This guide to traditional Roman food includes what to eat, when in Rome, as well as some of the best traditional Roman restaurants. So read on for all the typical Roman dishes and ingredients, so you know exactly what food to eat in Rome & where to go!
For the purposes of this article, traditional Roman food is NOT the typical food eaten by the ancient Romans (stuffed dormouse, anyone?!) but the typical Roman cuisine which has captured the hearts of Roman citizens over the past century or so. It’s the food you’ll be largely eating if you’re planning a trip to Rome so it’s a good idea to get your head round the basics before you come! In this guide, I’ll also be including some typical Roman dishes which have emerged much more recently, but have become hugely popular all the same.
This guide to traditional Roman food will not only look at Rome’s most famous pasta dishes, from carbonara to amatriciana, but classic Roman ingredients such as porchetta or carciofi AND some of the best street food you can find in Rome.
Hungry yet? Read on for the full Testaccina guide to Roman cuisine to find out exactly what food to eat in Rome!
Traditional Roman food: the four typical Roman pasta dishes
Typical Roman food is distinguished by four pasta dishes, which are considered the four pillars of Roman cuisine. Each of these dishes has a fascinating history, so read on for the full story of amatriciana, cacio e pepe, carbonara and gricia so you know exactly what to order in Rome.
Cacio e pepe pasta
Cacio e pepe literally translates as cheese & pepper in a number of dialects across Central Italy. This typically poor dish is one of the oldest recipes in Roman cuisine, and is simply made from black pepper and grated Pecorino Romano cheese, combined with spaghetti, or more traditionally, tonnarelli. It’s origins lie in the shepherds and itinerant pastors that took their flocks over the farmlands of Central Italy, carrying just a few ingredients in their pockets to sustain themselves.
Despite the fact that this is prepared by creaming grated cheese and black pepper into spoonfuls of cooking water from the pasta, it is actually a technique which requires a good level of skill. The secret of successfully amalgamating the ingredients into a thick cream lies in the amount of starch in the water. Its robust peppery and salty flavours make this a great traditional Roman dish in the winter or for those with hearty appetites!
Where to eat cacio e pepe in Rome: For cacio e pepe at its most rustic, choose a typical Roman trattoria, preferably away from the tourist crowds. Felice a Testaccio and Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina are great choices for this dish; while La Regola restaurant serves an excellent and refined cacio e pepe made with five kinds of black pepper and 14-16 month-aged pecorino romano. For a twist on this traditional Roman food, don’t miss pizza with cacio e pepe toppings in Rome – Stefano Callegari serves an incredible cacio e pepe pizza at his Sbanco pizzeria.
Gricia pasta: traditional Roman food
Gricia, which is very similar to cacio e pepe in form, but also includes guanciale or pig cheek, is also an ancient recipe from the countryside of Central Italy. It would have been considered an upgrade on cacio e pepe for its inclusion of meat, albeit a cheap cut. It is also a ‘sister’ dish to the other Roman classic, carbonara, which again plays on these basic ingredients, while also including fresh egg.
Where to eat gricia in Rome: This traditional Roman food is best eaten in a typical Roman trattoria. Head for Testaccio and order gricia at Perilli a Testaccio or Da Bucatino.
Amatriciana pasta is a slightly more recent remix of gricia, and takes it name from the town of Amatrice, where legend says the recipe first developed. According to the stories, locals here experimented with adding tomatoes to pan-fried guanciale, resulting in this classic dish of salt-cured pork in tomato sauce. The classic way to prepare this traditional Roman food is without any other fat, such as olive oil: simply fry matchsticks of guanciale in their own fat, add tinned tomatoes or passata, and simmer to combine.
Where to eat amatriciana in Rome: For a classic amatriciana, Coso Ristorante off via del Corso uses pecorino cheese which has been cured in red wine for a hearty kick. Vecchia Roma in the city’s Esquilino district serves a theatrically flambeed amtriciana. The final touches are added at the table side, when the pasta is briefly set on fire thanks to a dash of brandy, in a huge, hollowed out cheese wheel! For an amatriciana with a view, try Tiberino Restaurant on Rome’s picturesque Tiber Island. Meanwhile, L’Oste ai Banchi serves a refined amatriciana with subtle layers of flavour.
Carbonara pasta: traditional Roman food
Carbonara may be one of Italy’s most famous exports, but it is also a recipe which is ‘ruined’ in Italian eyes over and over! Despite what frozen and premade sauce jars the world over might suggest, carbonara is only made with four ingredients: guanciale, grated Italian hard cheese, egg and black pepper.
Unlike the other classic pasta dishes of Roman cuisine, carbonara was not known in its current form until the 20th century, and specifically the 1940s. In post-war Italy, the increase of readily available dried pasta formats turbo-charged the appearance of pasta at mealtimes. The end of rationing also meant that ingredients like guanciale and eggs also became more accessible. Hence the evolution of this delicious traditional Roman food! Although the hardliner Roman position suggests that only pecorino Romano should be used, many trattorias favour a mix of pecorino and parmesan cheese, as pecorino Romano can be unforgivingly salty.
Where to eat carbonara in Rome: This dish appears on menus everywhere in Rome. For a classic version, you can’t beat Perilli in Testaccio, Da Enzo al 29 in Trastevere, or Armando al Pantheon in the historical centre. Try Il Marchese for an honest carbonara in pretty surroundings near the Spanish Steps. ProLoco Trastevere serves a more refined version. And for something completely different, look out for a pizza topped with carbonara sauce, or the ground-breaking carbonara cocktail from premier Pigneto cocktail bar Coso!
Other typical pasta dishes in Rome
Of course, you will also come across lots of other types of pasta dishes in Roman restaurants. From Sunday lunch favourites such as ravioli and lasagne, other classic first course dishes include gnocchi, typically served on Thursdays in traditional Roman trattorias.
Another well-known pasta dish which originated in Rome is the famous pasta Alfredo. Fettuccine Alfredo were invented at Alfredo alla Scrofa in Rome and you can still eat the original and best pasta Alfredo right here. Check out this link for the full pasta Alfredo story and don’t miss this typical Roman dish!
Traditional Roman food: typical Roman ingredients
The following ingredients crop up frequently on the menus of typical Roman trattorias. Since they can be hard to translate and are often badly translated, here’s a quick guide to what you’re ordering! If you’re interested in cooking them at home, Testaccio market sells most of the following produce. We also love Antica Caciara Trasteverina (pictured above) in Trastevere for a classic Roman deli experience.
Guanciale, porchetta and prosciutto
With typical Italian ingenuity, no part of the pig is wasted when it comes to the kitchen table. Many of these ingredients have been successfully exported but these three in particular have a central place in traditional Roman food.
Ham is found is two forms – prosciutto cotto and prosciutto crudo. The former is the typical, soft pink cooked ham which is found across the globe and usually ends up in sandwiches. Prosciutto crudo is a more prestigious affair, traditionally cured with salt and air-dried for up to 36 months (although such a long time is pretty rare). Good cured ham has a silky texture and a salty sweetness in the mouth. It is great as a starter or antipasto dish, combined with mozzarella or fresh figs.
While many international versions of Italian pasta dishes use pancetta, an intensely salty equivalent to bacon, a cheaper take on this called guanciale appears more frequently in traditional Roman food. Guanciale is salt-cured pig cheek and is dominated by fat with only thin veins of meat, yielding plenty of saturated fat in the pan which coats the pasta and brings a rich and salty taste to dishes.
Porchetta, or roast piglet, is a speciality of the Roman countryside. This traditional Roman food involves the slow, spit roasting of an immature pig rubbed with typical herbs. On the plate, the meat is soft, white and yielding, covered with an amber crust of crisp fat. It appears everywhere from antipasti plates to hearty sandwiches; you can also find annual porchetta food festivals in the Castelli Romani, the cluster of rustic lakeside towns some 30 km south-east of Rome. Meanwhile, if you are interested in trying this in a restaurant setting, I can highly recommend the roast pork at Numa al Circo (near Circus Maximus).
Abbacchio: traditional Roman food
Abbacchio is a frequent ingredient on second course menus in typical Roman trattorias. This is the most prestigious take on lamb, and is usually roast on the bone to a point of extreme tenderness. Abbacchio lamb is slaughtered after just a month of life, so it has only been nursed on its mother’s milk and is therefore not grass fed.
Coda alla vaccinara & quinto quarto
Traditional Roman food is constructed around fairly inexpensive ingredients. The huge slaughterhouse complex of Testaccio, which was a big local employer, also resulted in many workers being paid in offal or quinto quarto, literally ‘the fifth quarter’ of the animal. Ingenious Roman housewives turned apparently inedible ingredients into delicious food. Key ingredients to look out for include coda alla vaccinara (ox-tail) which is cooked into a rich stew and served with pasta or on its own. Wonderful Testaccio trattoria Checchino Dal 1887 is associated with the origins of this dish. Look out too for pajata (milk calf intestine); trippa (tripe); coratella (lamb, chicken or rabbit mixed intestines); animelle (sweetbreads, the spongy throat-gland of the veal calf); lingua (tongue); milza (spleen).
Winter vegetables: Carciofi, cicoria & puntarelle
Most of the vegetables served as side dishes in Roman trattorias during the summer are recognisable to an international audience, including red peppers, zucchini / courgettes and eggplant / aubergine. However, in the winter, traditional Roman food embraces a selection of vegetables which are particularly typical to this region. Carciofi (artichokes) are cooked chiefly in two ways, simmered in the pan with herbs to produce a tender, soft green artichoke head (carciofo alla Romana) or deep fried to a striking bronze shade for the Jewish-style artichoke (carciofi alla Giudia).
Cicoria shouldn’t be confused with the pale, petal-like chicory or Belgian endive of British supermarkets. When served in a Roman trattoria, cicoria is a bitter green, related to the common dandelion and similar in texture and taste. It is briefly boiled and refried with garlic and chili pepper to produce a delicious side dish, characterised by bitter depths, and mellowed by the spicy kick of the peperoncino.
Puntarelle, another cousin of cicoria, is prized for its peculiar crisp, white stalks which are hollow. These lightly bitter reeds are cut into thin strips and left in ice-water to curl. They are then served raw with a dressing of anchovy, lemon juice and chili pepper for an extremely tasty crisp winter salad.
Traditional Roman food: typical street food in Rome
Pizza requires no introduction as one of Italy’s most famous exports. While modern pizza evolved from simple flatbreads made in the Naples region, Rome has also made this dish a big part of traditional Roman food culture. The traditional, Roman-style pizza is made on a very thin base which is cooked in a wood-fired oven in a matter of minutes. The base is crunchy and its thinness means that Roman-style pizza won’t leave you feeling over-full. Try the Roman-style pizza at Testaccio pizzeria Da Remo for a real locals-only experience.
Fritti is the term used for all the deep fried goods which are found on pizza menus and eaten as quick street snacks. Typical items include fiori di zucca (deep fried zucchini flowers, often stuffed with oozing mozzarella and an anchovy); baccala (deep fried salt cod); mozzarelline (deep-fried breaded mozzarella balls); olive all’ascolana (olives stuffed with sausage meat, breaded and fried). You’ll find these in nearly every regular pizzeria. I do love Favilla in San Giovanni for its great fritti.
Suppli are another traditional Roman food best eaten on the go. These rice balls are made from cooked risotto rice which is breaded and fried. They are smaller than the typical Sicilian arancini and are usually round like a billiard ball or longer and oval in shape. They are often cooked with mozzarella inside which melts during the cooking process. When broken in your hands, this mozzarella stretches out into a gooey, telephone wire of cheesy goodness, so suppli are often called suppli al telefono for this reason!
The trapizzino is an ingenious, recent invention by Roman pizza guru Stefano Callegari. Representing a pocket of pizza dough, which is filled with typical pasta sauces, it’s a great way to taste your way through the flavours of traditional Roman food. A version of this – sandwiches with hot fillings – is also cooked and sold at Mordi e Vai in Testaccio market.
I haven’t had time to dig into typical Roman sweets and desserts in this guide, but I have another couple of posts that might help. This post discusses the traditional Roman sweets associated with Carnival time. Whereas here you can read about the traditional Roman dessert, the maritozzo.
If you have enjoyed this guide to traditional Roman food, you might want to check out my other Italian regional food guides.
I have also written a comprehensive post about typical Sicilian food which you can check out here.
Otherwise, if you’re heading for Bolzano in Alto Adige, I have also prepared a typical Sud Tirol food guide right here.
If you’re interested in planning a food tour when visiting Italy, Luxe Associates Travel organises a variety of food tours around Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples.