An Insider’s Guide to Garbatella, Rome’s Charming Garden Suburb

This article is part of a guide in Rome from FT Globetrotter

If you are romantic in nature, walk in Rome garbatelle neighborhood will make you feel like you are in a fairy tale. If you’re a history buff, it’s like opening a book with perfectly preserved pages. If architecture and urban planning are your passions, you will certainly be satisfied, while gourmets will be delighted with the charming restaurants scattered throughout this leafy district.

The neighborhood is known for its lotti — social housing blocks built in the 1920s-30s © Olimpia Piccolo

Whatever you’re looking for, you’re likely to find it in this historic district just south of central Rome, where amid secret gardens and courtyards, the chaos of the Eternal City eases to a point of tranquility. .

“Here in Garbatella, you can’t help but feel serene and at peace with the universe,” local resident Sergio Pannunzio said as he proudly showed me the linen-adorned faded red buildings that looked artfully arranged for a photography. “It’s one of the few neighborhoods where you can still feel the sense of community of the past. It’s like stepping back in time.” Children here still play football unsupervised and mothers call them out the window when lunch is ready.

Cars parked outside the corner of a building in Piazza Geremia Bonomelli - a blue car drives past

A lotto in Piazza Geremia Bonomelli

Customers seated outside Bar dei Cesaroni

Bar dei Cesaroni appeared in a popular Italian TV series about a Roman family, ‘I Cesaroni’ © Olimpia Piccolo (2)

Garbatella is relatively young compared to other neighborhoods in Rome. It was founded in 1920 to provide railway workers and dockers with social housing. When Mussolini came to power, he further expanded Garbatella for working-class Romans, having demolished entire neighborhoods to make way for the monumental fascist architecture of the city center.

Over the years Garbatella, although little known to visitors, has arguably become one of Rome’s most interesting neighborhoods with its very different individual houses and eclectic array of traditional restaurants and trendy bars. For me, the best way to explore it is to follow your instincts and wander along its winding, uneven streets and stairs, but if you want to follow a pre-planned route, a good place to start is at Benedetto Brin Square, a square with a fountain in its center which is considered the main entrance to the district. This is where the first stone was laid at the beginning of the construction of the district; you can see it nestled in the large arch that greets you.

The gardens, the courtyard and the Loto n°5 building
Lotto No. 5 is one of Garbatella’s largest residential complexes, many of which have gardens in their courtyards © Olimpia Piccolo

After passing through the arch, you will find yourself in a small inner courtyard, which was the heart of public housing in the early 20th century. Look up and admire the different colors of the houses. From here, go down Via Luigi Orlando to see typical examples of the region lotto, or residential blocks. the lotto were designed by various architects and built over 20 years, showcasing a diverse range of styles, including medieval, Renaissance and Baroque, all blending seamlessly together.

Garbatella follows the English garden city movement, with low-rise housing overlooking gardens and central courtyards. As you walk down the street, take a peek into the lotto gardens – they are open to the public (I suggest Lotto #5, one of the larger ones). Local residents are now used to strangers sneaking around, but be discreet and respectful.

Coffee, a pastry and a glass of juice on a tray on a table at Bar Foschi

Stop for a quick breakfast at the typical Italian Foschi bar

The facade of the Palladium Theater

The Palladium theatre, built in the 1920s, is one of the venues for the annual Romaeuropa festival in the Italian capital © Olimpia Piccolo (2)

At the end of Via Luigi Orlando you will find a square, Bartolomeo Romano Squarewhere you can stop for breakfast at Bar Foschi, a typical Italian coffee. Swig a al volo coffee (coffee on the fly) at the bar, as if your espresso was a shot of tequila, or enjoy a frothy cappuccino and a pistachio or jam croissant at one of the tables outside and enjoy the view.

From there you can see the local theatre, the Palladium, an Art Nouveau-style building designed in the 1920s by architect Innocenzo Sabbatini. It was created to provide cultural activities for local residents and has hosted concerts, film festivals and exhibitions over the decades. Today it is managed by Roma Tre University and is one of the places of Romaeuropa Festivala celebration of art, performance, contemporary dance, theatre, music and film that takes place annually in the city.

The street art around Via Francesco Passino deviates from this vast fresco. . .

. . . to more modest efforts © Olimpia Piccolo (2)

In the streets around the theater you will come across different types of graffiti that the neighborhood is famous for, celebrating the artistic freedom and bohemian soul of Garbatella. To take Via Francesco Passino and head to Damiano Sauli Squarewhere the gentle curves and colors of the initial stretch of the road transform into the towering block-like buildings of this Fascist-era plaza.

The gray cubes don’t exactly offer the warmth of Roman life, so keep walking Via Giacomo Rho and turn left on Via Roberto de Nobiliwhere you will reach another colorful square that houses a famous cafe: Bar dei Cesaroni. It bears the name I Cesaroni, a popular Italian television series (2006-2014) about a large Roman family whose life revolves around the neighborhood. The cafe was one of the show’s main sets.

Nearby you will find Ambra alla Garbatella, a theater and performance space that also hosts film and music events, as well as art exhibitions throughout the year. The theater has a reading room and a small restaurant, L’Ambretta, which serves wine and small snacks.

Water gushing from the woman's mouth depicted on the Fontana della Carlotta

Dating back to the 1920s, Fontana della Carlotta represents a legendary local figure

The foot of a grand staircase

The fountain is at the foot of a large staircase © Olimpia Piccolo (2)

From there, walk to Fountain of the Carlottalocated at the foot of a long staircase that leads to Place Giuseppe Sapeto. The fountain depicts a long-haired young woman, known as Carlotta, who is said to have greeted travelers arriving in the neighborhood in its early days. She is considered one of the symbols of Garbatella.

At this point you may be feeling peckish, but before lunch, stop at Piazza di San Eurosia for a prosecco or a spritz in one of the bars overlooking the square. This is where director Nanni Moretti in Dear Diarya 1993 film loved by the Romans, says “Le quartiere che mi piace più di tutti è la Garbatella” (my favorite neighborhood is above all Garbatella) as he speeds along on his Vespa.

A Caprese salad and a glass of red wine on a table at Il Timoniere trattoria

A Caprese salad at Il Timoniere, a traditional trattoria housed in one of Garbatella’s ‘alberghi’

Tables, chairs and traditional trattoria decor at Il Timoniere

Il Timoniere has changed little in 90 years of existence © Olimpia Piccolo

From the square, come back to Via Francesco Orazio da Pennabiliwhere you will find some traditional restaurants including Li Scalini by Marisa (Marisa’s Stairs), a historic trattoria serving huge portions of excellent classic Roman dishes such as carbonara, grinned and carciofi alla romana (Roman-style artichokes) at a modest price.

Another favorite restaurant is He Helmsman, a small trattoria run by Luciana Di Marzio and her daughter Margherita Poduti, which has hardly changed in over 90 years. It’s in the basement of one of the so-called alberghi (“hotels”), erected to accommodate the Romans who were expelled from the area next to St. Peter’s Square when Mussolini built the monumental Via della Conciliazione. Luciana will know what you should have that day. Trust it: you might end up eating the best amateur of your life.

A statue flanked by two palm trees outside the colonnaded Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
Saint Paul Outside the Walls — one of the four main papal basilicas in Rome © Wiskerke/Alamy

If you have time to take a short detour, just outside Garbatella is one of Rome’s four ancient basilicas, Saint Paul outside the walls. With its spectacular colonnade, it is one of the most majestic churches in Rome, as well as one of the four highest churches in the eyes of the papacy (with the basilicas of Saint Peter, Saint John in Lateran and Sainte-Marie-Majeure). Although outside the Vatican State, it is administered by the Holy See and was built where Saint Paul was buried in the 4th century.

Towards the end of the day, head to Geremia Bonomelli Square to know more lotto to explore and pretty streets to photograph. When you’re ready to return to modern life, do for Garbatella Latteria, a trendy bar and symbol of soft gentrification that is slowly adding to the area without destroying it. End your visit with a glass of wine and the aperitif of the day.

Photography by Olimpia Piccolo

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