No Italian city’s culinary offerings can be summed up in three dishes – believe me, I know this. But when travelers have only a limited amount of time to visit, it’s important to make sure the absolutely-can-not-miss dishes are at the tippy-top of your dining priority list.
This, therefore, is my attempt to guide you toward the quintessential dishes of Rome.
I am, obviously, leaving out a million amazing things to eat in the Italian capital. Roman pizza? It’s its own thing, separate from the Neapolitan variety, and it’s scrumptious. Porchetta? It’s one of the world’s best sandwich fillings. I’m leaving plenty of deliciousness out, but eating in Italy is like sightseeing in Italy – you can’t do it all in one trip.
With this list of three things you must try in Rome, at least you’ll be well on your way to having three memorable culinary moments during your stay in the Eternal City.
There’s a wonderful seasonality to Italian cuisine. The best food in Italy is made from what’s fresh and local. While you might be able to go to a generic supermarket in your hometown and find artichokes in the produce section all year, the annual appearance of fresh artichokes in an Italian market is treated like a special occasion.
There are two preparations for artichokes in Rome, which fill the markets each spring. The two dishes are quite different, so it’s worth trying both.
Carciofi alla Romana, which means “Roman-style artichokes,” are braised in a mixture of water and wine. When they’re served (drizzled with really good olive oil), they are usually soft enough to eat bites with a knife and fork.
Carciofi alla giudea, which means “Jewish-style artichokes,” are first pounded so that the leaves sort of flatten in all directions, and then the whole thing is deep fried in olive oil. The finished product is akin to potato chips, only they’re artichoke leaves.
I have never been a fan of artichokes, but on my last trip to Rome it was spring and they were on every dinner menu. It seemed like it was time to finally try them. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Roman artichokes – both preparations – are nothing like the artichokes I remember refusing to eat when I was a kid. I loved both, though the carciofi alla giudea were my favorite.
What I’m trying to say is that even if you don’t think you like artichokes, you might want to give Roman carciofi a try anyway. You never know, right?
Added bonus: Walk through an outdoor Italian produce market in the morning to watch vendors cleaning artichokes. They work with dangerously sharp knives at an equally dangerous pace, artichoke bits littering the ground at their feet, and end up with a pile of perfectly-prepped artichokes ready for cooking.
One of the hallmarks of Italian cooking is the simplicity of preparation. Sometimes, however, a simple recipe can be deceptively so. Cacio e pepe is a perfect example of one of those dishes that seem easy on paper but are extremely tricky to get just right.
The name “cacio e pepe” means “cheese and pepper,” which (helpfully) is also the list of ingredients for this pasta dish. What makes it so special is the process by which freshly-grated pecorino romano cheese is combined with just the right amount of pasta water and loads of cracked black pepper to create a creamy sauce you would swear on a stack of bibles had butter or olive oil or heavy cream in it.
But it doesn’t have any of those things. It’s just cheese and pepper combined with pasta (usually long, thin noodles like spaghetti or tonnarelli). And yes, it’s worth your while to bypass the touristy places serving cacio e pepe, which will inevitably cheat by adding butter or cream. Find a place in Rome that makes proper cacio e pepe and you’ll be much happier.
Unlike artichokes, cacio e pepe is a year-round dish. You may feel more in the mood for such a comfort food dish when it’s cold out, but it’s on menus all year long.
Another similar Roman pasta dish to try is carbonara, in which a creamy pasta sauce is made from freshly-grated cheese, bits of pork akin to bacon that have been fried in olive oil, and raw egg yolks combined with a bit of pasta water.
A well-made carbonara is delicious, but my heart remains firmly in the cacio e pepe camp. As simple as it is, I can’t pass it up when I’m in Rome.
In recent years, the concept of “cucina povera” or “peasant cooking” has come into vogue, with high-end restaurants charging an arm and a leg for a fancified version of what once amounted to “this is all we can afford to eat” sorts of dishes. In Rome, cucina povera never went out of style, as evidenced by the city’s long-standing love of offal.
The term “quinto quarto” means “the fifth quarter” and it’s an umbrella term for all the non-muscle bits of an animal. We’re talking about organs and entrails here – kidneys, hearts, intestines, brains, lungs, etc. Some of that stuff goes into making sausages, yes, but some of those pieces have their own popular preparations in Rome.
Tripe (stomach lining) is one of the most popular bits of offal you’ll see on Roman menus. Trippa alla Romana (Roman-style tripe) is tripe that’s been cooked in a tomato sauce. It’s usually served with freshly-grated cheese on top, and you might mistake it for pasta if you didn’t pay attention to what it looks like. Another popular dish is called pajata, and it’s made from the intestines of a not-yet-weaned lamb or calf (meaning the intestines still have milk in them, and nothing else). Pajata is typically combined with pasta, and the milky residue in the intestines gives the sauce an intense creaminess.
Eating every bit of the animal isn’t just being true to cucina povera, it’s being environmentally responsible – you’re not wasting anything, after all. The descriptions may sound weird, but if you get a chance to give the quinto quarto a try you might be surprised at how delicious it can be. Countless generations of Italians can’t be mistaken, right?
Tell me, what three things would be on your must-eat list in Rome? What three things are you most excited about tasting when you go to Rome?