Many visitors to Rome make the mistake of thinking that the city offers great food options on every corner. One could be excused for theorizing that the capital of the country boasting the world’s most popular cuisine be one, huge, epicurean treat. Yet the truth lies somewhere between Rome’s most authentic eateries and the barrage of sub-standard tourist traps. Rome is a fantastic gastronomic destination, yet more often than not unsuspecting tourists fall prey to the very below average fare the city can churn out. To be fair, we do believe part of the fault lies with visitors themselves. Unbeknownst to most, Italian cooking is extremely regional, so just because you find ‘cotoletta’, ‘cassata’ or ‘fettuccine al pesto’ on a restaurant menu, don’t assume they’re bound to be good. (FYI, those three items are best flavoured in Milan, Catania and Genova respectively). Knowing what to order when and where will go a long way to making sure you don’t get served anything foreign, frozen or flippantly bad.
Rome and its region, Lazio, boast a mighty impressive cuisine and some special treats which are not found anywhere else in Italy. If they are, they’re also not bound to be very authentic. So get in the know, stick to the local fare and this may go a long way in guaranteeing your eating experiences in Rome will be remembered for all the right reasons. Following is our insider’s guide to the very best foods to try in Rome Restaurants, where to try them, as well as a few tips which may help you work out the good from the bad, and the utterly ugly.
The traditional Roman delights
The cuisine of central Italy, and Lazio in particular, has always been heavily influenced by the mild Mediterranean temps. Rich tomato-based sauces and an abundance of vegetables ranging from artichoke (which Rome seems obsessed with) to aubergine and everything colourful in between, make up a heavy chunk of the delectable yet not overly fastidious Roman cuisine. If rice is king in the north, then pasta should definitely be considered the queen of Rome. Of the most distinctive pasta dishes you should look out for when holidaying in Rome, bucatini all’amatriciana and spaghetti carbonara (both authentic sauces made with diced pig’s cheek) should be right up at the top of your drool-list as well as the most famous dish of all: gnocchi. Just a note of warning about the carbonara: should you see it swimming in a pool of cream don’t walk but RUN out of there! Unlike the exported version, traditional carbonara is a dry-sauce dish, the only ‘creaminess’ to it coming from the use of beaten eggs.
Should you require a healthy sprinkling of cheese on your pasta dish, then you can look forward to the most piquant grated cheese in Italy: pecorino Romano. This sheep milk’s cheese is much tastier and spicier than parmesan, and really makes the taste of the sauce almost burst into your taste buds. It’s deliciously unreal.
Romans are also obscenely fond of animal innards and other dubious animal bits and bobs, including tripe (trippa) as well as coda alla vaccinara, a stew made of indescribable ox spare parts. To give you a fair idea, one of the most beloved condiments of local dishes is the strutto which is a sort of spiced reconstituted pork fat. It’s basically lard in drag.
Continuing on we discover that the health-unobsessed Romans also love anything fried. Fritto, in fact, is by far the favoured word in the Roman dictionary. From rice balls, to morsels of baccala’ (salted cod fish) and suppli’ (potatoe dumplings), the Romans devour industrial quantities of fried nibblies regularly. Incidentally, the term ‘high cholesterol’ is also eerily missing from the Roman dictionary.
Moving onto the healthier side of Roman cuisine, you’ll be happy to know that it is also characterised by a huge amount of vegetables, even though they mostly come either fried, stuffed and then fried or grilled…and then baptised in copious amounts of olive oil. Gotta love that.
Carciofi alla Romana should only ever be ordered in springtime, when locally grown artichokes are at their very best. In Rome, they’re traditionally grilled and topped with olive oil, garlic, salt and mint which is one of the most delicious flavour combinations around. Just across the Apennines, in Abruzzi, they make their grilled eggplant the same way and that too is utterly divine.
Keeping with their frying traditions, Rome also brings you the most exported antipasto of all, the cheese-filled zucchini flower, locally known as fiori di zucca. Look for varieties which include mozzarella and anchovies, a dish so delicious we’d be happy to sell our soul to the devil for a daily serve. This particular delight gifted us a much more divine religious experience than the Vatican ever did. Amen.
The real treasures of Rome
Forget the Vatican, Pantheon and Colosseum, if there are some real treasures which need to be hailed and protected in Rome that would be the few authentic and exceptional restaurants where good food is served at great prices and accompanied by fab service. If UNESCO were ever to introduce a ‘heritage listed restaurant’ list for Rome, we reckon the following two places ought to be included.
Osteria del Pegno
For one reason or another, the guys at Pegno really take their cooking, and serving, rather seriously, which is great news for you. The waiter earned his first golden point by recommending the house wine and continued to win our graces by insisting that we were ordering far too much food. Here, you can flavour a delicious double whammy: baccala with artichokes and, dare we say, the best carbonara in Rome. Pegno is testament to the fact that if you try hard enough, you’ll find a diamond in the rough no matter where you go. Osteria Pegno is just around the corner from Piazza Navona, set amidst a myriad of touristy joints and offering a top-quality dining experience for extremely reasonable Euros.
Often regarded as the best seafood restaurant in Rome, Acquolina is the kind of place you head to for a mouth-watering meal and not much else. But since this is about food, and not food with a stellar view, it’ll do just fine. The location may be just so-so, but who cares when the fish is so good. The degustation menu is a real adventure for the palate and combines the freshest catches with a few odd-ball ingredients thrown in for good measure. For entree you could try the coconut-crusted prawns, baccala-filled olives or the pistachio-crusted anchovies, all of which are supremely delicious. Your gastronomic indulgences will just get better and better from then on. Chose the 13-course taster menu and you won’t go wrong. Add a bottle of local wine and expect to pay under £100 ($150) for a fantastic meal out in Rome.
In most countries, we’d advise you to follow the herd of locals and steer clear of any restaurant which doesn’t boast a healthy Italian patronage. Unfortunately, such tactic is totally ineffective in Italy. You see, in Rome even a Milanese is a foreigner and, as such, must have absolutely no idea what a good plate of pasta should taste like, at least according to the shrewd restaurateur. Just because you can hear Italian spoken at the next table, and the one after that, don’t automatically assume that this must be a local haunt (unless your Italian is good enough to pick up the distinctive Roman accent). You may well have chosen a place where you and the Milanese next door will enjoy a perfectly horrendous meal. The only difference between Italians of non-Roman descent and any other foreign tourist is that the Italian client will likely make a big scene if served a below-par plate of food while the foreign tourist will likely sulk a bit, pay the bill in full and then pop a negative review on Tripadvisor.
So what to do…well, we for one resorted to asking for recommendations from the most in-the-know Romans about: taxi drivers. You’d be amazed at how knowledgeable these guys are! We also resorted to a dirty trick, and that is tugging at the heartstrings of all sentimental Romans: asking them where they would take their mamma out to dinner on her special birthday. This trick works a charm.
To be honest, the most traditional of restaurant in Italy will likely be family-run, small and with no webpage to boast, so asking anyone you come across (hotel concierge, the Laundromat lady or the vegetable seller) will likely score you a much better local list than anything you’ll find on the net. Who knows…maybe you’ll get lucky and receive a dinner invite at the home of a taxi driver. Now that was an epicurean delight we’ll likely never forget.
The top 3 commandments to follow when eating out in Rome:
1) Italians are rather routine-obsessed and this is also reflected on their eating habits. In Rome, for reasons which no one has ever been able to explain to us, gnocchi are eaten on Thursdays, cod fish on Fridays, trippa on Saturdays and porchetta (roast pork) on Sundays. Don’t be a tourist and stick to your designated days!
2) Unless you want to join the throngs of tourists who endure the walk of shame out of an Italian restaurant DO NOT ask for pecorino, parmesan or any other type of grated cheese if you’ve ordered a plate of seafood pasta. If these were still Roman times you’d be thrown into the pits and fed to the lions. Seriously, this is about as big a faux pas as you can possibly make. Ooooh the shame!
3) Do not order a cappuccino after 11am. In Italy, cappuccino is a breakfast caffe’ only. For the kind of scorning you can expect, please refer to number 2.
Randy OHC via Flickr
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Carciofo alla Giudia via Wiki
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Romecabs via Flickr