The Italian trattoria: how to survive 25 years in the restaurant world

The Italian trattoria: how to survive 25 years in the restaurant world

For the 25th anniversary of the restaurant, we asked Fabiola Di Vittorio, owner of the Tram Tram in Rome, to explain to us how to resist in today’s catering.

It is the dream of more and more people: to open a restaurant , say goodbye to desks and tags to be stamped, go in search of products and wines to discover, have direct contact with the public and always meet new people. All sacrosanct things, of course. But the restaurateur’s job is anything but roses and flowers.passion is not enough for the profession of the restaurateur, but determination, patience, perseverance and the ability to change are neededAnd passion is not enough; you need to have determination, patience, perseverance and also the ability to change when needed. Because if starting a restaurant business is (relatively) easy, it is much more complex to make it last over time, overcoming fashions, trends and alternating phases of the economy. It is no coincidence that in recent years there has been a continuous flowering of new openings, of which however many do not even celebrate the first anniversary. And, especially in Rome , there are also many historical brands that give way to new catering formats or completely different activities. For this reason, the 25 years celebrated this year (or rather, technically in December 2016) by the Tram Tram(via dei Reti, 46), tavern-bottle shop in the San Lorenzo district that combines the Apulian maritime tradition with the Roman one, is a very respectable goal. Especially considering that it is an activity started a little by chance and a little out of necessity by neophytes (at the time) of catering. We asked Fabiola Di Vittorio , the soul of the restaurant together with her mother Rosa Anna and her sister Antonella, to tell us how the Tram Tram was born – the name refers to the nearby tram tracks and to the curious furnishings that reflect original elements of the world railway-tramway, from vintage photos to train racks as shelves for wine – and above all how it has come up to date without giving in to compromises.


Fabiola, when and how was the Tram Tram born?
My mother was born in Rome but has origins from Puglia, from Foggia, and has always been an excellent house cook. When my father died, she first started working as a cook for the Foreign Press Association and then, at the insistence of some of my friends who greatly appreciated her cuisine, we decided to start the place in partnership with them. So, in December 1991, we opened the Tram Tram which we soon took over entirely. At the time I was working in the cinema world but I was very interested in wine, and San Lorenzo was living its heyday: it was an area frequented by actors, intellectuals, in short, the Roman intelligentsia. The level restaurants were few but successful, from the historic Pommidoroto Uno and Bino. Then there was us, one of the first taverns with a wine list, a wine bar area complete with a counter where you can stop just for a drink and a simple but refined cuisine, especially in the raw materials. We immediately had a tremendous success, confirmed by guides and awards.

Therefore a formula for success. What were the crucial elements?
Certainly my mother and her kitchen. She always defines herself as a house cook and still today, at 78, she stays in the kitchen making gnocchi every Thursday and often goes out to greet customers with floured hands. People are fond of her and she contributes to the authentic aspect, even a little folkloric, of the place; for her, success was a great gift of life after so many difficult years. In the kitchen there is a chef from Bangladesh to give her a hand, he has been with us since the beginning and does something crazy! But some dishes, especially those contaminated by Southern tradition, are only from my mother: the tiella of potatoes and mussels, the anchovy and endive pie that she makes in a versionsudista adding raisins, pine nuts and pecorino cheese. People, today more than ever, are looking for a return to simplicity but also a lot of attention. I have always been involved in doing a lot of research on products, I started with wine but then I also dedicated a lot of attention to extra virgin olive oil and the rest. We get the meat from an excellent local butcher’s shop, cold cuts and cheeses are those selected by Vincenzo Mancino for DOL . We have never saved on raw materials even if it becomes increasingly difficult to make ends meet.


What has changed in these 25 years?
Unfortunately, the golden age of San Lorenzo is over. Today the neighborhood has been almost entirely handed over to the University, there are mainly students with little money and little attention to quality food, although there are exceptions of course, and there is a general degradation. We are on the edge of the most chaotic area, but you still have to get there and then you get the traffic, the difficulty of parking, etc. And people, in general, spend less easily. Then you know, this is a sector that is affected by trends. There are so many people who have been regular customers for years and then suddenly they disappeared. Then maybe they come back and I tell you “ I don’t even know why I haven’t come anymore“. But it does mean that you can never take anything for granted and you have to be able to adjust the shot a bit.

What have you done to keep up with the times and overcome even difficult moments?
We have never given in to compromises and we have remained consistent with what we were and wanted to do from the beginning: a tavern with attention to quality. It wouldn’t have made sense to start making sandwiches or quick meals, there are already so many bars for this. Of course then you have to know how to evolve, things keep up with the times and overcome difficult times, you need to know how to evolve, things changeOver time, for example, we have lightened up the kitchen a bit and in recent years, alongside fish dishes, we have introduced some traditional Roman dishes that we had never done but that people are returning to appreciate: for example the fifth quarter or the wrong gricia, with Roman zucchini. And on Thursdays there are always gnocchi with mutton sauce. On wine it was more difficult: it no longer sells as it once did and I had to introduce half bottles which I don’t like at all. I would like to push more on the glass but it is not easy and I have a little difficulty in proposing wines of a certain prestige by the glass, perhaps also because people do not perceive the Tram Tram as a place where, in addition to eating, you also drink well: this is my sorry. Then my mother never wanted to abandon even the bulk of the house, even if I chose the one from a small organic winery that I really like. With regard to the restaurant, however, we have not made major changes: this year for the first time we have been closed for a long time for structural work and we have taken the opportunity to refurbish by changing the colors of the walls and making everything more airy, in line with the times. By chance it coincided with the 25th anniversary of the restaurant, but there was no upheaval. The fundamental elements, from the 40s-style tables and chairs to the particular lamps that a friend of mine designed, have remained. However much we can evolve and refine we will remain what we are, our footprint does not change.


What about the prices? Have they changed over the years?
Not a lot, we have an average bill of around 37 euros per person against 35 in the first years. Indeed, now we have decided to keep the prices even a little lower for traditional dishes, especially for second courses. With the first courses it is difficult: if you keep a price too low and the customer only takes a plate of pasta, which is a nice generous portion as it should be in a tavern, you don’t want to go into it!

How is your clientele made up today? And how does it get to you?
Let’s say that compared to the past it is less glamorous : fewer people from the cinema are, also because I have now left that sector, but someone still comes back. There are many alternative couples , from 30 upwards, who also come from other areas of Rome just to eat with us, and sometimes even some very young enthusiasts. Until the end of the 90’s we were considered a trendy place, then there was a more difficult phase: for us, for the neighborhood and in general. But now it seems to me that there is a bit of a revival, new people arrive and someone comes back after a long time. This makes me very happy. There are also several foreign customers: they come here with the guide in hand and are more attentive, they appreciate the natural wine, the particular products. In general, guides and magazines are certainly important while I have never wanted to spend a euro on advertising, in my opinion it is useless. I am very sorry that the Tram Tram came out of the Slow Food Osterie d’Italia guide – probably for those two euros more than the average price – because in my opinion it represented us perfectly. But in general we are treated well.

Tram tram

How are things on the digital front? How do you relate to blogs, TripAdvisor and the like?
We are on The Fork circuit but because a friend put me there. For the rest, I don’t pay much attention to TripAdvisor. At first I got angry, there were a couple of unpleasant episodes and a lot of criticism that tell us to be expensive, or rather to be expensive for San Lorenzo. The neighborhood is perceived as low but in reality the costs are not at all! In general, I find the reviews left by foreign customers to be more truthful.

And the famous generational conflict, how did you deal with it?
To be honest my mom and I – my sister took over later to help us out – we were quite in tune at the beginning, I let her do a lot in the kitchen and I mainly followed the wines but I also continued to take care of other things. At a certain point, however, when I started to devote myself more to the club, I wanted to change and I took a little escape. I didn’t go far: I opened the Baràbook, a bar-bookshop right in front of it! But then I came back, my mom missed me too and allowed me to make some changes.

What are in your opinion the most critical points you have had to face?
More than anything else, it’s hard to make ends meet, especially with rent to pay and staff to manage. We do everything there is to do, today my kitchen Elisabetta also helps us, but alone we would not be able to do everything. From a human point of view, however, we have been lucky: many of our collaborators have been with us for many years and are practically family members. My mother has always been a mother for everyone, even too much! But it’s nice like this, even if the costs are different and the law doesn’t help a lot. I do not deny that there were moments when I thought about giving up but then I always tell myself to wait, to be patient. Surely as long as my mother is alive, the Tram Tram does not close!

tram tram

In summary, what do you think is your secret to success?
For me it is important to maintain your characteristics: if you want to do everything or accept to upset who you are just to have a momentary success, that’s not good. For example, I refused to put the burger on the menu when it seemed like you couldn’t do without it. For me it is important to find a balance between the necessary innovation and the ability to maintain one’s identity, even with one’s own flaws. We have focused on quality raw materials, courtesy and a smile even when we fail to be perfect. And we are good with the times: with us people never wait too long despite the fact that they are mostly express dishes and it is appreciated.

What advice would you give, to those who are opening a restaurant or a trattoria now, to go on for a long time?
To breathe hard! Seriously, it’s really hard work. You have to decide what you want to do, have very specific characteristics as I said before. But it is also important to have the right personality: you need to be able to guide people, to be able to pass on your knowledge in a relaxed way and to choose the things that best suit them, for wine as well as for books. Besides, it’s better not to invest too much money! If I had to start over I would probably make a place even simpler, with a few less dishes on the menu. Going back is more difficult, people get used to finding some things from you but if you start like that, it’s much easier to manage.

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