a complete guide
A trip to Italy is as much about food as it is culture, history and landscapes, and Rome is no exception! My experiences in (mostly) Rome’s historic centre have been a delightful introduction to Roman dining. Here’s what I picked up about some traditional and local specialties, as well as restaurant reviews and tips!
There are three core pasta dishes associated with Roman cuisine: spaghetti/bucatini alla matriciana, spaghetti alla carbonara and spaghetti con cacio e pepe. On the menu, you’ll find them under “piati primi” as italians eat pasta dishes as part of a large meal between starters (antipasti) and the meat/fish course (secondi). You’ll also find other pasta/risotto dishes from other regions.
We ate pasta as a main, with usually 1 antipasto shared between 2 and one side dish (contorno) – usually salad. This isn’t typical, but suited us well.
spaghetti/bucatini alla matriciana
Ask Italians what dish they most associated with Rome – I did, and the answer I got was bucatini alla matriciana. A saucy pasta dish with a rich tomato flavour, it is a must for visitors to Rome. Traditionally it is served with guanciale (pig’s cheek) that has formed a thin layer of crackling, but I also ate one with bacon (less impressed) and a vegetarian version. I also ate it with both spaghetti and bucatini pastas, and, in what was probably a faux pas, I ate pizza topped with with matriciana sauce!
This sauce was created when Romans added tomatoes to the classic Italian gricia sauce, which you can also find throughout Rome. However, we only ate alla matriciana in order to take advantage of the delicious tomatoes grown in Italy. The difference in taste between British and Italian tomatoes is shocking!
I had the best bucatini in Il Grifone in Piazza Navona. But beware, the other dishes there weren’t really up to scratch (see restaurant reviews), so shop around!
spaghetti alla carbonara
I always knew that carbonara in Scotland was completely wrong, and I now I’ll never be able to eat it again haha. Roman carbonara is the real deal: silky rather than wet; plenty of egg, pasta with bite and heavily cured pancetta – no bacon or cream in sight! A popular variation is carbonara sul mare, which has seafood instead of pancetta, often salmon. This is particulary common in the kosher restaurants near the Jewish quarter (this whole area was dining heaven, and chock full of Romans who know where to get the best food!).
You can find this everywhere, but I had 2 equally prefect ones in Capranica and Armando al Pantheon (see restaurant reviews).
cacio e pepe
The simplest pasta dish you’re ever going to eat, and possibly the most delicious, it’s literally cheese and pepper (as in black pepper)! But as my good friends at Adam and Ryan will tell you, its simplicity is underpinned by a recipe that must be technically perfect and masterfully executed.
This is less saucy than other pasta dishes, but still retains a creaminess from the pecorino romano – a treasure of Roman cuisine. The cacio e pepe I ate showed some restraint with the black pepper: enough to cut through the cheese, but it wasn’t hot on the tongue. I think this was important, in a less saucy dish like this, the pepper won’t dissolve and the flavour will really hit you!
To recreate cacio e pepe at home, check out Adam and Ryan’s recipe!
I ate cacio e pepe at Brunello’s, where it was delicious and liberal with the pecorino romano haha (see restaurant reviews).
Yes, Napoli is the birthplace of pizza. But pizza romana gives the neapolitan kind a run for its money. It has a base that people outside Italy associate with good pizza: super thin, audible crunch and visible char, less of the fluffiness or air bubbles you see in Napoli.
And when it comes to toppings, Romans don’t hold back. With a thinner base, the pizza becomes crisper as it cooks and can support more toppings. That being said, there will always be a place in my heart and stomach for a classic Margharita!
One final difference is that you can totally slice the pizza into wedges and eat with your hands, which was welcome given that we ate our pizzas as part of a casual lunch with a beer in one hand and pizza in the other.
We generally stuck to tomato-based pizzas, but tried several toppings. A note about margarita: you can order with normal mozzarella, or buffalo mozzarella (di buffala) – they’re both delicious, but not the same. On margarita di buffala, the mozzarella is added in thick chunks with don’t melt through, or is added at the end. This is to allow you to really taste the buffalo mozzarella, which is prized for its flavour. Whereas regular mozzarella is evenly and thinly distributed, so it melts completely. This may be more your cup of tea if, like me, you’re a melted cheese fiend haha!
For recommendations, see restaurant reviews.
At the start of the holiday, I asked myself why we say gelato? When I used to stay with family in Spain, we never used to go for ‘helado’, we went for ice cream. And then I realised in Rome that this silky, smooth, luxurious treat deserves its own name! Choosing gelato totally removes that restrictive feeling you sometimes get when you eat Italian food, like feeling obligated to choose the most classic, old-fashioned dish. When it comes to gelato, you have a whole rainbow of flavours to choose from!
Some gelaterie may look cheap or extravagant, but actually, the quality was high and the price was low everywhere we tried (usually around €3 for 2 very generous scoops) – my only tip for choosing places is the gelato should look ‘shiny’ – a tip we picked up from other travellers. And be sure to eat it quickly: gelato is particularly soft + the Italian heat is intense.
For recommendations, see restaurant reviews.
I didn’t realise until writing this how much bruschetta we ate haha! I was surprised to see such varied toppings in Rome, in fact I only expected to see classic tomato bruschetta, I thought variations might be considered fads. In reality, we often opted for mixed bruschettas for our antipasto (bruschette miste) as it pleased both parties. This usually consisted of mushroom paste (i funghi), roasted garlic (l’aglio), tapenade (olive) and fresh chunks of tomato. It was delicious everywhere, bar the garlic. However, I suspect, like tomatoes, this discrepancy is because we’re used to the harsher garlic grown in the UK (which we absolutely love).
One total surprise was a bruschetta topped with straciatella cheese and anchovies – one of the best dishes of the holiday! (Armando al Pantheon)
See the end of the post for our other dishes!
You gotta keep hydrated!
As an espresso-drinker, Italy is my spiritual home! I was hyped all day err day haha. When you order ‘caffe’ in Italy, you’ll be served an espresso, but if you want to order lungo, americano etc or even decaff, Romans are a bit more cosmopolitan than other Italians and will understand.
If you want to drink coffee like a true hustling bustling Roman, you have to find a ‘bar’ – I say this because bar in this context isn’t boozy, it’s more like what we understand a cafe to be, but you can get alcohol too. Order ‘un caffe’ at the bar, drink it there and pay at a till – it’ll cost less than €1, and more importantly it’s a taste of Italian life. The minute you sit down and get served, you’ve become il turisto, and that means paying an inflated price plus service charge (servizio)!
Lastly, Romans will cringe so hard if you order a cappuccino after 12 noon haha!
We’re no wine experts at all, but that doesn’t stop us from having a bottle with every dinner. The only advice I can offer is that we only ordered wine from Lazio (the region Rome is in), and frequently the house wine (vino della casa), and we were never disappointed.
My Italian friend introduced me to spritz – an aperitivo cocktail made with either Aperol or Campari, and prosecco. It’s a delicious way to start a meal, and has a nice subtle bitterness to it which is fab if you’ve been wolfing down gelato all holiday and can’t take more sweetness haha. I’d really recommend Caffe della Pace (near Piazza Navona) for spritz, because you can get several variation for people not 100% sold on the original.
Italians sometimes order a spritz during happy hour – but this is not really happy hour as we understand it. In Italy, it involves getting a spritz, plus assembling a plate of food from a small buffet in the bar. This may seem odd, but I think the purpose is to tide people over at around 6 o’clock since Italians often eat dinner very late in the summer.
Rome has ornate public water fountains dotted around the city. This water is totally drinkable, but in high season you may find it easier to use them to fill water bottles rather than take small drinks periodically!
Part of the fun of a city like Rome is stumbling upon a cute trattoria down a narrow street and deciding to eat there, but here are some restaurant reviews to get you started. Most of these places are in the Historic Centre (Centro Storico) simply because we stayed there, but I’m sure other areas have many delicious restaurants too!
Just some tips to bear in mind:
- choose restaurants that look busy, and have a nosy at other people’s food. It’ll help you decide where to eat.
- Say ‘Buongiorno’ at lunch time and ‘buena sera’ in the evening to greet your waiter, it’s quite rude not to!
- Often service charge (servizio) is included in you bill, so you don’t need to tip very much, we just rounded to the nearest €5.
- It’s not uncommon for musicians to come into restaurants and just start playing violin/classical guitar/singing, but if it’s not your vibe you’re less likely to encounter it if you sit inside. That being said, I loved it haha.
Pizza and pasta (best to worst)
Armando al Pantheon (Pantheon)
This incredibly popular restaurant absolutely lived up to its reputation! Booking a week in advance is an absolute essential, which you can do on their website in English. The dishes were a mix of classic and modern Italian food, the quality of everything, including the service, was flawless. It wasn’t cheap, but could easily have charged more so I think it’s value. We booked it for our last night in Rome, which I’d highly recommend, as you won’t want to eat anywhere else afterwards. I’d also recommend trying their specials; you won’t find these dishes anywhere else in Rome.
Ba’Ghetto (Ghetto Embracio)
Terrible name, fantastic restaurant! In the heart of the Jewish quarter, you can find these 2 kosher restaurants (one for milk and one for meat). We ate at the milk one, where you can only order vegetarian or pescetarian dishes in accordance with kosher law. Jewish Romans have their own distinct dishes and flavours, often with middle-eastern influences such as tabouleh, and artichoke. Even though I’m specifically recommending this restaurant, the whole Jewish quarter is famous among local Romans of the quality of its restaurants, which still retain a relaxed and warm atmosphere, so try to make it here for at least one meal!
Ponte Vittorio (Across the river from Vatican City)
Avoid pricey restaurants by the Vatican, and choose this place! Just over the bridge from Castel Sant’angelo is this super authentic and casual pizzeria. Again, the pizzas were perfect Roman pizzas, but most delicious of all was the smugness of not falling into a Vatican tourist trap, and instead eating among the true Italians!
Angelino ai Fori dal 1947 (Colosseum)
Absolutely delicious pizza, and a great site to refuel after seeing the Colosseum. Staff were friendly, but this is a big place, full to the brim with tourists, which does take away from its charm.
This is a lovely restaurant, with a very understated view onto one of the lesser-known piazzas. Service was very friendly, and also attentive. And crucially, our pastas were perfect.
L’archetto (Trevi fountain)
Located in frighteningly narrow street (drivers in Rome are very brave) near the Trevi fountain is delicious restaurant. The pizzas were ‘the real deal’ – a perfectly classic example of a Roman pizza (probably the best I ate), and it was perfect for eating lunch outside under its shaded canopies. Service was sadly very forgetful (RIP melanzane parmigiane which never came).
Ciro & Ciro (Pantheon)
This restaurant is how you picture Rome: set in a sweet little piazza, terracotta-coloured buildings with ivy, and a wonderful opera singer and classical guitarist. To be honest, the food was good (maybe not explosively so), but definitely the best for atmosphere!
Ristorante Brunello (Hadrian’s Temple)
Our first meal in Rome, a fantastic introduction to Roman food. My cacio e pepe was simple but delicious, and the bruschetta was generously topped. Service was friendly and prompt, and the overall atmosphere was relaxed.
Il Grifone (Piazza Navona)
Piazza Navona has many similar restaurants, but my choice to eat at this particular one was polarising. It was the smallest (in my head, that means cutest), and the service was fine, it was just the food that divided opinion. My bucatini was one of the best dishes I ate all holiday, however, the carbonara was tasteless and the spaghetti was slightly over-cooked. So if you’re not having bucatini, perhaps try one of Piazza Navona’s many other restaurants?
Taverna Antonina (Pantheon)
The food was absolutely fine, but I’ve never had such rude service in my life. We were mocked for our choices, they forgot most of what we ordered, they chucked the food down in front of us with a heavy thud, and after main course they hid from us so we couldn’t ask for a bill or a coffee. I hate to blacklist but I sincerely suggest you choose somewhere else.
These places are in no order…they were all delicious!
Venchi (Pantheon) (slightly pricier and fewer flavours)
Figidarium (Piazza Navona)
Buccianti’s (Pantheon) (Here we also had connoli which they fill to order yay!)
other food pics!