This is a city that lives to eat. Food feeds the Roman soul, and a social occasion would be nothing without it. Cooking with local, seasonal ingredients has been the norm for millennia. Over recent decades the restaurant scene has become increasingly sophisticated, but the city’s traditional no-frills trattorias still provide some of Rome’s most memorable gastronomic experiences.
Like most Italian cuisines, the cucina romana (Roman cooking) was born of careful use of local ingredients – making use of the cheaper cuts of meat, like guanciale (pig’s cheek), and greens that could be gathered wild from the fields.
There are a few classic Roman dishes that almost every trattoria and restaurant in Rome serves. These carb-laden comfort foods are seemingly simple, yet notoriously difficult to prepare well. Iconic Roman dishes include carbonara (pasta with pig's cheek, egg and salty pecorino romano; sheep's milk cheese), alla gricia (with pig's cheek and onions), amatriciana (invented when a chef from Amatrice added tomatoes to alla gricia) and cacio e pepe (with pecorino romano cheese and black pepper). As wonderful and deeply gratifying as these timeless dishes are the centuries-old dining traditions that have been meticulously preserved alongside them: many trattorias in Rome, as tradition demands, only cook up gnocchi (dumplings) on Thursdays, baccalà with ceci (salted cod with chickpeas) on Fridays, and tripe on Saturdays.
The number of special-occasion, fine-dining restaurants is ever rising in Rome. Five chefs in Rome were awarded their first Michelin star in 2017, while chef Riccardo di Giacinto at All'Oro raised the gastronomic bar by moving premises and incorporating a gorgeous, 14-room boutique hotel into his new foodie empire. At Palazzo Manfredi, enviably across the street from the Colosseum, chef Giuseppe Di Iorio continues to create buzz at Michelin-starred Aroma, as does Francesco Apreda at Imàgo – views from both addresses are as sensational as the mind-blowing cuisine. Favouring a modern Roman cuisine, these top chefs look to traditional Roman dishes or ingredients for inspiration and play with unexpected flavours and combinations to create a highly creative, gastronomic dining experience.
All-day dining is increasingly popular, with a few notable all-things-to-all-people restaurants including Baccano, Porto Fluviale and the multistorey mall Eataly, which has restaurants to suit almost every mood, from a hankering for fritti (fried things) to fine dining. Dazzling new food mall Mercato Centrale at Stazione Termini meanwhile brings many of the city's finest culinary artisans under one roof, including master pizza-maker Gabriele Bonci of Pizzarium fame.
Gourmet fast food likewise thrives as Roman traditions are turned on their head to inspire highly creative and gourmet quick-eats at wildly popular addresses like Supplizio, serving posh supplì (fried rice balls), Trapizzino with the doughy, cone-shaped trapizzino ('sandwich'), Pasta Chef, for quality pasta to go, and Zia Rosetta with gourmet mini panini (sandwiches).
In Testaccio's covered market, Michelin-starred female chef Cristina Bowerman – one of the few Italian female chefs to have a Michelin star for her restaurant Glass Hostaria in Trastevere – is now wooing local foodies with cardboard cups of gourmet soups and savoury dishes at Cups. The celebrity chef's latest venture, Romeo e Giulietta – a vast restaurant, pizzeria, bakery, deli and cocktail bar rolled into one, opened in March 2017 on Piazza dell'Emporio in Testaccio – only further underlines her commitment to making haute cuisine accessible to all.
For the sweet toothed, pasticcerie (pastry shops) are also being reinvented as places of chic artistry, with Pasticceria De Bellis the vanguard of this trend. In the centro storico Tiramisù Zum only serves the classic Italian dessert, in every imaginable flavour. In fashionable Monti, a knowing crowd hobnobs over exquisite tiramisu miniatures and one-bite pralines at Grezzo, a chocolate boutique where everything is raw, organic and gluten-free.
Dolci (desserts) tend to be the same at every trattoria: usually tiramisu (which means 'pick me up') and panna cotta (‘cooked cream’, with added sugar and cooled to set). For a traditional Roman dolce you should look out for ricotta cakes – a kind of cheesecake with chocolate chips or cherries or both – at a local bakery. Many Romans eat at a restaurant and then go elsewhere for a gelato and a coffee to finish off the meal.
Most entrenched in culinary tradition is the Jewish Ghetto area, with its hearty Roman-Jewish cuisine. Deep-frying is a staple of cucina ebraico-romanesca (Roman-Jewish cooking), which developed between the 16th and 19th centuries when the Jews were confined to the city’s ghetto. To add flavour to their limited ingredients – those spurned by the rich, such as courgette (zucchini) flowers – they began to fry everything from mozzarella to baccalà (salted cod). Particularly addictive are the locally grown artichokes, which are flattened out to form a kind of flower shape and then deep-fried to a golden crisp and salted to become carciofo alla giudia (Jewish-style artichokes). By contrast, carciofo alla romana (Roman-style artichokes) are stuffed with parsley, mint and garlic, then braised in an aromatic mix of broth and white wine until soft.
For the heart (and liver and brains) of the cucina romana, head to Testaccio, a traditional working-class district clustered around the city’s former slaughterhouse. In the past, butchers who worked in the city abattoir were often paid in cheap cuts of meat as well as money. The Roman staple coda alla vaccinara translates as ‘oxtail cooked butcher’s style’. This is cooked for hours to create a rich sauce with tender slivers of meat. A famous Roman dish that’s not for the faint-hearted is pasta with pajata, made with the entrails of young veal calves, considered a delicacy since they contain the mother’s congealed milk. If you see the word coratella in a dish, it means you’ll be eating lights (lungs), kidneys and hearts.
Vegetarians, Vegans & Gluten Free
Vegetarians eat exceedingly well in Rome, with a wide choice of bountiful antipasti, pasta dishes, insalate (salads), contorni (side dishes) and pizzas. Some high-end restaurants such as Imàgo even serve a vegetarian menu, and slowly but surely, exclusively vegetarian and/or vegan eateries and cafes are cropping up: try Babette and Il Margutta near the Spanish Steps, or Vitaminas 24 in edgy Pigneto.
Be mindful of hidden ingredients not mentioned on the menu – for example, steer clear of anything that’s been stuffed (like zucchini flowers, often spiced up with anchovies) or check that it’s senza carne o pesce (without meat or fish). To many Italians, vegetarian means you don’t eat red meat.
Vegans are in for a tougher time. Cheese is used universally, so you must specify that you want something senza formaggio (without cheese). Also remember that pasta fresca, which may also turn up in soups, is made with eggs. The safest bet is to self-cater or try a dedicated vegetarian restaurant, which will always have some vegan options.
Most restaurants offer gluten-free options, as there is a good awareness of coeliac disease here: one of the city's top restaurants, Aroma, has a four-course, gluten-free menu (€115). Just say Io sono celiaco or senza glutine when you sit down, and usually the waiters will be able to recommend suitable dishes.
For deli supplies and wine, shop at alimentari, which generally open 7am to 1.30pm and 5pm to 8pm daily except Thursday afternoon and Sunday (during the summer months they will often close on Saturday afternoon instead of Thursday). Rome’s fresh-produce markets are also a good option. There are plenty of small supermarkets dotted around town.
The classic way to celebrate any feast day in Italy is to precede it with a day of eating magro (lean) to prepare for the overindulgence to come. On Vigilia (Christmas Eve), for example, tradition dictates that you eat little during the day and have a fish-based dinner as a prelude to the excesses of the 25th. Many special days have dishes associated with them: on Ferragosto (Feast of the Assumption; 15 August) Romans eat pollo e peperoni (chicken with peppers).
Most festivals have some kind of food involved, but many of them have no other excuse than food. These are called sagre (feasting festivals) and are usually celebrations of local specialities such as hazelnuts, wine and sausages.
Food & Wine Tours
- Casa Mia Food and wine tours for serious foodies with tastings and behind-the-scene meetings with local shop keepers, producers, chefs and restaurateurs. Bespoke tours, dining itineraries and reservations too.
- GT Food & Travel Small-group, themed food-lover tours, including a 'Cucina Povera & Roman Cuisine' tour in Monteverdi and gelato tours (with optional gelato-making class add-on).
- Roman Guy Aperitivo tours in Trastevere and the Jewish Ghetto with this young, fun, Trastevere-based tour company.
- Eating Italy Food Tours Informative four-hour tours around Testaccio or Trastevere, tasting different delicacies along way; maximum 12 people per tour.
- A Friend in Rome Street food walks in off-the-beaten-track Rome with private-tour specialists.
- Elizabeth Minchilli Small-group food tours, with tastings, of Campo de’ Fiori and the Jewish Ghetto, Testaccio and Monti, plus custom-made tours and an insider 'Gelato Stroll' with American food blogger Elizabeth Minchilli.
Food & Wine Courses
With food and wine classes and workshops being much on trend, new venues are opening in Rome all the time. Recommended courses include:
- Vino Roma Serious wine-tasting classes, alone or over dinner, in a state-of-the-art tasting studio in Monti.
- GT Food & Travel Cooking classes and in-home dining experiences.
- Elizabeth Minchilli Half-day pasta workshops, olive-oil tasting and pairing classes, and more with one of Rome's best-known food bloggers.
- Eataly Imaginative cooking classes, show cooking, demonstrations and wine tastings in the city's trendiest, most gargantuan food mall in southern Rome.
- Pasta Chef Informal, pasta-making classes with contemporary kings of gourmet pasta-to-go, Mauro and Leopoldo, at their hip kitchen in Monti.
- Città di Gusto Demonstrations, workshops, lessons and courses in the headquarters of Italian food organisation Gambero Rosso, in the Monteverdi neighbourhood west of Testaccio.
- Latteria Studio (https://latteriastudio.com) Highly personalised market tours and cooking classes in a stylish, food photography studio in backstreet Trastevere.
As is the case all over Italy, Romans eat according to what's in season. Fresh, often sun-ripened ingredients zing with flavour, and the best food is zero-kilometri – the less distance it has had to travel, the better.
Spring is prime time for lamb, usually roasted with potatoes – agnello al forno con patate. Sometimes it’s described as abbacchio (Roman dialect for lamb) scottadito (‘hot enough to burn fingers’).
March is the best month for carciofo alla giudia (Jewish-style artichokes), when the big round artichokes from Cerveteri appear on the table (smaller varieties are from Sardinia), but you can continue eating this delicious dish until June.
May and June are favourable fishing months, and thus good for cuttlefish and octopus, as well as other seafood.
Grass-green fave (broad beans) are eaten after a meal (especially on 1 May), accompanied by some salty pecorino cheese.
The lighter green, fluted zucchine romanesche (Roman courgette) appear on market stalls, usually with the flowers still attached – these orange petals, deep-fried, are a delectable feature of Roman cooking.
Tonno (tuna) comes fresh from the seas around Sardinia; linguine ai frutti di mare and risotto alla pescatora are good light summer dishes.
Summertime is melanzane (aubergine or eggplant) time: tuck into them grilled as antipasti or fried and layered with rich tomato sauce in melanzane alla parmagiana. It's also time for leafy greens, and Rome even has its own lettuce, the sturdy, flavourful lattuga romana.
Tomatoes are at their full-bodied finest, and seductive heaps of pesche (peaches), albicocche (apricots), fichi (figs) and meloni (melons) dominate market stalls.
Alla cacciatora (hunter-style) dishes are sourced from Lazio’s hills, with meats such as cinghiale (boar) and lepre (hare).
Fish is also good in autumn; you could try fried fish from Fiumicino, such as triglia (red mullet), or mixed small fish, such as alici (anchovies).
Autumn equals mushrooms – the meaty porcini, galletti and ovuli. Heaping the markets are broccoletti (also called broccolini), a cross between broccoli and asparagus, uva (grapes), pere (pears) and nuts.
Winter is the ideal time to eat cockle-warming dishes with ceci (chickpeas) and vegetable-rich minestrone, as well as herb-roasted porchetta di Ariccia (pork from Ariccia).
Puntarelle (‘little points’ – Catalonian chicory), found only in Lazio, is a delicious, faintly bitter winter green.
Markets are piled high with broccolo romanesco (Roman broccoli), aranci (oranges) and mandarini (mandarins).
In February, look out for frappé (strips of fried dough sprinkled with sugar), eaten at carnival time.
The Culinary Calendar
According to the culinary calendar (initiated by the Catholic Church to vary the nutrition of its flock), fish is eaten on Friday. This translates as a filet of baccalà (salted cod), typically left to soak from Wednesday onwards in fresh water in order to rehydate it – century-old groceries such as Antica Caciara Trasteverina in Trastevere still do this, as do many Romans in their own homes. Thursday is gnocchi (dumplings) day. The traditional, heavy Roman recipe uses semolina flour, but you can also find the typical gnocchi with potatoes. Many traditional Roman restaurants still offer dishes according to this calendar.
When to Eat
For colazione (breakfast), most Romans head to a bar for a cappuccino and cornetto (croissant).
The main meal of the day is pranzo (lunch), eaten at about 1.30pm. Many shops and businesses close for one to three hours every afternoon to accommodate the meal and siesta that follows. On Sundays pranzo is particularly important.
Many restaurants offer 'brunch' at weekends, but this isn't the breakfast-lunch combination featuring pancakes and eggs that English and American visitors might expect. Brunch in Rome tends to mean a buffet, available from around noon to 3pm.
Aperitivo is a buffet of snacks to accompany evening drinks, usually from around 6pm till 9pm, and costing around €10 for a drink and unlimited platefuls.
Cena (dinner), eaten any time from about 8.30pm, is usually simple, although this is changing as fewer people make it home for the big lunchtime feast.
A full Italian meal consists of an antipasto (starter), a primo piatto (first course), a secondo piatto (second course) with an insalata (salad) or contorno (vegetable side dish), dolci (sweet), fruit, coffee and digestivo (liqueur). When eating out, however, you can do as most Romans do, and mix and match: order, say, a primo followed by an insalata or contorno.
Where to Eat
Take your pick according to your mood and your pocket, from the frenetic energy of a Roman pizzeria to the warm familiarity of a third-generation-run, centuries-old trattoria, from chic bars laden with a sumptuous apertivi banquets to modern bistros and gastronomic dines where both presentation and flavours are works of art.
Enoteche (Wine Bars)
Trattoria, Osteria or Restaurant?
Traditionally, trattorias were family-run places that offered a basic, affordable local menu, while osterie usually specialised in one dish and vino della casa (house wine). There are still lots of these around. Ristoranti offer more choices and smarter service, and are more expensive.
Remarkably, pizza was only introduced to Rome post-WWII, by southern immigrants. It caught on. Every Roman’s favourite casual (and cheap) meal is the gloriously simple pizza, with Rome’s signature wafer-thin bases, covered in fresh, bubbling toppings, slapped down on tables by waiters on a mission. Pizzerias often only open in the evening, as their wood-fired ovens take a while to get going.
Most Romans will precede their pizza with a starter of bruschetta or fritti (mixed fried foods, such as zucchini flowers, potato, olives etc) and wash it all down with beer – only craft beer in the case of the city's trendiest new pizzerias. Pizza menus are traditionally divided into pizza rosso ('red' pizza meaning with tomato sauce) and pizza bianco ('white' pizza with no tomato sauce, traditionally simply sprinkled with rosemary, salt and olive oil, but available with a variety of optional toppings today). Some places in Rome – including trendy new Sbanco by Stefano Callegari of Trapizzino fame – serve pizza with a thicker, fluffier base, more Neapolitan in style.
For a snack on the run, Rome’s pizza al taglio (by the slice) places are hard to beat, with toppings loaded atop thin, crispy, light-as-air, slow-risen bread that verge on the divine. There's been an increase of more gourmet pizza places in the last decade, their king being Gabriele Bonci's Pizzarium, close to the Vatican and inside Mercato Centrale.
Fast food is a long-standing Roman tradition, with plenty of street-food favourites.
A tavola calda (hot table) offers cheap, pre-prepared pasta, meat and vegetable dishes, while a rosticceria sells mainly cooked meats. Neither is best for a romantic meal, but they're often very tasty.
Another favourite on the run are arancini, fried risotto balls that have fillings such as mozzarella and ham. These originate from Sicily, but are much loved in Rome too, where they're known as supplì.
Fast food is the latest Roman tradition to be reinvented, with a new-fangled offering of gourmet snacks that riff on family favourites. These days you'll find hip new places serving supplì or fritti with a twist. And these are no victory of style over substance – the new guard takes their gastronomy just as seriously as the old.
Delis & Markets
Rome’s well-stocked delis and fresh-produce markets are a fabulous feature of the city’s foodscape. Most neighbourhoods have a few local delis and their own daily food market. Markets operate from around 7am to 1.30pm, Monday to Saturday. There are also some excellent farmers' markets, mostly taking place at the weekends.
Rome’s most famous markets:
- Mercato di Campo de' Fiori The most picturesque, but also the most expensive. Prices are graded according to the shopper’s accent.
- Nuovo Mercato Esquilino Cheap and the best place to find exotic herbs and spices.
- Piazza dell’ Unità Near the Vatican, perfect for stocking up for a picnic.
- Mercato di Piazza San Cosimato Trastevere’s neighbourhood market, at least a century old and still the biz for fresh, locally sourced foodstuffs.
- Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio A purpose-built covered market hall crammed with enticing stalls, including many serving gourmet 'fast food' to go.
Eating gelato is as much a part of Roman life as morning coffee – try it and you’ll understand why. The city has some of the world’s finest ice-cream shops, which use only the finest seasonal ingredients, sourced from the finest locations. In these artisan gelaterie you won’t find a strawberry flavour in winter, for example, and pistachios are from Bronte, almonds from Avola, and so on. It’s all come a long way since Nero snacked on snow mixed with fruit pulp and honey. A rule of thumb is to check the colour of the pistachio flavour: ochre-green means 'good', bright-green means 'bad'. In the height of summer Romans love to eat grattachecca (literally 'scratched ice'), with kiosks selling crushed ice topped with fruit and syrup along the riverside open from May to September. It's a great way to cool down.
Most places open from around 8am to 1am, with shorter hours in winter. Prices range from around €2 to €3.50 for a cona (cone) or coppetta (tub or cup).
Need to Know
- Most restaurants open noon to 3pm and 7.30pm to 11pm, usually closing one day per week (often Sunday or Monday).
- In August most eateries close for at least a week; some close for the entire month. Ring first to check that everyone hasn’t gone to the beach.
- Dress up to dine out.
- Bite through hanging spaghetti – no slurping it up please.
- Pasta is eaten with a fork (no spoon).
- It’s OK to eat pizza with your hands.
- In Italian homes, fare la scarpetta (make a little shoe) with your bread to wipe plates clean.
Although service is included, leave a tip: anything from 5% in a pizzeria to 10% in a more upmarket place. At least round up the bill.
abbacchio al forno – lamb roasted with rosemary and garlic; usually accompanied by rosemary-roasted potatoes
agnello alla cacciatora – lamb ‘hunter-style’ with onion and fresh tomatoes
baccalà – salt cod, often served deep-fried in batter in the Roman-Jewish tradition and served on the hop as 'fast food'
basilico – basil
bresaola – wind-dried beef, a feature of Roman-Jewish cuisine; served as a replacement for prosciutto (ham)
bruschette – grilled bread rubbed with garlic, splashed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, most commonly then topped by tomatoes.
bucatini all’amatriciana – thick spaghetti with tomato sauce, onions, pancetta, cheese and chilli; originated in Amatrice, a town east of Rome, as an adaptation of spaghetti alla gricia
cacio e pepe – pasta mixed with freshly grated pecorino romano, ground black pepper and a dash of olive oil
carciofi alla giudia – deep-fried ‘Jewish-style’ artichokes; the heart is soft and succulent, the leaves taste like delicious bronze crisps
carciofi alla romana – artichokes stuffed with paste of garlic, parsley, mint and olive oil, then boiled in a mix of broth and white wine until soft
coda alla vaccinara – beef tail stewed with garlic, parsley, onion, carrots, celery and spices; a dish developed when abattoir workers received the cheapest cuts of meat
finocchio selvatico – wild fennel
fiori di zucca – courgette flowers, usually stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies and fried
frutti di mare – seafood; usually served as a sauce with pasta, comprising tomatoes, clams, mussels, and perhaps prawns and calamari
guanciale – cured pig’s cheek
gnocchi alla romana – semolina-based mini-dumplings baked with ragù or tomato sugo; traditionally served on Thursdays
involtini – thin slices of veal or beef, rolled up with sage or sometimes vegetables and mozzarella.
minestra di arzilla con pasta e broccoli – skate soup with pasta and broccoli; Roman-Jewish dish served only at the most traditional restaurants
pasta con lenticchie – popular local dish of pasta with lentils
pasta e ceci – pasta with chickpeas; warms the cockles in winter
pecorino romano –a sharp, salty, sheep’s milk cheese
pizza bianca – ‘white pizza’ unique to Rome; a plain pizza brushed with salt, olive oil and often rosemary; invariably cooked up with a variety of optional toppings today or split and filled to make a sandwich
pizza rosso – 'red pizza' with tomato sauce and choice of optional toppings
pollo alla romana – chicken cooked in butter, marjoram, garlic, white wine and tomatoes or peppers
polpette al sugo – meatballs served with traditional tomato sauce
porchetta – a hog roasted on a spit with herbs and an abundance of finocchio selvatico; the best comes from Ariccia, in the hills south of Rome
ragù– classic Italian meat sauce traditionally made by slowly stewing cuts of meat, or mince, in a rich tomato sugo
rigatoni alla pajata – thick ridged pasta tubes with the small intestine of a milk-fed calf or lamb; a Testaccio speciality
saltimbocca alla romana – the deliciously named ‘leap in the mouth’; a veal cutlet jazzed up with sparing amounts of prosciutto and sage
spaghetti alla carbonara – sauce of egg, pecorino romana cheese and guanciale; the egg-cheese sauce is added raw, and stirred into the hot pasta to cook it
spaghetti alla gricia – pasta with pecorino romana cheese, black pepper and pancetta
spaghetti con le vongole – spaghetti with clams and a dash of red chilli to pep things up; sometimes served with tomatoes, sometimes without
stracciatella – humble chicken broth given a lift by the addition of Parmesan and whisked egg
sugo – all-purpose tomato sauce served in many dishes; it’s traditionally combined with basilico
supplì – rice balls, like large croquettes
supplì a telefono – supplì containing mozzarella, so named because when you break one open, the cheese forms a string like a telephone wire between the two halves
trippa alla romana – tripe cooked with potatoes, tomato and mint and sprinkled with pecorino cheese; a typical Saturday-in-Rome dish