In the immortal words of the late Anthony Bourdain, "It's easy to fall in love with Rome." Upon touching down in the Italian capital city, I feel the force of this sentiment with every curious, cobble-stoned step. The ancient metropolis is imbued with an otherworldly charm; even small fixtures like the doors and windows, framed by tendrils of cascading vines and monstera leaves, were positively enchanting (my camera roll can attest to this).
This beauty is further punctuated by the enduring ruins of the fallen Roman Empire, which are haphazardly peppered throughout the city and beyond. Symbols of strength and dominance, these relics have stood the test of time, serving as modern-day pillars of beauty and resilience for the Roman people. Every hand-laid brick, window shutter, and street lamp in the city seems to have been marinated in a rich, 2,000-year history far beyond my comprehension, and I feel lucky just to be in their presence.
I have the privilege of traveling with Barone Fini Wines, a family-owned wine company that's been producing pinot grigio and merlot atop the ruins of an ancient Roman winery in northeastern Italy since the year 1497. President and native Italian Giovanni Bonmartini-Fini is moonlighting as our tour guide for the weekend, meaning I get the privilege of seeing the historic city through the trained eyes of a local.
"My choices are where I go, not where tourists accumulate," said Bonmartini-Fini, referring to his favorite restaurants, cafés, and bars in Rome—places that he has carefully selected over the course of 26 years of living in the city. This sentiment dictates our itinerary for the weekend, leading us to locals-only cafés, little-known enclaves boasting panoramic views of the city, and old school, white-table-clothed restaurants alive with the native language.
Over the next four days, Giovanni proves to be an untapped fountain of information, sharing his passion for Italian home cooking, ancient Roman history, and most importantly, the inimitable Italian way of life. If you're heading to Rome this summer, don't miss this locals-only look at the ancient city that you won't find in the guidebooks.
What + Where to Drink
In the name of immersing myself in Italian culture, I essentially alternate between an espresso buzz and a wine buzz for most of the trip. The two Barone Fini varietals were in near constant rotation, pairing perfectly with pizza, carbonara, cacio e pepe, conchiglie pasta in a red all'Amatriciana sauce, cheese and meats, braised artichokes, and more traditional Roman dishes.
"This is what the Italian way of life is all about!" exclaimed Giovanni over dinner at Pizzeria La Montecarlo on the first night, proposing a toast to which we chorused "salute!" in time with our clinking wine glasses. This uninhibited enjoyment of the food, wine, and company came to define our trip, as well as my understanding of the aforementioned "Italian way of life."
Not unlike the family's no-fuss approach to wine making, Italians believe in slowing down, focusing on the quality of the moment, and enjoying life's many pleasures with friends and family (often with a glass of wine in hand). The Barone Fini brand has focused on expertly producing just two kinds of delicious Italian wine for the past 521 years, cultivating and hand-harvesting the highest quality grapes in the prestigious Trentino-Alto Adige region of northern Italy.
The finished products have exceeded expectations, both in terms of taste and DOC quality classifications under Italian wine law, since 1975. While the Barone Fini brand is carried at many restaurants and retailers throughout Italy, you can find it stateside at select New York City restaurants, retailers like Publix and World Market, as well as online at Wine.com.
Aside from enjoying a glass of Barone Fini pinot grigio or merlot at leisure, Giovanni frequents the below bars and restaurants for the best drinks in all of Rome. Read up on his top recommendations in his own words, as told to MyDomaine.
Assaggia Via Margutta: Head over to this chic neighborhood restaurant powered by chef Daniele Ciaccio for "stupendous Roman tapas" and "wonderful wines or spirits at great prices."
Hotel Eden Rooftop Bar: Make your way to the terrace of this five-star hotel to enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine with an "amazing view of Rome in an elegant setting."
Singita Miracle Beach Club: Get out of the city and have a "magical experience sipping cocktails while lying down on the Roman seashore at sunset." This beach club is only 30 miles away from Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Baja Roma Tevere: Enjoy yet another waterside cocktail while "sitting on a barge floating on the Tiber river in the center of Rome."
What + Where to Eat
There's no arguing that wine is best served with food, and if you're in Rome, the food may steal the show. The trip was essentially a four-day parade of pasta dishes, supplemented by bread, cheese, meat, (including oxtail, veal, and pancetta), fish, fresh vegetables, namely whole artichokes cooked in olive oil and white wine, and for something more casual, pizza.
While you'd be hard-pressed to find one leftover rigatoni noodle in my finished bowl of pancetta-flecked carbonara (my favorite dish on the trip), meal time in Italy is more about relaxing and enjoying each other's company than eating yourself into submission (like we tend to do stateside). The casualness of it all actually gives your body more time to digest the food and feel a sense of satiety, which in turn curbs overeating (and explains why Italians are so fit, despite such a carb-heavy diet).
Their healthier approach to eating is also reflected in the portion sizes. Pasta is considered a first course, or "primo," in Italy, which is then followed by a "secondo," which typically consists of a little meat, fish, or cheese, and vegetables or salad. In other words, super-filling pasta is not the main event, and the portion sizes reflect that. "From my experience traveling the U.S. and Italy, the portions of pasta in the U.S. are much larger," said Bonmartini-Fini. As a rule of thumb, "a typical portion of al dente pasta [in Italy] is around 100 grams," or roughly half a cup of pasta before boiling.
The aforementioned parade of pasta dishes took place at the following four restaurants, hand-selected by Giovanni. They did not disappoint; all deserve a place on your locals-only Rome eating bucket list.
Trattoria Perilli: It was here that I had a near-religious experience within a bowl of carbonara. Apparently I wasn't the only one; a TripAdvisor reviewer called it the "best, most authentic, carbonara in Rome,"; a sentiment that's echoed throughout the reviews. This old-school trattoria, typically filled with locals and "expat businesspeople who know what truly delicious Roman food tastes like," proved to be every bit the authentic Italian food fantasy I had in mind. All four courses were delicious, the staff has been working there for ages, and the owner is an Italian-speaking elderly man who greeted our table in a suit and tie. It's constantly booked out, so call in advance to make a reservation.
Pizzeria La Montecarlo: This no-fuss pizzeria is essentially the opposite of Perilli in the sense that it's so casual. But don't let the plastic chairs and tables covered in white tablecloths fool you; there's nearly always a line out the door at this Roman institution. Enjoy carafes of red and white wine, traditional Roman bruschetta, fried mozzarella and vegetables, and delicious thin and crispy Roman-style pizzas on rotation.
Taverna Dello Spuntino: Located in the heart of the Castelli Romani area roughly 30 minutes from downtown Rome, this family-run trattoria, housed in a converted cellar, offers all the staples of traditional Roman cuisine in a friendly, inviting atmosphere. Order off its impressively extensive wine list and be sure to taste their handmade tortellini and ravioli.
Giolitti: No trip to Italy is complete without some gelato. Established in 1900 and located just steps from the Pantheon, Giolitti is a Roman institution and one of the city's best-known ice cream shops. In addition to a revolving door of delicious gelato flavors, Giolitti also serves pastries, ice cream cakes, and chocolates. No matter what you order, it will be delicious.
We couldn't pack all of Rome's amazing restaurants into one weekend, so Giovanni graciously shared where he and his family frequent for coffee, casual dining, and special occasions.
Favorite Café: Il Cigno. This local Italian hangout is described as a "hidden gem" on Trip Advisor. Giovanni considers it to be home to the "best neighborhood espresso," in addition to "unbelievable croissants, and stupendous pastries" set in a "charming and classic environment."
Favorite Casual Restaurant: Flavio al Velavevodetto. Enjoy "traditional, robust Roman cuisine at a great price" at this Roman institution. Located in Monte Testaccio, which is essentially a 2000-year-old mountain of monument shards from the fallen Roman empire, the restaurant quite literally sits upon generations of history. It's famous for its cacio e pepe.
Favorite Elegant Restaurant: Il Caminetto. If you're looking for a fancy dinner, Il Caminetto is a safe bet. This 1950s-era restaurant is personally operated by owner Italo Santucci and his son Fabrizio, and offers a "delicious menu" in Giovanni's words, all at a "very fair price."
Favorite Fish Restaurant: Ai Piani. When the Bonmartini-Fini family celebrates, they go to their "favorite fish restaurant," Ai Piani. Though it's expensive, he swears the fish on the table "swam the night before."
What to See
When visiting a new city, I prefer to avoid any and all tourist traps (I still have yet to see the view from One World Trade or visit the top of the Empire State Building in New York, and I live here). But Rome is a clear exception to this rule; the ancient ruins are so integral to the cultural DNA of the city (similar to Berlin's club scene) that you'd be doing yourself a disservice to skip them.
While I experienced a unique kind of spiritual reckoning in the presence of Perilli's carbonara, the ruins made my jaw drop in a different way. Consider the fact that the United States is only 241 years old—an infant compared to Rome's roughly 2800 years. Being in the presence of the Colosseum, the Pantheon, Saint Peter's Basilica, and the like allows you to really feel that centuries-old history that makes Rome so enchanting. I was quite literally gawking at the artwork, the architecture, and the attention to detail that went into creating these intricate structures centuries ago; there's a level of patience and perfectionism that I don't think I'll ever be able to fully grasp.
The importance of visiting the ancient Roman landmarks is self-explanatory. But I'd encourage you to simply wander the streets and take in all of the seemingly innocuous details. The outdoor markets, fruit stands, soaring palm trees, and even the flower baskets that line each window truly add to the magic of the city.
Giovanni is somewhat of an ancient Roman history buff; he was able to riff on the unique story behind each landmark from memory, recalling facts and dates on the spot during our impromptu tour. In his opinion, here are the Roman sights you simply can't miss.
The Pantheon: Of all the landmarks we saw, this Roman temple-turned-church left the most lasting impression on me. The dome inside is completely breathtaking. It's also in the dead-center of the city; one minute, you're looking at a Gucci store, and the next, a magnificent structure built in 126 AD.
Saint Peter's Basilica: While the lines deterred us from going inside this iconic church, the view from the outside is just as awe-inspiring. Attend a Papal audience on Wednesdays to see Pope Francis speak.
The Colosseum: Arguably the most iconic structure in Rome, the Colosseum is instantly recognizable to visitors from all four corners of the world. Buy tickets for a guided tour of the ancient arena or simply gawk and snap photos from the outside.
Galleria Borghese: According to Giovanni, it's worth seeing "how the Cardinal Borghese lived in the 1600s in his private villa, surrounded by the unbelievably beautiful art he collected."
View from Piazza Garibaldi: Skip the tourist traps and "see the most spectacular view of Rome without waiting in lines. On a clear day, [you can] see the beautiful mountains surrounding the city."
Capitoline Hill: He describes this as a "beautiful Renaissance piazza" boasting the "best view of the entire Roman Forum."
Forum of Cesar Light Show: Catch "an evening light multimedia show that brings the Imperial Forum back to life."
Reflecting on my time in Rome, I feel incredibly grateful to have been able to see such a deeply historic city alongside such an informed local. By nature, the trip eschewed distinctly millennial, Instagram-friendly destinations and instead introduced me to a slew of under-the-radar spots that I never would have visited otherwise. While I now have a laundry list of recommendations that accurately capture the spirit of the city, the Italian way of life as imparted by Giovanni and family is what I value most.
Planning a trip to Rome? Shop Italian style essentials below.
Shop Packing Essentials
This trip was hosted by Barone Fini Wines. Editors' opinions are her own.