Are Touristy Restaurants in Rome Destined to Die Out Like Dinosaurs?

The Truffle Shuffle
5 min readAug 7, 2020

A perspective from the front-row seat with a jumbo bucket of popcorn.

You can say that Rome and touristy restaurants are like bread and butter — though I would rather go for olive oil.

The steady flow of tourists throughout the year has always offered plenty of opportunities for those who, with neither skills nor talents, wanted to invest in the restaurant business. While still an undergraduate I started working as a waitress to pay my bills — as most of my friends did — and, until the moment I realized I wanted to be a sommelier, I was in and out lots of touristy restaurants a.k.a. tourist traps.

The funny thing, while trying to work professionally, is that many companies present themselves as professional but then, to a closer look, turn out to be affected by a sad touristy mindset. At least, now that I am able to spot them upon first glance I’ve learned to decline their offer right away. Experience is what we call our mistakes, isn’t it? And yet the first restaurant I ever worked in my life was a touristy restaurant, albeit a bit unique.

It stood very close to a great attraction thanks to which it enjoyed a certain fortune: a set of marble statues of mythological creatures from which you could enjoy freshly tapped water — a key for a tourist’s survival, especially during summer — and where people would often go with the sole purpose of throwing a coin.

The consequence of that little careless act was unexpected.

Whoever visited that place forming an invisible link through the magic ritual, when returning to Rome would go back to visit the exact same place and frequently end up eating in the exact same restaurant.

And they weren’t entirely wrong because— surprisingly— one could really eat well there.

It was a cocktail of seemingly irreconcilable elements: nice cosy interiors, photos on the walls depicting the Colosseum, Saint Peters and other symbols of the Capital, organic food, craft beers and coca-cola on tap, Bangla kitchen staff and Albanian waiters running like mads from 10 am to 2 am. Then the area would get crowded with drunken bums, prostitutes and odd people.

But, although it offered a decent cuisine, there was something about that restaurant that forced me to label it as touristy:

the Oceano pizza.

Red based with seafood.

An American customer once insisted on having the Oceano with mozzarella on top. I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t about me trying to make a point: the thick layer of mozzarella covering the chipped shells would have turn lethal from the very first mouthful. Well, guess what?

He got that anyway.

Some people seem to like risk, especially while they’re on vacation.

But, if I think about it now, touristy (in the sense of amateurish) was also the way the property would treat their staff.

Despite not being hired directly by their employer but by the usual bogus company — to evade taxes— and with part-time contracts — while working shifts of 50 hours a week — the whole staff worked its finger to the bone. Of course, no one ever had received training or been encouraged to do so, with the result that the service was stuck to 40 years ago.

And yet working there as a student was rather fun!

Every now and then someone would hutter huge pearls of wisdom such as:

"A waiter should know where things are"

or — when we had to handle large and really hungry groups (when you visit Rome remember, those hills are pretty steep) — an equally pragmatic:

"As soon as they sit down, give ‘em bread! "

And although the servers were able to express themselves in the Roman dialect, to my trained ear they kept sounding hilarious due to the peculiar Albanian “R”.

Touristy was the attention to bio ingredients and at the same time mixing white and red wine to make rosé. Having an acchiappino a.k.a. a person who is hired to haul people inside (imagine a reverse bouncer) would have been touristy – and thank goodness we didn't have one - but at his place was that sad mindset for which a restaurant could not be anything else but the quick satisfaction of a primary need like this:

“We've been walking under the sun for two hours, Mom! I'm hungry!"

“Ok, as soon as we get to the fountain we stop to eat at the first restaurant that doesn't look like a tourist trap”.

In fact, it was a refreshment point rather than a restaurant, more similar to a successful truck stop.

COVID was a catastrophe for this type of restaurant and now the funny thing is to see they looking as fishes out of water. A touristy restaurant cannot function without tourists.

Some hope for their return as in that of a messiah with socks and sandals and go with their days following their normal routine, others have understood that in order to survive they gotta get de-touristy-zized (as a young De Niro would say) meaning they have to gain a local clientele. Surprisingly many of them think they can do it without changing almost anything of their attitude towards hospitality and service. They think it is enough to make a few press statements and change something on the menu, getting rid of the fettuccine Alfredo.

Well, I think it's not that easy.

In theory, a haircut is not enough to change your mind. You must change something inside: a welcoming mentality, a desire to be professional in what you do, in the relationship with customers and with your staff. And if you're used to not being that, how do you learn it all at once?

Are touristy restaurants destined to die out like dinosaurs?

I do not know. What I do know is that, as always, the situation will have a tragic side but also a comic one like the sad and happy masks of the Comedy of Art. After all, those who work in restaurants have always loved to define their job as being on stage and the first job of many actors was: the server.

As soon as it gets dark, I'll take my seat in the front row and enjoy the show.

Like popcorn, certain things need to explode in order for us to understand that they were not edible.

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The Truffle Shuffle

Writes wine and drinks stuff, not necessarily in that order.