Not surprisingly, Italian food is the best-loved and most-eaten in the world according to countless surveys. I mean, who doesn’t love pasta and pizza? Add the true love Italians show their food, the preparation as well as the eating, taking their time over both, and using fresh seasonal ingredients and family recipes — usually passed down from someone’s favorite nonna — and you are onto a winner.
But like in most countries of a reasonable size, the Italian cuisine varies from north to south, with most main cities having their own specialties they are proud of. It’s no different in Rome.
On a recent visit, I tried a few new-to-me dishes which are typically Roman, such as cacio e pepe, and a few tried and tested favorites, which, when eating Italian, I simply cannot go without. (Hello, insalata Caprese!)
One thing to remember though is to opt for restaurants the locals frequent, rather than those hemming the popular tourist sights. The eating experience in Rome can very much differ according to whether the chef is catering for return business or is happy to feed the masses that will go home in the morning, never to set foot in his restaurant again. Not all Italian food is good, but when it is good, then it is truly delicious.
Here I have listed some superb dishes I enjoyed in Rome, giving you a bit of background as to what and how, as well as where to go and try each one.
No Italian meal starts without some antipasti, usually small, bite-sized starters served on a platter, to be self-served and shared. These can be warm nibbles or cold meat cuts, such as lovely Parma ham slices served with figs. Each restaurant provides its own take on antipasti, and I have yet to come across a platter that did not have delicious things on it.
Maybe because I lived in France for a few years, I usually aim for an Italian version of the charcuterie platter, often simply listed as antipasti, and involving a variety of hams, sometimes a cheese or two, and something sweet such as figs or honey, but sometimes little arancini and tartlets can be nice as well. With a selection of local meats and olives, you really cannot go wrong in any restaurant.
2. Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe
Lumen Bar, St. Regis Rome
This is probably the most iconic Roman dish, a very simple yet superbly tasty and delicious pasta dish. The al dente tonnarelli, a long pasta similar to spaghetti, just slightly thicker, is prepared with cheese and pepper, or cacio e pepe, which gives the dish its name. The cheese is the local Pecorino cheese, a hard, slightly salty cheese made from sheep’s milk, which is grated into the pasta, melting into a creamy sauce which is then balanced with ground black pepper.
So simple, so good, but also so tricky. On paper, a very easy dish to prepare back home, but getting the balance just right and the creaminess just so is an artform Roman chefs have been perfecting for centuries. Try it at the lovely Lumen Bar in the glitzy St. Regis Rome.
3. Pasta Tartufo
I am drawn to all dishes containing tartufo, or truffles. Admittedly a love or hate taste, I am in love with these earthy shaved mushrooms and simply cannot resist. And when in Italy, there is simply nothing better, especially during the tartufo season. And, despite the prices these little gems normally sell for, the dishes in Rome — be they pasta or pizza with generous shavings of truffle — are surprisingly affordable.
I have lost count of quite how many plates of pasta tartufo I indulged in, but one of them stood out, not just because of the truly amazingly generous helping of truffle, but also the service, and general ambience. Head to what I came to call my little local restaurant Il Fico, just opposite HiSuite Rome, a lovely boutique place where I stayed. I often ended my day at Il Fico with a glass of their excellent and very affordable house red.
4. Fiori Di Zucca Fritti
Hassler Roma Bistro Palm Court
It must have been zucchini season when I visited Rome in October, because few menus were without Fiori Di Zucca Fritti, fried zucchini flower. The dish, which combines the delicate yellow flowers of the zucchini with a light, cheesy stuffing, was conceived as a no-waste dish by the poorer working classes but has since been elevated to a stunning, classy dish. Alas, the first one I tried – in a touristy place, was quite honestly, awful. The batter was too heavy, it was too greasy, and wasn’t as light as it should be.
But then I tried again, this time at the historic Hassler Roma hotel, and I was blown away. No grease was evident, the batter was barely there, and the stuffing of mozzarella, parmesan, herbs, and a hint of anchovies, was simple and superb. Add the setting of the Palm Court Bistro’s shaded courtyard, and this is a dish and location not to be missed.
Castel Sant’Angelo, Trastevere
The humble suppli is a typically Roman snack consisting of a crumbed, fried ball of rice often filled with either just mozzarella and tomato sauce or with small chicken pieces. You see this perfect street food in take-out bars around Trastevere, little egg-shaped brown snacks placed in a paper bag to be eaten on the go. Fresh and hot, the melted mozzarella forms strings at each bite, and you often get them as antipasti in restaurants, or, where I discovered them — in the café on the terrace of the Castel Sant’Angelo, where they serve great breakfast food washed down with coffee.
Remember how I keep saying not to eat at touristy sites? Well, this is one recommendation for a snack to go with your aperitif right on Piazza Navona. I am not suggesting eating your entire dinner here, but a tomato-packed bruschetta (pronounced broos-skeh-tuh, not broosh-et-ta) is a lovely way to start your evening.
This fresh, typically Roman snack is made up of a slice of toasted bread, usually better made with stale bread, which is then rubbed with raw garlic, sprinkled with some olive oil, and topped with fresh tomatoes. It’s a simple, tasty, and great antipasto, especially at Il Grifone with a view across the beautiful Piazza Navona and an Aperol Spritz in hand.
7. Caprese Salad
Just like with truffles, I rarely read past a Caprese salad on a menu without ordering it. And when in Italy with the sun shining, this refreshing and light dish of mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, and basil is just perfect. But not all Caprese salads are good. I find, for example, that many do not offer you enough basil, or the balance between the amount of mozzarella and tomatoes is not perfect, which, admittedly, is a personal taste choice. But one restaurant that offered a perfect little bowl of superbly tasty and fresh tomatoes with juicy mozzarella and crisp green basil leaves was just off Piazza Navona, at Osteria Da Francesco, hidden away in a small side street.
8. Pizza Romana
When in Rome, your pizza will be typically Roman, not Neapolitan, which probably is the pizza that most associate with Italy. The difference is in the making of the dough, and while both chefs from Napoli and Rome use flour, yeast, water, and salt, the Romans also use a dash of olive oil, which allows for a thinner and crispier pizza.
Again, the way you like your pizza is a personal choice — with many people preferring the fluffier, softer Neapolitan version — but I am absolutely in love with the Roman pizza. Add ham, truffle, and cheese, but do not even think about asking for pineapple; you’ll make the chef cry. Head to Il Corallo for a great selection.
And last, but not least, something sweet. There are plenty of desserts, ranging from Maritozzo con la Panna, a soft breakfast bun filled with cream which you will find at nearly every breakfast café in the city, to the very iconic Tiramisu, which is eaten around the globe. So, instead of adding a typically Roman sweet treat, I will mention the Sicilian staple, the cannoli.
I include it here, for the simple reason that I tried it in the Villa Borghese café, Casina del Lago, and enjoyed it despite not really being a cream-lover. But these little fried dough tubes filled with a sweet ricotta mix are not only pretty, but also rather yummy. They’re perfect for a sugary fix accompanying your coffee after you walked around the beautiful gardens of Villa Borghese.
Pro Tip: There is so much food to try in Rome, that you might well feel the time constraints equalling your belt’s strain. So, why not book a food walking tour where you can sample some iconic dishes as you go and don’t need to wait until another mealtime comes along?