Whether you are a passionate foodie visiting Rome in order to broaden your culinary horizon, or a first-timer in the country, eating well in the eternal city is a must.
As with every region, in Rome there are some dishes that are well-established classics among the locals.
Although you should steer clear of tourist traps around the Fori and historical centre, finding a decent eatery in Rome is not a difficult feat. There are many good and affordable restaurants near the Vatican, Trastevere area and Borghese gallery. If you are looking to stay closer to the centre, try visiting the Jewish Quarter, Campo de’ Fiori and the young and hip Monti area. Once you’ve found your spot, it’s time for the dining to commence!
Mapping your Meal
But before you dive into the delights of ‘La Cucina Romana’, it’s important to get your bearings. First things first: Antipasti. This is your pre-meal appetizer, and traditionally consists of cheeses, vegetables or fritti (fried food). At a more informal pizzeria or trattoria, try a true Roman antipasto: supplì. Not, as any proud Roman will tell you, to be confused with the Sicilian arancini, supplì are deep-fried, oval-shaped balls of risotto rice with a melted mozzarella centre. Another Roman fritto not to be missed is fiori di zucca (deep-fried courgette flowers in batter, often made with anchovies).
After antipasti, you usually move on to primi. This is the first course of a classic Italian meal, but can be eaten as a main course. Pasta features heavily as a primo in Rome, along with soup and rice dishes. Next in line is secondi, which is the main, or ‘second’ course, normally a carb-free affair often ordered with a contorno (side).
The Festival of Pasta
Pasta is the staple of any Roman diet, and with basic, flavoursome ingredients, Romans do it well. Flawless pasta is not an arbitrary undertaking either. Pasta shapes, their cooking time and optimal sauce pairings are meticulously considered and rooted in Italian cuisine.
A Roman pasta dish that cannot be omitted is Spaghetti cacio e pepe. This is basically like macaroni cheese with a continental makeover. ‘Cacio’ is the ever-prevalent pecorino romano, while ‘pepe’ is pepper – these are the two ingredients that make this concoction mouth-watering.
You simply can’t go to Rome and not have pizza. You cannot. Pizza romana, with its signature thin, crunchy crust is renowned as one of Italy’s best. However, it is worth noting that different regions have their own style of pizza perfection, one of the most famous being pizza from Naples (pizza napolitana) which has a much thicker crust. Pizza is often accompanied by beer rather than wine and is traditionally an evening dish. For pizza on-the-go, try bakeries and pizzerias that sell pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice).
With its fresh vegetables, legumes and cheeses, Roman cuisine is in fact a vegetarian wonderland. Vegetarian options can be found on almost all typical Roman menus and there are even a few common dishes that are suitable for vegans, such as gnocchi al pomodoro or pizza marinara. A great veggie appetizer is the simple but delicious bruschetta aglio ed olio (toasted bread with garlic and olive oil) or bruschetta alla romana (topped with fresh, chopped tomatoes and herbs).
A great, typical Roman dish to look out for is Puntarelle, a variety of Catalonian chicory that is found exclusively in Rome. A seasonal green, it is usually available from November until February and is painstakingly prepared by cutting off the tender tips of the plant, which are then soaked and tossed. Although the traditional dressing is not vegetarian (it contains anchovies, along with garlic and vinegar), you can find vegetarian varieties.
Another must-taste delicacy is Carciofi (artichokes). These come in two styles that reign in Rome. One is Carciofi alla romana (Roman artichokes), stripped, violet artichokes that are stuffed with a mix of oil, lemon, garlic, parsley and mint, then braised until tender. The other, Jewish-style artichoke dish, Carciofi alla giudia, uses globe artichokes and is deep-fried, salty and equally delicious. The latter is common in the historic Jewish ghetto of Rome.
Now you’ve had your primo and secondo, it’s time for dolci (dessert). Italy is famous for some of the world’s most mouthwatering treats, and Rome is certainly no exception. Starting with their breakfast cornetti (cream or chocolate filled pastries), Romans don’t do things in halves when it comes to the sweet stuff.
Of course, there’s gelato. We all know that one. But how about gelato made from ricotta cheese? A Roman specialty, this is more like a chilled sorbet-pudding made with ricotta, eggs and cognac.
Decadence seems to be key concept for Roman pastries. Take for example the Bignè di San Giuseppe, also known as Zeppole. These are deep-fried or baked sugary dough balls, about the size of a fist, oozing (think volcanic quantities) with a cream filling. Another heart-stopping Roman classic is Maritozzi con la panna. Guaranteed to leave you with a creamy grin, these are a cross between bread and pastry, opened like a sandwich and filled with cream.
The wine of Ancient Rome
Historically, the areas around Rome have been important in the production of wine (particularly white wine) and there are many vineyards in the Lazio region, which has volcanic soil, lakes and a mild climate.
Frascati wine is produced a stone’s throw away from Rome, in the Castelli Romani area, and is the most well-known wine of the region. The white wines especially are delicate and can be paired with fish, antipasti and cheeses.
Near Montefiascone is where the famous and peculiarly named Est! Est! Est! wine is produced with the grapes of Trebbiano Toscano e Malvasia. This is an aromatic wine that goes well with appetizers such as artichokes and fritti.
For a red variety, try Cesanese, cultivated towards the south of Lazio in the areas of Piglio, Frosinone and Zagarolo. This increasingly popular variety has a warm aroma of mulberry, blueberry and juniper. It can be served with meat dishes such abbacchio (lamb) and stews, or with gnocchi.
Eat Like a Local
To eat authentic, quality local food is one of life’s pleasures, and what better place to do it than in Rome? Not to mention that food in Rome is more than just an iconic red-checkered tablecloth and a bowl full of pasta. It is a social ritual, a tradition and an important part of a rich cultural heritage. It’s about sharing, chatting and possibly eating ‘til you burst at the seams. Buon Appetito!
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