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What's So Special About Roman Cuisine?
To me, a lot!

What is Roman cuisine all about? Do you want to know what to order in Rome? What some typical Roman dishes are? Where the best restaurants for Roman food are?

maialino at moltoMaialino (stuffed, herbed pork) with oven-roasted potatoes and greens at Ristorante Molto

Here's What You Need to Know About Roman Cuisine

What is Roman Cuisine?

Italy is a varied country, with 20 different regions. The cultures, cuisines, and sometimes, even languages can vastly differ from region to region.

While you usually find pasta throughout Italy, the kinds of pasta and the toppings change quite a lot from region to region, and sometimes even within a region.

There are some pastas that you will typically find in Rome but not as easily in other parts of Italy.

Skate soup?

Roman food today is not what it was 2000 years ago, or even 500 years ago, but there are certainly a lot of roots in older Roman traditions. For example, a very local Roman dish is “soup of skate with broccoli" (in Italian, minestra d'arzilla or brodo d'arzilla).

soup of skate and broccoli, traditional roman food

Skate is a fish, like a little stingray without the stinger.

Up until about 500 years ago, those little guys were swimming all around the Tiber river, and people would catch and eat them.

Today they are gone from the Tiber, so the skate of course comes from the sea, but the soup is still considered a traditional Roman dish (I love this dish when I can find it - it is delicate and sublime, and does not taste too fishy.)

Click here to read more about food in Ancient Rome, and what survives today.

Traditions of Roman cuisine

A lot of Roman cuisine today comes from traditions that were based on poverty: people ate what they could get their hands on, the stuff the wealthy considered inedible and tossed away. In fact, many of the foods Romans today consider “Roman” are in fact based on old Jewish Roman cuisine (again, poverty).

roman artichoke
  • Artichokes? They are thistles and were not considered a very edible plant back then.
  • Ox-tail stew? Well, it’s the leftovers from a large, meaty animal.
  • Zucchini flowers? It's the part of the vegetable you threw away.

Today, you find zucchini flowers everywhere in Roman cuisine, and it’s considered a delicacy: pizza topped with zucchini flowers, stuffed zucchini flowers and spaghetti and clams with zucchini flowers are some classic examples of typical Roman foods.

fried zucchini flowers in rome

Then there's the "quinto quarto", one of the quintessential aspects of Roman cuisine.

The quinto quarto ("fifth fourth") refers to all the parts of an animal that are not considered "meat": tripe, intestines, brains etc. This is also called "offal" and for those who love it, they wax poetic over where to get the best of it in Rome (I am not a fan of it but my dad is. My husband loves tripe, and many of my Roman friends love these dishes.)

Ready for a Food Tour in Rome?

Learn first hand all about Roman Cuisine, and taste as you go!

What do Romans eat today?

Speaking not academically but more from my own personal experience (and I eat out a LOT, just so I can research, ahem), I can describe Roman cuisine this way:

Seasonal and Local – otherwise known as Slow Food

In general, Italian food is (or rather used to be) local and seasonal. (There is a whole movement that promotes this around the world, called Slow Food.)

This is slowly changing. There are greenhouses all over Italy, so you can get tomatoes and eggplant (summer vegetables) year-round. (I don't buy tomatoes in winter, even from hot houses. They just don't taste like much when out of season.)

Things are getting shipped between countries all over Europe, so I am now finding asparagus from Spain in the winter. Hmm.

And artichokes, once a typical winter/early spring dish, are available year-round now. Once, horrified to find artichokes in July, I asked the restaurant owner about it and he said, well tourists want them. Not to lay blame, because I think everyone likes them.

But in July, those artichokes are not from Rome, they are from Bretagne, France. They are still good. Just FYI.

Here are the types of foods you will find on Roman menus today:

Roman Cuisine - Appetizers

If you are eating typical Roman cuisine, you will find the following types of appetizers:

Fried appetizers include stuffed zucchini flowers (fiori di zucca), stuffed fried olives (olive ascolane), potato croquettes, other fried vegetables and battered and fried salted cod (baccalà).

Fried appetizers we have in Rome before having pizza for dinner (I can never resist this and it somehow does not ever ruin my appetite).

The antipasto bar, which usually is divided into a veggie plate or a seafood plate, and is almost always one trip only (depending on the restaurant and the antipasto bar, sometimes I can turn this into a meal in itself!)

Bruschetta, topped with either tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil, and perhaps some garlic or basil, or a slather of a spread such as artichoke, olive or truffles (this is a personal no-no for me, as it fills me up too much, but they are usually small.)

If you are in a restaurant that serves seafood, it is typical to get marinated anchovies, or a cold seafood salad.

Pasta in Rome

You might think pasta is pasta, and that you can get pasta anywhere in Italy. Yes, you will find some form of pasta just about everywhere in Italy, but the types, shapes, and toppings change from region to region.

Pasta in Rome is typically long, such as spaghetti, fettucine, tagliatelle or tagliolini; or short dried pasta such as farfalle (little bow ties), rigatoni or penne. (Stuffed pastas like ravioli and tortellini and lasagna are more commonly found in other regions of Italy.) 

The most typical Roman pastas are amatriciana, cacio e pepe, gricia and carbonara. Here are some of my favorite places to eat these dishes:

Amatriciana at Checcho er Carattiere
Cacio e pepe at Da Oio a Casa Mia
Gricia at Fiaschetteria Marini
Carbonara at L'Arcangelo

You will also often find fettucine with funghi porcinispaghetti with tomato and basil sauce, and spinach and ricotta filled ravioli, although that is not a traditional Roman dish.

Carbonara is relatively new

The origins of pasta in Italy are a little murky but let's say it's been around for centuries, possibly introduced through trading with Middle Eastern countries in the middle ages.

The current "traditional" Roman pasta, cacio e pepe, carbonara, amatriciana and gricia, all go back only a few decades. Maybe 50-70 years.

So while they are firmly planted in the repertoire of Roman cuisine today, they are not from ancient Rome or even from more than 100 years back.

Looking for spaghetti and meatballs? Fettucine Alfredo? For more about about dishes you might think are Italian but that you will have a hard time finding in Rome, read about Rome Food Myths here.

Other "primi" or first courses in Rome

A primo means a first course (after the antipasto or appetiser). Other than the above-described pasta dishes, your classic Roman primi include:

  • Soups (minestre), often of legumes and grains. For example zuppa di farro is a vegetarian soup made with spelt, a thick chewy grain. It's wonderful in fall and winter. Another classic is minestra di ceci e vongole, which is a soup of chick peas and clams (other shellfish can be used as well).
  • Risotto dishes are more varied and common in the north of Italy but you will often find risotto alla pescatora (risotto with shellfish) and risotto with radicchio and gorgonzola. They are not considered classic Roman cuisine but they are delicious and fairly easy to find in Rome.
  • Gnocchi, or potato dumplings, are not that common on everyday Rome menus, but if you eat at a traditional Roman trattoria, then you will find gnocchi (usually with tomato basil sauce, or sometimes with a butter/sage topping or with gorgonzola cheese sauce), on Thursdays. 

Chicken dishes in Rome

Roman cuisine barely includes chicken at all. If you find chicken on a menu in Rome, it will usually be served as a grilled breast; or chicken parts (on the bone) that are slow cooked in wine. 

Chicken "cacciatore" at Del Sostegno, which is made by slow-cooking the chicken in white wine, vinegar, garlic and rosemary. Oh and those potatoes cooked along with it. Crazy good.

There is a traditional Roman dish - chicken with bell peppers, often eaten only in summer (since peppers are a summer vegetable). That’s about it.

Meat dishes in Rome

Meat dishes in Rome are mostly about beef, pork and lamb. But especially beef.

One classic Rome dish is beef straccetti, which are thin strips of beef, slowly cooked in their own juices, and then served alone on a plate, served with parmesan cheese, arugula (rocket) or artichokes. If done right, they are very tender and juicy. 

You will also typically find beef served as a simple grilled steak, or as a “tagliata”, which means, a steak that gets sliced just as it comes off the grill. This is another super juicy way to eat steak in Rome.

Another typical Rome meat dish is lamb "scottaditto", which means, lamb chops so hot and crispy, they burn your fingers. 

Spezzatino, or cut up pieces of meat (beef, pork or lamb), sometimes on the bone, and cooked until it's falling apart, is another dish you will find on Roman menus. It's homey and simple, much like a hearty stew.

Pork in Roman cuisine

There is a lot of pork in Roman cuisine, and very often in pasta sauces such as amatriciana, gricia and carbonara.

Another two common pork dishes in Rome are porchetta, a baby pig stuffed with herbs and slowly cooked:

 . . . and maialino al forno which is very tender, slowly baked baby pig. This dish is often served with roasted rosemary-herbed potatoes.

Maialino al forno at Roberto e Loretta, one place you will find it made particularly well.

Romans also use pork in other foods, like stews or bean dishes. The idea is that it is the secret ingredient that adds saltiness.

The "quinto quarto", otherwise known as offal

This section is not for the squeamish.

That includes me. I don't eat offal, but I am often with people who do. Also, I take cooking classes and have learned how to make some of these traditional dishes from Roman cuisine, so I do know what they are about.

And, when my dad comes to Rome, he makes it a point to try these dishes everywhere he can. So I've seen a lot of Roman offal in action!

The words quinto quarto literally mean the fifth fourth. Not mathematically possible you say?

Well in Roman, this refers to the "other" parts of the animal not normally considered meat. If you butcher an animal and cut it into four parts, there are still lots of things you might throw away (remember, Roman cuisine is based historically on poverty, and people eating things the wealthy discarded).

So this includes tripe, intestines, kidneys, heart, lungs and brains. Some typical Roman offal dishes include:

  • Trippa alla romana - Trippa or tripe, is stomach lining. Stew it a long time in some tomato sauce, sometimes with onions, and voila, trippa alla romana.
  • Rigatoni alla pajata - pajata is the intestine of a baby lamb or veal. It is still full of milk, so when you mix it with tomato sauce, the sauce becomes creamy. Add this sauce to rigatoni and you have a very filling meal.
  • Coratella - this classic Roman dish is made with heart, lungs and livers, and usually onions. When in season, add artichokes and you have a very tasty, hearty meal.

Anchovies in Roman cuisine

The other “natural salt” ingredient is anchovies (you won’t find both anchovies and pork together in the same dish; one or the other depending on the dish).

As much as zucchini flowers are a delicacy in Roman cuisine, adding those anchovies definitely gives the dish a kick of needed salt.

Spicy Roman food

Rome food is not usually spicy (hot), although there are a few exceptions (refried veggies or with steamed clams and mussels), and you can also ask for pepperoncino, or red hot pepper flakes.

Garlic in Roman food

There is very little garlic used in Roman cuisine, with a few exceptions (refried veggies, clams/mussels sauté, and puntarelle - a Roman seasonal (winter and early spring) salad made with fresh chicory, anchovies and garlic).

Seafood in Rome

You will often find fish and seafood in Rome, although Rome is not really famous for its seafood the way Sicily or Puglia are.

Just some typical seafood dishes you will find in Rome include steamed mussels and clams (with garlic and hot pepper flakes); marinated fresh anchovies; spaghetti with clams; spaghetti with shellfish; fried calamari and shrimp. (Read the above page for more about seafood dishes you will find in Rome.)

When you get fish as a second course, it usually comes baked or grilled, served whole, although they will gladly clean it for you.

sauté of clams and mussels
marinated anchovy appetizer at san marco in rome
spaghetti allo scoglio at san marco in rome
fresh baked sea bream at romolo e remo in rome

The typical type of fish you find on menus in Rome are cernia (grouper), orata (sea bream), spigola (sea bass), and rombo (turbot.) You may find swordfish or tuna steaks as well.

Desserts at Rome restaurants

If you eat at a classic Roman restaurant, and have room for dessert, you will almost always find exactly the same things served at them all: tiramisu (always homemade they say); crème caramel; crema catalana; panna cotta (with syrup or berries); torta della nonna; and (homemade) crostata (fruit jam tarte). There may be a few other goodies thrown in there if they want to be creative but you can almost always count on the first 5.

Many Roman restaurants also typically give a complimentary plate of biscotti at the end.

tiramisu at piccolo arancio in rome
panna cotta at piccolo arancio in rome
biscotti at piccolo arancio in rome

All three desserts shown are from one of my go-to restaurants, Piccolo Arancio near the Trevi Fountain. Tiramisu to the left, panna cotta above right, and complimentary biscotti below right.

Where to find the best Roman Cuisine in Rome?

If you are wondering where to go in Rome to try all these dishes, well, you are not alone. People have made whole food blogs and books just about this subject. And while this is best answered on pages dedicated to Rome restaurants, I'll give you a short list here:

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