Rome guidebooks say an inexpensive meal in the Italian capital costs under $30, but on a recent visit, I was determined to spend less. And I did. Including snacks, drinks and lunches -- with continental breakfast included at our two-star hotel -- my husband and I spent under $250 on food for a week.
Besides packing lunches culled from grocery store visits and making meals from street vendors' offerings, I found a number of spots for gastronomy on a shoestring. First, a few tips. Rome may be called the Eternal City, but its eateries aren't open 24/7. Most full-fledged ristorantes don't open until 8 p.m. Pizzerias, trattorias and enotecas (wine bars with light meals) have more relaxed hours -- and some good deals. Near the Vatican, we found a $9 menu with pasta, salad and drink. Even near the Trevi Fountain, four courses, bread and a drink can cost just $18.
Also: Table bread isn't gratis. If you take even one roll, you'll be charged $1.50 or more per person. Wave the basket away to keep down costs.
Tap water is safe to drink, but you'll likely pay for it; I bought still or sparkling water after being charged $2.50 for tap. Soda can be costly; inexpensive drinks include Peroni beer, brewed in Rome since 1846, and red wine from the Castelli Romani region.
The following spots aren't listed in the Michelin guide, but rest assured, they're local favorites. All have no smoking rooms or areas, and all but the first place accept credit cards.
* La Montecarlo (Via Alessandria 106; Metro: Castro Pretorio).
This corner eatery -- discovered after a visit to nearby Villa Borghese -- with arched ceilings and thick tables serves wood-fired oven pizza (forno a legna) on crust so thin you can almost read through it. Nonetheless, the dough is sturdy enough to support toppings such as baked wild mushroom slivers or tomato and mozzarella wedges. Personal-size pizza is large enough to share, but we didn't. Salads are enormous bowls of mixed greens, red onions and good black olives dressed lightly in oil. Your bill will be written on the paper tablecloth. We paid about $28 for pizzas, salads and a carafe of wine.
* Il DuCa Ristorante-Pizzeria (Vicolo de' Cinque 56; Metro: none; cross Ponte Sisto).
Il DuCa's front windows are excellent for people-watching in Trastevere, Rome's medieval neighborhood. Our table was private in a cozy, rustic room. We had traditional Roman dishes: saltimbocca, thin veal slices with sage and prosciutto sauteed in white wine, and bucatini all'amatriciana, penne pasta in tomato pancetta sauce dusted liberally with grated Pecorino cheese. A tempura-battered platter included mozzarella cheese, squash blossoms and rice tomato croquette. It's easy to see why Il DuCa's lasagna is legendary: My noodles were extremely light, allowing the ground sirloin, thick tomato sauce and melted cheeses to dominate. Go early if you don't have reservations. With wine, we paid $39.72 for two.
* Ristorante la Soffitta (Via dei Villini 1; Metro: Castro Pretorio and Policlinico).
This is one of Rome's hottest spots for true pizza Napoletana -- not thin, not Sicilian, kind of in between. On a weeknight, the downstairs pizzeria was packed. Eating here is like watching theater -- servers glide through the room balancing pans up to three feet wide. Pan size depends on how many people are eating; the bigger the group, the bigger the pan. Located in a quiet embassy area not far from Porta Pia, La Soffitta serves pastas, meat and fish in a more dimly lit room upstairs. There are less expensive places for pizza, but go for its incomparable chewy crust. A massive pizza margherita and huge glasses of merlot cost $29.46. No reservations taken for the pizzeria.
* Ristorante Il Sorriso (Via Flavia 63-65; Metro: Repubblica).
Fish is the specialty at this cheery, yellow-walled place with pale blue tablecloths near Plaza Sallustrio, but the menu is wide. We went a la carte: I followed delicately sauteed veal scallopine with creamy, slightly peppery pasta carbonara. The swordfish was perfectly grilled, and the spaghetti with clams and garlic was among the best pasta of our trip. We watched as fresh pineapples and pears destined for dessert were plucked from a deli case topped with bottles of Chianti and chocolate syrup. Strolling musicians -- a guitarist and a saxophonist -- wove through tightly packed tables for tips. With a pitcher of house wine, we paid $55.24.
* Angelo Trattoria/Pizzeria (Via Gioberti 35/A; Metro: Termini).
The train station area isn't known for good dining, and guides say it should be avoided after dark. But I found a touristy place (dead giveaway: a menu in several languages) to recommend. Not far from the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Angelo's has fixed-price menus and a large a la carte selection, as well as pizzas for less than $4. Plus, it serves dinner early. Brocade tablecloths and wood panels give Angelo's a homey touch. My four-course meal consisted of zucchini-laden vegetable soup, roast chicken, lemon-laced spinach and zabaglione, a white cake with cream filling. Another good choice was roast beef, meaty lasagna, green salad and a fresh fruit medley. With bread, a bottle of Peroni beer and espressos, we paid $32.42.
Mario the waiter brightened my spirits when he played a joke on me; he pretended to spill my espresso, but it was an empty cup attached to a string. I'm popping in to see him on my next visit.
-- Sue Kovach Shuman