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

What is Rome 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 urbana 47Maialino (stuffed, herbed pork) with cauliflower and beans at Urbana 47

Skate soup?

Italy is a varied country, with different regions. The cultures, cuisines, and sometimes, even languages can vastly differ from region to region. You usually find pasta throughout Italy, but the kinds of pasta and the toppings change quite a lot. There are some pastas that you will typically find in Rome but not as easily in other parts of Italy.

soup of skate and broccoli, traditional roman food

Roman food today is not what it was 2000 years ago, but there are certainly a lot of roots in ancient 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 them 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.)

Traditions of Roman cuisine

A lot of Rome 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
pizza in rome
fried zucchini flowers in rome

Artichokes? They are thistles and were not considered a very edible plant back then. Ox-tail stew? Well, it’s the leftovers from a larger, meatier animal. Zucchini flowers? It's the part of the vegetable you threw away. Today, you find zucchini flowers everywhere in Rome 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.

We need to dedicate a whole section to the "quinto quarto." This is a very important part of Rome cuisine...for those who love it (not me but I do appreciate that it's special!) The quinto quarto 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.

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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 Rome cuisine this way:

Seasonal and Local – otherwise known as Slow Food

In general, Italian food used to be very local and definitely seasonal. (There is a whole movement that promotes this around the world, called Slow Food.) But this is slowly changing. There are greenhouses all over Italy, so you can get tomatoes and eggplant (summer vegetables) year-round (I still swear they are not nearly as good off-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.

Rome Cuisine - Appetizers

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

mixed fried appetisers at disco volante in rome

Fried appetizers that one usually eats before having pizza for dinner (I can never resist this and it somehow does not ever ruin my appetite.) 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.)

antipasto bar place at host aria romana in rome

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 at i clementini in rome

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.)

seafood salad at il corallo in rome

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

Pasta in Rome

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 from other regions of Italy.) 

The most typical Roman pastas are amatriciana, cacao e pepe, gricia and carbonara. (I have pages for each one, with recipes!) 

mezze maniche all'amatriciana at del sostegno

spaghetti cacio e pepe

spaghetti cacio e pepe at roberto e loretta

spaghetti alla gricia at i clementini

rigatoni carbonara at l'arcangelo (best in Rome by the way!)

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 really Roman dish.

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, you 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. Wonderful in fall and winter. Another classic is "minestra di ceci e vongole", which is a soup of chick peas and clams (other shellfish are 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 Rome cuisine but they are delicious and fairly easy to find in Rome.
  • Gnocchi, or potato dumplings, are not that common on Rome menus, but if you eat at a traditional Roman trattoria, then you will find gnocchi (usually with tomato basil sauce, or with gorgonzola cheese sauce), on Thursdays. 

Chicken dishes in Rome

chicken cacciatora at del sostegno in rome

Rome cuisine hardly includes chicken at all. If you do find chicken on a menu, it will usually be served as a grilled breast; or chicken parts (on the bone) that are slow cooked in wine. Or, a traditional Roman dish - chicken with bell peppers. That’s about it.

This is a photo of chicken "cacciatore", 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.

Meat dishes in Rome

beef straccetti with parmesan and rocket at del sostegno 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. 

Pork in Roman cuisine

maialino al forno at roberto e loretta in rome

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

Another two very common pork dishes in Rome are “porchetta”, a baby pig stuffed with herbs and slowly cooked; and “maialino”, which is very tender, slowly baked baby pig.

But they use pork in other foods as well. The idea is that it is the secret ingredient that adds saltiness.

This photo is of a dish of "maialino al forno" at Roberto e Loretta, one place you will find it made particularly well.

The "quinto quarto", otherwise known as offal

This section is not for the squeamish. That includes me. I am sorry to say I cannot write in too much detail about this part of Rome cuisine, but only because I don't eat it. However, I take cooking classes and have learned how to make them, 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

pizza with zucchini flowers and anchovies at ciampini in rome

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 Rome 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 Rome cuisine, again with a few exceptions (refried veggies, clams/mussels sauté, and puntarelle - a salad made with fresh chicory and very Roman!)

Seafood in Rome

You will often find fish and seafood in Rome, although Rome is not known for its seafood. Typical dishes include steamed mussels and clams (with garlic and hot pepper flakes!); marinated fresh anchovies; spaghetti with clams; spaghetti with shellfish; and as a second course, often baked or grilled fish, and usually it’s 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 fish you will 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. 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.

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