When one thinks of food, Italy is never too far away from the imagination. Blessed with a clement but varied climate from north to south, with abundant fresh fish from both the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, it’s no wonder that Italians have always eaten well. Pair locally sourced food with their inherent artistry and a flair for the dramatic, and you have a pretty winning combination.
Food In Rome
What’s most surprising, perhaps, is that food in Italy is not pretentious. La cucina povera (literally poor cuisine), the homecooked food of la mamma from the paese and found in the trattorie and osterie up and down the land, will always be the heart and soul of Italian cooking.
The Italian love of food also comes with an almost militant adherence to tradition and authenticity. So much so that Italy has put itself in the running to have its entire cuisine officially recognised as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage element.
Fine dining, while it flies in the face of cucina povera (where less is more rather than more is more), does exist and is very fine indeed.
As far as international cuisine goes, Rome may not be London or New York but is improving as the years go by as Italian taste buds become more accustomed to foreign flavours and wiser to poor imitations.
Street food (though Italians will rarely consume it on the street, per se) is having a real moment in Italy, although some would argue you really can’t beat the king of all street food; the humble pizza slice.
Explaining Restaurants in Rome
1. Trattorie and Osterie
First up: what’s the difference between a Trattoria and an Osteria?
These days, the words trattoria and osteria have become somewhat interchangeable.
Technically, a trattoria is a family-run restaurant offering classic regional dishes. Picture the most respected member of the family in the kitchen preparing pasta dishes just like mamma used to make them.
An osteria (sometimes spelled hostaria) is usually more informal, focusing on good local wines and specials of the day or the week written on a chalkboard menu.
Allora – to adapt to tourists’ needs, you may find that these definitions have become a little blurred in central Rome. It does seem that anywhere serving pasta on a red and white checkered tablecloth gets to call itself a trattoria these days.
However, suppose it’s home-cooked food and good wine that you’re after. In that case, there are plenty of authentically Roman restaurants run in authentically Roman neighbourhoods with food prepared by authentically Roman Romans.
Head to Trastevere, where gingham and theatrical table service are de rigueur. A favourite with tourists and American students alike (from nearby John Cabot University), it’s easy to be seduced by Trastevere’s charm. A cacio e pepe washed down with a Sangiovese will have never tasted so good.
Get off the most crowded streets and look for the quieter restaurants patronised by easily identifiable locals. They won’t be wearing shorts or flip-flops. That’s the restaurant you want.
Equally charming are the labyrinthine side streets surrounding the Pantheon. Go for local dishes like saltimbocca, pasta all’amatriciana or a coda alla vaccinara. Just don’t go there when you’re too hungry- the wealth of choice might cause you to spin out and head to the nearby McDonald’s in a haze of confusion. Travellers’ fatigue is a first-world problem, but it’s real.
For all you Bourdain Parts Unknown types of travellers, head to up-and-coming Centocelle in the southeast for an authentic taste of local cuisine. Get off at Mirti on the C Line, and go for a wander. You’ll be surprised. The location might not be postcard-pretty, but your tastebuds (as well as your wallet) will thank you after. (See recommendation below).
Back downtown, Testaccio will surprise you with its sheer localness. As you head down Via Marmorata from Piramide, going towards the river, take a left down any street, and you’ll be sure to encounter any number of locally run and frequented places. If you’re there during the daytime, the market (Mercato di Testaccio) is well worth visiting and a good lunch option.
Wines from the regions surrounding Rome tend to be white. In its immediate vicinity is Frascati, an area that produces dozens of good sweet and dry wines. Look out for Frascati Cannelino (sweet) or Frascati Feudi dei Papi (dry).
For a decent red, look for a Montefalco from neighbouring region Umbria, and if you’re determined to be as local as possible, Velletri is currently Lazio’s number one red wine, and it’s made from a blend of Cesanese, Sangiovese, Merlot, Montepulciano, and Ciliegiolo grapes.
3. Fine Dining
Italians have a knack for elegance and making things look and sound good. Chalk it up to their culture or just centuries of inherited good taste, but it comes second nature to them. Fine dining, therefore, is exquisite, and the places where you can get it only enhance the experience.
Explore the heartbreakingly gorgeous side streets near Via Giulia, like Vicolo del Malpasso or Via dei Banchi Vecchi, for restaurants by top chefs Giulio Terronini and Anthony Genovese. (See recommendations below).
Likewise, go for a stroll around the streets that run between Piazza Spagna and Via del Corso, or the vicoli (alleyways) close to Campo de Fiori, where you can find award-winning restaurants nonchalantly indicating a Michelin star as though it were the dish of the day.
Prati, on the other side of the river, will surely deliver, and if money is no object, take a look at the restaurants available to visit at some of Rome’s top-end hotels, where you can find restaurants headed up by the likes of Heinz Beck.
Specialty dishes will be unique and cater to most peoples’ requirements. (Italy is surprisingly accommodating regarding gluten-free options, for example). What you can always expect from any haute cuisine restaurant in Rome is attention to detail, passion for locally sourced ingredients, and stupidly beautiful-looking food.
4. Vegetarian and Vegan
You will find most places will have something to suit even the most picky vegetarian. Thankfully, many Italian cuisines are fresh vegetables and legume-based, so any good trattoria worth its salt will have meat-free pasta and pizza dishes on offer, regardless.
In addition, side dishes (called contorni) usually consist of pan-fried greens (cicoria ripassata) or mixed grilled vegetables (verdure grigliate)- which will often be a combination of eggplant, zucchini, and bell peppers.
There is no specific area that is better for vegetarian options than others, and such is the Italian love of all food in general (meat-free and otherwise) that you will always be close to somewhere offering something to suit your tastes.
Classic vegetarian dishes that you will find in many trattorie include:
- Carciofi alla giudia / alla Romana – deep-fried / lightly stewed artichokes
- Zuppa di fagioli – bean stew
- Pizza marinara – tomato-based pizza (no cheese)
- Ravioli di zucca – pumpkin ravioli
- Fiori di zucca ripieni – deep-fried zucchini flowers (stuffed with cheese)
Many will offer vegan versions if they aren’t vegan already.
Some places add anchovy to the marinara, so ask your server beforehand.
There is a somewhat high-end vegetarian restaurant on Via Margutta (between Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Spagna) which claims to be the first-ever vegetarian restaurant in Rome. Alternatively, Cavour has a cluster of bars and trattorie that will fit most tastes.
If vegetarian/vegan and slightly off the beaten track is more on your agenda, head to Piramide, Basilica San Paolo, or Garbatella (all on the B Metro Line, just a few stops after Termini). There will be plenty of options around here beyond the usual pizza marinara (for you non-cheese eaters) or vegan pasta and pesto. (See recommendations below).
5. Street Food
Lo Street Food is ubiquitous. The original street food can be found at the humble neighbourhood panificio (bakery), sometimes called a forno (literally, oven).
Alongside bread, you’ll often be able to buy a slice of rustico (pie), generally filled with spinach and ricotta, plain white pizza, pizza sold by the slice with a variety of toppings, and some may even have porchetta (por-ketta- roast pork) sandwiches too.
There are dozens of very decent places like this in and around the Campo de Fiori and Trastevere areas. Just look for huge vertical signs that say forno; they appear like beacons signalling your closest carbo sanctuary.
Head to Via del Pigneto (Pigneto, Metro C) for innovative street food, including savoury maritozzi and deep-fried pasta lollies.
Via Ostiense (Piramide, Metro B) has a wealth of cheap pizza places to choose from, popular with students attending the nearby Roma 3 University.
Street Food You’ll Want to Try:
- Baccala – deep-fried cod
- Olive ascolane – deep fried, breadcrumbed, meat-stuffed queen-sized olives. (Nicer than it sounds).
- Suppli – deep-fried rice balls (pre-cooked in tomato sauce) stuffed with mozzarella. Roman arancini.
- Pizza al taglio – pizza by the slice with at least a dozen toppings to choose from. The hands-down hero of all Roman street food.
- Pinsa – overrated oval-shaped individual pizza. The dough is made from a combination of rice and wheat flour, so it is purported to be easier to digest and somewhat lighter.
- Porchetta sandwich – roast pork with lashings of rosemary in crusty bread. When it’s good, it’s really good. Places selling this stuff abound- there are a couple of very nice places on Via del Governo Vecchio and the side streets around Campo de Fiori.
- Maritozzo – not really street food per se, but a classic Roman treat available to take away from many places; a maritozzo is a whipped cream-filled bun. It’s lighter and airier than it looks. Legend has it Roman men used to use them to propose to their beloveds by hiding the engagement ring in the cream.
Ten years ago, a chef called Stefano Callegari, in a moment of inspiration at his Testaccio restaurant, reinvented the wheel by coming up with the Trapizzino.
It’s a portmanteau of tramezzino (sandwich) and pizza. Which in English would make it a sandizza or a pizzawich? Luckily, this was thought up in Italy, and the Italian trapizzino sounds a lot more appealing. (Although, Trapizzino always makes me think of a trapezoid when I hear it). They’re like pizza sandwich cones, served in a brown paper sleeve, making them exceedingly portable.
Anyhow, Stefano immediately trademarked it, and it’s a hit. You can find Trapizzino places all over town, including Via Giovanni Branca in Testaccio, Piazza del Risorgimento (next to Vatican City), and on Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere.
6. International Scenes
Sometimes you can only have so much of a good thing.
While a life of pizza and gelato sounds heavenly, there might come a time when you say to yourselves, hey, could we just take a break? Does anyone fancy a spring roll?
If that happens (and it well might), check out the area surrounding the Manzoni Metro Station for Chinese food just after Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. If you’re craving Japanese, there are plenty to choose from in the centre, but there’s a very reputable restaurant on Via della Mercede, not too far from Fontana di Trevi.
It won’t take long to realise that Rome has gone a bit kookoo for Poke. Poke bars are everywhere, and Italy has an absolute love affair with them. Personally, I’ve always found them to be mildly disappointing (in Rome, anyway), but if something fresh and non-pasta-based is in order, you won’t have to stray far before you find one.
One or two Syrian places offer reasonably decent shawarma close to Basilica Maria Maggiore on Via Merulana, or there’s a Lebanese restaurant on Via Cavour heading towards the Roman Forums. The ghetto is, of course, Rome’s main Kosher area, and since Rome’s Jewish population is of largely Sephardi descent, the cuisine on offer here is essentially middle-eastern meets Roman. So the falafel and hummus are pretty decent.
For more (and I despise the term, but it’s what they say here in Italy) ethnic food, keep bearing east / southeast. This is where the relatively new wave of communities from south and east Asia has settled. So if your palate craves something more complex than tomato + garlic + oregano, this is where to start exploring.
Do’s and Don’ts when Dining in Rome
We Need to Talk About Coffee
Cappuccino is a morning drink. After midday, it’s espresso or espresso macchiato.
Ordering an espresso is about the most efficient thing there is in Italy. It’s in and out. There’s nothing worse than going to a coffee bar at 2 pm when you’re craving your shot of post-lunch caffeine and hitting a line of dazed tourists ordering five cafe lattes to go.
Now the waiter (getting increasingly peeved by the second) has to steam half a gallon of milk while a line of jonesing Romans stand at the counter nervously waiting for their turn.
It disrupts the flow. Don’t disrupt the flow. Respect the flow.
Get an espresso macchiato with extra milk if you can’t take your coffee black. Or go to the one Starbucks we have in Rome now.
Likewise, ordering a cappuccino to sip alongside your Carbonara is considered a crime against humanity in Italy. Almost as bad as pineapple on pizza. Absolutely unforgivable, and the mere mention of it causes histrionic howling. Every. Single. Time.
Don’t use a knife and fork to eat your spaghetti/tagliatelle or long pasta. Just a fork, ideally. Every time you use a knife and fork to eat your spaghetti, somewhere deep in the Italian countryside, a nonna will spontaneously cry. You wouldn’t want to make somebody’s grandmother cry for no reason, would you?
If you are dining with Italians, you only clink glasses when drinking an alcoholic beverage from a glass.
There is the customarily required eye contact as you clink; some go further and bring the glass back down to the table first and then drink from it.
If you’re somewhere informal and drinking an alcoholic beverage from a plastic cup, you bring your cups together and let your respective fingers touch, but not the plastic receptacle.
If you are having a soft drink, you can raise your glass/cup, but no clinking is allowed.
The Ketchup Conundrum
Restaurants are not in the habit of having a selection of condiments for you to pick and choose from. The assumption is that your meal will already be seasoned and have all the flavour required. Asking for an extra wedge of lemon is just about the only extra thing people request.
If you do ask for ketchup, pay attention to the response. Chances are, they’ll silently judge you for it. Don’t be surprised if they return and throw a couple of ketchup sachets down on the table without making eye contact. Be amused instead. It’s pretty funny. That’s how seriously they take food.
Tourist Trap Pitfalls
Personally, I steer well clear of ethnic restaurants (see above) in touristy places. High tourist turnover means they can skimp on quality, safe in the knowledge they don’t have to earn any repeat business. Moreover, they’re more likely to offer heavily modified versions of classic dishes designed for judgmental Italian taste buds. Barring a few exceptions (use your judgment here), give them a wide berth.
I’m also incredibly suspicious of places with lifelike realistic silicone imitations of the food dishes they offer inside. They give me the creeps.
Campo de Fiori has unfortunately lost quite a bit of authenticity; the market consists of vendors pushing prepackaged multicolor pasta and boot-shaped limoncello bottles.
The surrounding bars with greeters pushing their aperitivo / cocktail deals don’t particularly add to the charm either. It’s too bad- have a little look around by all means. There are still some bakeries and delis worth visiting here, but for food and drink, slink off down any one of the side streets where things will get immediately better.
My Top 5 Recommendations For Best Restaurants
1. Vegan Osteria in Garbatella
Listen, go to Garbatella anyway because it’s a dream neighbourhood. But while in the area, head to a lovely vegan restaurant called Le Bistrot, run by two wonderful women who own two adorable dogs. It’s a vegan osteria- so specials are written up on a chalkboard, and it’s dog friendly too.
The menu changes weekly, so you know you’re getting the good locally sourced and in-season stuff. You can expect delights like chickpea non-meatballs, a savoury zucchini strudel, and all manner of eggplant, seitan, and soya-based creative delights.
The site is in Italian, but they take Whatsapp bookings at the provided number.
2. Osteria in Centocelle – South-East Rome
Flouting itself as an Osteria Culturale, Centorti is a diamond in the (not so) rough. They work with local farmers. They offer gluten-free and vegetarian options. It’s reasonably priced. There is love and attention to detail in the preparation and presentation. (The young and friendly staff speak English too). Too many reasons for you to go – it’s a little bit out of the way, but it will be so worth it.
The menu changes every week, but their freshly made pasta dishes are winners every time. Be sure to try their charcuterie boards of locally sourced organic salami and cheeses, as they are a cut above. Their homemade desserts are worth saving space for too.
3. Honestly Priced Roman Trattoria at Parco Schuster
Very close to the metro station Basilica San Paolo is where nestled among a cluster of decent wine and cocktail bars. You’ll find Trattoria Zampagna. For true Roman fare, honest prices, generous portions, and super friendly staff, you can’t go wrong.
You’ll want to order the big classics like Carbonara, Artichokes, or Ravioli (in butter and sage). I’m salivating, just writing about them.
(Opposite and to the left is the big old Basilica and an expanse of green space that passes as a park. In summer, it doubles up as a music venue and general late night hang out spot for Roman youths, students, and anyone else who simply cannot sleep in their sweaty apartments. Expect a lot of action around here after 11 pm. In a good way.)
4. Trattoria in Esquilino / Piazza Vittorio Emanuele Area
For something a bit closer to the Termini area, Trattoria da Danilo has been a crowd-pleaser with both locals and tourists for years.
- Mamma in the kitchen: check.
- Classic pasta dishes that are exactly what the doctor ordered. Check.
- Cosy, charming interior. Check.
With an extensive cellar, they know a thing or two about wine, so don’t be shy and ask for their recommendations if you’re not sure. You’re in good hands.
5. Fine Dining Near Via Giulia
Last but by no means least is Per Me. You might want to budget for this one, but it will be worth it. First, the location: tucked away just off a tiny piazza between Via Giulia and the gorgeous Via Monserrato is Vicolo del Malpasso, where you will find this understated Michelin-starred restaurant.
Headed up by chef Giulio Terrinoni, the focus on interior design, sustainable and locally sourced produce, and exquisite presentation makes this an extra fine dining experience.
You can splash out on one of the tasting menus (including a vegetarian option) with a wine pairing or simply order a la carte. Current offerings include risotto with sea urchins, cod ravioli in a seafood broth, and cuttlefish gnocchi with ‘nduja and pecorino.