June 12, 2013 at 12:43 PM ET
Dear to the hearts of tourists visiting Rome are its picturesque piazzas dotted with cafés and restaurants, charming spots where they can enjoy a coffee or aperitif while taking in the architecture and local culture.
But the five main piazzas in the city's historical center are overflowing with tables, city officials say, causing them to crack down and establish quotas for how many tables each restaurant and bar can set outside.
"We had reached a rupture point: some areas were totally occupied by tables," Stefano Marin, municipal councilor of Rome's historic center, told NBC News. "The new rules will allow the rapid passage of ambulances and people will be able to walk freely along the streets."
In recent years the city has been cracking down on tourist behavior inside the historical center. In 2012, the city passed a law banning tourists from snacking on historic sites like the Spanish Steps, with fines running up to €500. That same year, the city banned performers outside the Coliseum who dress up as gladiators and get paid by tourists to pose for pictures. Street food vendors too have come under pressure from the city's historical authorities.
The trouble is that the entirety of Rome's historical center is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and authorities, in addition to the safety and egress concerns, believe that too many tables and their umbrellas limit views of the Pantheon and other monuments, create disorder and go against "public decorum."
That may be, but it will make it harder for visitors to find a good table in a piazza, and harder for bar owners, already struggling under the European economic crisis, to make money.
Michele Di Rienzo, who has owned the Di Rienzo cafe by the Pantheon for the past 60 years, told NBC news his outdoor table quota has already been reduced by 12 in the past few years.
"This is terrible for us. Tourists love sitting outside all-year round, even with the rain and cold," he said. Last year he was fined €70,000 for having seven extra tables. "If this law becomes effective, it would mean having to fire many of my workers,” said Rienzo.
Things are tougher for bar operators who rent their space. On Piazza Campo de’Fiori, Leonardo Loreti, owner of Sloppy Sam’s fears he will have to cut his tables from 32 to 20.
“I will die," he said. "Tell me, how will I survive with a 50-60 percent cut in profits?”
He also owns a disco, which he says the police shut down last year because it had too many people crowding inside and smoking at the entrance.
"It’s impossible to run a business in Rome,” said Loreti. “If there’s some important politician or ambassador living in the area who can’t stand the night buzz, he sends the police over and you close. Authorities say it’s a way to preserve the city, but they’re actually only looking for votes."
Saverio Ciccazzo runs the elegant Café Rosati on Piazza del Popolo, and two months ago won an important appeal. “Authorities wanted me to close for 5 days because the plastic curtains I placed outside to protect clients against the cold and rain were irregular. They demand we use one-meter tall fences which are totally useless because the wind passes through and clients freeze." A local court recognized the economic impact and let him keep the plastic curtains.
Despite the regulations, Rome's café-restaurants in the historic piazzas remain open, although you might have to wait longer for a table. Try these:
4/5a Piazza del Popolo; +39 06 322 7378, +39 06 322 5859; barrosati.com
23 Vicolo Santa Maria in Trastevere; +39 06 581 2026; ristorantisabatini.com
8/9 Piazza della Rotonda; +39 066869097; gruppodirienzo.com
9/10 Piazza Campo de' Fiori; +39 06 64014481; email@example.com