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?
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.
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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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:
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:
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).
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.
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.
If you are in a restaurant that serves seafood, typical appetizers include marinated anchovies, steamed clams and mussels, or a cold seafood salad.
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:
You will also often find fettucine with funghi porcini, spaghetti with tomato and basil sauce, and spinach and ricotta filled ravioli.
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:
A primo means a first course (after the antipasto or appetiser). Other than the above-described pasta dishes, classic Roman primi include:
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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:
. . . and maialino al forno which is very tender, slowly baked baby pig. This dish is often served with roasted rosemary-herbed potatoes.
Romans also use pork in other foods, like stews or bean dishes. The idea is that it is the secret ingredient that adds saltiness.
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.
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:
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).
As much as zucchini flowers are a delicacy in Roman cuisine, adding those anchovies definitely gives the dish a kick of needed salt.
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 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.
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 pepperoncino, (red hot pepper flakes), or oil with pepperoncino.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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):
Of course, there are many more, but this will get you started.
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:
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:
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.
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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