Ah, Rome…. the Eternal City. Despite the tourists (and the occasional lack of public hygiene… and the occasional pickpocket….), it is one of the world’s great cities…. a long history, culture gathered through centuries, and – of course – amazing food!
Let’s start by acknowledging one thing: you can get a terrible meal in Rome. It’s easy. It’s a city packed with tourists, so of course there are places that have been established to provide average standard food with average standard service and to charge for the privilege.
But it’s also true that you can get wonderful food in Rome – provided you do your research – and you don’t have to pay the earth for it. There’s a restaurant in Trastevere we visit several times a year where for about 15 euro I can enjoy the best pasta and a couple of glasses of good wine and walk it off as we head back to the hotel. But I’m not going to write about restaurants – this article is about the food itself, because after you’ve found the restaurant, you’ve still got to decide what you’re going to eat. And the key word is ‘authentic’.
The foods I’m suggesting you try when in Rome are traditional dishes and if they’re prepared in an authentic way, they will be brilliant.
Now two things I learnt early on about authentic Italian food are:
that it is seasonal (for example, when the artichokes are in season, you’ll find them in the restaurant… when they’re not, you won’t…) and
that it is regional (local cuisine made with local ingredients… so risotto in the north but not in the south).
Of course, these days there is a blurring of the lines and you can find some food wherever you go across the boot, but there are many restaurants who are clinging to tradition and wanting to create authentic local dishes with fresh local ingredients.
So while you might order pizza wherever you are in Italy (but you must try it in Naples – its traditional home), my advice is that when you visit a town or a region, try to discover some of the traditional local dishes. You’ll soon learn the nuances and be better for the experience.
So here we have the 8 dishes to try when you are in Rome!
1. Cacio e pepe
The world seems to be discovering Cacio e pepe so one of our best secrets is becoming quite trendy, but that doesn’t spoil it. Simple but complex, this tasty Roman dish has ancient origins. Essentially Pecorino Romano cheese (cacio), pasta and pepe (pepper), making the creamy sauce is the key. Originally the perfect meal of the Roman shepherds, today it is a Roman staple and one you must try.
More famous than Cacio e Pepe, Carbonara equally seems like a simple dish but don’t let that deceive you… A poor Carbonara can ruin an otherwise pleasant evening. Its name means roughly ‘in the manner of coal miners’ and it may have earned its name because the flecks of black pepper appear like coal dust against the creamy eggs, cheese, and pasta. But – contrary to what you find outside Italy - there is no cream in authentic Carbonara, where it is made with the simplest of ingredients:
eggs (either the whole egg, or just egg yolk, depending on who you ask)
guanciale (wild boar cheeks)
high-quality dried pasta
3. Carciofi alla guida
Artichokes – they never existed when I was a kid. Well, not in suburban Brisbane that’s for sure. But in Italy – and particularly in Rome – they’ve been a favourite for multiple millennia.
The vegetable with a tender heart is in the heart of many Romans, who make this dish – which is essentially fried whole artichokes - a unique and unmistakable taste. The characteristic way of frying artichokes alla guida came from the Jewish cuisine of the Roman ghetto and evolved into a delicious side order that is almost enough to have as a meal by itself.
4. Saltimbocca alla Romana
Saltimbocca alla Romana is a dish typical of the Lazio region, in which the city of Rome is located. These days Saltimbocca is found across all regions of Italy, and even found even in neighbouring countries such as Greece. The traditional Saltimbocca alla Romana recipe uses veal, prosciutto, sage and white wine and butter for the sauce. Sometimes Saltimbocca comes rolled up and stuffed, or topped with ingredients such as capers, artichokes, or red onions.
5. Penne all'arrabbiata
One of the simplest and most well-known pasta sauces, Penne all’Arrabbiata, is a traditional Roman dish. ‘Arrabbiata’ means angry. The sauce consists of just tomatoes, garlic and dried red chillies (or pepperoncini), and it’s the latter ingredient – the chillies – that give the ferocious spiciness of the sauce. To be fair, most Penne all’Arrabbiata is simply spicy, without being ridiculously hot, like some curries can be.
Polpette are one of those dishes that accompany the life of an Italian from childhood to adulthood. In fact, many Italians would say that it was their grandmother who created the recipe for polpette. Whilst arguably a food from the days of the Roman Empire, according to the most reliable theories polpette originated in Persia. Polpette are not difficult to make and were for many years a poor man’s food: created for recycling leftover meat. As is usual for every poor dish, even meatballs have evolved; becoming a real dish without having to recycle anything. Today, in fact, preference is given to decidedly richer raw materials such as fresh ground beef, Parmesan, and prosciutto.
7. Bucatini alla Amatriciana
Bucatini comes from the word bucato which means ‘pierced’. Bucatini is a pasta that looks similar to spaghetti but is a long noodle with a hole in the centre, like a thin straw. It’s common in the Lazio region, especially in Rome. Like many typical Roman meals, the amatriciana sauce is quite basic: comprised of a tomato base flavoured with cured guanciale (wild boar) cheeks, and grated pecorino cheese (originally from the town of Amatrice… hence the name). Onion also gets a guernsey sometimes.
Supplì are a ball of rice with a tomato sauce and originally they were filled with provatura (a cheese from Lazio) although these days you’ll usually find mozzarella. The rice ball is soaked in egg, coated with breadcrumbs and usually deep-fried. Supplì can be also prepared without tomato sauce (supplì in bianco). They are closely related to Sicilian arancini although the latter are usually round whereas suppli are usually oblong. Arancini are usually filled with ragù, tomato sauce, mozzarella, and/or peas. In Roman cuisine, supplì are similar, but more commonly filled just with cheese. But these days there are no rules and there are many different flavours of suppli to enjoy.
So there you have it… eight foods to enjoy when you are next in Rome. Simple and delicious. Buon appetito!
If you want to try these great foods in Rome, why not join us on our two week Best of Italy guided small group tour? You'll have four nights in Rome to work your way through the list!