THE young waitress, hair tied up and black T-shirt tugged over one shoulder, was marking up the menu with her suggestions for a 10-euro tasting flight at Open Baladin, a spot in the historic center of Rome that serves over 100 Italian-made beers.
I noted that she was using lopsided hearts, not check marks or asterisks to signal her choices: an ale from Rieti, a Belgian-style beer from Varese and a weissbier from Milan.
"I'm putting hearts because my heart is crushed," she explained, before repenting and turning the hearts into circles. She was apparently luckier in beer than in love; her recommendations had strong, distinctive personalities. We chatted for an hour.
Ten euros for a three-beer flight was reasonable, but my assignment was to see Rome as cheaply as possible, and that ruled out the three-year-old bar as a hangout for much longer. I asked her if there was anywhere in the touristy center that you could get good wine for, say, 3 euros a glass. Why yes. She knew of just the place: Il Vinaietto, an adorable wine shop nearby that, come quitting time, sells wine by the glass starting at 2 euros to an after-work crowd of regulars. Furthermore, people were very friendly there, she said, and scribbled out a note to the owner, her friend, asking her to look after me.
Rome is expensive, but if you're going to be thrifty anywhere it might as well be here, where waitresses spill their guts and then direct you to the best deal in the city for cheap wine.
It might as well be here, where luxury is a hallmark, but simple pleasure -- food, history and beauty -- can be had for a song. Where inbred spontaneity means anyone might become a momentary friend or temporary guide.
Yes, it might as well he here, where 61 euros a night, about $78 at $1.28 to the euro, will get you a room for two in Paradise. The Pensione Paradise, that is, a tidy but cramped guesthouse occupying an upper floor of a traditional apartment house just feet from the Lepanto metro stop and not far from the Vatican. My room, which was ready when I checked in at midday, was tiny but clean, as was the shared bathroom down the hall. (My only warning about the place: the bed, perfect for one, would have been extra-piccolo for two. By which I mean it was fine if you and your partner are the size of half-sized flutes.)
Drinking and wandering and sleeping aside, Rome is also great for eating on a budget. After all, its tradition of cheap nourishment goes back to the mythical story of its founder being suckled gratis by a she-wolf. (Though no server in history was more deserving of a tip, a gratuity was not expected then and is still not today.)
Of course you can survive on the city's two most famous foods, pizza and gelato, for almost nothing. But I was thrilled to find that the city also provides courtesy beverages (with unlimited refills) from its ubiquitous old fontanelle, or water fountains, which pretty much all reports conclude are cool, delicious and safe to drink.
And along with the water, much of Rome's history is free, too. Yes, you will pay to see the Sistine Chapel and to enter the Colosseum (15 euros and 15.50 euros respectively) but not to visit the Trevi Fountain, the 2,000-year-old hulking Pantheon or the Parco degli Acquedotti, a park you get to by taking the subway to the Giulio Agricola stop.
I went one afternoon after spending my morning chatting with Filipino nuns, listening to a Singaporean church choir in the Pantheon and popping in and out of churches. (Though churches are free, I admit the works of art look better if you pop a euro coin into the "Per L'Illuminazione" slot and light them up. With a bit of patience you can usually freeload off someone else's glow.)
Parco degli Acquedotti is not so much a tourist attraction as a place of recreation for Romans. "Ho hum," they seem to be saying, "just the remnants of one of the world's greatest feats of urban engineering," as they ride bikes by or munch on panini next to 2,000-year-old arches. The park has a lazy, unkempt feel to it, and when I visited in early June it was full of purple wildflowers. Before going in I had combed the neighborhood and found a tiny organic shop called Mia Market, where I bought a piece of eggplant-and-tomato quiche, fruit and piece of cake for about 8 euros.
It was good, but not my best meal in town. That I pieced together from the Testaccio Market in the neighborhood of the same name, which at the time was in the final days in its former location before it moved to more modern digs off Via Galvini a few blocks away.
Traditional markets are among my favorite places -- they're like edible museums -- and most of the time my instinct is to buy everything in sight. But here the feeling was different: I wanted to befriend one of the grandmotherly shoppers who seemed to be buying precisely the right things to make a delicious lunch I was not yet invited to. It didn't happen, but I did drop 5 euros for Parmigiano-Reggiano, salami and prosciutto at a stand called Macelleria Boatini. I was scouting out cherries at a fruit stand when the vendor, who spoke surprisingly good English, learned I was from New York and asked me an unusual follow-up.
"Are you from the Bronx?" he said. It's not usually people's first guess, but he explained that much of his family had emigrated there. (Most have since come back.) He introduced himself as Thomas. "Call him Tomassino," interrupted a middle-aged customer, "because he's small." Everyone, including Tomassino's Moroccan employee, laughed. No one seemed in a rush, so we chatted a bit more about Italians in the Bronx. As I left, Tomassino stuffed two complimentary oranges into my bag.
I toted my supplies around for a while, later adding some pizza bianca, and ended up eating it at a nondescript piazza. By nondescript, I mean Rome nondescript: men walking poodles around a double-decker fountain that resembles a giant version of something you'd use for chocolate fondue, immigrant workers taking a break on benches.
A market-fresh picnic is going to be good no matter what, but what made mine unbeatable was the prosciutto, which was so thinly sliced and silkily moist that it draped over my fingers like wet tissue paper.
Though bargains may be scattered (like ruins) throughout the older quarters of the city, certain elegant neighborhoods are best avoided entirely -- Parioli and the area around Via Veneto, for example. But Trastevere -- across the Tiber, as its name literally means -- is bargain-friendly, offering great walking, a lovely church and nicely priced bistros like Cave Canem, where I had a crispy pizza topped with bursting halved Pachino tomatoes for 6.50 euros. Once you get farther out beyond the ruin zone, you'll be fine.
The Centro Storico, the historic center, however, takes finesse. Yes, there is affordable wine, but it's quite a tricky place to eat on the cheap, unless you try your luck with one of the "tourist menu" prix fixe meals on offer, which sounded grim to me. A friend had told me about Filetti di Baccalà, a tiny restaurant on Largo dei Librari off the Via dei Giubbonari. Their signature dish, battered and deep-fried cod fillets, were a couple of euros. Um, actually 4.50 euros. I tried one for the heck of it, and though it was good, it wasn't 4.50 euros good. Or 4.50 euros big, either. I was still starving.
So I wandered the streets around Campo de' Fiori until my eye caught a hamburger counter that was named, in what can only be an act of self-parody, Special Alta Gastronomia. A meal-size salad with whatever you want -- lettuce, peppers, corn, eggplant, tuna, fried bits of potato and much more -- was just 3.50 euros. Sold. A Roman family slid over to make room for me on the lone bench and, of course, struck up a conversation.
Father: "You're hungry."
Me: "It's good."
Father: "Everything tastes good when you're hungry."
AS my colleague Mr. Sherwood points out, there is plenty of art in Rome. But not everyone is going to find themselves in the Louis Vuitton screening room. For the rest of us, there is the artistic mayhem that is Circolo degli Artisti, a combination nightclub/art gallery/theater festival/party space/pizzeria. On the night I went, the sprawling, part-indoor, part-outdoor space was home to a punk rock concert, clustered exhibitions by young Italian artists and mini-plays or dramatic readings in oddly intimate spaces. Despite the artistic action, some people just drank beer or played pool; I managed to score a free piece of cake by crashing a birthday party being held in the middle of it all for a worker in the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance. The cake (like the Italian economy) was not great. But free is free.
Another feature of modern day Rome is immigrants (also a feature of ancient Rome). I decided to head to one of the cheapest neighborhoods in town, the area around the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, populated largely with newcomers from East and South Asia, and Africa. Shopping was the last thing I had in mind, but I was drawn into the multilevel discount department store, MAS-Magazzini allo Statuto, where bins were heaped with 1-euro polo shirts and racks filled with 15-euro sports jackets. I ended up buying a 10-euro military-green jacket with a removable liner that I hoped would see me through a Scandinavian summer. (It did.)
But that was not the best deal I found. Needing a haircut, I found the Chinese-run Hair Salon Ping, just off the piazza, where a decent haircut cost just 10 euros. Even better, it came with a long, luxurious shampoo and scalp massage.
Neither the stylist nor hair-washing person were all that chatty; I learned nothing of their lives, and they seemed at most bemused by my own jabbering. But I spotted a worn-out copy of a Chinese-Italian dictionary on the counter. They were working on it. It was only a matter of time before they would be sharing romantic troubles and recommending bargain bars like natives.
SETH KUGEL writes the Frugal Traveler column.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.