Best foods in Rome, traditional Roman dishes to try at least once

Getting to know Rome doesn’t only imply entering the Colosseum or strolling around the Roman Forum. Even if you are not a foodie, sampling the best foods in Rome is as important if you want to delve deep into the city’s history, culture, and society.

In a meat-centered cuisine, the wealthy could afford the best cuts of the animal. But the majority of the population had to brainstorm their best ideas on how to make the most of what was left. And the recipes of cucina povera, poor cuisine, frugal and often made of scraps, are the ones that we celebrate today.

Easy-to-find legumes and grains, local veggies and offal, known in Rome as “quinto quarto”, are the main ingredients of most recipes of the former working class.

Top Roman dishes to try at least once and where to find them

Let’s say it’s your first time in Rome and you are not sure where to start to sample the best Roman dishes. Find out here what are the top traditional Roman recipes, their main ingredients and where to find them.

And if you want to get deeper into the Roman cuisine and have it explained by a local expert, you should definitely join one of the best Rome food tours.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara, what to eat in Rome for a traditional meal

Spaghetti alla Carbonara is one of the first foods in Rome to try if you are into discovering the traditional recipes. Even though we know for sure it was a poor meal, the exact origins are fuzzy. While in Italy we love to claim everything we have dates back to at least a couple of hundred years ago, carbonara seems actually pretty recent. Let’s say that before the 1940s there was no sign of it.

Some appoint Tuscan charcoal workers as the inventors of this recipe, some prefer to salute the citizens of Naples and the Abruzzo region for such a gift to posterity. Even Americans tried to claim the yearned-for paternity saying that the US soldiers in Italy after WWII created the famous dish using two ingredients that were common in their diet, bacon, and eggs.

Probably the truth lies in between. It seems, in fact, that spaghetti alla carbonara is the result of contamination of cultures and habits: the simple meal of the Italian shepherds made of dry spaghetti, eggs, cacio cheese and pepper met with the American bacon, shaping the first idea of carbonara. One thing is for sure, though. If you want to make the authentic Roman Carbonara, bacon is banned. You either need pancetta or guanciale.

The carbonara ingredients are a reason for debate: some prefer it with pancetta, some with guanciale. Pancetta is less fat (which doesn’t mean light), both are luscious and guilt-carrying. Beat the egg yolks in the large dish that will contain the finished pasta, add two spoons of cacio cheese, black pepper and a little of the water where the spaghetti is cooking. Keep aside half of the eggs for later and while the pasta is cooking, brown the finely sliced guanciale (or pancetta) in a pan until it is crunchy and the fat looks almost translucent.

When the spaghetti is ready (al dente, please), drop them on the dish with the eggs and cheese. If you manage, with a big fork directly from the pot to keep them moistened enough to form a delicate cream. Stir well, add the guanciale, the grated cheese, and more pepper. Keep stirring so that the egg thickens. If it becomes too dry, add some of the cooking water.

The result should be a velvety cream enriching your pasta experience. Please refrain from adding ingredients such as onion, garlic, chili or fresh cream.

Where to eat spaghetti alla carbonara?

Some of the best places in Rome to eat carbonara? are Da Enzo al 29 (Via dei Vascellari 29) that we visited during our Trastevere food tour, Da Danilo (Via Petrarca 13), Roscioli (Via dei Giubbonari 21), L’Arcangelo (Via Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli 59).

Bucatini all’Amatriciana

bucatini amatriciana rome dish
Bucatini all’Amatriciana in Rome

Bucatini all’Amatriciana is another famous Roman pasta recipe. Except, it wasn’t created in Rome. Amatriciana, in fact, comes from Amatrice, a town in Rieti province, still in the Lazio region. Sadly enough, Amatrice was one of the towns that were worst hit by the earthquake of August 24th, 2016, when more than 200 people lost their lives and the city was completely destroyed.

Rome and Amatrice have always dragged a cultural fight over the origins of this traditional dish. The most valid version wants the sauce to have been introduced to Rome by the citizens of Amatrice. Hence, the term “amatriciana”.

In Rome, in fact, there is an alley called “Vicolo degli Amatriciani”, where Amatrice residents used to come and sell their products. The area was filled with trattorias mainly run by Amatrice residents. Here, they initially served this dish in its “gricia” version, meaning the pasta dressed only with pecorino cheese, black pepper and guanciale (cured pork meat), originally from Grisciano, a small town in Rieti province.

Apparently, the addition of tomato sauce dates back to the 17th Century. It first appears in the cookbook of renowned Roman chef Francesco Leonardi. He prepared it for the feast organized by Pope Pius VII at the Quirinale Palace in honor of Francis I Emperor of Austria.

The Amatriciana, made with San Marzano tomato sauce, guanciale, chilli pepper, a little of white wine, olive oil, salt and black pepper, and a sprinkle of pecorino cheese on top, is best combined with pasta such as bucatini, spaghetti, and rigatoni.

Where to eat bucatini all’amatriciana?

Plenty of places in Rome where you will see the Amatriciana on the menu, but not all of them will serve the original recipe. Some of the best restaurants for this dish are Armando al Pantheon (Salita de’ Crescenzi 31) and Felice a Testaccio (Via Mastro Giorgio 29).

Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe among the best food in Rome

tonnarelli cacio e pepe roman dishes
Tonnarelli cacio e pepe from Felice a Testaccio among the best in Rome

Square-shaped “guitar spaghetti” according to the Abruzzo tradition, in Rome this type of fresh pasta is known under the name of tonnarelli, the preferred one for this recipe. The original recipe of this Roman food is one of the dishes belonging to the cucina povera tradition of Lazio and Abruzzo made with the little ingredients shepherds could carry with them on the pastures.

This rustic dish is easy to understand. Its main ingredients are just as the name reads: cacio (Roman pecorino cheese) and black pepper. During its cooking process, it’s crucial to pay attention to the detail. If you don’t, your effort will fail at the last minute.

For an ideal cacio e pepe, grate the cacio cheese and keep it in the bowl with the freshly ground pepper. When the pasta is ready (al dente), drain it by transferring it directly to the bowl with a slotted spoon so that it retains some of the water (now rich in starch) and creates the creamy texture distinctive of this dish. Eat it very warm.

Where to eat tonnarelli cacio e pepe?

Not all restaurants in Rome bother to make it properly. I myself had the unpleasant experience of having delivered a “butter and pepper” pasta.

Some of the places in Rome where you can find the real deal are Felice A Testaccio (Via di Mastro Giorgio 29), Armando al Pantheon (Salita dei Crescenzi 31, Tel. +39 06 6880 3034, always packed, booking a few days in advance is mandatory).

Rigatoni con la pajata

The term “pajata” is used to indicate the first part of the small intestine of the dairy calf after being cleaned but still with the milk eaten by the little veal. Well, despite what you might think, this is considered a delicacy by Roman palates.

The history of the pajata is common to most traditional Roman dishes. Using parts of the animal’s entrails is a common trait of the cucina povera that defines today’s Rome typical foods. What back in the day were the kitchen scraps, today make up for a treat in the restaurant.

The pajata is used to make a few dishes including a sauce for rigatoni pasta. How? By cutting it in pieces, cooking it with the herbs and seasoning typical of the Mediterranean cuisine such as celery, garlic, onion, carrot, chili, tomato and olive oil. Let the ingredients simmer for a long time on a slow fire and you will get a thick sauce. A sprinkle of pecorino romano on top and you can enjoy the treat.

Where to eat rigatoni con pajata?

Head to places like Lo Scopettaro (Lungotevere Testaccio 7), Checchino dal 1887 (Via di Monte Testaccio 30), Da Fortunata Osteria (Via del Pellegrino 11) and Sora Lell (Via di Ponte Quattro Capi 16).

Saltimbocca alla Romana

saltimbocca alla romana dish
Saltimbocca alla romana from Felice a Testaccio

The word “saltimbocca” means jump into the mouth. Just like for every dish that reaches the top of the hit parade of the best foods in Rome, also for the saltimbocca alla romana the origins appear shrouded in mystery. Some even claim it was first seen in Brescia, northern Italy. What we know for sure is that businessman and cookbook writer Pellegrino Artusi mentioned it in the late 19th century after he tried it at the historic Roman trattoria “Le Venete”.

One of the most popular traditional Roman dishes, saltimbocca alla romana consists of tender medallions of veal cutlets covered with prosciutto crudo (an Italian type of cold cuts) and sage.

Preparing this delicacy involves pounding the cutlets with the meat mallet, covering them with a thin layer of flour, adding a leaf of fresh sage and a slice of prosciutto on top. Stick everything together with a toothpick. Melt a knob of butter on a pan and start placing the meat making both sides brown but be careful not to overcook the side with the ham.

When ready, quickly simmer with a drizzle of white wine. Serve them very hot with a side dish of your choice. In Rome, they love it with a fresh salad, bitter sautéed chicory, or puntarelle greens.

Where to eat saltimbocca alla romana?

Some of the best places to try this traditional Roman food are the very traditional Checchino dal 1887 (30, via di Monte Testaccio), Armando al Pantheon (31, Salita dei Crescenzi), Hostaria Romana (1, via del Boccaccio), and Zampagna all’Ostiense (via Ostiense 179).

Do you want to try Roman food with a modern twist?
Check out my eBook Tasting Rome By Neighborhood – A Local’s Itinerary for Food Lovers

Pinsa, traditional Roman pizza

pinsa roman pizza
Pinsa from La Pratolina in Rome

Who said pizza is only from Naples? Sure, Naples is the birthplace of the pizza as the world knows it, but Rome has its own treat too. It’s called pinsa, it’s oval-shaped, thin, light and delicious. Not to be confused with the crunchy Roman-style round pizza.

The current recipe of the pinsa tries to stick as much as possible to the original recipe. The shepherds of the local countryside would make a thin bread using the most common grains such as spelt, wheat, barley, and top it with easy to find ingredients such as veggies or meat.

In Rome, pizza al taglio is one of the favorite street foods, and the pinsa is often found as a grab and go treat. There are also places where you can order it at the table and enjoy it for dinner.

Where to eat the pinsa in Rome?

Some of the very best places in Rome for pinsa are La Pratolina (Via degli Scipioni 248) for a lovely dinner, Pinsa ‘Mpò (Via dei Gracchi 7), street food style pinsa on the go.

READ MORE: The best places for pizza in Rome

Carciofi alla Giudìa and Carciofi alla Romana

carciofo alla romana food in rome
Carciofo alla romana served at Felice a Testaccio

When in season, I never miss ordering artichokes in Rome. Alla giudìa and alla romana are two ways to prepare them. Alla giudìa is Jewish style and very common in the Jewish quarter close to Largo Argentina.

The difference between the two recipes is that carciofi alla giudìa are deep-fried in very hot olive oil. This makes the outer leaves of the artichoke spread wide open and become nice and crunchy.

On the other hand, carciofi alla romana are cooked in a pan and stuffed with garlic, parsley and mint.

carciofo alla giudia rome
Carciofo alla giudia artichoke in Rome

Where to eat carciofi in Rome?

This is a pretty common dish on Roman tables, but I suggest you order it only when the artichokes are in season in Spring. You will find great carciofi alla giudìa in the Jewish ghetto in places like Nonna Betta (via del Portico d’Ottavia 16), Sora Lella (Via di Ponte Quattro Capi 16), Piperno (Monte de’ Cenci 9), and Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavia (Via del Portico d’Ottavia 21a).

Good carciofi alla romana in typical Roman style can be found at Felice a Testaccio, Matricianella (Via del Leone 4) and Armando al Pantheon (Sali ta de’ Crescenzi 31).

Coda alla Vaccinara, an old Roman traditional dish

coda alla vaccinara roman traditional dishes

This typical Roman dish first appeared in the Regola neighborhood, pulsing heart of Rome laid out around Campo de’ Fiori. Why? Because it’s here that the “vaccinari” (ox butchers) used to live.

Coda alla vaccinara is considered the top dish of the “quinto quarto”, literally translating into “the fifth quarter”. This is the offal of the ox, what was left of the animal after the best cuts were sold to the wealthy.

This traditional Roman recipe consists of a braised oxtail stew in meat broth enriched with lard, tomato sauce, celery, and seasoned with parsley, garlic, onion, carrot and a glass of red wine. The oxtail needs to simmer for hours, which makes it a pretty long dish. And this is why having it in one of the best traditional restaurants in Rome is better than trying to make it by yourself in the house.

Where to eat coda alla vaccinara?

According to some, the best place to eat coda alla vaccinara in Rome is Checchino dal 1887 (30, via di Monte Testaccio). This is a traditional restaurant near the old slaughterhouse that claims it accidentally invented the Roman dish in 1890.

Fortunately, it’s not the only place where you can have a good coda alla vaccinara. Try Felice a Testaccio, Da Enzo al 29 (via dei Vascellari 29), Tram Tram (via dei Reti 44), Armando al Pantheon (Salita dei Crescenzi 31).

Trippa alla Romana

An old dish of the traditional cucina povera in Rome and central Italian regions, trippa (tripe) is nothing but the stomach of animals, usually ruminants. One of the once-poor, now redeemed foods in Rome, the tripe here is cooked with mint and Pecorino Romano cheese.

Its consistency and texture are not my favorites in a dish, but in Rome this is now a delicacy. Tradition wants tripe on Saturdays, but now you can find it also on other days.

Where to eat trippa alla romana?

The best places to try this Roman food are the historic traditional restaurants like Checchino dal 1887 (Via di Monte Testaccio 30), specialized in classic fares, and Amando al Pantheon, where they cook it loyal to the local tradition.

Abbacchio a scottadito

Abbacchio is the lamb, a stronghold in the Roman cuisine. Cooked in many ways, when it’s scottadito, it means that the lamb’s ribs are left to briefly marinate in oil and rosemary and then grilled until crunchy. Served very hot.

Other ways you will find the lamb in Rome are roasted in the oven with potatoes and deep-fried with a bread crust.

Where to eat abbacchio a scottadito in Rome?

Try it at Cesare al Casaletto (Via del Casaletto45), not in the city center but easy to reach with the tram 8 from Piazza Venezia or Largo Argentina, at Sora Lella (Via di Ponte Quattro Capi 16) and at Matricianella (Via del Leone 4).

Supplì, typical Roman street food

suppli rome street food
Supplì from Supplizio in Rome

In Rome it’s called supplì, in Sicily, arancino. They are made in different nuances, but the deal is pretty much the same: a deep-fried stuffed rice ball.

The classic supplì in Rome is with ragout sauce and mozzarella cheese, but most places serve it also with other Roman recipes such as cacio e pepe, one of my favorite.

Where to eat supplì in Rome?

You can find supplì in so many places in Rome that it’s pretty hard to narrow down to a few addresses. Most pizza al taglio places sell it, some of the best supplì are at Trapizzino, at Pizzarium (Via della Meloria 43), one of the best pizza places in Rome, Supplizio (Via dei Banchi Vecchi 143) and delis like Castroni (Via Cola di Rienzo 196/198, Via Frattina 79, Via Ottaviano 55).

Do you need a sweet treat after lunch?
Discover the best gelato in Rome!

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