Rome has long been renowned for traditional food rather than cutting-edge cuisine. Dishes such as cacio e pepe, carbonara and saltimbocca are the mainstays. I have no complaints. I love traditional Roman cuisine. And I am pleased to say that there is still no shortage of charming trattorias that produce superb versions of it.
But nowadays, those who have less amore for amatriciana can choose from a widening selection of contemporary and experimental eateries. On my recent visit, I discovered seven restaurants that had opened (or been substantially updated) within the past couple years, ranging from classic to avant-garde.
Romans claim that the best establishments are outside the historic center, away from the tourist crowds. Certainly the outer neighborhoods offer some excellent dining, but I can’t be bothered to take a taxi every night to dinner. So I kept to restaurants that were within walking distance of at least one of our recommended hotels.
Near Trajan’s Market, this Chinese-Italian fusion restaurant has blond-wood tables, white walls festooned with plants and a glass wall between the dining room and gleaming kitchen. Considering the high quality and creativity of the food and the reasonable prices, I was surprised that not every table was occupied. The $45 four-course menu allowed me to select any appetizer, pasta course, main course and dessert I liked — and they all sounded tempting. An amuse-bouche of brûléed mackerel with bok choy in a light dashi broth was a fine start to the meal. Other standouts included agnolotti filled with sweet roasted pumpkin and Parmesan in an earthy mushroom broth with slightly bitter dots of mandarin gel, and my main course of heirloom pork from Siena with bitter Treviso red chicory and a fragrant jus spiked with fermented beans. Our friendly waitress and the kitchen staff paced the meal perfectly. Closed Monday.
Salita del Grillo 6b. Tel. (39) 06-4561-5220
With large windows overlooking Via Giulia, where every business seems to have “Giulia” in its name, this contemporary restaurant opened in late 2017. It doesn’t have a Michelin star at the time of writing, but the beautiful presentations and delicious flavor and texture combinations deserve one. I chose the smaller of the two tasting menus, which included five courses as well as an amuse-bouche, oven-fresh bread and mignardises. I enjoyed tender sweetbreads in a tart citrus glaze accompanied by slightly briny bottarga and crunchy marinated romaine. And the pasta course, a riff on spaghetti alle vongole, was outstanding. I was treated to a pretty bowl of al dente tortelli in a sauce of rich clam foam and fresh parsley oil. Best was some melt-in-my-mouth cod with slightly spicy Abruzzese sausage and buffalo cheese. The courses here had decadent flavors but never felt heavy, a balance not easy to achieve.
Lungotevere dei Tebaldi 4a. Tel. (39) 06-9489-2076
Chef Luciano Monosilio left Michelin-starred Pipero Roma to open his own restaurant last year. The weather was pleasant the day of our visit, but because cars and delivery vans surrounded the patio, we decided to eat in the stylish interior. Anticipating the chef’s signature dish, spaghetti carbonara, I thought it best to start with something light. An artichoke salad came with shaved raw artichoke, arugula and rich cooked hearts filled with carrots and crunchy hazelnuts. The bowl of carbonara arrived Instagram-ready, with a restaurant business card clipped to it! I twirled some perfectly al dente pasta — with a golden fork, no less — and when I gave it a taste, I must admit I was won over. The sumptuous sauce of creamy egg yolk, savory guanciale (pork cheek), pungent pecorino and zippy black pepper was a triumph.
Luciano Cucina Italiana
Piazza del Teatro di Pompeo 18. Tel. (39) 06-5153-1465
Native Roman chef Andrea Pasqualucci took the helm of Moma in 2017, and this year, the restaurant earned the city’s newest Michelin star. Divided into a ground-floor bistro and a gourmet restaurant upstairs, the space feels convivial or cramped, depending on one’s mood. I quite liked the reasonably priced wine pairings, especially a refined 2012 Lazio Sauvignon Blanc, poured from a magnum. Many of the courses on the tasting menu proved delicious, including a salad of fresh figs, mild blue cheese, Sicilian almonds and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar; and savory rabbit-stuffed plin pasta with sweet melted leeks, pecorino fonduta and burned rosemary powder. But my intense main course, “Roman blocks,” which consisted of cubes of shredded cod, veal tongue terrine, celery root and other vegetables, was frankly a chore to eat. A dessert with wild sour cherry sorbet, ricotta cream and sugar cookies salvaged matters somewhat, but I’d go back to Giulia (or really, any restaurant on this list) before I returned to Moma. Closed Sunday.
Via di San Basilio 42/43. Tel. (39) 06-4201-1798
On a quiet street a short walk from the Spanish Steps, this seafood-focused restaurant opened earlier this year, but it has already found its stride. Shortly after we sat down at a table in the bright barrel-vaulted space, a friendly waiter welcomed us with complimentary flutes of fine dry Prosecco. An amuse-bouche of a sea lettuce-infused rice chip topped with whipped lemon butter and anchovy heralded good things to come. I loved the hat-shaped capellini pasta filled with smoked ricotta and topped with shrimp bisque and crunchy hazelnuts. A glass of Erbaluce from Piedmont paired beautifully. The wine also worked well with some crispy-skinned charcoal-grilled turbot accompanied by aromatic truffle mayonnaise. And I let the waiter talk me into the “Ovomisú,” a fluffy tiramisu served in a meringue eggshell. The chic décor, personable staff and superlative seafood made Pesciolino one of my favorite discoveries of the trip.
Pesciolino Fish Bar & Restaurant
Via Belsiana 30. Tel. (39) 06-6979-7843
This acclaimed contemporary restaurant just northeast of the Piazza Navona completed a renovation and expansion last year. It also added a new 20-course tasting menu that allows diners at the six-seat chef’s counter to sample every dish on its menu. Increasingly, I have little patience for that sort of meal, so when I made our reservations, I opted for places at a “social table,” where one can order à la carte. Surrounded by black walls, our 10-seat table of Dutch, Israeli and Italian diners faced a counter where chefs put the finishing touches on our plates. The $60 menu, which allows patrons to select two antipasti, a pasta, a main course and a dessert, ranks among the best values in Rome. In Retrobottega’s experimental atmosphere, I decided to get out of my comfort zone a bit and start with some donkey tartare! It tasted mild and tender, enhanced by some sweetly briny clams and a slightly sour fox grape reduction. Next came some luscious zucchini purée with savory lardo and sweet prune. Both dishes paired well with a minerally glass of Forastera from Ischia. Since Retrobottega recently opened an artisanal pasta shop, I had high expectations for the anolini. The bottle cap-shaped ravioli was al dente, but its shredded-mutton filling melted in the mouth. A sauce of butter and grated licorice root added yet more richness. I also relished my main course of seasonal porcini mushrooms with crunchy seaweed and wilted lettuce, a delectable mix of earthy, briny and sweet flavors. A sharp, almost spicy tartlet of lemon, caramel and vanilla meringue was a refreshing finish to a meal that was both unusual and delicious.
Via della Stelletta 4. Tel. (39) 06-6813-6310
A short walk from J.K. Place Roma and the Hotel Vilòn, this casual restaurant opened in late 2018 with a formidable list of some 500 wines. The cozy interior looked appealing, with thick brick walls lined with bottles, but on a flawless afternoon, we couldn’t resist the shady patio, facing a mostly traffic-free street. A Coravin permits access to wines most restaurants wouldn’t consider serving by the glass, such as a 2015 Damijan Podversic Ribolla Gialla from Friuli Venezia Giulia. This turbid golden-hued white had floral notes in its aroma and tasted darkly acidic and savory, with some tannins on the finish. It stood up to an appetizer of crunchy fried zucchini flowers filled with chewy mozzarella and spicy ’nduja, as well as some exotic saffron pappardelle with lamb ragù, roasted tomatoes and harissa. For dessert, I consulted the list of 11 sweet wines by the glass, opting for a 2014 Marchesi Antinori Castello della Sala Muffato della Sala from Umbria, made from grapes affected by noble rot, in the manner of Sauternes and Tokaji. Light orangey acids balanced out its honeyed sweetness, and it ended on a fresh, herbaceous note. Dessert wines like this always leave me wondering why I don’t drink more of them.
Piazza della Torretta 38/40. Tel. (39) 06-5184-6449
I also took time to re-review three old favorites that we’ve long recommended, in order to make sure that neither cuisine nor service had declined.
Staffed by bow tie-clad waiters, old-school Ristorante Piperno still serves Rome’s best carciofi alla giudia — Jewish-style fried artichokes — on a romantic patio, though it won’t win any awards for culinary innovation (Monte dé Cenci 9. Tel.  06-6880-6629).
Clemente alla Maddalena, a block away from the Pantheon, draws a crowd of mostly tourists, but its traditional fare remains delicious (Piazza della Maddalena 4. Tel.  06-683-3633).
And my favorite, the family-run Trattoria Monti, serves something close to my ideal pasta: short rigatoni with sausage, pecorino and black pepper. It’s been on the menu for more than a decade, and I never fail to order it. I savored the pasta, as well as a tortino of radicchio with an Asiago cheese sauce, a table away from Giorgio Napolitano, the 94-year-old former president of Italy, who was enjoying a Sunday lunch with his family (Via di San Vito, 13a. Tel.  06-446-6573).