Coming Home to an Italian Ritual in the Eternal City
For most of my life, Italy has been home, or home away from home. But between new jobs and a global pandemic, I haven’t been back in over three years. During that time, I lost touch with a distinctly Italian ritual: aperitivo.
Aperitivo is all about prioritizing enjoyment. It’s a magical sliver of time between the end of the work day and dinner when Italians pull up a chair at their favorite café or restaurant for a snack, a drink, and intentional relaxation.
Italians don’t consider this a luxury. For them, taking a few hours to live in the moment with good food and drink isn’t something earned after scratching items off a to-do list. It’s a human right.
Safe to say, I don’t see many people exercising that right on a daily basis in the United States. So I was relieved to slip back into this mindset on my most recent visit to Rome, where it informed every stop on my wine-fueled adventure with two close friends.
As wine lovers, we should all be focused on cultivating a daily aperitivo practice regardless of our location. However, being on vacation in one of the world’s wine capitals makes it a little easier. So, if you ever find yourself in Rome, be sure to stop by some of my favorite spots to eat, drink, and simply be.
Libreria Caffè Bohemien
Start your aperitivo tour at Libreria Caffè Bohemien in the youthful neighborhood of Rione Monti.
Nestled between floor-to-ceiling bookshelves you’ll find a quirky collection of velvet sofas and armchairs; a perfect spot to unwind at the end of the day (or the beginning of the evening) with a Negroni or glass of wine.
Italian wine lists are usually filled with niche, indigenous grape varieties that are nearly impossible to source outside of the country. Here, I tried a juicy, sea-breezy glass of Pigato from Liguria, paired perfectly with the complimentary bowl of salty chips on the vintage coffee table in front of us.
Osteria delle Coppelle
Located just steps from the Pantheon, Osteria delle Coppelle is tucked into the back corner of the small Piazza delle Coppelle.
When I lived in Rome years ago on a modest budget, this was at the top of my list of places to bring my parents for a special night out when they visited. Since then, it has remained a hit for everyone I’ve ever suggested it to.
We made an 8:30 reservation, or prenotazione, for dinner on my first night on my most recent trip, and I ordered a bottle of Barolo for the table. Naturally, my friend’s order of tagliolini with freshly shaved truffles was the pairing to end all pairings.
After tasting the otherworldly combo, my friend looked up to me, wide-eyed, and murmured, “this is, like, a moment.” And isn’t that the kind of moment we’re constantly chasing after?
Other “moments” of note: Veal Saltimbocca and Roman-style artichokes paired with a local glass of Grechetto, and an espresso with Tiramisu to finish off the meal. Not technically aperitivo, but I’m including these moments because that kind of perfect food and wine pairing is so magical, that it forces us to sit back and be present.
If you can’t get a table at Osteria delle Coppelle, head across the piazza to this hole-in-the-wall wine bar for a glass or a bottle while you wait.
Their glass list is concise but satisfying, and not without a few surprising options. The hit of the evening was a Pinot Nero from Alto-Adige, a true gem among the more obvious (and still delicious) options of Amarone and Chianti.
Later on in the evening, you may get lucky and be served various slices of cured meats and cheeses as the owner passes trays around the small shop. We went back to this spot two nights in a row, and the owner poured us a welcome glass of Chianti when we returned.
The festive atmosphere of Vinotece Novecentu quickly transforms minutes into hours. Before you know it you’ve been there all night and your waiter is encouraging you to write your name on the wall to immortalize your good time.
Rimessa Roscioli Tasting
The Roscioli family has built somewhat of an empire within Rome, with multiple restaurants and storefronts offering various essentials, from wine to bread to cheese.
We joined a multi-course wine tasting dinner at their restaurant and wine bar, Rimessa Roscioli, guided by the lovely Lindsay Gabbard and Scott Cameron, both American ex-pats living and working in Rome as sommeliers (the dream!).
We had about six courses, each expertly paired with Italian wines of indigenous grape varieties. One of my favorites was the so-called “extreme sport” pairing of a deeply oxidative Verdicchio and pungent whipped gorgonzola. Not for the faint of heart, but mind-blowing for those who dare.
We discussed the importance of remembering the origins of wine: the hands of farmers. We talked about peeling back the layers of pretension associated with wine and getting to the root of what really matters: the experience of eating and drinking with good company. “Once you’ve forgotten that, you’ve lost what’s important about wine,” says Scott.
You haven’t experienced the joy of gluten until you’ve tasted the Pizza Bianca from Roscioli. It’s equal parts crispy, chewy, and saturated in olive oil. Heaven in its simplicity.
Walk straight to the back to the cases of pizza. There are a huge number of toppings to choose from. Reminiscent of Zabar’s deli counter in NYC, this place is often packed, fast-paced, and no-nonsense, so be ready to order quickly! After grabbing your slices, you’ll receive the receipt and walk up to pay right by the door.
After paying, be sure to skip over to nearby Parco Vittorio Emmanuele. Indulge in a picnic with the spoils of your trip and sneak in some quiet sunbathing.
Al Vino Al Vino
With a hefty bottle list more reminiscent of a bible than a menu, Al Vino Al Vino is a spiritual experience for enophiles. On our first night, we stopped in for a pre-dinner glass and found ourselves ordering a couple of bottles because we just couldn't pick one. The hit of the evening was a bottle of Cannonau from Sardegna, a small island off the Italian coast that only exports minuscule amounts of wine annually.
Al Vino Al Vino offers a small selection of snacks and antipasti, but don’t be fooled by the humble vegetable-centric small plates: each item is a triumph. We were pleasantly surprised by the marinated eggplant; a perfect painting with the robust and deeply perfumed Cannonau.
Roman menus will almost always highlight the tried and true recipes we all know, like cacio e pepe and carbonara, but the real gems are the antipasto and contorni. These simple vegetable dishes, often ordered as a side or a starter, are perfect as a snack during aperitivo.
Like the eggplant and the Cannonau together, Al Vino Al Vino finds greatness in simplicity. Everything from the decor, location, and menu is simple, reminding us what we’re here to focus on: the wine.
Enoteca Cul de Sac
Like Al Vino Al Vino, one could spend hours pouring over the book-like wine list at Enoteca Cul de Sac. If you forgot your reading glasses, however, the staff is wonderfully friendly and knowledgeable — always ready to help with suggestions.
I especially like the balance between traditional and modern wines on their list, with incredible, heavy hitters like Montevertine and Gaja by the bottle (and sometimes by the glass!), alongside much smaller labels producing avant-garde orange wine and pet-nats.
The crowd here feels young and local, and it’s always packed to the brim. This wine bar has the aperitivo mindset down to a science. Between the robust wine list and seemingly endless snacks to choose from, it’s easy for one glass to turn into a bottle, and before you know it you’ve been there for hours.
The Testaccio neighborhood of Rome remains somewhat untouched by the crowds of tourists frequenting the city center, so the vibe is always quiet and local.
The heart of the neighborhood lies in Mercato Testaccio, a hybrid produce-street food market frequented by locals and international foodies alike. In the morning, it’s full of produce vendors, bakers, butchers, and locals grabbing their groceries. Walk to the center of the market and you’ll find the elderly local men playing cards and snacking on food from one of the many booths.
I can’t leave the Mercato without stopping by FoodBox for a supplí (or three), located at booth 66. Supplí are fried risotto balls, usually stuffed with cheese and coated with a crispy layer of breadcrumbs. Revisiting these was a near-religious experience, only made better with a glass of a local red field blend from nearby winery Cincinnato at Chicci e Lettere, located at booth 43. Glasses of wine here start for as little as three euros, making it a perfect choice for a small, mindful lunch break.
Ai Tre Scalini
My trip was coming to a close, and I really didn’t think it could get any better. My friends and I had kicked back in some amazing restaurants, tried Italian wines that many can only dream of tasting, and spent countless hours reconnecting. But my last dinner broke all records — it perfectly encapsulated what I love about Italian food and wine culture.
We stayed nearly four hours at Ai Tre Scalini as our energetic waiter occasionally checked in. By the end of the meal, we had ordered almost everything off the menu.
While every bite was delicious, the highlight was the traditional porchetta. Juicy, crispy, and herbal, it was a revelatory combination with our glasses of Sangiovese and Nerello Mascalese-based Etna rosato. We talk a lot about electric moments in food and wine; this was the most electric pairing I’ve experienced in some time.
At the end of the meal, we needed an amaro. Instead of ordering a familiar digestif, we asked our waiter for a recommendation. A devious smile and wink flashed across his face before he sprinted off, only to return with a glass bottle that looked like something stolen from the dusty shelf of an old-school apothecary.
“My favorite!” he told us, as he poured four small glasses of the dark, glimmering digestif, one for each of us and one for him. We all raised our glasses to cheers, then looked on in amazement as he took down his portion of the deeply complex, bitter, herbal amaro in one swift gulp.