Picnicking in Rome

A picnic fit for a Roman emperor

Picnicking is one of my favorite Italian meals: fresh bread, creamy cheeses, spicy salami, salty prosciutto, gooey pizza or calzone, ripe fruit, tangy olives, flaky pastries, fizzy water, and a bottle of wine—you can eat like a Roman emperor for less than $10 a person.

Plus you can enjoy a picnic in Rome practically anywhere: on the steps of a medieval church, on a curb by a fountain on a piazza, on a grassy bit of lawn overlooking the Colosseum by the Roman Forum, up on the Palatine Hill or Gianicolo Hill, in the Villa Borghese park, or simply back on your hotel room balcony.

(Just steer clear of the major monuments. Many monuments in Italy are now off-limits for panino munching, gelato licking, and even just plain old sitting on the steps—including the Spanish Steps, Coloseum, and Pantheon.)

Finding the freshest picnic pickings in Rome

When it comes time to put together that picnic to enjoy sitting around the fountain of a piazza, on your day trip, or just back in the hotel room, you can visit a string of little Roman food shops:

The panificio or forno can provide breads and pastries, a fruttivendolo is for fresh fruit and veggies. A latteria sells cheeses, vini olii or enoteca carry bottles of wine, and an alimentari (little grocery store) is good for packaged goods, salamis, drinks, and a bit of everything else.

How much food to get for an Italian picnic

You can order by the kilo (2.2 pounds) or mezzo kilo (half a kilo), but most people order in their foods in grammi (grams). One hundred grams is nicknamed un etto, which is slightly less than a quarter pound.

When you're throwing together a picnic for 2–4 people, usually one etto each of two cheeses, another etto of prosciutto, and an etto of olives (or whatever)—added to a loaf of bread, bottle of vino, and some fruit—somehow ends up being just the right amount.

Roman food markets

For the absolute best and freshest in raw ingredients, and a true Roman experience, nothing beats hitting the stalls of an outdoor food market, camera in tow.

Here are some of the best food markets in Rome's centro storico:

  • Campo de' Fiori has flower stalls at one end but food throughout the rest.
  • In Trastevere, head to rectangular Piazza San Cosimato.
  • North of the Vatican there's an indoor market at Via Cola di Rienzo 53/Piazza dell'Unità, but I prefer the Via Andrea Doria market a short walk north and west that occupies the block between Via Santamaura and Via Tunisi (just past Largo Trionfale).
  • The stalls on Piazza Testaccio fuels the kitchens of the neighborhood's working-class trattorie.
  • The hugest Roman market by far is on Via G. Giolitti (which runs along the south edge of Termini train station).

Markets tend to open Monday through Saturday around 7am. The best pickings are in the earliest hours, when you might bump into your trattoria owner from the night before selecting the ingredients for this evening's bounty.

By noon many stall owners are starting to pack up, the bread bins are full of only crumbs, the best bell peppers are gone, and the lettuce is wilting.

By 1pm most markets are deserted save for a few cats pawing through the leftovers.

Tips & links

General dining tips
  • "Pane e coperto" is not a scam: Nearly all Italian restaurants have an unavoidable pane e coperto ("bread and cover" charge) of anything from €1 to €15—though most often €2 to €5—per person that is automatically added onto your bill. This is perfectly normal and perfectly legal (though a few trendy restaurants make a big deal about not charging it).
  • Find out if service (tip) is included: Don't double-tip by accident. If the menu has a line—usually near the bottom of the front or back—that says "servizio" with either a percentage, an amount, or the word "incluso" after it, that means the tip is automatically included in the price. (If it says "servizio non incluso," tip is, obviously, not included.)

    Even if the menu doesn't say it, ask É incluso il servizio? (ay een-CLOU-so eel sair-VEET-zee-yo)—"Is service included?" If not, tip accordingly (10%–15% is standard).

    Don't be stingy about tipping, though. If il servizio is, indeed, already included but the service was particularly good, it's customary to round up the bill or leave €1 per person extra—just to show you noticed and that you appreciated the effort.
  • Tourist menus: The concept of a bargain prix-fixe menu is not popular in Italy. Some restaurants do offer a menu turistico ("tourist menu"), which can cost from €8 to €20 and usually entails a choice from among two or three basic first courses (read: different pasta shapes, all in plain tomato sauce), a second course of roast chicken or a veal cutlet, and some water or wine and bread. With very few exceptions, tourist menus tend to live up to their name, appearing only at the sort of tourist-pandering restaurants that the locals wisely steer clear of.

    However, a menu à prezzo fisso ("fixed-price menu") is often a pretty good deal, usually offering a bit more choice than a tourist menu.

    Then—especially at nicer (and pricier) restaurants—there is the menu degustazione ("tasting menu"), usually far more expensive (anywhere from €25 to €110) that is a showcase of the chef's best, or of regional specialties, and can make for an excellent way to sample the kitchen's top dishes.
  • Book ahead: For restaurants that I am truly eager to try, I go ahead and book a table—at least at dinner. I find that a corollary of Murphy's Law seems to apply. If you prudently book ahead, you are likely to show up to a half-empty restaurant and feel a bit like a fool for having worried about finding a table. If, on the other hand, you just show up at the door expecting to find a free table, the place will inevitably be packed and its bookings full for the evening.
Culinary tours of Rome
Italian dining phrases
English (Inglese) Italian (Italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...a restaurant un ristorante oon rees toh-RAHN-tay
...a casual restaurant una trattoria
oo-nah trah-toar-RHEE-yah
oon ohst-air-EE-yah
I would like to reserve... Vorrei prenotare... voar-RAY pray-note-ARE-eh
a table for two una tavola per due oo-nah TAH-voal-lah pair DOO-way
...for 7pm per le sette pair lay SET-tay
...for 7:30pm per le sette e mezzo pair lay SET-tay eh MET-tzoh
...for 8pm per le otto pair lay OH-toh
I would like Vorrei... voar-RAY
...some (of) un pó (di) oon POH (dee)
...this questo KWAY-sto
...that quello KWEL-loh
chicken pollo POL-loh
steak bistecca bee-STEAK-ah
veal vitello vee-TEL-oh
fish pesce PEH-shay
meat carne KAR-neh
I am vegetarian sono vegetariano SO-no veg-eh-tair-ee-YAH-no
side dish [veggies always come seperately] cotorno kon-TOR-no
dessert dolce DOAL-chay
and e ay
...a glass of un bicchiere di oon bee-key-YAIR-eh dee
...a bottle of una bottiglia di oo-na boh-TEEL-ya dee
...a half-liter of mezzo litro di MET-tzoh LEE-tro dee
...fizzy water acqua gassata AH-kwah gah-SAHT-tah
...still water acqua non gassata AH-kwah noan gah-SAHT-tah
...red wine vino rosso VEE-noh ROH-so
...white wine vino bianco VEE-noh bee-YAHN-koh
...beer birra BEER-a
Check, please Il conto, per favore eel COAN-toh pair fah-VOAR-eh
Is service included? É incluso il servizio? ay een-CLOU-so eel sair-VEET-zee-yo

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