City Guide to Rome, Italy: Part 4 | Traditional Food
Traditional Italian food while in Rome, Italy is a must! Start with delicious fritti and Roman artichoke and end with homemade Italian Gelato. The tough decision is the main course! Saltimbocca, Roman pizza, cacio e Pepe pasta, carbonara pasta, coda alla vaccinara, panino with trippa alla Romana...? Or just try them all!
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Some places are known for their history, some are known for their beaches, and some are known for the outdoors, but Italy is well known for its rich and hearty cuisine. And while Rome is of course known for its history and ancient ruins (it was the center of the Roman Empire after all!), it’s also a place to indulge by having some amazing food.
Italy and specifically Rome, may be known for its pasta, pizza, gelato, wine, and espresso, but if you want an authentic experience, it’s important to keep in mind that there are many varieties and recipes within those broader categories.
For example, if you want a traditional Roman pizza, you’re going to get a very thin and crisp crust, but if you go to Naples, the Pizza Police (it’s a real thing!) are going to make sure your pizza Napoletana has a softer and slightly thicker crust.
On the other hand, when it comes to pasta, Rome is known for their Cacio e Pepe and Pasta Carbonara, where Venice is known for their Bigoli in Salsa and Sicily for its Pasta alla Norma. So, if you want the best gastronomic experience, we’d recommend doing a bit of research and eating the dishes that the area you’re visiting is known for.
We set off to do just that! We looked at the most traditional and well-known dishes that Rome is known for and this is what we found:
Roman pizza is probably not like what you’re used to in the US, instead it has a very thin crispy crust without much of a ‘lip’ or edge to it.
There are many options when it comes to toppings, but the most traditional Roman pizza is probably the simplest, a Margherita Pizza (tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil).
As you’d expect, pizzerias are all over Rome, Italy and there are two ways to get your pizza experience. One, order it at a sit down restaurant, and enjoy an entire round ‘personal’ pizza. Or two, order it by the slice (pizza al taglio) for a quick stand up meal. Oh, and don't be surprised when you get a square pizza 'slice'!
Fritti literally translates to ‘fried’, however it’s listed on restaurant menus as a course, like an appetizer. Included within this popular menu category are several fried finger foods that are commonly eaten with pizza and a drink throughout Rome, Italy. The most popular and traditional fritti are:
- Supplì – It’ll be hard not to see these fried balls of goodness all over Rome. When you bite into supplì, your palate will be treated to a fried rice exterior that’s filled with a mix of tomato sauce and mozzarella. If you’re familiar with Arancini in other parts of Italy, supplì are very similar.
- Fiori di Zucca – These battered zucchini flowers offer a bit of a surprise kick, as they’re stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies. While some places offer a version sans anchovies, for the true Rome experience, opt for the traditional version. And if it turns out you’re not such a fan of anchovies, don’t worry, everything is better fried, right?!
- Filetti di Baccala – With its origins stemming from the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, salt cod is deep fried, making a delicious snack or meal!
- Olive Ascolane – Super tender and juicy, they’re breaded and fried green olives stuffed with minced pork.
Roman Artichokes (Carciofi)
They’re not only a popular dish in Rome, Italy, but they’re known worldwide. Roman artichokes (Carciofi) have been given a protective status (Protected Geographical Indication) by the European Union.
Artichokes, just like any other vegetable, are seasonal. So, the best time to enjoy them when dinning out in Rome is between February and May, otherwise you’ll likely be dinning on frozen or imported artichoke.
There are two ways to order artichokes in Rome, Italy: Roman style (all Romana) or Jewish style (alla giudea). Roman style stuffs the artichokes with garlic, mint, parsley and bread crumbs before lightly frying them, while Jewish style opens the artichoke like a flower and then deep fries it.
The name translates to ‘Hop in the mouth’, and a taste of this savory dish will have you wanting it to do just that! It’s a delicious plate of white wine marinated veal medallions, wrapped in prosciutto and topped off with sage.
Not only a traditional Roman dish, but a classic food that goes hand-in-hand with Italy. Rome is known for a couple pasta specialties, so when in Rome order what they do best!
- Cacio e Pepe – A very simple pasta dish that when done well, is perfection! It’s made with Pecorino Romano cheese and pepper and the final dish is deliciously creamy.
- Carbonara – If you’re only indulging on one pasta dish, this should be the one. Carbonara is a Roman dish made with raw egg yolk, black pepper, guanciale (Italian cured pork), and grated Pecorino Romano cheese.
Coda alla Vaccinara
Aside from pasta and pizza, Rome, Italy is known for its hearty meat dishes. Coda alla Vaccinara is an ox-tail stew that was known as the ‘poor man’s food’ because workers at the slaughterhouses were compensated with the extra bits and parts of the animal.
Of course, it didn’t take long for them to come up with delicious recipes to make use of the animal parts and pieces. So, while it may not be your first instinct to order Coda alla Vaccinara, this tomato based ox-tail with a mix of vegetables, pancetta, red wine and a dash of cinnamon will undoubtedly give you a taste of Roman tradition.
Panino with Trippa alla Romana
In line with Coda alla Vaccinara, you’ll see this tripe (cow stomach) dish in many traditional restaurants. If you’re adventurous or already a tripe fan, this tomato based dish should be on your must try list!
Homemade traditional gelato in Rome, Italy… what more do we need to say here?
Eating Traditional Food in Rome, Italy
We could've indulged in it all, but we'd have left Rome with a dent in our wallets and pants that no longer fit! Instead, we made it a special event to try a select one or two traditional foods for a meal during our stay in Rome, Italy. This kept us energized and healthy and allowed us to spend our money on sightseeing adventures instead of eating out regularly.
Rome was an extra special event for us though. We heard that friends of ours were going to be in Rome and we finessed our schedule just a bit to coincide the first two days of our Rome visit with their last two days. Therefore, as soon as we arrived in Rome and settled into our Airbnb (use our link and save up to $40 off your first stay!), we were off to a ‘reunion’ dinner! It was exciting to see our friends and it was hugs all around.
Finding The Best Local Restaurants
We did our due diligence and researched the best places in Rome for traditional fare. We’d narrowed our list down to two options, but the top contender (Vecchia Roma) was closed on Sundays, therefore the winner for our early Sunday dinner celebration with friends was Grazie a Dio è Venerdì.
We’d just flown in from Sofia, Bulgaria, so our bodies were running an hour later than everyone else in Rome. Not to mention, we planned on waking up about 4:30 am the following morning to get a head start on sightseeing. This is important information, since we quickly learned that Romans eat dinner late (8 or 9 pm at the earliest). Therefore, many of the best restaurants (think: non-touristy) open at 7 pm, and that’s if they’re even open on Sundays to begin with!
So, we bet you can already guess it, the restaurant, even though TripAdvisor had listed it as open, was closed when we arrived and wouldn't open until 7 pm. As a result, we started exploring the side streets for another restaurant.
Our friends, who’d already been in Rome for a few days, had a couple of great tips for finding the best restaurants. Rather than only use online reviews, they also did the following best practices:
- Stick to side streets – The main streets, like the ones that lead to major tourist attractions, have many restaurants on them, but they usually cater to tourists. So naturally, one would have to conclude that their dishes would be tailored to a tourist’s palate, and wouldn’t use the freshest and best ingredients.
- Eat where the locals eat – If the restaurant is full of Italians, then you’ve probably found a great place, if not, move on. By in large, most tourists are in and out of a city before they have time to really get to know what restaurants are the best. On the other hand, locals tend know exactly where the good eats are!
Unfortunately, our options were a bit limited because of the day of the week and the time we were looking for dinner. We passed several places that our friends had eaten at that they raved about (including our original meeting place), but they were all sadly closed.
As we walked the side streets, we found a place that had a decent menu, was off the main road, and was open for dinner. However, it wasn’t full of locals and it was hard to know if that was just because of the time of day or if locals simply didn’t patronize the restaurant. As our choices had dwindled, we decided to give it a shot!
The Restaurant: Wanted
The restaurant we found was Wanted, and when we walked in we weren’t exactly greeted, but we were shown a table and menus. We already knew what we wanted, so we were ready to order fairly quickly.
The Order at Wanted Restaurant
Since it was all about traditional Roman cuisine, we started with fritti, ordering supplì and Fiori di Zucca. Our friends ordered pasta and lasagna for their meal and we opted for a traditional Roman Margherita pizza.
We felt right away that the waiter was indifferent about our being there, even to the point where we all thought he was rude (or having a bad day). But we laughed off his gestures, impatience, and the leaving of stuff on our table without eye contact, words, or any general acknowledgement. After all, we were happy to be with friends and after nearly a year of not seeing them, had a lot to catch up on!
Tip: In Europe, when you order water, more often than not you’ll receive a bottle of carbonated water, so be sure to specify that you want ‘still’ or ‘flat’ water. Moreover, in many places, especially Rome, you’ll be served a bottle of water that you’ll be charged for, whether it’s carbonated or not. However, there’s a chance you can avoid the charge if you ask for tap water instead of still water. Although, depending on establishment, you may still see a charge on your bill.
Our friends told us a story where they brought their own bottled water and were charged for the privilege of drinking it in the restaurant. So, however you slice it, you’ll likely be paying for your water!
The Food at Wanted Restaurant
The fritti came very quickly and we were so excited to dig in. So excited in fact, that someone’s hand was actually slapped away from the food so that pictures could be taken (for this article). Although, after our first bite of supplì we understand why!
On the other hand, the Fiori di Zucca didn’t get as much attention. Our friends didn’t even consider tasting them once they heard they had anchovies in them, but we of course gave them a shot. They weren’t bad, but forewarning, they may be too fishy tasting and/or too salty, depending on your palate!
It took a bit of time for the main dishes to come out, and when they did, they weren’t delivered at the same time. From what we understand, this is common and should be expected in Rome.
The first to come out was our Margherita pizza, and a few minutes later the pasta and lasagna dishes arrived. Now bear in mind, we don’t have anything to compare the pizza to, as this was our only Roman pizza experience. From what we knew Roman Pizza should be thin, crisp, and with charred edges. In our opinion it checked two of the three boxes.
Unfortunately, although it was charred and thin, the cheese seemed to be making the crust soggy. The taste was good (fried, cheese, and bread, how could it not be?!), and the basil was a nice touch, but frankly there simply wasn’t enough of it!
Our friends said their dishes were okay, but nothing to write home about. On previous occasions, they’d been served melt-in-your mouth freshly made pasta and this definitely wasn’t in that category.
So, while we aren’t raving about the restaurant, we were happy to have had some traditional Roman food, and best of all we shared it with fabulous company! And while the conversation could have continued into the evening, we forced ourselves to say goodnight and head back to our Airbnb. We had a full day of sightseeing ahead of us and we knew we’d need our rest. Rome would wait for no one!
There are a few things that shouldn’t go untasted when you visit Rome, and we’d checked a few of those off our list, but we still had one: Gelato!
And so, the following day we decided that we should indulge on this treat with our friends. Luckily for us, they had taken one for the team and done a bit of gelato tasting over the previous week. They took us to the best place they’d found, Ciuri Ciuri on Via Leonina.
Since our diet doesn’t include much gelato or ice cream in it, our taste buds were overwhelmed with the sweet, thick, creamy flavors that sent nothing but rave reviews to our brain. Between our word and our friends’ word (after scouting out many places), trust us when we tell you that this place is great!
We ordered a cup of three flavors: chocolate, coconut, and coffee. We thought it would be a tough decision because there must have been two dozen flavors, but it ended up being fairly simple. We asked for the richest chocolate they had, thought we saw a peanut butter flavor but it was completely okay when they told us it was coffee, and we then spotted the coconut, which turned out to have actually coconut pieces in it. It was the perfect combination!
After ordering our gelato we retreated to the stairs across the way, which were the perfect place to sit and relax. We watched the sunset as we talked and joked the evening away. It was a great cap to our traditional Rome, Italy food experience!
Between the cultural experience and the wonderful tastes, we enjoyed our culinary experiences in Rome. It goes without saying, be sure to eat where the locals eat to get the best food and the best experience!