In Rome there are thousands of restaurants, from purely Roman to regional, offering menus typical of Bologna, Abbruzzo, Sardinia, etc. all of which are an expression of the richness of our gastronomic heritage.
If you’ve come to Rome, however, you might as well eat like a Roman, entering into the spirit of this city which never takes itself too seriously – magical, yes, but also witty and ironic. So here are some tips to get you into the Roman rhythm and help you make the right choices.
Breakfast is usually had in the morning until around 10:30am, and consists of a cappuccino or coffee and a pastry, hastily consumed at the counter of a café or ‘bar’. Some bars in the center also offer American breakfast with eggs, bacon and fruit. Later in the morning the menu changes to savoury, with a triangular sandwich (‘tramezzino’), bread rolls with all kinds of fillings (‘panino’), all accompanied by fruit juices, freshly pressed juice, or soft drinks.
Coffee bars are usually open from around 6am, while restaurants serve lunch between 1 and 2:30pm, but near the major tourist attractions you can find places that’ll serve you a plate of pasta with sauce or a pizza at any time of day.
It’s advisable to order traditional dishes, prepared with local produce from the Roman countryside. As an appetizer, I recommend choosing the local ham (whether from Amatrice, Tivoli, or Guarcino), which you’re unlikely to have the opportunity to taste elsewhere. The same applies to cheeses. In southern Lazio there is a small production of excellent buffalo mozzarella. This cheese (‘cacio’), also called provola, smoked or not, is of very ancient tradition; the Romans were making it more than two thousand years ago. Then there are the fresh cheeses such as Roman cow’s or sheep’s milk ricotta, and even some cheeses which are aged in caves. Allow yourself the pleasure of fried food, served as an appetizer, without worrying too much about your waistline because you’ll walk for hours and burn off all those calories. In Rome we go on foot!
Choose from pasta Carbonara, all’Amatriciana, Cacio e Pepe, Gricia, or with clams and, for lovers of the genre, there is also ‘la pagliata’ – a tomato sauce made with veal intestine and served in a few typically Roman restaurants. I recommend asking for Pecorino Romano (cheese) to be grated on top – though never with seafood! A real Roman restaurant offers gnocchi on Thursdays and tripe on Saturdays. Romans have always loved fish, ever since the time of the Caesars, when it was sought after for every banquet worthy of being remembered. The chef of the Renaissance popes, Bartolomeo Scappi, dedicated almost an entire volume of his recipes to fish. At that time there was also freshwater fish from the river Tiber and from the lakes surrounding Rome, but nowadays that’s a distant memory! Today it arrives in large part by air, because what is fished along the coasts is not enough for the greedy Romans.
If you prefer meat, you’ll know that escalopes (thinly sliced beef, veal or chicken), saltimbocca (veal wrapped with prosciutto and sage), lamb chops and involtini (roulade) are typical.
The vegetables are particularly good: puntarelle, chicory, agretti, spinach, broccoli, and the famous artichokes, which until two centuries ago were even cultivated on the Palatine hill – the residence of the Roman emperors. Artichokes can be cooked both “alla Romana” – braised in white wine, and as they say in Romanesco “alla Giudia” – fried. You can enjoy them in the restaurants of the ancient Jewish ghetto, between the Tiber and the Capitol.
Obviously the vegetables must be seasonal; don’t expect a portion of wild asparagus at Christmas or the Roman artichoke in summer.
Tiramisu (literally “pick me up”) is certainly among the most widespread sweets today, but I recommend ending a meal with fruit, and always choosing the locally produced one. Each season has its varieties and its aromas: kiwis, melons, watermelons, apples, strawberries and Nemi strawberries, peaches including the delicious “tabacchiera” or donut peach, apricots, plums, and cherries, famously planted for the first time in Europe two thousand years ago, by Lucullus in the garden of his villa, right here in Rome.
Take a break at the gelateria (ice cream parlour); a gelato a day will keep you happy, as long as you choose an artisan ice cream shop. From time to time, opt for a granita made of only fresh fruit, without milk – just what you need on hot summer days.
Nowadays, thanks to the internet, you can check the comments left by customers for any restaurant, and this can certainly help you; however, I trust the judgement of the experts much more, and I always check if a place has been rated a classical food and wine guide.