Food specialties of the Eternal City of Rome
There are many reasons to travel to Rome. The historic city is home to world-famous monuments, fantastic boutique and designer shopping and beautiful weather. However, I would have one thing firmly on my mind if I were to book a flight to the Italian capital… and that’s Roman food.
Travelling to Rome provides a real feast for the senses. Its long history and passionate locals make it a truly absorbing and immersive place that sweeps you up in a whirlwind of excitement. Like many other very special places in the world, one way to get to the heart of this majestic city is by trying some traditional Roman food.
The cuisine is simple, classic and extremely satisfying with rich, creamy bases and large portions. It is almost as if the vibrant personality of the city is laced into its every serving with fresh, flavourful ingredients that infuse every dish with unforgettable tastes. The land around the city provides excellent fruit and vegetable crops, which are used in many dishes to provide a succulent, natural flavour.
Roman food has roots that go back to ancient times with influences of the vast array of cultures that have passed through Rome over the centuries. Here’s a selection of the most classic and traditional Romanesque dishes that you simply must try on a journey to the city.
Fried and deep-fried foods are extremely common, with fried zucchini blossoms as one of the most popular seasonal dishes. Sometimes these will come stuffed with mozzarella, anchovies or ham but other times they will be left without a filling. These are traditionally eaten as an antipasto – a small starter – although you may often see people eating it as a snack, too. Another traditional dish that uses artichokes is the Carciofi alla Romana. As a seasonal dish, you will only see this in springtime when the crop is plentiful and ultra fresh. The artichokes are braised with olive oil, garlic and mint to create a classic Roman appetizer where the veg does all the talking.
You may also find artichokes cooked in the traditional Jewish way, flattened and deep-fried in olive oil, in a recipe derived from the Jewish community of ancient times – Ccarciofi alla Giudia. The Jewish roots in Roman cuisine are responsible for another traditional fried dish – Filetti di Baccalà or deep-fried salt cold. The Baccalà is also traditionally prepared in another – entirely different – way, slow-cooked with tomato sauce, pine nuts and raisins. For the best local fried fish and a fantastic experience, head to the fish market at Trastevere. The market has fresh fish delivered every day and you can make your selection and have it cooked while you wait. It is here that you can enjoy the delicious taste of the city along with a crisp glass of local wine.
Another traditional Roman food is one that you may need to brace yourselves for: offal. It’s a lot tastier than it sounds! Otherwise known as the Quinto Quarto (Fifth Quarter), the range of traditional meat dishes take their origins from the slaughterhouses of the Testaccio neighbourhood – Rome’s original foodie quarter. It is where animal’s off-cuts were given to slaughterhouse workers – these offcuts weighed around a fifth of the entire animal, hence their name. Many traditional recipes were derived from these parts, including Ttestarelle (whole roasted lamb’s head), Ccoda alla Vaccinara (slow-stewed oxtail in either a tomato or chocolate-based sauce, served with vegetables) and Ttripa alla Romana (a tomato-based tripe dish with pecorino cheese). This style of cooking again shows the influence of the city’s ancient past on its traditional cooking methods, where people would use inexpensive cuts of meat to make flavourful dishes.
Another of the city’s most quintessential meat dishes is the veal Saltimbocca alla Romana. Consisting of thin veal cutlets cooked with a white wine and butter sauce, then topped with cheese, prosciutto and sage, this is a Roman food that is as aromatic as it is tasty. The name translates as ‘jumps in the mouth’ and it is indeed a rich, decadent dish with its preparation and ingredients taking their tradition from the very heart of traditional Roman food.
La Fontana di Venere is an exceptional restaurant in the centre of the city, which offers the best in Roman fine dining. Past diners have heaped praise on their Saltimbocca alla Romana, and this is one of the best places to try the dish. The restaurant is also just a pleasant stroll from Portrait Roma, one of the city’s most stylish hotels that is built within a 19th-century townhouse and atelier. The hotel contains just 14 rooms for the ultimate in privacy and enjoys a fashionable location among the best boutiques in the city and around the corner from the Spanish Steps.
Another one of the city’s most famous staples is Pecorino Romano (pecorino cheese) – a salty-tasting sheep’s cheese from Lazio that is grated over many traditional dishes for added flavour. Pasta in Rome is more traditionally associated with cheese-based sauces, making the pecorino an essential ingredient. Gnocchi alla Romana uses a cheese-meat sauce, and the gnocchi in Rome is cooked in a traditional local way, using wheat semolina flour.
While you can’t go wrong with any pasta in a traditional Roman restaurant, the Spaghetti alla Carbonara is unmissable. Forget everything you think you know about carbonara, as that’s all about to change. Carbonara in Rome tells a whole different story than the dish served anywhere outside the city. The best and most traditional recipes use butter, eggs, black pepper and pork cheeks, along with Parmesan (Parmigiano) and Pecorino Romano. Flavours are perfectly balanced for a mouthwatering Roman food that is extremely popular among the locals and commonly cooked in the home kitchen.
Another traditional Roman pasta dish is Fettuccine Alfredo, which originated in Rome back in the early twentieth century from talented local chef Alfredo di Lelio. This dish is steeped in Roman tradition with a creamy, cheese sauce consisting of butter, cream and Parmesan cheese. Another traditional dish – Spaghetti Aglio e Olio – is a simple affair, tossed in garlic, olive oil, butter and cream. For those who like things a little bit spicier, just add hot peppers to make yet another dish popular in the local cuisine – Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino.
Bucatini all’Amatriciana is a Roman food that originated in a town east of the city. The sauce is made up of tomatoes, pancetta, spicy red pepper flakes and olive oil. Again, this shows the essence of Roman food – good quality base ingredients and the addition of a lot of herbs and spices. The traditional pizza – Pizza alla Romana – is also exemplary of this style. This simple thin-crusted pizza is served white with just a touch of olive oil and rosemary for a simple, exotic flavour.
While it can be tempting to go to the restaurants along the main streets, the most authentic Roman cuisine can often be found in the side streets. The Jumeirah Grand Hotel Via Veneto has an extremely central location yet it exemplifies how traditional food can be found anywhere in the city. It is surrounded by traditional trattorias and is also the place for the Doney Restaurant, a Roman institution that serves traditional dishes including fried zucchini flowers and fried salt fish as well as traditional meat and pasta dishes. If any of the foods above has tickled your fancy, the Doney has it all under one – very attractive – roof. You can also ask the advice of the locals if you want to find somewhere really traditional or just wander very slightly off the beaten track and look for places that don’t have an English menu – those aimed at locals will be far more likely to produce food that tastes as traditional Roman fare should.