Eat like a Roman: discover traditional Roman cuisine

Debra Thimmesch | 20/05/2019
A classic roman dish, spaghetti carbonara.
A classic roman dish, spaghetti carbonara.

Rome isn’t simply one of the most beautiful cities in the world — it’s also one of the most delicious. If you’re planning a trip to the Eternal City, you owe it to yourself to experience the remarkable diversity of traditional Roman cuisine.

A rich culinary history

As an expanding empire, Rome not only tapped into the traditions of its subjects from England to the Far East, it also left its indelible imprint behind when it departed. 

While pasta and pizza are part of the story of traditional Roman fare, there’s a lot more to this ancient culinary tale, beginning with the Greeks. When Rome was in its infancy more than 2,000 years ago, its citizens acquired a lot from then-longstanding Greek civilization. These imports were then combined with original Roman culture. 

Today Rome is a fragrant melting pot of international cuisines. That said, visitors who are dedicated to finding truly local foods and dishes can still find options aplenty. Notably, even within the context of authentic, traditional Roman fare, influences are diverse. Hearty, peasant fare can coalesce nicely with high cuisine, Roman culinary inventions, and ancient Jewish influences.

Your casual five-course Italian meal

The Roman meal, like that of any Italian city, is split into five courses. It begins with the antipasto, the appetizer, which consists most often marinated or fried vegetables and cured meats. Next comes the primo (first) course, which will be the starch course — usually one of four traditionally Roman pasta dishes.

The secondo course will be meat, sometimes roasted or stewed, sometimes lightly floured and fried. Along with the meat you’ll be served contorni (side dishes), which in most restaurants vary by day of the week. For example, you might get potatoes, greens or artichokes prepared in different ways.

Save room at the end of dinner for the last course: dolce (meaning “sweet”). Dessert can be anything from tiramisu to fresh fruit or gelato. You’ll also be encouraged to enjoy a cup of espresso or a digestif such as amaro or grappa with the dolce course. 

At this point we need to make something perfectly clear: Italians are used to eating this way, but you may skip one or more of these courses if you wish. We’re just hoping you’ll indulge in the whole package at least once or twice! Also, the after-dinner stroll is an essential part of the evening meal ritual, so don’t omit that part.

Italians eat lighter at other meals so they can relish the larger meal or cena (supper), sometimes over a couple of hours (at least). Breakfast or colazione (sometimes there’s a second breakfast if the first was super early) and pranzo (lunch) tend to be smaller for most Italians. 

And yes, there is pizza

Any culinary adventurer will want to make pizza a regular treat during their visit to Rome. Without a doubt the most popular casual food in the city, the pizza in Rome differs from that in Naples, the birthplace of pizza. 

Roman pizza resembles a piece of flatbread that’s garnished with oil, salt and toppings such as mortadella, salami, potatoes, mushrooms or tomatoes. Long pies are made and then cut with a knife or scissors into taglia (“slices”) and the slices are often folded like a sandwich when served. For perfect pizza by the slice, we recommend Prelibato on Viale di Villa Pamphili in the Gianicolense quarter south of Trastevere. 

Pizza tonda (“round pizza”) is a whole other thing! These round pizzas feature crispy, thin crusts and are cooked in a wood-fired oven. Toppings range from anchovies, mozzarella, and fresh herbs to tomatoes, mushrooms, squash blossoms, and so forth. For one of the best round pizzas you’ll find in Rome, try Pizzeria da Remo on the Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice in the gritty and trendy rione (quarter), Testaccio. 

As for the other big “P,” Rome has four specialty pastas. If you’re staying for at least four days, you can sample all of them! 

In contrast to American versions of pasta, authentic Italian pasta dishes almost always tend toward beautiful simplicity. The four Roman pasta dishes are no exception. All of them include Pecorino Romano, Rome’s famous sheep’s milk cheese. 

The first pasta dish is cacio e pepe, pecorino and freshly ground black pepper — simple and wonderful! Next comes the iconic pasta carbonara, a mix of guanciale or diced, cured pork jowl, pecorino, and egg and the simplified variation of without egg known as gricia. Finally, there’s amatriciana — pecorino with tomato and guanciale. Another common pasta dish that’s often served on Fridays is pasta of some form mixed with chickpeas. Simple yet sublime, try these dishes at Armando al Pantheon, where traditional Roman fare blends with creative dishes by the chef, Armando.

Eat your (Roman) vegetables

The Romans have kept their vegetable servings simple but there’s amore in that gesture! Of all of the veg options you’ll be offered in Rome, you cannot leave without sampling some version of the artichoke or carciofo. According to culinary lore, Romans have been foraging for artichokes and snails since ancient times, although snails have fallen somewhat out of favor over the past few generations (more on that below). Our two favorite preparations of the Roman carciofo are carciofi alla romana (artichokes simmered with garlic and mint) and carciofi alla giudia (fried artichokes). 

Another much-loved Roman green dish is vignarola, a stew of peas, fava beans, romaine lettuce, pecorino and guanciale. When simplicity is key, go with any number of versions of sauteed greens, from chicory to dandelion, and the glorious fiori di zucca — squash blossoms that are lightly breaded and fried and stuffed with anchovies and mozzarella. Try the fiori di zucca at the delightful neighborhood trattoria, Il Girasole (The Sunflower) on Via del Boschetto in the Monti rione.

When in Rome and craving succulent meat, you can’t go wrong with lamb allo scottadito — meaning “burn your fingers” since you’re supposed to eat this dish with your fingers and with much gusto! Other delectable variations on lamb are al forno (roasted and served with potatoes) and alla cacciatora (cut into pieces and then braised with anchovies, wine, and garlic). Most often, Romans cook meat slowly so that the end result is a roast something-or-other — usually veal or chicken — that is swimming in flavorful sauce. 

Like most cultures, Rome has its “cheap eats”. You’ll find dishes made with the throwaway portions of meat, such as tripe, which is most often served stewed with tomatoes and mint. Another popular dish is chicken giblets stewed into a ragu — it’s amazing! 

Most traditional trattorias will offer on occasion the traditional oxtail braised in tomato sauce with celery, tomatoes, raisins, and pine nuts known as coda alla vaccinara (“oxtail, tanner style” as it was possibly invented by the leather workers that once dwelled in the city center during the 17th century). The sauce is used to coat pasta such as gnocchi or rigatoni. 

Finally, as mentioned earlier, snails have long been a favorite of Romans and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention lumache alla romana: juicy snails braised in a spicy tomato sauce with mint. You can still find this dish at traditional neighborhood ristorantes like Trattoria al Moro near the Pantheon.

It goes without saying that there are countless other venerated Roman dishes that visitors would find memorable, so explore neighborhoods and ask about local favorites and flavors. 

Finally, while we mentioned dolce, the dessert course above, we didn’t mention another masterpiece of the Italian culinary arts: the pastry! Bakeries offering an astonishing range of pastries and desserts are as numerous as the delicacies they create. Indulge on the go or sit down and enjoy an afternoon pick-me-up cup of espresso and a beautiful and tasty Italian pastry. 

When it’s time to leave, your feet may be weary, but your palate won’t want to leave Roma.