As you might expect, when it comes to eating out, in Rome you will be faced by a large range of options: from the exclusive cuisine of some of the most famous international chefs to the traditional, hearty ‘Romanesca’ fare in all its manifold variations. Needless to say, the only way to really understand the heart and soul of Rome is by tasting its culinary splendors in a popular restaurant.
Eating out is part of life in Rome. It used to be said that in Rome it was cheaper to eat out than to purchase the same ingredients in a store and cook them at home. That may no longer be true, but you can still find cheap places to eat if you know where to look.
Testaccio is one of the areas in which to find traditional restaurants serving the local specialties, especially in the area surrounding the disused abattoir The district of Trastevere is also a great place to find good restaurants, and inside the Ghetto, you’ll find several places offering Jewish cuisine as well as unique variations on traditional themes.
Surprisingly enough, some restaurants in the heart of the tourist centers, where red-checked table clothes swing from tables and waiters try to lure you in with their version of charm, are extremely good value. Via del Latore beside the Trevi Fountain has a number of such eateries.
If you like exotic and oriental cuisine, be advised that restaurants in Rome are pretty much confined to those of the native variety and, while you will find establishments serving Chinese, Indian, Mexican and Thai food, the standard is not as high as other major world cities. However, this is not going to be a real issue, as, once you have eaten in any of the traditional Italian restaurants, you simply won’t even consider trying anything different.
Pizzerias and trattorias are definitely the most popular places to dine in Rome: informal, economical and with speedy service, they are home to ‘pizza alla Romana’, which has a thin crust and a crispy edge, as opposed to the softly raised crusts of the Neapolitan variety. You’ll find pizzerias in every corner of the city, but Trastevere offers an especially wide choice of pizza places with wood fueled ovens (these give the pizza a more intense flavor).
If you go the pizza route, in addition to the pizza, don’t miss other delicious Roman offerings easily found at any reputable pizzeria, such as ‘supply Telefono’ (fried rice balls with mozzarella filling), potato croquettes, fried cod fillets, fried pumpkin flowers, and ‘bruschetta’ (slices of toasted bread topped with tomato, garlic and olive oil).
Traditional Roman cuisine stems from a time when people cannot afford a meal made with meat and therefore had to use offal, which at that time was definitely more affordable. Over the centuries, traditional dishes like – Coda alla vaccinara’ (oxtail cooked with wine, tomatoes and peppers), ‘pajata’ (veal’s offal cooked in a tomato sauce), ‘abbacchio alla scottadito’ (grilled lamb chop) and ‘trippa alla Romana’ (Roman style tripe), have come to be considered as delicacies and are eaten by even the most refined palates.
The Roman cuisine has a great tradition of pasta dishes often made with ‘guanciale’ (cured pork cheek) and ‘pecorino romano’ cheese. The ‘amatriciana’ adds onion and tomato to the mix and is classically served with ‘bucatini’ (a thick, hollow spaghetti). while ‘carbonara’ tosses the pork and cheese with egg yolk and black pepper. ‘Gricia’ is similar to ‘amatriciana’ but without tomatoes and ‘gnocchi’ (little round squishy pasta balls made out of a potato with a tomato sauce and Parmesan or pecorino) is a favorite for Thursday dinner.
Seasonal vegetables may not appear on the menu but are usually available. Romans love their greens: ‘spinaci ripassati’ (saut spinach) are perennial favorites and many restaurants specialize in vegetable ‘fritto misto’ (deep fried mixed vegetables). Rome is famous for a local variety of artichokes, available from November to April, prepared ‘alla Romana’ (stuffed with garlic and mint) or ‘alla giudia’ (fried whole, making each petal crisp). ‘Puntarelle’ is another side dish sure to be found at any Roman restaurant. Puntarelle is a type of chicory (also known as Catalonia) whose long, green spiked leaves are sliced very thinly and set into cold water so that they becomes curly and then served raw, dressed with olive oil, vinegar, garlic and minced anchovies.
If you really want to go the extra mile, Rome is also notable for lenten raisin buns called ‘maritozzi’, cream-filled pastries called ‘bign? rum-soaked fruit and nut cake called ‘pan giallo’, and a custard cake drenched with syrupy liqueurs known as ‘zuppa inglese’ (thoug’s neither soup nor English). Locals usually end their meals with a cup of ‘espresso’ coffee or a glass of ‘sambuca’, a sweet liqueur sipped with three coffee beans to munch on.
This article is part of a series covering the most important Italian travel destinations and regional cuisines. Watch out for related articles about eating out in Florence, Naples, Milan, and Venice.