- On 28/01/2020
- In food and drink
20 Must-try Italian Foods When You Are in Rome
What’s the one thing people are guaranteed to mention when you say you’re taking a trip to Rome? That’s right, the food! Renowned the world over as a foodie paradise, the sheer variety of dishes available in Italy’s capital means you’ll never get bored of the national cuisine. But what to choose? Let’s face it, you’re not going to be able to fit everything in, so how do you ensure you sample the best dishes the Eternal City has to offer?
Well, that’s where we come in! We’ve drawn up a list of the 20 must-try Italian dishes when in Rome. Prepare to loosen your belt a few notches, because you’re in for an unforgettable gourmet experience on your Roman holiday! Try our recommendations below and the memories will linger in your hearts and on your taste buds long after you’ve returned home and shed those extra pounds. These culinary delights of Italy are what foodie dreams are made of.
Antipasti & Contorni – appetizers and vegetables side dishes to try in Rome
Carciofo alla Romana
With Italy being the world’s biggest producers of artichokes, it would be very remiss of us not to mention this typical Roman appetizer, which consists of marinated artichokes gently cooked in a heavenly combination of white wine, olive oil, garlic and various herbs. Trust us, you have not tasted artichokes until you’ve tried carciofo alla Romana – and you may not want to have artichokes served any other way in future! This simple but delicious dish is one of Italy’s most famous appetizers and a light and flavorsome way to start your meal.
Puntarelle alla Romana
A relative of the chicory plant, the wispy green stems known as puntarelle can be eaten raw or cooked. A typical Roman appetizer, puntarelle alla Romana is a simple but delicious salad of puntarelle stems coated in a sauce made from garlic and anchovy filets (sometimes anchovy paste is used as an equally acceptable substitute), vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. It sounds simple but for the home cook, puntarelle can take some time to prepare, with the shoots having to be soaked in cold water until they curl. Fortunately for most chefs, many vendors and market stall holders will do this work for their customers and the puntarelle are sold ready for use.
Primi: pasta or rice dishes to eat in Rome
Pasta cacio e pepe
It doesn’t get much simpler than pasta with cheese and pepper, but don’t let the limited ingredients discourage you from trying this typical Roman dish! Although the Italian word for cheese is formaggio, in many Italian dialects it was known as cacio, and to ignore this pasta dish on the menu would be to miss out on a classic. Pasta cacio e pepe is traditionally made with spaghetti and Pecorino Romano, a cheese made from sheep’s milk and not to be confused with its northern cow’s milk cousin, Parmigiano Reggiano. The simple ingredients of hard cheese, spaghetti, and black pepper all have a relatively long shelf-life, which made this a popular dish with wandering shepherds who had to prepare their dinner while on the road.
Amatriciana sauce, made from guanciale (cured pork cheek), cheese, and tomato, is one of Italy’s most well-known pasta sauces. First created in the town of Amatrice in central Italy’s Lazio region, the sauce has been given special government status and recognised as an approved product of the region. Despite its origins being outside the capital, it’s now widely considered a classic of Roman cuisine and definitely not to be missed while dining in the city. For authenticity, it should always be made with pecorino cheese, but opinions vary on whether or not onion should be added. In Rome, it’s common to do so, but the chefs of Amatrice tend to shun this addition. Similarly, spaghetti is the chosen pasta of Amatrice, while Roman cooks favor the thicker bucatini. Whichever way you have it, you’re bound to appreciate the tasty flavors of this classic pasta sauce.
No discussion of what to eat in Rome would be complete without mentioning the classic carbonara. Even if you’ve never set foot in Italy, you’re bound to be familiar with the eggy, cheesy goodness of this popular Italian export – but don’t be surprised to discover the carbonara you’ve enjoyed up to now is but a pale imitation of the real deal. For a start, any self-respecting Roman will tell you that cream has no place in an authentic carbonara. A real Roman carbonara consists of pasta and guanciale (with pancetta being an acceptable substitute) coated in a sauce of egg yolk, pecorino cheese, and black pepper. That’s it. Carbonara is usually made with spaghetti, although in some Roman establishments, you may find it served with fettuccine, linguine, or rigatoni. And while you may feel you’ve already enjoyed carbonara in Italian restaurants back home, we highly recommend you try the real deal while in the birthplace of this Roman classic!
This world-famous dish is said to have originated in the southern city of Naples and was originally made up of layers of sausage meat and hard-boiled eggs, combined with ricotta cheese and a meat sauce or ragù. The more familiar version of lasagna is the lasagna alla Bolognese, named after the city of Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region. This consists of a ragù made from a combination of beef and pork and layered with pasta sheets and a béchamel sauce. (Note that in many countries outside of Italy – particularly the US – ricotta cheese often takes the place of the béchamel, but a true Italian lasagna will not omit this essential sauce made from milk, flour, butter, and a pinch of nutmeg). While the word lasagna refers to the type of pasta used, the spelling may vary depending on where you are in Italy, with the singular lasagna being more common in the south of the country and the plural lasagne employed more often in the north.
Ravioli spinaci e ricotta
Another classic dish, these little pasta envelopes known as ravioli contain a delightful combination of spinach and ricotta cheese, usually served in a sauce or broth, and are a staple of Italian cuisine. Usually served for Sunday lunch, ravioli were traditionally hand-made at home and the filling could vary depending on the region. Arguably the most well-known version, containing spinach and ricotta, has long been a staple in Rome and the surrounding region. While this tasty dish can now be found on the menus of Italian restaurants the world over, for a truly authentic experience, don’t overlook this option when deciding what to eat in Rome!
Pasta alla Gricia
If you only eat one dish while in Rome (unlikely, we know), make it one of the city’s oldest pasta dishes. That’s right, pasta alla Gricia has been around a long time, originating in Rome in 400 A.D. That makes this combination of pasta, guanciale, pecorino, salt, and pepper pretty ancient as recipes go – but it’s still one of our all-time favorites. The origins of the name are unclear, with one unproven theory being that the dish may have been named after the Lazio town of Grisciano, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever know. Regardless of who, what or where it was named after, this is a classic of Roman cuisine, quick to prepare and using the simplest of ingredients. A must-try when dining out in Rome.
While you may think of risotto as an entrée or the main component of a meal, in Italy it is usually served as a first course (primo piatto) before the main course. Originating in northern Italy, it consists of rice cooked in a broth until creamy. The type of rice used is important, as it needs to absorb sufficient amounts of liquid and release starch. The most well-known type of rice used in risotto is arborio, although as with pasta in Italy, there are many other varieties! While ingredients may vary, and include everything from mushrooms, beans, sausage meat, pumpkin, and cuttle fish, the cooking procedure for the rice remains the same, requiring the cook to remain hovering over the stove and stirring the pot at all times. We highly recommend opting for a risotto dish while eating out in Rome!
Secondi: meat dishes to have in Rome
Polpette al sugo
Polpette are meatballs, although possibly not as you know ‘em. Forget the “spaghetti and meatballs” concept you may be familiar with – in Italy, meatballs are not normally served on a bed of pasta. Instead, the tomato sauce in which meatballs are cooked is stirred into the pasta, which is served as an entrée (or primo piatto, as mentioned earlier). The meatballs themselves then follow as the main event, or secondo piatto. Meatballs in Italy are generally made from a combination of beef and pork, although lamb is sometimes used and, as with many Italian dishes, cooking starts with the preparation of a soffritto. This combination of carrot, onion and celery, the basis of so many traditional Italian recipes, will then have tomatoes and a good sprinkling of salt and pepper added, all of which combine to make the meatball sauce, or sugo. This classic Italian dish may sound simple, but it’s bursting with flavor and visitors to Rome should grab the chance to taste it for themselves!
Saltimbocca alla romana
Another Italian classic, saltimbocca, is equally popular in southern Switzerland and even as far away as Greece, with the name saltimbocca being derived from the Italian for, “it jumps in the mouth” – a testament to just how tasty this dish really is! The original version, as the name saltimbocca alla romana implies, was born in Rome. It consists of veal wrapped in prosciutto and sage and cooked in white wine and butter. In some parts of Italy, marsala wine is preferred, in others, oil or saltwater may be used. This is not necessarily a dish you’re guaranteed to come across in your favorite Italian back home – or if you do, you may find the veal has been replaced with chicken or pork – so make time to try it while you’re in Rome.
You don’t have to be fluent in Italian to work out that the word trippa on a menu refers to tripe or offal, but don’t be too quick to dismiss this option when dining out in Rome. Romans have long been renowned for their love of offal and you’ll still find trippa alla romana on the city’s menus today. Butchers traditionally referred to it as the, “quinto quarto” (fifth fourth) or the parts of the animal the nobility would leave for the hoi polloi, once they’d finished helping themselves to what they considered the best cuts. As with so many of the best dishes in Rome, the preparation is simple, with the tripe being sautéed with a base of soffritto and salt and pepper, before tomatoes and a splash of wine are added to create a truly authentic taste of Rome.
Bollito is a nourishing, wholesome, slow-cooked stew, with its origins in northern Italy, where it’s still widely eaten. Traditionally, tougher cuts of meat are used, with beef or veal simmered for hours in a vegetable stock. Occasionally an entire chicken will be added to the pot and cotechino, a type of pork sausage, is also a common ingredient. Once the meat is cooked, the leftover broth is kept aside as a base for risottos and soups. The meat is served thinly sliced, with a variety of mustards and chutneys. In the Piedmont region where the dish originated, the accompanying sauces were referred to as the “seven baths” and included horseradish, honey, red sauce, two types of green sauce, mustard and cugnà, a type of regional jelly made from fruit and wine, which is also used as an accompaniment to cheese.
One of the most popular dishes with Roman locals is undoubtedly abbacchio, or very young lamb. The dish usually refers to a freshly slaughtered suckling lamb, weighing less than 11 pounds. The young age of the animal means the meat is pale pink in color and very tender. The best season for the dish is springtime, although it remains popular all year round and is usually served at family gatherings and special occasions. It can be found at many city center restaurants in Rome, served in a variety of ways. Abbacchio alla cacciatora is lamb that has been slow cooked with anchovies, garlic and herbs. Abbacchio a scottadito takes the form of grilled lamb chops, traditionally eaten with the hands. Then there is the simple but classic abbacchio al forno, roast lamb that is cooked with rosemary, garlic and white wine, and served up with roast potatoes.
Pizzas to eat in Rome
The dish may have originated a bit further south in Naples, but Rome can certainly hold its own in the pizza stakes. While Neapolitan pizza chefs use lots of water and no fat when making the dough, pizza in Rome is traditionally made with a lot less water, but with oil added to the dough. Pizza romana also tends to be more generous with the toppings. While Neapolitans prefer to let the crust take center stage, accompanied by only the sparsest coating of tomato and cheese, the Romans go heavy on the toppings, with one of the most famous Roman pizzas being the capricciosa. The traditional tomato base is topped with cheese, ham, artichokes, olives, mushroom, and an egg.
There are strict rules when it comes to what constitutes a true pizza napolitana, which has even been given TSG (Traditional Specialty Guaranteed) status and added to UNESCO’s list of “intangible cultural heritage”. Traditionally, the dish Naples gifted to the world can only be made with tomatoes from the volcanic plains near Mount Vesuvius. The cheese varieties used must be Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, which has protected designation of origin status, and a special cow’s milk mozzarella from the Agerola area of Naples. As mentioned above, the addition of lots of water to the dough gives it a sticky, wet consistency. It is then baked at an extremely high temperature (around 840 degrees Fahrenheit) for less than 2 minutes, resulting in a soft, elastic center, surrounded by a fluffy crust. Although a few more varieties have now been introduced, the traditional Neapolitan pizza remains the margherita, with its simple toppings of mozzarella slices, tomato, basil, and olive oil.
Roman Street Foods
We can’t talk about pizza without mentioning the trapizzino, arguably one of the most loved street food items on offer, not just in the capital but all over the country. Indeed, its popularity extends far beyond Italy, with this delicious snack now found as far afield as New York. So, what is it? Simply put, it’s a cone fashioned out of raw pizza dough, which is then cooked and stuffed with the filling of your choice. Choose from meatballs, chicken, eggplant, even tongue. It’s like a cross between a sandwich and a pizza, hence the name coming from an amalgamation of the words tramezzino (sandwich) and pizza. The brainchild of pizza chef Stefano Callegari, Trapizzino now has stores in several Italian cities, as well as its first US outlet in Manhattan. And with five stores in Rome, you’ve no excuse not to try one during your vacation! Those lucky enough to live in the eternal city can even have a trapizzino delivered to their home or workplace.
Suppli are traditional Roman snacks consisting of rice balls (usually made from risotto), served with a tomato sauce. The balls are filled with meat and cheese, rolled in beaten egg, covered in breadcrumbs, and then deep-fried. So, like their cousins arancini and croquettes, they’re not exactly the best thing for your waist line, but hey, you’re on vacation! Suppli get their name from the fact that when bitten into, a long string of mozzarella is drawn out, resembling the cord which was attached to old-style telephones, known as suppli al telefono (telephone cable). You will find suppli in most Roman pizzerias, where they are usually served as an appetizer.
Pizza a Taglio
Wherever you go in Rome, you won’t be far from a pizza joint that sells it al taglio (by the slice). The pizzas are baked in large trays, sliced into rectangles or squares, and sold by weight. Trust us, you haven’t been to Rome until you try one! Although the concept originates in Rome, it has been successfully exported to New York and other large cities all over the world. Traditionally, the pizza is cooked in a wood-fired oven, although electric ovens are now becoming more common. The most popular varieties in Rome are the margherita (see above), the bianca, a plain base topped with rosemary, garlic, and olive oil, and the rossa, topped with tomato sauce only, but there are many more vegetable and meat-based toppings on offer.
Dolci – desserts to eat in Rome
Maritozzo alla panna
It’s always important to leave room for dessert when eating in Rome, and never more so than when maritozzo alla panna is on the menu. Popular in bars across the capital, this is a type of sweet roll that’s cut in half and filled with whipped cream. It has been described by one renowned food establishment as “the whipped cream filled-brioche that no Roman can renounce.” Traditionally, young men would give them to their fiancées, which is where the name maritozzo came from, meaning “almost husband” (marito being Italian for husband). Once a staple at the breakfast table, it fell out of favor with the arrival of the Italian croissant or cornetto, but for us, this sweet treat from Lazio remains a must-have when in Rome.
Pull me up! If struggling to get out of your chair having consumed one too many of these that may indeed be what you’re saying, but the name of this coffee-flavored dessert refers to it being a “pick me up” or “cheer me up”. Debate still rages as to its exact origins, but most accounts trace its beginnings to Treviso in the north-east of the country, where it was apparently credited with aphrodisiac qualities and served in brothels. It’s one of Italy’s most famous culinary exports, made from “ladyfinger” biscuits dipped in coffee and covered in a mixture of beaten eggs, mascarpone cheese, and sugar. Marsala wine is often added and there are now many different variations on the classic recipe.
No visit to the Italian capital can be complete without enjoying a scoop or two of gelato. Trust us, this is so much more than just ice-cream. Made from a specific combination of milk and sugar, gelato has around 70% less air than ice-cream or other frozen desserts, giving it a unique texture and richness. Traditionally, Italian gelato comes in vanilla, chocolate, pistacchio, hazelnut, cream, and stracciatella flavors, although nowadays you’ll also find a lot more fruit-based flavors available. You won’t struggle to find gelato while in Rome and what better way to take a break while on a sight-seeing stroll around the city?