The cuisine we think of today as distinctly Roman is the result of millennia of converging influences, from the pastoral traditions of the surrounding countryside to Rome’s Jewish community, the oldest in Europe. Despite — or because of — Rome’s eternal boom-and-bust cycle of opulence, the city is home to one of the world’s great populist cuisines: humble and inexpensive, using simple techniques to highlight what’s available and in season.
But all this thrift and humility doesn’t mean the food is plain — Roman food also favors aggressive flavors. Classic dishes are heavy on black pepper, funky pecorino, bitter greens, and an enthusiastic use of offal. If Americans seem suddenly enamored with Roman cuisine, it’s not the food that’s changed, but rather, the American palate that has begun to appreciate nose-to-tail and hardy produce. (Florentine steak and caprese were easier gateways to Italy than guts and artichokes.)
And just because a dish is classic doesn’t mean it’s out of style. Many Romans still go out on Saturday night for fried artichokes and cacio e pepe and tripe, not because they’re still impoverished shepherds, but because that’s what they like to eat. Interested in joining them? Here is a primer on la cucina romana.
Understanding the Types of Restaurants
If you go for a sit-down meal in Rome that’s not pizza, chances are it’ll be at an osteria, trattoria, or ristorante. Historically, an osteria was more of a drinking tavern where you brought your own food, and a trattoria was a place where you’d go for a cheap, quick lunch before returning to work. Today, there’s no significant difference, as both are affordable eateries with Roman food, house wine by the carafe, and a casual, living-room atmosphere. An (ever-shrinking) number are still run by families and maintain certain traditions, like the standard progression of daily specials: As the saying goes, it’s “Thursday gnocchi, Friday baccala, Saturday tripe.” That’s often the extent of the formal menu. At many older joints, like Pippo Lo Sgobbone in the Flaminio neighborhood, the owner rattles off the day’s offerings while gesturing toward the mostra, the refrigerated case that holds everything from pans of roasted pears to whole salami.
A ristorante tends to be slightly more formal and expensive, with more elaborate dishes that drift outside the Roman canon. Still, this is Rome. At Roberto e Loretta, you can feast on mozzarella with truffles and pasta with hunter’s ragu in an elegant dining room, but the plates will be delivered by Roberto and Loretta themselves, who will likely stay and chat while you eat.
How to Eat All Those Courses
Like in most Italian cities, a meal in Rome is traditionally split into five courses. It begins with a simple antipasto — usually cured meats and fried or marinated vegetables. Then, primo, the starch course, often one of the “big four” Roman pastas (see below). After that, there’s secondo, a piece of meat, often stewed or roasted, or fish like baccala with contorni (side dishes) ordered separately, like sauteed greens or roasted potatoes. Dolce is anything from tiramisu to a plate of pineapple. Then comes coffee, and then finally a digestive, a high-proof liqueur like grappa, limoncello, or amaro.
It’s important to note that these five courses are the theoretical maximum, not minimum — you absolutely do not need to order every course, and splitting secondi is acceptable. Romans sometimes have three-hour dinners at a trattoria, eating every course and talking late over the last dregs of wine. It’s also not uncommon to walk into a trattoria at lunchtime, eat an artichoke and a plate of fettuccine with tomato sauce, and walk out 45 minutes later.
What to Eat
Pizza — Obviously
Probably the most widely consumed food in Rome, Roman pizza is markedly different than its more famous Neapolitan ancestor, and comes in two forms: al taglio (by the slice) and tonda (round).
Pizza al taglio is usually lunch or a snack. The word “pizza” here is actually the type of bread: flat, crisp, and sturdy. Pizza bianca, therefore, is garnished with only oil and salt, often cut in half and made into a sandwich with mortadella in between. Other common toppings include potatoes, the classic margherita, sausage with mushroom, or just plain tomato.
Whatever the toppings, the system is always the same. Long pies, either rectangular and baked in sheet pans (in teglia) or oblong (alla pala), are arranged behind the counter and listed with a price per kilo. An employee cuts slices with a knife or scissors, weighs them, reheats them in a small oven, and then hands them to the customer either on a cardboard plate or wrapped in wax paper.
Pizza tonda, or round pizzas, are thin and crispy, unlike the thicker and chewier Neapolitan style, and are usually offered at sit-down pizzerie for dinner. Cooked in a wood oven, they come topped with anything from margherita to squash blossoms, mozzarella, and anchovies and are best washed down with pizza’s universal beverage pairing: cold beer.
Places for great pizza:
Angelo e Simonetta, Via Nomentana, 581, 00141 Rome
Prelibato Panificio Con Cucina, Viale di Villa Pamphili, 214/216, 00152 Rome
Pizzeria Ostiense, Via Ostiense, 56, 00154 Rome
Pizzeria Ai Marmi, Viale di Trastevere, 53, 00153 Rome
Want more? See our all-encompassing Roman Pizza Map.
The Big Four Pastas
Most Italian cities have one or two hallmark pastas that are widely known outside of Italy. Rome has four: cacio e pepe (pecorino and pepper), carbonara (pecorino, guanciale, and egg), gricia (guanciale and pecorino), and amatriciana (guanciale, pecorino, and tomato). All of them are based around Rome’s iconic sheep’s milk cheese, pecorino Romano. Three of the four pastas also feature guanciale, cured pork jowl that gets cubed and rendered into the sauce, delivering the one-two punch of crunchy meat bits and musky, flavorful fat. Of course other pastas exist in Rome besides these four — pasta with chickpeas is traditionally served on Fridays, and gnocchi on Thursdays, garnished with tomato or amatriciana sauce. But these four are the staples.
Places for great Roman pasta:
Da Cesare al Casaletto, Via del Casaletto, 45, 00151 Rome
Tavernaccia Da Bruno, Via Giovanni da Castel Bolognese, 63, 00153 Rome
Agustarello a Testaccio, Via Giovanni Branca, 100, 00153 Rome
For a detailed guide to Roman pastas, see our Pasta Lovers’ Guide to Rome.
Vegetables, Bitter and Fried
Visit just about any Roman restaurant between December and April and you’ll see artichokes — by far the city’s most iconic vegetable, widely believed to have been foraged from the surrounding countryside since ancient times, and further popularized by the Jews expelled from Spain and Southern Italy during the 15th century. It’s prepared in two main ways: alla romana, meaning simmered with mint and garlic, or alla giudia, “Jewish-style,” meaning fried. Artichokes also make an appearance in a springtime stew called vignarola along with favas, peas, romaine, guanciale, and, of course, pecorino.
In Rome, the more bitter the vegetable, the more beloved. Cicoria ripassata is a trattoria mainstay of green chicory, boiled into submission and then finished in a hot pan with oil, garlic, and chili flakes. For the few winter months they’re available, puntarelle are the subject of much lust, their harsh dandelion-looking leaves stripped away to reveal the shoots that are then sliced thin, soaked in acidulated water until they curl, and dressed with a paste of olive oil, garlic, vinegar, and a daring amount of anchovy.
Romans fry everything: meatballs, fish, but most of all, vegetables. At a pizzeria, one typically starts with a platter of fried snacks, which might include fiori di zucca (fried squash-blossoms stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies) or fritto misto vegetale (a mix of everything from carrots to romanesco). Since many of these preparations can be kosher, fried foods are commonly found in Jewish restaurants. Some of them even have Jewish origins, the fried artichoke being the most famous, but also concia — plain zucchini rounds that get fried in olive oil and then left to marinate in vinegar, garlic, and either mint, parsley, or basil.
The most popular fried treat, though, is supplì, a fried rice ball that was traditionally made with a ragu of chicken livers, but now is more likely stuffed with mozzarella and flavored with tomato. They’re sometimes called supplì al telefono, because the melted cheese stretches into a long cable when the supplì is pulled apart, resembling the cord of an old-fashioned telephone.
Offal and Other Meaty Bits
Offal is known here as quinto quarto, or “fifth quarter,” because all the throwaway bits of an animal account for about a quarter of its weight. Once upon a time, these cuts were eaten because they were all people could afford. Now, they’re iconic, and just about every bit of an animal gets tossed into the Roman cookpot. Tripe is stewed with tomatoes and mint, lamb pluck cooked with artichokes, chicken giblets turned into a ragu. Before olive oil was made widely available, most food was cooked in lard.
Pajata is the intestine of an unweaned calf that still contains partially digested mother’s milk. Think of it like a sausage casing stuffed with ricotta. A few Roman restaurants grill it, but it’s typically cooked in tomato sauce and served with rigatoni and pecorino. Whatever your feelings on eating not-yet-weaned baby animal innards, many Romans love this stuff — get to the butcher late on a Saturday morning and the pajata will be long gone.
Coda alla Vaccinara
Virtually every trattoria in Rome offers a version of this comforting classic. The name means “oxtail, tanner style,” because it was supposedly invented by leatherworkers located near the town center in the 17th century. Oxtails are braised for hours in a tomato sauce that contains whole celery ribs and tomato. The sauce is often enriched with pine nuts, raisins, or even chocolate or cocoa powder. The resulting sugo is used to sauce pasta — maybe rigatoni, gnocchi, or fettuccine — and the hunks of meat are served after the pasta course as a secondo.
Rome is famous for lamb. Abbacchio romanesco is a suckling lamb slaughtered before it reaches 7 kilos (about 15 pounds), which yields pink meat that’s sweeter and less gamey than that of the more adolescent lamb Americans are used to. You’ll find it prepared allo scottadito (grilled chops, “burn your fingers” style — since they’re meant to be picked up by the bone), al forno (roasted with potatoes), and alla cacciatora (cut into pieces and braised with garlic, wine, and anchovies). Eating abbacchio on Easter is like eating turkey on Thanksgiving.
In general, most other Roman meat is cooked slow and low, resulting in sauce-saturated cuts that urgently need a pile of roasted potatoes. There’s pollo con i peperoni (chicken braised with bell peppers), bollito alla picchiapo (boiled beef in a spicy onion-tomato sauce), and occasionally roasted petto di vitella (veal breast) — all fundamental, one-pot dishes, meant to be placed on the dinner table for everyone to dip into.
Places for great Roman meat:
La Tavernaccia, Via Giovanni da Castel Bolognese, 63, 00153 Rome
Osteria Bonelli, Viale dell’Acquedotto Alessandrino, 172/174, 00176 Rome
Lo’steria, Via dei Prati della Farnesina, 61, 00135 Rome
While not as pastry-crazy as Naples or Palermo, Rome does have its indigenous sweets, mostly consumed at breakfast. Around Carnevale time, bignè di San Giuseppe start appearing in pastry shops and bars — because fried choux dough filled with custard is just what one needs before the deprivations of Lent. December 2, 2017 was declared “Maritozzo Day” in Rome, so beloved are the round, eggy pastries stuffed with an absurd amount of whipped cream.
Giancarlo Buonomo is a freelance journalist based in Rome, writing about its food, culture, and history.