Pasta is one of Italy’s few culinary constants, but it’s also endlessly diverse, with hundreds of shapes and styles that vary by region. Depending on geography, pasta can be short or long, made with flour and water or flour and egg, by hand or in a factory, fresh or dried. It can be folded or stuffed, served in broth, dressed modestly or to the nines.
Situated about halfway down the boot, Rome lies at the meeting point of the fresh, sometimes eggy pasta culture of Italy’s north, and the dried flour-and-water pasta of the south. You’ll find even the most fervent Romans lunching on tangles of fresh fettuccine and piles of once-dried rigatoni in states of bliss.
Over the years, a handful of pasta shapes have found happy marriages with traditional Roman sauces, creating what have become the city’s edible icons — dishes like spaghetti or rigatoni alla carbonara, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, and fettuccine with chicken giblets. For Romans, the presence of these dishes on the dinner table is a signifier that all is well in the world.
In much the same way an itinerary of domes, museums, and brooding Caravaggio paintings in the alcoves of stern churches are necessary parts of any Roman holiday, so is a tour of the city’s quintessential pastas. Here are the landmarks most worth eating.
Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe
Rome’s quintessential flavor combo of salty sheep’s milk pecorino Romano with black pepper is now a bona fide phenomenon, found stuffed inside crispy frittelle in Brooklyn, smeared on bagels in LA, and whipped into gelato in Chicago. This traditional Laziale dish originated as an absorbent antidote to over-imbibing, both at home and in trattorias, where owners would often serve it in hopes of boosting their alcohol sales. It wasn’t really until the turn of the millennium that cacio e pepe stepped into the spotlight as a Roman staple. According to my landlady, the Most Roman Woman I Know, old-school cacio e pepe is made in a bowl with square, spaghetti-like fresh-egg tonnarelli, a bit of its cooking water, a handful of cheese, and lots of pepper, then jigged around with a fork and spoon until everything is nicely mixed. More modern versions use tricks and flicks of wrists to produce something more creamy and slithery, though opinions vary on whether this luscious riff is an evolution or a disgrace.
Where to get it: Despite living up to its reputation for being a bit surly, Felice in Testaccio makes one of the finest versions. Mixed tableside, it feels squarely in between old school and modern, just creamy enough to curl around the fork with a bold amount of pepper. Felice, Via Mastro Giorgio, 29, 00153 Rome
Spaghetti alla Gricia
Gricia is an exercise in simplicity, notable for its lack of garlic, herbs, onions, or tomato. Instead, guanciale — cured pork jowl — is fried until it renders its flavorsome fat. Then al dente pasta — traditionally spaghetti or rigatoni — and pecorino are added, and everything gets tossed together. The resulting sauce is the merging of the pork fat, grated cheese, and starchy residual pasta water, which come together into a rich and full-bodied condimento with a seasoned-pork taste.
Where to get it: Situated on a quiet street between Testaccio and Trastevere, Tavernaccia da Bruno serves glorious gricia. They use either dried tubes of rigatoni or fresh-egg tonnarelli and pancetta rather than guanciale, which makes purists cross — but the rest of us lick our plates just as happily. Tavernaccia di Bruno, Via Giovanni da Castel Bolognese, 63, 00153 Rome
Urban legend states that Amatriciana originated from the city of Amatrice in northern Lazio, which was devastated by earthquakes in 2017. Since then, eating the town’s signature pasta dish has, for Romans, become an act of solidarity. The recipe is essentially tomato-spiked gricia and the original amatriciana was made with guanciale and pecorino; tomato entered the equation only after World War II. There are strongly held opinions on how best to make this gutsy sauce — whether you should use canned or fresh tomatoes, include onion, or add a slosh of white wine to cut through the fat — but the canonical pasta shapes are less controversial: spaghetti or the hollow, spaghetti-like bucatini.
Where to get it: Perilli in Testaccio makes a sturdy amatriciana, with sweet guanciale that sings when mixed with tomato and pecorino and tossed through sturdy bucatini. Perilli, Via Marmorata, 39, 00153 Rome
Rigatoni alla Carbonara
Another variation on the guanciale and pecorino theme, this time with egg, carbonara may be the best-known and best-travelled of the classic “Roman four”: gricia, amatriciana, carbonara, and cacio e pepe. Carbonara’s origins are obscure, but often attributed to the charcoal makers of northern Lazio; there are also stories about American G.I.s looking to sate their homesick longing for eggs and bacon. Again, opinions about how best to make carbonara are strongly held, but debating how to prepare the classics is a sport: whole eggs versus just yolks, guanciale versus pancetta, pecorino versus Parmesan. The most crucial ingredient is a ladleful of pasta-cooking water, which, when tossed with everything else, creates the creamy, golden sauce.
Where to get it: The version at Santo Palato with rigatoni arrives a deep sunshine yellow, studded with cubes of glistening guanciale. Santo Palato, Piazza Tarquinia, 4a/b, 00183 Rome
Gnocchi con Sugo di Coda
There are several dishes in the Roman repertoire where meat braised in tomato sauce provides two courses: The braising liquid becomes a rich sauce for a pasta primo (first course), and the meat itself, usually falling off the bone, becomes a secondo (second course). The pinnacle of these tender, meaty preparations is coda alla vaccinara, oxtail served either simply, with just tomato and celery, or with the addition of raisins, pine nuts, and spices.
Where to get it: At the acclaimed Trattoria Da Cesare al Casaletto you pick dried or fresh pasta to go with the mahogany-colored sugo di coda, silky from the marrow released by the oxtail as it cooks. Choose pillows of housemade potato gnocchi for a perfect match. Trattoria Da Cesare al Casaletto, Via del Casaletto, 45, 00151 Rome
Fettuccine con le Rigaglie di Pollo
Ribbons of bouncy, fresh-egg fettuccine are just the thing for a hefty Roman ragu made of a soffritto and chicken giblets. Like so much of Roman cooking, the origins of this dish lie in efforts to turn less precious cuts of meat into something delicious. Chicken livers and hearts become a delicacy when simmered into a velvety ragu and stirred through fettuccine.
Where to get it: Without a doubt, the place to eat this is Armando Al Pantheon, a respite of quality in the city’s tourist center. Armando Al Pantheon, Salita dei Crescenzi, 31, 00186 Rome