traditional roman dishes: carbonara

Top 10 Traditional Roman Dishes (and Where to Eat Them)

If you’re planning a trip to Italy, trying traditional food is probably high on your list of priorities. However, one of the mistakes that visitors frequently make is thinking that “Italian food” is universal and you’ll find the same dishes across the entire country, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Each of Italy’s 20 regions has a unique cuisine based on the region’s history, political influence, and cultural norms. This means that often the best way to explore these different areas is through the food and wine native to them. If you’re visiting Rome, here’s what you need to know, the top 10 traditional Roman dishes to try, and where to eat while you’re there

What you need to know about Roman food

Rome cuisine, and Lazio cuisine as a whole, has always been known as “food of people” or “cucina povera”. Unlike the expensive Florentine steaks from Tuscany, seafood pasta dishes from Veneto or saffron risotto from Lombardia, traditional Roman cooking involves castoff cuts of meat, recycled rice, and weeds-turned-vegetable side dishes. The care and attention put into Lazio dishes transforms these humble ingredients into food that feeds the body and soul and is passed down for generations.

Want to learn what to pair with all of these Roman dishes? Head over to Abbie’s blog to check out the Lazio wine guide I wrote.

THE TOP 10 TRADITIONAL ROMAN DISHES


carbonara

The Holy Trinity of Pasta (Carbonara, Amatriciana, Cacio e Pepe… and la Gricia)

Perhaps the most famous of all traditional roman dishes, the Carbonara, Amatriciana, Gricia and Cacio e Pepe pasta dishes are also quintessentially Roman. Simple pasta recipes based on 2-3 ingredients, they involve local products like guanciale (pork cheese) and pecorino romano (a sharp, hard cheese made from sheep’s milk). Roman Carbonara is made exclusively with eggs, guanciale, pecorino and black pepper (that’s right, no cream or milk in sight), while Amatriciana replaces the egg with tomato sauce alone (no garlic or onion at all) and Gricia celebrates the simple union of pecorino and guanciale. The lone vegetarian option, Cacio e pepe, proves that the simple combination of pecorino and pasta water can create a creamy sauce even more delicious than fan-favorite alfredo.

Perhaps the most famous of all traditional roman dishes, the Carbonara, Amatriciana, Gricia and Cacio e Pepe pasta dishes are also quintessentially Roman. Simple pasta recipes based on 2-3 ingredients, they involve local products like guanciale (pork cheese) and pecorino romano (a sharp, hard cheese made from sheep’s milk). Roman Carbonara is made exclusively with eggs, guanciale, pecorino and black pepper (that’s right, no cream or milk in sight), while Amatriciana replaces the egg with tomato sauce alone (no garlic or onion at all) and Gricia celebrates the simple union of pecorino and guanciale. The lone vegetarian option, Cacio e pepe, proves that the simple combination of pecorino and pasta water can create a creamy sauce even more delicious than fan-favorite alfredo.

The best way to try any of these classic Roman pastas is to head to an authentic trattoria known for their Roman dishes. You can check out this list of my favorite trattorias, pizzerias and more in Rome.

Quinto Quarto

Known as “the fifth quarter”, quinto quarto cooking takes what most consider to be the non-edible parts of the animal and creates delicious, homey dishes out of them. This goes back to how Romans traditionally made do with very little and didn’t have access to the high-priced ingredients that wealthier parts of Italy did. They took intestines, stomach lining and tongue, and transformed them into pajata, trippa and lingua. If you’re not up for an entire plate of offal, try it on a panino at the famous sandwich shop Mordi e Vai.

Coda alla vaccinara

coda alla vaccinara traditional roman food

While technically coda alla vaccinara may fall under the category above, this Roman version of oxtail stew is something you can’t miss when dining out in Rome. This dish is stewed low and slow in a simple tomato sauce and is typically served as a secondo dish with lots of bread to mop up the leftovers, but you can even find it turned into a pasta sauce with the shredded meat or added to a trapizzino for a snack version.

(Note you can find Trapizzino also in Turin, and Milan! Grab a little taste of Rome wherever you may be.)

Supplì

suppli roman street food

Most people know supplì’s more famous cousin, the arancino, but don’t get it twisted: the Roman version can stand on its own legs. Created as a way to repurpose leftover risotto, you’ll find these fried rice balls primarily at pizzerias eaten as an antipasto to the pizza. You can tell the difference between a supplì and arancino by its smaller, more oblong shape and the trademark piece of melted mozzarella cheese in the center.  Want to try the best in Rome? Check out Supplì Roma in Trastevere for the most authentic version.

Pizza al Taglio

Speaking of pizza, most people visiting Rome don’t realize that there’s a specific type of pizza traditional to the Lazio region that is quite different from the original round pizza created in Naples. Pizza al taglio, or “cut pizza”, is closer to a focaccia with a rectangular shape that comes from the pan it’s cooked in. This style of pizza is cut into pieces and sold by weight, rather than individually.

pizza al taglio traditional roman food

Word to the wise, great pizza al taglio isn’t always easy to find, which is why I recommend doing your research and trying one of Rome’s gourmet versions of this street food.  

Pizza e Mortazza

pizza e mortazza roman food

A speciality version of pizza al taglio, pizza e mortazza is a time-honored, old favorite of many Romans. The simple combination of thinly-sliced mortadella sandwiched between hot pizza bianca (plain white pizza with olive oil and maybe rosemary) is something that you’ll never get tired of. Pick yours up at Forno Campo de’ Fiori and don’t look back.

Puntarelle or Cicoria Ripassata

Both of these veggie sides are quite unknown abroad and many people visiting Rome don’t even know to try them. Both puntarelle and cicoria are types of chicory that grow both in the wild and cultivation during the colder months. They’re a bit bitter but because of this, they pair nicely with some of the richer things on this list (Amatriciana and coda alla vaccinaria, to name a couple).

Puntarelle are usually eaten raw in a salad with olive oil, vinegar, raw garlic and anchovies, while cicoria ripassata is a dish that sautees pre-boiled chicory with garlic and pepperoncino. Order these as a side along with your secondo, but after your pasta dish.

Carciofi (alla Romana or alla Giudia)

This is yet another winter vegetable in Rome—one of the reasons I recommend traveling to Rome during the winter is because of the amazing seasonal food available. The particular type of artichoke in Italy is eaten whole, whether it’s deep-fried, Jewish-style, or stuffed with herbs and simmered on the stovetop, alla romana. Some of the best artichokes in Rome are served in the Jewish Ghetto, so I recommend heading to Nonna Betta to try one.

Saltimbocca alla Romana

Veal is a much bigger staple in the Italian diet than it is abroad, most likely because it was cheaper to raise a calf than full-grown cattle. That said, many of the famous Italian meat dishes (i.e. meatballs and ragù) are based on veal. This particular Roman dish is a traditional secondo, eaten after pasta, made of thinly sliced veal that is rolled up around prosciutto and sage leaves and slowly cooked until all the flavors combine. 

Maritozzo

maritozzo sweets of rome

The humble maritozzo is one of Rome’s few native pastries, but it’s worth a trip to the Eternal City for this delicacy alone. A fresh brioche bun that’s cut open and stuffed to the brim with homemade (lightly-sweetened) whipped cream, it’s the perfect indulgent breakfast alongside your cappuccino or espresso. If you’re looking for the best in Rome, look no further than Regoli Pasticceria.

Learn how to make your own maritozzo & other Italian sweets right at home!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


After falling in love with a Roman (and his city along with him), Abbie moved to Rome 5 years ago—and hasn’t looked back. She loves finding the best-hidden spots to experience Italy like a local and sharing her off-the-beaten-path tips for the authentic side of Rome. Check out her blog La Vita Roma for content about life in Rome, travelling throughout Italy, and recommendations for the best pizza ever.