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 has 20 regions. The cultures, cuisines, and sometimes, even languages can vastly differ from region to region.

As an example, where food is concerned, you will usually find pasta throughout Italy, but 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. Take, for example, a very local Roman dish "soup of skate with broccoli" (in Italian, minestra d'arzilla or brodo d'arzilla).

Armando Al Pantheon.Soup of skate and broccoli.Armando al Pantheon restaurant. Popular with locals and visitors alike for "its own Roman cuisine", it is a place to savor traditional Roman dishes with innovative methods.

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 used to catch and eat them.

Today they are gone from the Tiber, so the skate 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 simple, delicate and sublime.)

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

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Traditions of Roman cuisine Today

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.

Many of the foods Romans today consider “Roman” are in fact based on old Jewish Roman cuisine.

Artichoke Roman styleMore than a half-century old, Roberto e Loretta restaurant is as old-school as it gets. The Mancinelli family still owns this restaurant that started as a Trattoria in another location in the iconic San Giovanni neighborhood
  • 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 throughout 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 flowersThe centrally located restaurant Piccolo Arancio opened many years ago. Carlo and Mara's timeless cooking is famous for still maintaining its traditional Roman style without however neglecting the best national dishes.

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.)

What do Romans eat today?

Speaking from my own personal experience (which, after living here nearly 20 years, I'd say is pretty extensive), I describe Roman cuisine this way:

Seasonal and Local – otherwise known as Slow Food

There is a whole movement that promotes eating locally and sustainably, called Slow Food.

Let's start with Italian food in general, which is (or rather used to be) local and seasonal

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.

So, to speak specifically about Roman Cuisine, here are the types of foods you will find on Roman menus today:

Want to know more about Italian Food Customs?

Click here to visit my page all about this.

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, supplì  ( a rice ball with mozzarella) other fried vegetables and battered and fried salted cod (baccalà).

Fritto misto appetizer. A mix of fried vegetablesFried appetizers we have in Rome before having pizza for dinner (I can never resist this and it somehow does not ever ruin my appetite).

Sometimes you will find an antipasto bar, which usually has a lot of veggies, but also cheeses, seafood, and sometimes meats. Typically, if you get to help yourself, you are allowed one trip only. Other times, the wait staff might prepare a plate for you (you can let them know if there is something you want/don't want).

Depending on the restaurant and the antipasto bar, sometimes I can turn this into a meal in itself - great if you're looking for a cheaper option!

Mixed starters of roasted and steamed vegetablesThe aromas of tomatoes sauce, chicken cacciatora, and baked lamb are just a few, upon entering the Suburra’s restaurant in the Monti area. The space still has a neighborhood charm to it and feels like a mashup between a diner and delicatessen.

Another popular appetizer is bruschetta, often topped with tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil, or perhaps some garlic or basil, or a slather of a spread such as artichoke, olive or truffles.

Bruschetta is a personal no-no for me, as it fills me up too much.

Bruschetta with fresh tomatoesBruschetta on homemade bread is about as Rome as it gets. This authentic Roman appetizer it’s usually topped with simple yet high-quality ingredients of our territory such as Extra Virgin oil of Oil, seasonal tomatoes, and garlic. This is a must-eat in Rome.

If you are in a restaurant that serves seafood, typical appetizers  include marinated anchovies, steamed clams and mussels, or a cold seafood salad.

Octopus saladCapoBoi seafood restaurant located in the hush posh neighborhood of Pinciano also includes a menu of fried seafood platters as well as crab, crawfish, and red tuna steaks. There’re shrimps, oysters among the finest, and its famous entrees risottos and pasta with mussels and clams.

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

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.

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 pastas - cacio e pepe, carbonara, amatriciana and gricia - all go back only a few decades. Maybe 60-70 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

We are starting to see these more and more in Rome - pretty much in touristy restaurants. 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.

Watch my video about how my local cheese vendor whips up a fabulous Gricia lunch on the fly:

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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, classic Roman primi include:

  • Soups (minestre), often made with 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. 
Potatoes gnocchi with tomatoes sauceIn a city of food snobs, Romans don’t ever eat bad stuff. Since this Roman-born specialty first came in, gnocchi al Pomodoro are a favorite among locals. These potato dumplings are thoroughly topped with a dense tomato sauce and sprinkled with pecorino cheese.

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

Chicken Roman StyleNo disrespect to many of our region's dishes but sometimes (read always) it’s worth indulging in a traditional Roman-style chicken with peppers. At Suburra's you'll have according to tradition.

Chicken dishes not to look for in Rome include Chicken Parmesan, Chicken Alfredo, Chicken Piccata or any pasta with chicken in it. These are all part of Italian-American cuisine and you won't (likely) find them here.

Meat dishes in Rome

Meat dishes in Rome include beef, lamb, and pork. You will also sometimes find some game birds and boar dishes on the menu (these animals live all around Lazio, the region where Rome is).

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. 

Straccetti alla RomanaBeef straccetti are as ubiquitous to Rome as scooters on the curbsides. Traditionally made of beef or veal stripes this Roman-style dish is flavored with rocket, cherry tomatoes, parmesan, and balsamic vinegar.

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 "scottadito", which means, lamb chops so hot and crispy, they burn your fingers. 

Lamb chops Roman styleOriginally a regional invention, these succulent crispy ribs have become one of the most famous dishes in Rome. The dish is typically prepared with lamb ribs, usually leaner baby back ribs.

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.

The perfect 3-day itinerary in Rome

Trying to figure out how to organize your visit to Rome? I've got the perfect 3-day itinerary for first-time visitors (or those who have not been here in a while.) It works for a 2.5 day visit as well.

In my 3-day itinerary, you'll see all the major must-see Rome attractions like the Vatican, Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, Castel Sant'Angelo, and much more.

And if you have more time, or want suggestions for extra/other things to do, you'll find that there too.

Visit my page with the best 3-day itinerary in Rome for first-timers.

Pork in Roman cuisine

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

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

Slicing Porchetta al FornoPorchetta. It is one of the pork-based dishes which leans on the region-style rather than Roman. The meat has a distinct taste and the aromas of its seasoning are spices and herbs. Smashed into a piece of homemade bread, it's a must to have while in Rome

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

Suckling pig in the oven with roasted potatoesMaialino 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 know what they are about.

Tripe Roman styleTripe with tomato sauce and pecorino cheese. One of the oldest Roman soul food along with the beef tongue, brain fried, pork cheeks, and cow kidney.

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.

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Anchovies in Roman cuisine

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

Bruschetta burrata and anchoviesFor the most part, bruschettas are topped with the same products: homemade bread, dependable oil of olives, and fresh tomatoes. At Flaviovelavevodetto managed to raise it a notch up. Try it with burrata cheese and anchovies

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

Zucchini flowers and anchoviesCiampini's restaurant and cafè have endured for more than a half-century in the center of town thanks to generous and delicious pizzas topped with its iconic ingredients.

I know not everyone is an anchovy fan. But if you are not completely anti-fish, and the only kind of anchovies you've ever tried are the ones that come in oil in a tin, I urge you to try fresh anchovies in Italy. 

Anchovies marinatedCapoBoi restaurant amps up soul Roman classics with nourishing shrimp and raw shellfish delicacies, along with marinated anchovies Cantabrian in the oil of Olives.

Anchovies are native to the Mediterranean, and when you eat them fresh from the sea, slightly marinated, they are a whole different thing from the kind in the tin.

Spicy Roman food

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

Steamed mussels and clamsAnother specialty of fresh seafood, a habit among Romans is simple but yummy. Do not miss the famous dish of mussels and clams sauteed.

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.

Puntarelle alla RomanaThe best example of Rome's iconic veggie dish. Puntarelle alla Romana . At Tre Archi restaurant, you may try this specialty made of fresh chicory tips 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.

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

Typical Roman-style dessertsTypical desserts are displayed at Pancrazio's. A hearty Roman eatery helmed by the longtime Macchionis family, where you can indulge in a carb-heavy meal of pasta, local meats, and a pretty extensive wine list.

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 (like Spanish flan, a kind of cooked custard)
  • crema catalana (like Crème brûlée, or creamy custard that has been carmelized on top with a flame)
  • panna cotta (cooked cream, topped with syrup, chocolate, or berries)
  • torta della nonna ("grandma's pie" - a custard pie in a pie shell, topped with pinenuts);
  • crostata (fruit jam tart). 

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 6.

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

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.

There are whole food blogs and books just about this subject.

If you have gone through this page from the top, you'll notice I have already given examples of some of my favorite Roman trattorias where you can try great typical Roman cuisine. You'll find more restaurant on pages dedicated to Rome restaurants throughout this site.

But since you're on this page, I'll give you a short list here (not in any particular order):

trattorias in Rome serving traditional Roman CUisine

  • Roberto e Loretta
  • Armando Al Pantheon
  • Grappolo d'Oro
  • Romolo e Remo
  • Checco Er Carettiere
  • Da Cesare al Casaletto
  • Matricianella
  • Dal Cavalier Gino
  • Da Felice

Of course, there are many more, but this will get you started.

What are some good wines to have with Roman Cuisine?

Visit this page for a beginner's guide to Italian wine.

For the purposes of giving you a few helpful hints, right on this page, I suggest that if you want to know which wines to drink when dining out in Rome, follow  these tips:

  • Try the house wine. In Italy, house wines can be quite good.
  • Try some Lazio wines. There many wine regions in Italy. Rome is in the "Lazio" region.  When eating Roman cuisine, a good option is to pair it with Lazio wine.
  • Ask your server what they suggest. Even a server who is not a trained sommelier, but who is well-versed in Roman cuisine, and who works in this area daily, will be able to suggest a wine with what you order. And if not, they may call over someone else working in the restaurant who can.
  • In general, good wines tend to cost less in Rome restaurants than they do in other parts of the world. A fairly good bottle of white can run anywhere from 12€ and up, and a good red can be anywhere from 16€ and up.

Even in Lazio, we have many varieties of wine, and from different areas  around Lazio. As a small guide, by no means by a sommelier (I am NOT), know that:

  • Frascati is best known for their white wines. I find them to be a bit to acidic, but the Reserve whites are much better (now we are getting down to opinion.)
  • A winery whose wines you will find often on Roman menus is Casale del Gigilio. Their less expensive wines (red and white) are consistently good, and their expensive (25€ + for a bottle) wines are fantastic. My friends and I like their Satrico for white, and Syrah for red.
  • We also love the Tellus wines by Falesco.
  • A typical red varietal from Lazio is called Cesanese del Piglio, and you'll find many varieties of these from different wineries and areas around Rome. I like this wine a lot, and my husband does not. I find it nice and full-bodied, with generally low acidity, and it tends to go well with amatriciana.
  • Some will say that you should have a white with the "white pastas" - cacio e pepe, gricia, and carbonara; and a red wine with the "red  pastas" - amatriciana or another pasta with tomato sauce. Up to you of course.

What Romans Ate in Ancient Rome

To keep things simple, I'll just give you a broad overview of some of the foods the Romans ate 2000 years ago. Of course their cuisine evolved over the centuries, influenced by various cultures (Greek and others), and by food they began importing from across the empire and eventually from the far east.

Ancient Romans ate bread, made with wheat and other grains. They ate fish, game, birds, legumes, olives, fruits and vegetables.

One thing they ate that intrigues me is called garum, which was a sort of food seasoning made by piling anchovies in a barrel, covering them in salt, and letting them rot.

We  use a version of this today, called colatura di alici, in some pasta recipes, in particular from southern Italy (similar to but much stronger than "fish sauce" used in some Asian cooking).

But what the Romans ate . . . I cannot even imagine the smell and how they would have thought, yum, let's use this in our cooking!

Ancient Romans ate artichokes, olives and olive oil, nuts, fruit, legumes, wheat  and other grains, and plenty of fish, in particular anchovies. Wealthier Romans had access to cheese, honey and eggs. These are all found in Roman cuisine today, even if in slightly different form or use than in Ancient Rome.

When we think of "Roman Cuisine" today, one of the things that comes to mind is pasta. This did not appear in Italian cooking until sometime in the middle ages. And the dishes we associate with Roman Cuisine such as carbonara and amatriciana are only from at most about 100 years ago.

Pizza was invented in Naples sometime during the Renaissance. Today pizza is a favorite in Rome, but it was not eaten in Ancient Rome.

Eating in Rome with restrictions

Are you wondering how hard it will be to visit Rome when you are

You might be surprised to know that it's quite easy to eat, and eat very well, in Rome even if you have some restrictions.

Much of Roman cuisine is based on vegetables, legumes and fruits, so it can be easy to avoid meats, fish and cheeses.

As for eating gluten-free, stay tuned for an upcoming page about this but in the meantime, I can tell you that Italy is one of the most celiac-aware countries, and you will not have any trouble finding restaurants that either serve gluten-free food, or will otherwise be glad to accommodate your request. Visit the official website for the Italian Celiac Association to search for Italian businesses that specialize in catering to celiacs.

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