Last year, I embarked on a life long dream. I took myself on the ultimate foodie trip and ate my way through Italy’s many regions. As well as having a fabulous time, I aspired to learn as much as possible about the fundamental differences when it came to Italian home cooking from city to city. It involved spending a lot of time eating, solely, local dishes so that I could get a better understanding of the ingredients and flavours associated with each regions cookery. It also meant gaining a few more pounds along the way, but I was so happy doing it.
As part of the Tiny Italian Roman series, I have lovingly put together a list of dishes and foods that I devoured on my trip. Each meal is representing the characteristics that define Roman cookery. Like most of Italy, ‘Cucina povera’ – dominates its food scene, with a significant Jewish influence that goes back nearly 400 years. Meat, pasta and vegetables are popular, with carnivorous dishes taking centre stage, which I found to be one of the prime differences with southern Italian cookery. Also, for all you pasta lovers out there, did you know that Rome is the birthplace of the infamous carbonara, amongst many other popular pasta dishes.
So, without further ado, here are my top Roman dishes recommendations if a trip to the capital city is on the cards soon.
Coda Alla Vaccinara
Coda Alla Vaccinara, better known as an Oxtail stew, is a very traditional Roman dish and can usually be found on many restaurants menus across the city.
The oxtails are gently braised for hours in a tomato sauce with an abundance of celery. It’s cooked until the meat is exceptionally tender. The rich meaty sauce is usually served with pasta as a ‘primo’ – first course, while for ‘secondo’ – main course, the chunks of meat are served after with vegetable sides.
It’s such a hearty dish and perfect for a cold winter night. I still remember how much I enjoyed that first bite. The oxtail melted in my mouth, while coated in a rich tomato sauce. I wanted to eat it forever. I didn’t leave a thing on my plate and wiped it clean with a slice of bread. Just heavenly.
Suppli are fried rice croquettes stuffed with hot mozzarella, and rice cooked in a rich tomato beef ragu. Suppli are Romes answer to the Sicilian arancini (where the rice is cooked in butter and white wine instead). Lucky for you, these can be found all over the city and are a great example of Roman street food. Perfect for snacking on if you get a slight tummy rumble on your travels.
Why not try one or three at La casa del suppli, in Re di Roma.
Saltimbocca Alla Romana
Saltimbocca Alla Romana another popular meat dish – is traditionally made with thinly sliced veal wrapped in cured ham (prosciutto) and sage. It is then pan-fried in a delicate white wine butter sauce and usually served with a side of green veggies.
Make sure you don’t leave the city without trying this classic dish. I ate mine at Ai Spaghettari, in the Trastevere neighbourhood.
Abbacchio, which is a very young lamb, is a popular meat in Roman cooking. The meat is sweeter and has a less gamey flavour. It can usually be found ‘alla cacciatora’ where it’s braised in oil and vinegar, flavoured with garlic, sage, anchovies and rosemary.
I enjoyed this beautiful dish at Lo Scopettaro in the Testaccio neighbourhood
The Four Roman Pastas
When it comes to popular Italian pasta dishes, Rome is the home to many and is where I’ve had some of my favourite pasta eating experiences. What I find fascinating is that there are two essential ingredients which are indispensable in their cookery.
First, is guanciale, cured pork meat, made from the pig cheek, and usually rendered down in many of the recipes. Secondly, the Romans prefer to use pecorino romano instead of parmesan in many of their methods – a hard, salty sheep’s milk cheese, usually grated to maximise flavour.
Some of the dishes here, either use one or the other or sometimes even both. However, each recipe is unique, and it would be a sin not to attempt each dish at least once.
In no particular order, here are Rome’s popular pasta dishes.
Pasta Alla Gricia is the base used for many of Rome’s famous pasta dishes. In this case, it merely uses both the pecorino romano and guanciale. Along with drops of pasta water, it makes an excellent creamy sauce for this popular Roman pasta dish.
Guanciale has a lovely layer of fat, which when rendered down, it emulsifies with the starchy pasta water, creating a creamy consistency. It’s then tossed with cooked pasta and served with lashes of grated pecorino.
I will be honest with you; I had never heard of this dish before I arrived in Rome. I was so happy that I learnt and discovered something new and have been recreating this ever since.
I enjoyed this wonderful dish at Lo Scopettaro in the Testaccio neighbourhood
Next, is the famous Carbonara, which has evolved into many British versions across the country since its arrival years ago. I’ve seen it cooked with cream, adding the likes of chicken and mushrooms. Romans, literally turn in their grave at this atrocity. If you want to know what a real carbonara should taste like, then get on a plane to Rome asap.
The Carbonara uses the same base as ‘Alla Gricia’; however, whisked eggs/yolks are added for extra creaminess and richness. The vital skill here is to avoid overcooking them and creating a scrambled egg effect. That’s a Carbonara faux pas.
When I came to Rome, I headed to Roscioli to eat one of the best carbonaras of my life. I watched an episode of Italy unpacked, where Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli ate it there himself. I had no choice but to follow suit and forever grateful for such a great gastronomical experience.
Next, comes the Amatriciana which again uses the ‘Alla Gricia’ as it’s base. The main difference here is that the tomatoes are added alongside the pasta water to the rendered guanciale to create a thick, silky sauce. Finally, grated pecorino is sprinkled on top, bringing the sauce together.
I ate a beautiful plate of Rigatoni Alla Amatriciana at Trattoria da Augusto in Trastevere.
Cacio e Pepe
Last, but not least is Cacio E Pepe, which translates to cheese and pepper. A vegetarian pasta dish where the pecorino takes centre stage and no guanciale insight. Its simplicity only comes in the ingredients it uses as it’s easy to cook this dish incorrectly. The idea is to get a glossy cheesy sauce that coats your pasta lovingly served with generous lashings of black pepper.
When it comes to vegetables, there a couple of popular dishes you must try on your visit.
Vignarola – a Roman vegetable stew uses the best in Italian spring produce; fresh artichokes, broad beans and peas cooked in white wine and lemon juice.
Cicorie, a bitter green vegetable, usually boiled and then finished in a pan with olive oil, garlic and chilli. If cicorie, isn’t available, then puntarelle (dandelion leaves) are a fabulous alternative, cooked in olive oil, vinegar, garlic and anchovies.
Usually served with the most popular meat dishes, but I was thrilled to eat a plate of them on their own, moping up the juices with a slice of homemade bread.
Here is a massive plate of cicorie at Maccheroni served alongside a delicious plate of homemade meatballs.
Artichokes are also extremely important in Roman cooking. However, I visited in October, which meant they were not in season. If you do visit around springtime, look out for them on menus.
I love Roman food
Rome, its food and cooking will forever be in my heart.
I hope you find this article useful, to understand that there is more to Italian cooking then pasta, pizza and tomatoes. Eating Roman dishes was an eye-opener for me in understanding how food can differ so much across regions. I have spent most of my life visiting and eating in Puglia, which is where my family is based. So to have the first-hand experience, where I could sample for myself and understand the main differences in Italian regional cooking was a memorable experience. So, if you do decide to visit Rome, why not enhance your trip by trying some of these delicious, unforgettable dishes.