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 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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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 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:
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:
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).
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.
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, although that is not a traditional Roman dish.
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.
A primo means a first course (after the antipasto or appetiser). Other than the above-described pasta dishes, your 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 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 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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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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