Nothing is as important as food in Italy and getting to know Rome requires getting to know its dishes. These are distinct from other Italian cities and are enjoyed throughout the day by locals for which great gastronomy is second nature.
Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day here. Most Romans are more interested in lunch and dinner. They start the day with an espresso and a cornetto pastry. You’ll see them standing in bars around the city downing their coffee in seconds and hurrying off to work or play. The midday and evening meals provide greater variety when some form of pasta is served and many interesting sides are available. Sampling as much as possible is a necessary and enjoyable step in understanding Italy.
Starting from the early hours of the morning bars and bakeries around the city begin serving cornet to pastries (€1). These high calorie treats are the Roman version of the croissant and can be plain or filled with chocolate, jelly or cream. The best are prepared on sight and served warm. They go well with cappuccino and are an inexpensive way to face the day.
Tramezzini & Panini
A delicious sandwich is never far in Rome and the Roman version comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and fillings. Most bars in the capital have a selection of tramezzini sandwiches (€2) on display from mid-morning to late afternoon. These triangular sandwiches consist of crustless white bread filled with cold cuts, shrimp, tuna, egg salad, artichokes or vegetables. They are inexpensive and a perfect snack along with a fresh-squeezed orange juice. Next to the tramezzini you’ll usually find other types of panini sandwiches (€3-5) made with pizza bianca or rolls and containing prosciutto ham and mozzarella, grilled zucchini and other appetizing combinations. Freshness is essential so if you have any doubt or the selection is not up to expectations just walk away.
Fiori di Zucchini
Roman cooking is a tale of inventiveness and thrift. Nothing is wasted and a good example of that is fiori di zucchini (€2). Rather than throw away the flowers from zucchinis Romans stuff them with anchovies and mozzarella, cover them in batter and fry. The result is surprisingly good especially if you like anchovies and can digest fried food. They are generally served in pizzeria or trattoria restaurants as an appetizer along with suppli rice balls and potato croquettes. Most menus offer a plate of mixed fried starters, which is a good introduction to the genre and will help identify favorites.
Roman pizza is different from the Neapolitan version. It’s thin, prepared in long trays and served by the kilo at hundreds of pizzerie al taglio shops around the city. Varieties range from bianca (white topingless pizza) and margherita (tomato and mozzarella) to potato and sausage or four cheese and some creative alternatives. The best thing to do is enter a pizzeria and check out what they have behind the counter. If you like the selection order a few different cuts and indicate with your hands how much you want and if you intend to eat inside (per mangiare qui) or out (per portare via). Most osteria and trattoria restaurants also serve familiar round pizzas baked in wood burning ovens. Menus are divided into red and white pizzas and nearly always include a selection of fried appetizers.
Cacio e Pepe & Amatriciana
Italy is known for pasta and every town and region has developed its own particular shapes and sauces. In Rome two pasta dishes are particularly famous and both began as working class meals made from humble ingredients. Cacio e Pepe (€8-10) as the name indicates consists of cacio cheese and pepper. It’s a deceptively simple dish that’s delicious when the sauce has just the right creaminess and the flavours are balanced. Technically Amatriciana (€8-10) was invented in a town* northeast of the capital but it quickly became a favorite with Romans. They make it with tomatoes and guancia di maiale, thick slices of bacon fried until mouthwateringly crisp. Both dishes are served with short pasta and are a stalwart of Roman menus.
*The historic center of Amatrice was devastated by an earthquake in August 2016.
The artichoke holds a special place in Roman cuisine and is served nearly year round except during the summer. The two most popular ways of eating artichokes are alla Romana or (€5). The first involves stewing this versatile vegetable over a low flame with olive oil and parsley. The second is a Jewish recipe that requires deep frying the artichoke until the leaves are golden and crispy. Both methods are served as side orders and a good place to sample alla Giudea is in Rome’s Jewish neighborhood. Another way of preparing artichokes is by breading then frying them in a pan. Deciding which method is the best is a treat.
Frappe (€2) are dangerous for diets. These thin strips of dough are either baked or fried and covered with a thin layer of powdered sugar or honey. They begin to make their appearance in bakeries and bars in mid-January and are only available during the Carnival season along with the Bignè di San Giuseppe which is a golf ball-sized pastry. If you don’t happen to be in Rome during winter you can always sample the mignon pastries that come in countless varieties and are prepared all year long in pastry shops.
For more gastronomic insights pack Moon: Rome, Florence & Venice
on your next trip to Italy.