Rome – the Spanish Steps for Foodies
The Spanish Steps in the heart of Rome is probably the best known and most visited part of a town so full of historical monuments. Originally the steps were constructed to connect the Spanish embassy to the church Trinita dei Monti on top. Today, the Spanish Embassy is located at the magnificent Palazzo Borghese off Via del Corso, extending all the way to the river, quite a sight. Later the Spanish Steps and Piazza di Spagna became the place where artists, writers and intellectuals used to gather and exchange ideas, much like the left bank of Paris. It was also made famous by the movie Roman Holiday, where Audrey Hephburn and Gregory Peck rode along the streets on a vespa. The Spanish steps and all the network of side streets that spread from it is the fashion district of Rome and that’s where you find all the brand name designers ateliers and stores.
The streets are always crowded with locals and tourists but still fun to walk through and experience the atmosphere. There are some culinary gems to try in the area so don’t be worried about it being a touristy spot. In Rome good food can be found anywhere, almost.
When travelling, we like to start our day at a cafe and one of the most famous cafes in Rome is situated a few steps from Piazza di Spagna. You will find Antico Cafe Greco on the elegant Via Condotti, a pedestrian (mostly) street that stretches in front of the Spanish Steps all the way to via del Corso. Like many other institutions in Rome this is a historic bar, in fact the oldest cafe in Rome, in continuous operation since 1760s. It was opened by a Greek businessman, hence the Greco in the name. Once a haunt of the intelligentsia, it hosted the likes of Goethe, Byron, Keats and Casanova as well as noted composers such as Liszt, Mendelsson and Wagner, the conductor Toscanini and more. Casanova mentioned the cafe in his memoir, speaking of his first visit there in 1742 and referring to the it as cafe di strada Condotta. The cafe was declared a monument of historical and national interest in the early 1950s. Cafe Greco has an old time elegance: red velvet seatings, marble tables,, damask fabric on the walls, gilded mirrors and over 300 works of original art on the walls around the several rooms. The professional waiters are dressed in tuxedo and the service is rather formal. The coffee is good but expensive (9 Euros for a cappuccino, 12 Euros for a small glass of fresh orange juice) but the place is always busy and I would say go there at least once for the experience. Again, you can stand at the bar in the front room to have your coffee (and pay less for it) or sit at one of the tables and soak up the ambiance, which we did several times during our stay.
When you are ready for lunch there are several options all around and I will mention a couple. For a local and elegant ristorante you should try one of my favourite restaurants in Rome, Ristorante Nino. on Via Borgognona, 11. In operation since 1934, they serve delicious Tuscan dishes, perfectly prepared and portioned. One of the specialties are the white beans cooked over low flame in a glass flask that you can see through a window upon entering the restaurant. The beans are perfectly cooked and flavoured and you can order a dish to share, delicious. Their wine selection is excellent as well, focusing on Tuscan reds but there are other regional wines on the list. I would say this is a place to enjoy 3-4 courses, so don’t try to rush through lunch or dinner here. We were introduced to Nino by our new Roman friends Gabriele and Maria who invited us for lunch there and later I read about it on Elizabeth Minchilli’s blog. Elizabeth chose Nino as the place to go for lunch with the late Marcella Hazan’s husband Victor, when he was visiting Rome. You don’t get any more culinary iconic then the Hazans.
If you don’t want to sit down for lunch but still would like a heaping bowl of steamy pasta, try an interesting establishment, Pastificio, on Via della Croce, 8, a side streets a couple of minute from the Spanish Steps. Pastificio, in operation at that location since 1918 is a favourite with locals and tourists and there is always a lineup in front. An employee monitors the lineup and admits a few people at a time into the tiny, crowded shop. The first time I passed by I couldn’t quite figure it out, it looked like a pasta shop where you buy dry pasta, so why the lineup? But soon I realized that it is a take out pasta shop and evidently a very popular one. Eventually we stopped there for lunch on the go. The line wasn’t too long at that time and progressed quite quickly. The shop is very small and there are no tables inside, only a couple of small and narrow countertops at which a few people can stand and eat their plate of hot pasta, bumping elbows with people coming and going. You can eat your pasta inside or outside, but keep in mind that if you take it out, you cannot eat it on the Spanish Steps because of a recent law prohibiting eating or drinking within a few feet of historical monuments. You can eat it on the street outside the shop, as many do. They offer two pasta option for lunch for 4 Euros a plate including a complimentary glass of wine and water if you eat in. If you take your pasta to go, meaning it will be put into a plastic container instead of a plate, the wine will not be included. They change their pasta offering daily and we tried pasta with pesto, spaghetti alla carbonara made without eggs, pasta with eggplant and pasta with tomato sauce, all delicious. Pastificio opens at 1:00 pm, I highly recommend the experience.
Any foodie loves to browse through kitchen shops and I have just the one for you a few steps down from the Spanish Steps. C.U.C.I.N.A. on Via Mario dei Fiori 65 is a fun kitchen shop with a few locations throughout Rome and carries a wonderful selection of cooking and table top items that made me a little depressed, as I wanted everything but could only take a few things back to Canada. They have everything you may desire for your kitchen and more. There is also a selection of woven linen kitchen towels and aprons, beautiful white porcelain dishes, pots and pans, baking equipment and more, it would be hard to leave without buying something. I managed to escape with only a few things, including linens and special paper bread bags meant for serving bread at the table that I see at almost every restaurant around town.
I am always in the mood for a cup of tea and macarons, are you? to sit down for a cup of tea or hot chocolate or just take a few of these coulourful delicacies to go, head down Via Borgogonona to the place that makes them best, Laduree, a Parisian institution with elegant shops around the world. The beautiful shop offers tea, macarons, chocolates, gourmet style cakes, French toast and Pain perdu, among other offerings. You can settle inside or outside on the lovely via Borgognona and enjoy your tea and macaroons while watching the going ons on this elegant street.
For your daily quota of gelato you may want to wander towards the beautiful Piazza del Popolo to Via Laurina 10 just off Via del Corso where Gelateria Fatamorgana opened a shop. Fatamorgana is consdered one of the best artisanal gelato shops in Rome, making pure gelato without any thickeners, preservatives, food colouring and other artificial ingredients. Their exotic flavours of gelato include Moscato wine and wild strawberry eggnog, goat cheese and coconut, pear and gorgonzola and more. They also have a shop in the Monti neighbourhood.
A nice way to end a day exploring the Spanish Steps area is with a glass of prosecco or another aperitivo at the rooftop bar of Il Palazzetto (Vicolo Del Bottino 8) on top of the Spanish Steps. Climb up the left side of the steps to the top and settle on the rooftop bar overlooking the Spanish Steps and Rome. The food offering is limited but the setting and view are a nice way to end your day. Il Palazzetto is part of the Hotel Hassler across the street.
I cannot talk about the Spanish Steps without mentioning Hotel Hassler at the top of the steps. I wrote about my experience there in this post and it clearly holds a special place in my memories. The rooftop restaurant is not open for lunch anymore but a dinner at the Hassler while visiting Rome is a must on my list. It has one Michelin star and the food is special, not to mention the view.