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Rome Like a Local

What the Locals Do in Rome

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Undoubtedly, the catch phrase may sound a bit clichéd, but locals themselves will even suggest this advice is not to be taken lightly. Romans certainly know how to live life to the fullest, indulging in the simplest pleasures and doing so with style. So put yourself in their shoes (Fendi preferably); try being Roman for a day and you'll learn how la vita è bella!

Il Mercato

If you’re looking to rub shoulders with real Romans, there’s no better place to do it than at your local mercato all’aperot—or open-air food market. Ah yes. Exploring the local markets of Rome is indeed the perfect way to experience a true slice of Roman life. Watch vendors take centerstage and turn the practice of selling some of the region’s freshest produce into a grand theatrical performance. The most popular mercato is the Campo de' Fiori (Piazza Campo de' Fiori), Rome's oldest food market, situated just south of Rome's Renaissance/Baroque quarter and the Piazza Farnese. Too wide to be called picturesque, the market is nevertheless a favorite photo op, due to the ombrelloni (canvas umbrella) food stands. You have to look hard to find the interesting regional foodstuffs, such as Colle Romani strawberries, chestnuts, or the colorful peperoncini piccanti (spicy hot peppers). Other top food markets are the recently renovated Mercato Trionfale (Via Tunisi in Prati, north of the Vatican) and Nuovo Mercato Esquilino (Via Filippo Turati), which is strongly influenced by the multi-culti makeup of the district. Open-air markets typically run Monday through Saturday from 7 am until 2 pm, with Saturday being the busiest shopping day.

La Piazza

For Italians young and old, la piazza serves as a punto d'incontro—a meeting place—for dinner plans, drinks, people-watching, catching up with friends, and, as Romans would say, exchanging due chiacchere (two words). Some of the most popular piazzas in Rome: Piazza di Spagna is not just a postcard-perfect moment for tourists, but is also a favored spot among adolescent Italian boys looking to meet American girls. By day, Piazza Campo de' Fiori is famous for its fresh food and flower market; by night, the piazza turns into a popular hangout for Romans and foreigners lured by its pubs, street caffè, and occasional street performers and magicians. Over the last few years, Campo de' Fiori has even been dubbed "the American college campus of Rome," as pubs in the area now cater to American students by advertising two-for-one drink specials and such. The main attractions of the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere are the grand bell tower and marvelous mosaics of its namesake church—a picture-perfect background for some pretty trattorias.

L'Aperitivo

You can thank the Milanesi for inventing it, but it was the Romani who perfected it: l'aperitivo. Though l'aperitivo was a custom invented in the north, we have the Romans down south to thank for making the trend molto, molto moda. Similar to the concept of “happy hour” (sans the two-for-one drinks), l'aperitivo is a time to meet up with friends and colleagues after work or on weekends—definitely an event at which to see and be seen. Aperitivo hours are usually 7–9 pm, with Sunday being the most popular day. Depending on where you go, the price of a drink often includes an all-you-can-eat appetizer buffet of finger foods, sandwiches, and pasta salads. Some aperitivo hot spots on the trendissimo list are Fluid (Via del Governo Vecchio); Societè Lutece (Piazza Monte Vecchio); Gusto (Piazza Augusto Imperatore), and Salotto 42 (Piazza di Pietra) in the centro storico; and Friends Café (Piazza Trilussa) and Freni and Frizioni (Via del Politeama) in the Trastevere area.

Il Caffè

If there's something Romans certainly can't live without, it's their cup of java. Caffeine, or il caffè (espresso), may be the most important part of their day, and there is no shortage of bars in the Eternal City to help satisfy that coffee craving. A caffè or cappuccino in the morning is typically enjoyed at the counter while debating last night's soccer game or some aspect of local politics. Another espresso or caffè macchiato (coffee with a dash of milk) can also be enjoyed after lunch, and again after dinner, especially when dining out. Thinking about ordering that cappuccino? Aspetta, hold on a minute. Check the time, for Italians consider it taboo to order one after 11 am. During the summer months, Romans drink a caffè shakerato (freshly made espresso shaken briskly with sugar and ice, to form a froth when poured) or a caffè freddo (iced espresso). Rome's best coffee? Some say the Tazza D'Oro (Via degli Orfani), not far from the Pantheon; others, Il Caffè Sant'Eustachio (Piazza di Sant'Eustachio). If you like a dollop of chic along with your caffeine, head to Bar della Pace (Via della Pace 3), set on one of the most fashionable piazzas in Rome (but don't forget that outdoor tables sometimes hike up the price).

Il Gelato

You haven’t died and gone to food heaven until you’ve tried some authentic, Italian gelato. A national obsession, the Italian version of ice cream is tastier, less creamy, and traditionally made with only the freshest ingredients. Though many bars and stands purvey it, the best gelatos are found only at gelaterie. Small cones cost anywhere from €1.20 to €2.50. Most places allow you up to three flavors (even on a small cone) and portions are usually quite generous. So generous at times, a cone or a cup can almost replace a meal. Typical flavors are nocciola (hazelnut), pistachio, chocolate, and anything fruity. Or hunt down the latest and greatest flavors, such as the sweet-with-a-kick cioccolato con peperoncino (chocolate with hot pepper) at Millenium (Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie 2/a, near the Vatican Museums). Quality varies: A good sign is a long line at the counter, and two of the longest are at Old Bridge (Via Bastioni di Michelangelo 5, near St. Peter's Square), and Giolitti (Via degli Uffici del Vicario 40, by the Pantheon).

La Passeggiata

A favorite Roman pastime is the passeggiata (literally, the promenade). In the late afternoon and early evening, especially on weekends, couples, families, and packs of teenagers stroll up and down Rome's main streets and piazzas. It's a ritual of exchanged news and gossip, window-shopping, flirting, and gelato eating that adds up to a uniquely Italian experience. You may feel more like an observer than a participant, until you realize that observing is what la passeggiata is all about. Rome's top promenade is Via del Corso, with a grande finale in the Piazza di Spagna shopping district.

Updated: 2013-10-17

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