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Episode #029: What to eat in Rome – must try dishes and where to try them

untold italy episode 29

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Rome is one of the world’s great food cities. And it pays to have a plan for eating its iconic dishes when you get there. In this episode we share our best tips on what to eat in Rome – the best of the city’s pasta, pizza, street food and more. Of course you’ll also want to know where you can try the most authentic and delicious plates. Don’t worry, we’ve opened up our address book to reveal our favorite eateries too.

Show notes

Do you want to try the best carbonara in Rome? Of course you do. The city’s most iconic dish is a perennial favorite but did you know that it is a fairly recent incarnation of a more simple traditional dish. Rome has many pasta dishes to try and each have their own pasta shape that matches perfectly with its sauce.

If you’re more of a street food fan, Rome has some of the best in the world. From crispy fried fish to rice balls known as suppli plus traditional and modern takes on pizza, it’s easy to munch your way around the city in between sightseeing and checking out all the city highlights. Pizza is always on the menu and you’ll want to know how to order it by the slice and where to go to get the tastiest toppings.

When it’s time for dinner the main dishes of the city recall its Roman past and Jewish traditions. Learn where you can sample the best of cucina povera (peasant dishes) as well as classic Roman plates featuring quinto quarto (offal). Whether its a tasty lamb cutlet or delicious oxtail stew, if you’re a meat lover there’s sure to be a dish that tempts you.

Vegetarians are well catered for too. Some of the city’s must try springtime dishes feature local artichokes – fried and crunchy in the Jewish style or slowly braised alla romana in olive oil and white wine. Puntarelle are winter greens served with anchovies that are also a staple of Roman cuisine.

When it’s time for sweets, return to the Jewish tradition and combinations of pastry, black cherry jam and sweet ricotta. Or try a famous maritozzo for breakfast with your espresso.

We’ve shared our favorite addresses so you can explore on your own but we also highly recommend joining a food tour in Rome so you can learn more about the traditions and history behind one of the world’s most celebrated cuisines.

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Most delicious and best pasta in Rome

  • Cacio e pepe – a simple pasta dish with pecorino romano cheese and black pepper. Try it at: Da Felice in Testaccio or Da Danilo near Roma Termini and the Colosseum
  • Alla gricia – cacio e pepe is elevated to even more delicious heights with the addition of guanciale. Must visit restaurant: Salumeria Roscioli
  • Carbonara – everyone’s favorite Roman pasta dish made with fresh eggs, pecorino, guanciale and pepper. Visit the carbonara king – Luciano Monosilio – at his restaurant Luciano Cucina Italiana to try the best carbonara in Rome
  • Amatriciana – tomatoes are added to guanciale, pecorino romano and black pepper served with bucatini pasta tubes. Where to try: Da Enzo in Trastevere

Rome’s best pizza

  • Pizza al taglio – pizza by the slice with interesting toppings. Taste the very best at Pizzarium in the Vatican
  • Pizza bianca – flat bread with olive oil and salt – try straight from the oven at Forno Campo de’Fiori
  • Trapizzino – pizza stuffed with delicious fillings created at Trapizzino outlets across Rome
  • Favorite sit down pizza restaurantsDar Poeta in Trastevere and Emma in the historic center

Street food in Rome

  • Suppli – fried rice balls with a delicious surprise inside. Supplizio does interesting modern takes on this classic
  • Baccala – fried salted cod fillets in a crunchy batter. The very best is found at Dar Filettaro
  • Porchetta – slow roasted pork sliced and served in a panini or bread roll. Head to the market at Campo de’Fiori to try this delicious sandwich

Main dishes to try in Rome

  • Saltimbocca alla romana – thinly sliced veal wrapped in prosciutto and sage served with a white wine sauce. Make a beeline for Trattoria da Teo to try this dish
  • Coda alla Vaccinara – slow cooked tasty oxtail stew. Checchino in Testaccio has been making offal taste great since 1887!
  • Trippa alla romana – tripe served in a tomato sauce
  • Pajata – veal or lamb intestines cooked in a tomato sauce and served with pasta, nutmeg and pecorino. Try it at Nonna Betta

Roman vegetable dishes

  • Pasta e ceci – pasta and chickpeas in a tomato broth. Served on Fridays at Armando al Pantheon
  • Carciofi alla giudea – deep friend artichokes originating from the Jewish quarter. Best tried from February to May at Piperno
  • Carciofi alla romana – artichokes slow cooked in olive oil, white wine, and Roman mint
  • Puntarelle – winter greens sliced thinly and dressed with olive oil, lemon and garlic and anchovy

Sweet treats from Rome

  • Fragolina – tiny wild strawberries available in mid Spring
  • Crostata ricotta e visciole – tart with ricotta and black cherry jam available from Forno Boccione in the Jewish quarter
  • Maritozzo – sweet bun filled with whipped cream traditionally eaten for breakfast. Get your fix at Pasticceria Regoli or Roscioli Caffé
READ: ROME TRAVEL GUIDE

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Transcript

Prefer to read along as you listen? Below is a full transcript of this episode.

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Introduction (00:05):
Ciao and benvenuti to Untold Italy. I’m Josie and I’m Katy and we’re here to help you plan your trip to Italy. Between us, we have many years of travel experience and we want to help you uncover your own as yet untold stories and adventures in Italy. Each episode you’ll hear practical advice, tips and ideas to help you plan your own trips to the magical land of history, stunning landscapes and a whole lot of pasta. We’ll have interviews from experts and focus on local destinations and frequently asked questions about travel in Italy. Thanks for listening and make sure to subscribe to our show now. Let’s get started on your regular dose of Bella Italia.

Ciao friends. How are you all doing? I’m going to be honest – we are all struggling a bit here in my home town Melbourne, Australia. We have just started another 6 week lockdown thanks to covid19 and woah I’ve got to say that while we thought it may happen. It probably happened faster than we expected. But here we are. And in times like these I find comfort in thinking about food. Especially amazing, flavorful Italian food. So I hope you don’t mind but I scrapped the original plans for this week’s topic and decided to talk about some of the dishes you should try in Rome. And give you some tips on where to find them – our best addresses if you will.

Now I’m adding a disclaimer today. I’m no Anthony Bourdain! But that famous chef was a bit of a hero of mine. If you haven’t seen his No Reservations and Parts Unknown episodes on the food scene in Rome then make sure you take a look before you go. He had such a way of uncovering the real soul behind food traditions wherever he visited but I like to think he held a special place in his heart for Rome.

So I’m going to be specific and talk about Roman food because, as you may know, Italian food is very regional. Each city, town, region and even villages in Italy have their own special dishes you have to try based on produce from the surrounding area. You may find something like say cannoli which is a Sicilian dessert and it will be good and probably better than what you can get at home. But, here’s the thing, trust me when I tell you that you have not tried cannoli until you’ve tried it in Sicily.. But I digress, that is for another episode and don’t worry, we have plans, big plans to talk our foodie selves all over Italy. My point is, when in Rome, try the Roman dishes for the best experiences. You’ll just have to plan another trip to Sicily to try the cannoli!

Roman dishes are also very seasonal and based on what is growing in the fields at the time of your visit. So while you may want to try certain things when you are in Rome, they may not be available. A great example of this are the castagne or chestnuts that are roasted by street vendors in late fall or autumn. Known as caldarroste they are a delicious snack but you’ll have to go there in late October and into winter to get them.

But I know what you’re thinking, you just want to try the carbonara. And that is definitely a good idea. So we’ll start talking about some of the classic Roman pasta dishes and where you can taste great examples of them.

And really we should start at the beginning because in fact carbonara sauce is a variation on a theme that carries through across three Roman pasta dishes. There are a few differences that make these 3 dishes unique and the addition of just one or two ingredients changes the profile of the sauce. And don’t forget the choice of pasta shape to match the sauce is critical. The pasta must compliment the sauce so that it is coated just right and soaks up the sauce in the most optimum way. So many details right? And they are all very important.

We’ll get to carbonara in a minute but first let’s start with the most Roman simple pasta dish which is also satisfyingly delicious and moreish – it’s cacio e pepe. Which means cheese (in Roman dialect) and pepper. To make this dish, pasta is tossed with handfuls of pecorino romano cheese, a generous amount of black pepper, and some pasta water. The result is creamy pasta comfort food in a bowl.

While it sounds deceptively simple, if you’re cooking this dish there is nowhere to hide flaws. You need to use the right pasta – in this case tonarelli which are long thick square shaped egg noodles cooked al dente (to the bite). You must add the right cheese liberally – salty and sharp pecorino romano is the only cheese to use. Plus freshly ground black pepper. And then gradually pasta water is added to make sure the creamy sauce coats all of the pasta strands. Cacio e pepe is the Roman dish proof that sometimes the simple things are often the best. You can try it all over town but head to Da Felice in Testaccio where it is made in front of you. Or go to Da Danilo – reasonably close to the Colosseum and Roma Termini – where they bring a whole big wheel of pecorino to your table and twirl it right in front of you. It’s a bit gimmicky but when in Rome – ahem!

The next pasta dish along the spectrum is rigatoni alla gricia. And it’s actually my favorite. The basis of the sauce is the same as cacio e pepe but the addition of guanciale – cured pork jowl – takes it to another level. Again, the quality of the produce is critical here. The jowl is a fatty cut of pork that is rubbed with salt, pepper and spices and then hung for at least three weeks for the flavor to develop. When making the alla gricia sauce the fat of the guanciale is rendered and browned and along with the cheesy, peppery sauce it coats the pasta with incredible flavor. Now the pasta must be rigatoni here people, the short round tubes with ridges. And you’ll want to try this dish at Roscioli – yes I have said it again! Sorry, not sorry. This place is my favorite and it’s no small part due to the rigatoni alla gricia.

And now for the carbonara which really is alla gricia with the addition of fresh egg. Sometimes it’s the whole egg and sometimes just the yolk. It’s added in raw and gently cooked by the heat of the pasta. No cream was harmed in the making of this dish! In fact Italians are quite horrified at the thought even though this dish is really quite modern. There’s no mention of it in any recipe books before the 1950s. I have it on excellent authority, thanks to Erica Firpo who shared her Roman secrets in episode 17, that the King of Carbonara is chef Luciano Monosilio. Now I havent eaten there ..yet! But Erica assures me that the carbonara at his restaurant Luciano Cucina Italiana is definitely the best in Rome. Now I did a bit of digging around about Luciano and discovered he was trained at.. Yes you guessed it! Roscioli. So if you can’t get to Luciano, Roscioli’s carbonara is incredible too.

Lastly I want to mention another Roman pasta favorite that also builds on the base of the alla gricia sauce. And this time it is Amatriciana. Chopped tomatoes are added to the guanciale and sauce and it is served with bucatini pasta (thick spaghetti like tubes with a hole in the middle). This is the pasta dish you’ve seen in has been featured in movies like An American in Rome and Eat, Pray, Love. Head to Da Enzo in Trastevere for an excellent serve of this delicious dish or Perilli in Testaccio.
Phew! That is a lot of pasta and when you get to Rome, don’t be shy. Make sure to try them all. And when you do, let us know your favorite and where you tried it. We are always happy to branch out from Roscioli!

Ok,now onto street food and I reckon Rome has an incredible street food scene. In Italy, possibly only Naples is better. That’s probably a bit controversial. But I do find in the northern cities the tendency is more to sit down and take time over a meal. You don’t see too many Venetians, Florentines or Milanese wandering around with food in their hands. There are obviously exceptions – I mean have you seen those huge panini in Florence? Or the panzerotti in Milan? Anyway, Rome has some great street food dishes you need to try and we’ll start with everyone’s favorite.. Pizza.

But isnt pizza from Naples? Well yes it is but the Romans do their pizza differently. Remember the regional differences? The first mentions of pizza date back over 1000 years ago in the Lazio region (Rome is the capital) and the word pizza is thought to have evolved from the Latin – pinsa – meaning flatbreads. But, the Neapolitans added tomato and the rest, as they say, is history.

Roman pizza has its own identity and it’s mainly due to the use of olive oil in the dough which means it can be stretched out. Roman pizzas are thinner and crispier thanks to this method and also the fact that the pizza is cooked at a much lower temperature than in Naples. So it ends up being a more sturdy base that can hold more toppings. Don’t worry there’s always a combination of tomato and mozzarella di bufala available but you can also add mushrooms, onions, artichokes, the list goes on. Pizza bianca (without tomato sauce) is also popular.

In Rome you can buy your pizza al taglio – by the slice. It’s cooked in a rectangular shape, and you actually pay per weight. So when you’re ordering you indicate the size of slice you would like and it’s then weighed to determine the price. The best place to try this is Pizzarium near the Vatican which has incredible toppings like nduja which Karen mentioned in out earlier episode on Calabria. Pizzarium is alway very busy with a line snaking down the street so prepare to line up.

If you’re craving a simple snack, head to Forno Campo de’ Fiori where the piazza bianca is drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and is best eaten fresh from the oven.

While this bakery has been making their pizza al taglio for over 30 years, you can try the modern pizza innovation known as Trapizzino in locations of the same name across the city. This is essentially pizza stuffed with toppings like meatballs (polpette), eggplant parmigiana and chicken cacciatore and yes it is as delicious as it sounds. I wouldnt put it into the light snack category however.

For a more traditional sit down pizza experience try Dar Poeta in Trastevere and Emma in the historic center.

Also found at pizzerias around the city and make sure you try them – are suppli. Named for the French word surprise – soo-pris! These are little fried rice balls usually made with rice mixed with ragu or bolognese sauce, covered in breadcrumbs and then fried. The surprise comes from a hidden little something in the middle. Traditionally this was something like chicken giblets (not such a great surprise if you ask me) but these days it’s usually a ball of oozy mozzarella. At Supplizio you can also try a carbonara version. So tasty!

Fried foods or fritti are popular snacks all over Rome but I reckon the best is the baccala. This is dried salted cod fish which is reconstituted and salt washed out with milk I believe. The fillets are then fried in batter that means it has a crunchy outside and soft fish inside. It’s the Roman version of English fish and chips (sorry no chips in Italy though!) well you can get them of course but it’s not traditional. Romans know the best place to try this treat is at Dar Filettaro – a little hole in the wall style place near the Campo de Fiori. It’s very very casual and the portions are huge. Like I said, there are no chips but you can get a salad to go with your fish. I think it’s made with endive so it’s got a sharpness that contrasts with the fish.

Let’s continue the carb fest with another great Roman food classic – porchetta. For this dish a large piece of deboned pork is seasoned with salt and spices like fennel and rosemary and is slow cooked for at least 8 hours until the meat is tender and skin is crispy. Slices of the meat are then placed in a panino or bread roll and the result is actually pretty amazing. The melt in your mouth meat contrasts with chunks of crispy pork fat and the panino. Sooo good. Don’t be tempted to add toppings as the flavor is all there in the dish already. Try it at Aristocampo de ‘Fiori near Campo de’Fiori market or there is even a stall in the market itself.

So there you have it, a whole lot of street food and pasta to try in Rome. But, perhaps you want to go to a restaurant and don’t want to order pasta or pizza. What to do? Well here are some dishes you should try.

For something a little refined, and totally delicious, Saltimbocca alla romana is a popular dish of thinly sliced veal wrapped in prosciutto and sage and served with a white wine sauce. Meaning “to jump in the mouth” this tasty secondo or main dish is one of the most popular at Roman restaurants. One of the most delicious is served at Da Teo in Trastevere. You’ll also get that dreamy tables under vines and that cobbled streets atmosphere there too.

Rome is also famous for its lamb dishes and they come in various forms – roasted, braised and stewed. But I like the Abbacchio allo scottadito which means “burn your fingers” They are little chops or cutlets that you pick up with the bone – hence the burning of fingers. You’ll want to try these in spring as they are a traditional Easter treat and quite finger licking good in the way Colonel Sanders can only dream about if I’m honest.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, why not try Coda alla Vaccinara. This iconic stew is made with small pieces of oxtail, red wine and vegetables like onion, celery and carrots plus thyme and bay leaves. It’s slow cooked until the meat falls off the bone and is very rich and flavorful and hearty. So it’s A great one to try in winter. This is my husband’s favorite dish and he’ll always order it, if it’s on the menu. You can try one of the most celebrated versions at Checchino restaurant in Testaccio. The trick is to not eat the table bread prior to your meal. Make sure you have enough to soak up the juices of your stew.

The most adventurous of you may be excited to learn that Rome is also well known for dishes featuring offal or quinto quarto as it is known there. Now this is not for me I’m afraid. Like I said, I’m no Bourdain but it is a very important part of Roman cuisine particularly the cucina povera or poor dishes where every last piece of meat is used and vegetables are eaten seasonally. This is true traditional Roman cuisine as most people were not able to afford the choicest cuts of meat and often had to rely on foraging and using what was around. Probably the most famous dish is trippa or tripe cooked alla romana which means in a tomato sauce with herbs – especially local mint – plus onions, celery and carrot. I havent tried it because offal is where I draw the line but it is supposed to be delicious. Checchino is probably the best place to try it and they actually specialize in this type of cooking so if you are interested in trying these dishes I would definitely head there.

Offal also features in Roman Jewish cooking. If you didn’t already know, Rome is actually home to Europe’s oldest Jewish community dating back to Roman times when the first Jews arrived in the city as slaves. Since then the Jewish community has left an indelible impact on Rome and in particular its cuisine. And they also use offal. This is where pasta dishes using veal pajata or intestines comes from. It’s very popular in Rome and my husband tried it by accident at Nonna Betta in the Jewish quarter area and pronounced it quite delicious. The pajata is cooked in a tomato sauce and served with pasta, nutmeg and pecorino.

Now if all that talk of offal has completely put you off meat or you are indeed vegetarian, there are some great vegetable dishes to try in Rome and in fact you won’t have a problem eating well at all if you are vegetarian. Pasta e ceci is a delicious vegetarian dish made from pasta and chickpeas in a tomatoey sauce. It’s traditionally served on Fridays and you’ll want to make reservations at Armando al Pantheon for that experience.

Many people visiting Rome also want to try artichokes. You’ll find them on menus from around February to May when artichokes are in season and this is the best time to try dishes based on this beloved vegetable. In the Jewish Roman tradition carciofi alla giudea are double fried artichokes. And they are really delicious. The outside leaves go a bit crunchy like potato chips and you just pluck them from the stalk and pop them in your mouth. When you get to the heart of the artichoke you’ll need to use your knife and fork to eat the smooth textured flesh. You can always find this dish but outside the main season in February to May then the artichokes are imported and not as good.

Carciofi alla romana is another way to eat artichokes. In this way, the artichokes are stuffed with garlic and wild mint and slow cooked for over an hour in white wine and olive oil until they become tender.

If you’re a veggie fan you’ll want to try puntarelle though unfortunately it isn’t actually served as a vegetarian dish. This winter vegetable is like a green chicory with tough outer leaves and tender shoots. When it’s cooked, the leaves are removed, and what is left is sliced thinly and then doused with olive oil, lemon and garlic and lots and lots of anchovy. You’ll usually find it as a side dish or contorni.

Don’t forget, cacio e pepe pasta is meat free too and you can always find spaghetti with sugo alla pomodoro – tomato sauce. Plus there are many dishes featuring legumes and pulses. A very famous vegetarian restaurant you may want to try is Il Margutta where they combine food and art using local seasonal produce. They’ve been doing this since 1979 so they know a thing or two about vegetables.

Now onto dessert and I have to say that many of the famous Italian desserts come from outside Rome. Tiramisu is from Venice and the north and the best pastries come from Naples. Gelato you’ll find all over of course but if you want to try a truly Roman dessert I suggest you order crostata ricotta e visciole or sour cherry tart with ricotta. Again from the Jewish tradition, this treat is made with double layer of sweet pastry. When you bite inside you’ll find sweetened ricotta cheese and sour black cherry jam made from a local wild cherries. It’s so good. You’ll need to head over to the Jewish quarter to find this sweet treat. Forno Boccione is a good one to try if you can find it. It’s tiny! Other than that, if you ever see wild strawberries called fragolina on the menu – usually in mid spring, make sure you try them. So sweet and usually served with mascarpone cream.

Lastly, I’m going to talk to you about breakfast. I know what you’re thinking, how can you even think of breakfast after all that. But I can! A Roman breakfast of course is nothing like we expect at home. There are no cereals or toast or eggs or anything like that. Hell no. In Rome they eat cake with their coffee. Of course they do! And the cake of choice in Rome is called a maritozzo. It’s actually a fairly simple sweet bun but it’s split down the middle and filled with whipped cream. I’m not really sure if there is an elegant way to eat it but it sure tastes good. You can pick one up for around 3 euros at Pasticceria Regoli in Monti and they also have them at my beloved Roscioli Caffe. Make sure you have an espresso with your maritozzo too. It’s truly a breakfast of champions as they say and it will set you up for a good day of sightseeing and eating.

Seriously, you cannot and should not stop eating in Rome. It truly is one of the food capitals of the world. Even when I think I’ll skip breakfast and try to reset my appetite, nope! There’s a maritozzo to tempt me.

And one of the most amazing things about these dishes is that their origins can be traced back to ancient Roman times. Because the food of Rome is derived from the countryside around the city, the local plants and crops, many of these dishes evolved from the food in the time of Caesar. And so I want to mention an experience I had last November when I was in Rome. We spent an incredible few hours with local expert Debora who conducts special tours of some unique Roman catacombs that are off limits to most tourists.

After visiting the catacombs you return to her apartment where she and her family recreated what can really only be described as an Ancient Roman banquet of many dishes – stews, bread, cheeses and wine. All the dishes were made to recipes meticulously researched and recreated so they are as authentic as possible. And I have to say everything was delicious. If you are interested in food and food history then this is one of those incredible experiences worth adding to your itinerary when you’re in Rome. It’s one of those things I cant stop thinking and talking about because it was very special and unique. You cannot do something like that anywhere else in the world. And it was lots of fun. The hosts even have costumes to dress up in. We loved it.

Another great way to try the dishes I mentioned and learn all about their origins is to join a food tour. I’ve done quite a few of these and learn something every time. You can do tours of particular neighborhoods like Trastevere or Testaccio and there are even tours that focus on the cucina povera and if you’re vegan I know of a great vegan food tour. I wrote an article on the best food tours in Rome so I’ll share that with you in the show notes.

And that my friends is just the food in Rome! Think of all the other foods you need to try in Italy. It’s pretty mind boggling and a good thing you do 1000s of steps a day when you’re there. If you want to see what these dishes look like, I’ll put some links to our Rome food guide and also Anthony Bourdain’s episodes on Rome in the show notes. Ahh I really miss that guy. And totally admired his ability to eat anything. Even trippa! If you haven’t seen his episodes on Rome and Italy then make sure you check them out if you have some time.

Grazie mille, Thank you for indulging my love of Roman food as I head into another lockdown. I cannot wait to get back to Rome and try it all again. We really appreciate all your support and lovely notes and comments. It’s a joy to share our love of Italy and all the more special when we hear that you enjoy it too. Thanks so much for listening. If you havent already, please subscribe to our show and if you have some time, write us a review. Grazie, we appreciate you and ciao for now!

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