It is a familiar refrain heard from most American tourists when visiting Rome, or for that matter visiting any European capital: "Everything is so expensive in Europe these days: hotels, flights, souvenirs and food!"
Of course it doesn't help that this year it has taken anywhere between $1.26 and $1.60 to buy one euro, depending on when you may have visited. And, yes, if you have your cappuccino, sip your Tuscan red wine or savor one of the hundreds of excellent dishes that Rome can offer while sitting outside in any of the beautiful piazzas of Rome to watch the world go by, you are going to pay even more.
When I first came to live in Rome, the Italians were still using lire. I remember my friends telling me then that any place that charges more than 10,000 lire (roughly $4.45 in 1999) for a plate of pasta was a rip-off. That was the most you should consider to pay for a plate of spaghetti with clams or fresh fettuccine with porcini mushrooms.
Then the euro came and, yes, everything went up in cost -- I don't care what the economists say. Almost overnight a 10,000 lire plate of pasta became 10 euros.
The old adage became "don't pay more than 12 euros for a plate of pasta" and it is common these days for moderately priced restaurants to charge 15 euros for your rigatoni all' amatriciana since the price of pasta has shot up 25 percent here in the last year.
Then to make things worse the dollar plummeted in 2008 making our old standby favorite pasta dish -- with the price converted from euros to dollars -- about $20 or so a plate.
For those who have planned and saved for a trip to Italy you know that when you get here you should not scrimp when it comes to enjoying the food. After all, you are on vacation!
But for Italians and expatriates like myself that call Italy home, eating out takes a big bite out of your wallet. This is especially true in the center of historic Rome where the dining is geared toward tourists and business people. So imagine our surprise when my wife and I stumbled across a little family-owned restaurant with good food near our home that almost makes it cheaper to eat out then to cook in.
It's less than a half mile from the famed Piazza Navona, heading toward Castel St. Angelo, past the tourist restaurants and bars on Via Tor Millina and the famous Caffé Della Pace.
Tucked on a side street you will find the nondescript Da Osvaldo Hostaria. Most people walk by it heading for the crowded outside seating of the other busy restaurants on Via Monte Giordano. The two small tables outside are usually empty, and to peer inside it looks a bit lonely. But don't judge Da Osvaldo from first impressions.
Trust me, you are not coming to Da Osvaldo for the atmosphere. This is a mom-and-pop-style restaurant where the spirit of "Pop" (Osvaldo), who died many year ago, still exists. Maria Grazia, "Mom," a kind, portly woman, politely waddles from table to kitchen to serve what her son is cooking up in the back.
Outside, taped on the door, are the daily specials, which are handwritten with Magic Markers scrawled onto photocopy paper.
The menu is pretty straightforward. Stick with the pasta dishes, soups, meat and vegetables and avoid the pizza because they are not made from scratch and are not cooked in a wood oven.
My favorites when in season are the spaghetti with "telline," small, sweet clams. My wife, a true Roman, normally tries the polenta with small pork ribs.
The secret of the place (in fact in all restaurants in Rome) is to see what is fresh that day. Wander to the back and glance under the lace cloth that covers the daily selection of seasonal vegetables that can be eaten at room temperature or reheated in a sauté pan.
The bruschetta is always delicious, the regional soups filling, the scaloppine done like any Italian grandmother would do.
And the best part about this place is the prices! Check the specials of the day -- three courses for 8 euros ($11) including a glass of wine.
Maria Grazia's regular customers are the shopkeepers and laborers who work in the area, but she is warm and welcoming to tourists who enter. Bring your dictionary -- no English is spoken in this family restaurant. But don't let that deter you as the menu has sort-of English descriptions. The eight tables have clean linens and simple decorations to welcome you, but you may find the heating a bit wanting in the winter time.
I have been a little hesitant to reveal our neighborhood spot. I have never seen it in a guide book though the place has been around for 30 years or more. But with economic times tough out there for the businessperson and tourist alike I thought now was the time to share this little gem.
It won't be the meal you rave about when you get home, but it will be satisfying and a bargain compared to the surrounding choices. Maria Grazia may be a bit surprised when English speakers start turning up regularly, but she'll kindly offer you a good home-cooked meal and there will still be money to splurge on ice cream for later in the day.