza, you must try La Focaccia, tucked away on Via della Pace right before the church, Santa Maria della Pace. This small restaurant makes big pizzas, so come with an appetite. It also has a supplì variant (a fried ball of rice with tomato sauce and mozzarella) with truffles…unexpected and delicious!
For no-frills Roman cuisine, keep following Via di Sant’Agnese in Agone (which becomes Via di Millina Tor) until you reach Piazza del Fico. Here, push through the crowds to Da Francesco. All the Roman pasta and meat classics are there, from tonnarelli cacio e pepe to saltimbocca alla Romana. The pasta is fresh, and rumor has it their pizza is good, too (Rome for the Holidays can’t vouch!). The portions are generous and the prices honest, which may explain its invariably crowded and noisy atmosphere.
If dinner in boisterous company isn’t your thing after a day of sightseeing, Cybo and Etablì are excellent alternatives in the vicinity. Cybo, on Via di Millina Tor, offers a slightly more upscale dining experience, blending modern décor together with Roman architecture. Elegant beige upholstered chairs, white tablecloths, a splash of red – all juxtaposed against ancient travertine walls and arches. The menu isn’t lacking in style either, offering up innovative seafood and meat dishes. Try the paccheri with sea bass, cherry tomatoes, and lemon – truly good and light. Etablì, past Piazza del Fico on Vicolo delle Vacche, is instead part wine bar, part restaurant. Just inside, the spacious room decked out in an eclectic shabby chic style is typically reserved for the drink crowd, while two quieter side rooms host diners. It has revisited Roman dishes, plus a few vegetarian specialties. A great place before, after, or for dinner, and anything but touristic!
For aperitifs or °dopo cena° drinks, Bar del Fico (in Piazza del Fico) is by far the most frequented. This minimalist vintage bar usually has more people standing up outside, drink in hand, than inside. It offers a small buffet of appetizers during the aperitivo hour, and draws a young, hip crowd. Italians love this place, and if you love standing up and chatting, you’ll love it too.
Otherwise there’s Fluid on Via Governo Vecchio, an incredibly unique bar that boasts a much more generous aperitif buffet, as well as a huge selection of cocktails that are prepared with an expertise and care that is rare in most Roman bars. The bar itself is a work of modern art; the surfaces of both the tables and the floors contain a layer of colorful gel – fluid – under plastic that squish under the touch. Cool and unusual – you have to see it to experience it!
And we can’t forget two classics when it comes to imbibing. First, there is the picturesque Caffè della Pace, a 19th century bar once frequented by Italian big names Federico Fellini and Sophia Loren and most recently featured in Eat, Pray, Love as well as Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love. The other is more of a classic among English-speaking crowds, and not surprisingly, it’s an Irish pub. If you want to feel at home for one night (and don’t mind a raucous crowd of 20-somethings), try Abbey Theater.
Rome for the Holidays has a few apartments near Piazza Navona including the best-sellers: The Beacon and The Gallagher. Book now to have a window overlooking the best part of town!
Photos courtesy of bonjouritalie.it, oliverblum.com, and theamericanmag.com)
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