Today I reminisce about Rome and share my list of the top 12 must try foods in Rome, whether visiting the Eternal City for a weekend or a month!
My first visit to Rome was nearly fifteen years ago, and the food was not the highlight. Instead, I remember the thrill of practicing my Italian for the first time, the chaos of people, cars, and motorbikes during rush hour, and falling in love with coffee– espresso actually, something that at 17 was still quite foreign to me. My next visits were still in my own pre-internet era (I was a bit of a late adopter when it came to things like blogs and TripAdvisor — the irony!). And while over the past decade I’ve been to Italy many times, I’ve never ventured back to Rome.
While planning my recent long weekend in Rome, I felt excited but also nostalgic. Italy is a place that shaped me as a food lover and traveler, a place forever tied to who I am as an Italian American. It’s the first place I ever traveled to on my own (at 16) and is a place I once loved and hated, as it was here where I learned that travel isn’t all sunshine and smiles.
But it was time to return, and despite my fear that Rome would have lost its edge, its soul slowly crushed by Instagrammers and foreign chains, I was also open to a new Rome– one where hipster coffee shops and old-man bars could somehow coexist for the greater good.
Rome was and is a food lover’s city. And, arguably, its culinary scene is stronger than ever. Blogs and the internet only help weed out the bad places and the tourist traps, highlighting the gems and champions.
Eating Our Way Through Rome
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We arrived at Rome’s Ciampino airport at 9am on a Friday morning, and had a quick espresso instead of battling the crowds to escape right away. The MyTaxi App proved helpful to order a taxi that would actually charge us the correct fare (the flat fee of 30 euros that the official taxis refused to honor). Our hotel was located in Trastevere for its prime location between the historic center and more off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods like Testaccio and Prati– I highly recommend the area.
Our mission for our four-day trip was to walk, eat, and repeat. We weren’t there for the monuments and museums this time around. I wanted pizza and pasta, preferably in local places with cheap carafes of house wine. This was the Rome I was craving and, luckily, the one that we found!
12 MUST TRY FOODS IN ROME
If you go to Rome, here’s what you cannot miss!
1. Rigatoni Carbonara
True Roman Carbonara is an art form. Impossibly creamy (with not a spot of cream in sight), this rich Roman sauce is one of those dishes you dream about for years to come. In my humble opinion, rigatoni carbonara is a must try food in Rome.
I figured carbonara was a long time Roman classic — but soon found out that is not the case! Most Romans hadn’t heard of Carbonara until the 1950s or so, and one (unlikely) origin story even says that the dish could have been invented from the American GI’s rations of bacon and eggs during World War II (though most likely it came from coal miners, carbonai, who had access to the ingredients in the mountains).
So what’s in a true Roman Carbonara today? Raw eggs, Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and guanciale (Italian cured pork cheek). Pancetta (cured pork belly) is also acceptable, though I prefer the guanciale version. While you’ll find a variety of kinds of pasta smothered with carbonara sauce, I think thick rigatoni al dente is the perfect partner in crime.
Where can you enjoy the perfect rigatoni carbonara in Rome?
While you’ll see this dish everywhere, make sure to do your homework and stay out of the tourist traps. We ate at Trattoria Da Enzo, which is quite famous and was located close to our hotel in Trastevere. If you go, get there early and line up (no reservations at lunchtime!).
2. Bucatini Amatriciana
You might notice a theme here, but this wouldn’t be a guide to the best food in Rome without starting out with Rome’s most famous (and delicious) pasta dishes. Bucatini Amatriciana is a plate of pasta that is much less famous than its cousin carbonara.
Let’s start with the basics – bucatini is the type of pasta (think a thick spaghetti with a bigger hole in the middle to slurp up the sauce) and amatriciana is the sauce. I grew up seeing amatriciana sauce on menus at Italian-American restaurants back home but rarely saw bucatini pasta. Yet in Rome, this dish is worth seeking out.
Like many Italian dishes, the origins of amatriciana sauce are debatable. Most agree that the dish comes from the nearby village of Amatrice — but did the original version have tomatoes or not? I prefer not to enter in the debate, and simply enjoy the version popular in Rome today!
So what are the ingredients in amatriciana sauce today? You’ll need guanciale (cured pork cheek), Pecorino Romano cheese, white wine, San Marzano tomatoes, black pepper, and chili.
With a carafe of red wine, there’s nothing better than bucatini amatriciana.
3. Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe
Cacio e Pepe is a pasta dish I never saw on a menu growing up. But in recent years, this delicious Roman creation has been featured in just about every food publication you can imagine. Therefore, it was the first dish I wanted to try in Rome!
The amazing thing about Cacio e Pepe is how simple the ingredients are… but how hard it is to make well! This is a pasta dish that only uses local Cacio cheese (a sheep’s milk cheese from the countryside of Rome), a bit of the starchy pasta water from boiling the pasta, and black pepper. That is it. But making it is far from simple, and places that do it really well are few and far between.
Where can you get the best Cacio e Pepe in Rome?
This was another dish I enjoyed at Trattoria Da Enzo, served with true tonnarelli pasta, a pasta that is thicker and chewier than spaghetti.
Suppli is a Roman snack worth seeking out. You can find good suppli at just about any Roman deli or pizza takeaway spot.
But what exactly is suppli? A piping hot ball of fried deliciousness, good suppli are made with creamy rice mixed with a meat and tomato sauce, and have a gooey piece of mozzarella cheese in the center. All of this is breaded and deep-fried, resulting in a delicious snack with a cold beer.
Where can you get the best suppli in Rome?
I tried my favorite suppli in Rome at a tiny Trastevere deli (with a line out the door!). It’s worth a visit: Via di S. Francesco a Ripa, 137
5. Pizza al taglio
Pizza al taglio or pizza by the slice is another of my must try foods in Rome. This style of pizza is baked in large square trays with a variety of toppings that range from simple marinara (red sauce) to elaborate gourmet slices with local cheeses, vegetables, and meats.
Pizza al taglio is a fast food in Rome and you are charged by the kilo per type of slice. I visited two pizza al taglio spots in Rome, both delicious. First, was a modern place called Pizzarium by Gabrielle Bonci. Bonci focuses on a slowly fermented dough as a base, and then goes wild with incredible gourmet toppings. My favorite? The spicy njuda sausage from Calabria paired with bitter greens. My other choice was a longtime classic– the simple marinara pizza from Antico Forno Roscioli, right in the city center. On my next visit I’ll continue my way down this epic list of the best pizza in Rome!
I had never heard of maritozzi before this trip to Rome, but I started seeing people eating these delicious looking yeasted buns for breakfast in the tiny espresso bars we would squeeze into each morning. My favorite version by the end of our trip was studded with chocolate chips — and if it was later in the day I’d also get it filled with fresh panna (whipped cream). This is a must try with an espresso, trust me!
Where can you find the best maritozzi in Rome?
We were in Rome in late November and already giant globe artichokes were available in all of the local markets. Unlike in Spain where you have to do all the work yourself, in Rome the market vendors would prep the artichokes for cooking if you asked. I was so jealous!
There are two very popular ways to find artichokes served in Rome: Jewish style (deep fried) or Roman style (stewed with mint, parsley, and garlic). While both ways were delicious, there is something special about a crispy, salty fried artichoke!
There is no greater testament to the Italian way with words than saltimbocca — literally, “jumps in your mouth”. If that doesn’t make you excited to try this typical Roman dish, I don’t know what would! Saltimbocca a la Romana is generally made with pounded veal, prosciutto, and sage. The meat is stuffed and rolled up and cooked in white wine and butter. This is a dish I did grow up with, served in Italian American restaurants in New Jersey and Massachusetts, and the Roman version was similar to the ones I’d tried. This is a dish that when done well, melts in your mouth. I think its name does it justice!
No trip to Rome would be complete without eating your weight in gelato. While in my opinion Italy’s best gelato is found in Sicily, there are plenty of Rome gelato parlors that are worth a visit. Some tips — do your research and go to a place that makes real gelato with real ingredients. Avoid any places with bright, unnatural colors on display (make sure the banana color is not bright yellow, and the pistachio color should be light brown). Some of the best gelato shops in Rome are Neve di Latte and Otaleg. I tried the famed Fatamorgana chain as well, but was unimpressed.
10. Pecorino Romano Cheese
A key player in many of the delicious dishes listed above, one of the must try foods in Rome is without a doubt Pecorino Romano cheese. This hard, salty cheese is made with sheep’s milk (all Pecorino cheeses are) and despite its name, it often comes from other parts of Italy (namely Sardinia and Tuscany) in addition to some producers that still remain in the Roman countryside. The reason it is so tied to Rome is that is was once part of the diet of soldiers at war during Roman times.
Italian chicory makes its way onto menus as winter begins, and it’s worth a try. Much more bitter than other Italian greens (like puntarelle or broccoli rape), I like my chicory sautéed with olive oil, plenty of garlic, and a touch of chili. You’ll find chicory and other greens (when in season) served at traditional trattorias throughout Rome.
Get the Recipe: Roman Style Chicory
Finally, this wouldn’t be a top must try foods in Rome list without mentioning porchetta. Found in delis and markets around town, porchetta is a delicious pork roast that is also the key ingredient in some of the city’s best sandwiches. The pork is generally deboned, then rolled up with plenty of herbs and spit roasted. The result is tender and delicious, with just enough fat and crisp from the roasting process to make every bite incredible.
Where can you find great porchetta in Rome?
My top two picks for Roman porchetta are Panifico Bonci (yes– the same Bonci that makes my favorite pizza!) and Er Buchetto, a hole in the wall near the Termini train station that’s famous for its porchetta.
These are my top 12 must try foods in Rome — though I am starting to think I should do a separate post on the pasta dishes in Rome alone! What do you think? Have you visited Rome?
Any must try foods in Rome you think I’ve missed?