Piazza pivot: the restaurant bringing back locals to Rome’s most famous square
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This article is part of a new guide to Rome from FT Globetrotter
When I ventured into central Rome for the first time after the lockdown was lifted in early May, I encountered what felt like a different world. Piazza Navona, the first place I visited — and one of Italy’s most famous squares — was almost deserted.
The typically bustling area was for once devoid of the usual tourists taking selfies in front of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, artists selling their portraits and the inevitable street vendors. Due to the lack of footfall, grass had made its way between the cobblestones (or sanpietrini), providing unexpected colour to the piazza. For the first time, I could hear the sound of the water gushing from the mouth of the travertine Tritons and the rocks under the obelisk at the centre of the square.
Like many others living in Rome, I felt selfishly happy to have this stunning place all to myself. It was suddenly hard to believe that Piazza Navona had always been regarded by locals as a place to avoid — a tourist hotspot such as Piccadilly Circus or Times Square, with overpriced restaurants and chaotic crowds, only to be circumvented en route to somewhere else. No one would have predicted that the tourists would stop coming one day — especially the owners of the restaurants, bars and cafés around the piazza.
With the number of foreign visitors vastly reduced, the majority of these businesses reopened without customers. Despite the newfound calm, Romans were still not willing to be overcharged for the privilege of sitting with a coffee or a spritz on the square. Most tables were empty and waiters looked bored, standing by the plastic placards displaying tourist menus.
But one restaurant seized the unique opportunity granted by the lockdown to reinvent itself and quickly adapted to a new clientele: Romans who were starting to reclaim the empty city centre.
Earlier this year, 32-year-old business graduate Filippo De Sanctis and his brother, Tommaso, a 28-year-old chef, took over their family’s restaurant, Camillo, which overlooks the fountain in the centre of the piazza. Their great-grandfather, after whom the restaurant is named, originally opened it as a souvenir shop in 1890, and their father Enrico converted it into a restaurant around 30 years ago.
The menu at Camillo rarely changed over that period, and nor did its clientele: hurried tourists who came to wolf down fettuccine alfredo atop red and white chequered tablecloths in a traditional dining room.
During Italy’s lockdown — one of the strictest in Europe — the De Sanctis brothers realised that they could eventually reopen and continue to serve the same menu they had for decades, or use the time to prepare themselves for a shift in tourism and redevelop their offering for local diners.
“Traditionally, the main target of commercial activities on this square has been mass tourism, and so far, it worked well for pretty much everyone here, including us,” says Filippo. “We saw the chance to develop a more sustainable model, replacing mass tourism with quality tourism. But most of all we want to be a restaurant that Romans are willing to come to.”
Tommaso spent his days during lockdown bustling around in the kitchen, mixing spices and discovering new flavours. “I was like a mad scientist with my test tubes and experiments,” he says of his efforts to create a more worldly menu that would appeal to a younger generation of well-travelled Italians.
When Camillo reopened at the end of May, the old tourist menu had been replaced with a brand-new list of dishes, combining affordability, modernity and quality ingredients. Main courses start at €7, smaller sharing plates are available and the brothers also introduced the “Drinketto”, a takeaway aperitivo priced at €3.5 (compared to the €9 drinks served before lockdown) — a popular addition among the locals now venturing into the centre.
“I hadn’t had a drink on the square for years, but I want to make the most of it now,” says Andrea Di Chiara, a marketing manager from Rome, as he enjoys a takeaway Aperol spritz next to the fountain opposite the restaurant.
Camillo’s dishes today still include Roman classics such as cacio e pepe, but he’s added a contemporary twist to old favourites such as carbonara, which now comes in the shape of a fried crunchy cube — a real explosion of flavour — and “Lasagnetta Funk”, a small lasagne made with zighini, a spiced Ethiopian beef ragù. A spectacular Korean fried chicken with gochujang sauce is also on the menu, as well as fettuccine with Alpine butter, miso and lime zest — a new interpretation of pasta alfredo with the addition of unexpected ingredients.
The former clientele consisting of hurried tourists the occasional table of policymakers (the Italian senate is just behind the corner) has been replaced by Roman professionals and expats, who began congregating at Camillo following write-ups in local newspapers and food blogs.
Other restaurants in the piazza are still struggling to adapt to business without high-volume tourism. One local restaurateur, who wished to remain anonymous, said it was difficult to survive. When asked what they were doing to address the problem, he replied: “There is not much we can do apart from wait for the tourists to come back.”
But nearby, the De Sanctis brothers are doing a roaring trade. On a Tuesday night in October, almost five months after they reopened, the tables outside are all occupied with Italians, chatting away and enjoying a balmy al fresco dinner.
“Even in highly touristy areas [such as this], there are locals who live here. Sometimes it’s difficult to know who lives here, as everyone seems to be just passing through,” says Tommaso. “But we may have created something for the community — we already have regular clients who order ‘the usual’.”
Sitting with friends while sipping a glass of Barbera, a full-bodied red wine from Piedmont, Paolo Vaiano, a local resident in his thirties, says he’s glad to finally be able to enjoy one the most stunning places in the neighbourhood, now that Camillo is offering food and wine that is up to rigorous Italian standards, if not above: “Piazza Navona has always been considered by Romans as just a beautiful place to be looked at as you hurry to the quieter bars in the streets behind the square.
“Until a couple of months ago, it was impossible to think of actually spending time here, or eating something decent in one of these restaurants that seem to have been created exclusively for tourists with no knowledge of Italian food,” he adds. “But here we are — who’d have thought?”
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