#TravelTuesday: How to eat like a local in Rome
You know what they say: 'Rome wasn't built in a day.' Home to awe-inspiring architectural wonders like the Colosseum, for which construction began in A.D. 72, and churches dating back as early as the 4th century, the old adage rings true. Equally ancient is Rome's eating culture, which has, broadly speaking, similarly stood the test of time.
In modern-day Rome, countless trattorias, ristorantes, osterias and enotecas are practically crammed next to one another. This can make it difficult to navigate the city's culinary landscape without falling into one of the many tourist traps, cunningly masked by obsequious, smiling touts calling out 'Ciao, bella!', or rattling off memorised verses of greetings in whatever language they think you speak. However, by following these simple steps, you can learn how to eat like the Romans do.
1. Understand the concept of regionality
It is far too simplistic to class everything you eat in Italy under one cuisine, i.e. 'Italian'. Each city or region has its own specialties, often deriving from ingredients that are native to them, or from ways of doing things that have been handed down from generation to generation. This means that you cannot go into a Roman restaurant expecting to see a Neapolitan spaghetti vongole, or a risotto Milanese — just because you are in an Italian restaurant. These are four pastas that are typically Roman and which you can find on any menu in the city.
Cacio e pepe
Cacio e pepe means "cheese and pepper", and is a simple dish consisting of black pepper, pecorino romano cheese and pasta. It is traditionally served with tonnarelli, an egg pasta typical of the Lazio region. Roma Sparita dishes up some of the best in the city. The restaurant rose to fame after celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain featured it on his show, No Reservations, though reservations are highly recommended, as even the locals flock here for their fix.
This oft-bastardised dish consists only of eggs, parmesan cheese, pancetta or guanciale and black pepper — no cream! As far as pastas go, this one is probably one of Italy's most famous exports, so people often foolishly forgo it in favour of the more "exotic". This would be a mistake, as Rome is actually known for this dish. It is worth noting that, in some places, the carbonara is a vibrant yellow, and not the pale off-white hue most of us are used to. Don't be alarmed, however, as this is mainly due to the yellowness of the eggs.
This red sauce consists of a blend of guanciale fried in olive oil, dry white wine, pecorino cheese and tomatoes. Being tomato-based, it's lighter and fresher than Rome's other famous pastas, which tend to be on the heavier side of things.
Gricia is popularly known as a white Amatriciana, being only one ingredient short of the recipe for Amatriciana (tomatoes). Have it piping hot, right out of the pan it was cooked in at Taverna Trilussa. This taverna has hosted all sorts of famous names, from Federer to Thierry Henry, as well as numerous Italian stars, and it is not hard to see why they have such a star-studded clientele.
Of course, not every Italian restaurant you encounter in Rome is Roman. Therefore, knowing what sort of restaurant you are eating at will help you understand the menu better, and should make ordering a whole lot simpler.
Non-Roman regional specialties
One example is L'Asino d'Oro ('The Golden Ass'), an Umbrian restaurant run by renowned chef Lucio Sforza. As far as regional specialties go, Umbria is known for their truffles, cured meats, game and chocolate. This is reflected in their menu, which represents an inventive, updated take on Umbrian cuisine. Dishes include a handmade spaghetti with fine truffle and anchovies, as well as a stewed wild boar with spices and chocolate sauce.
For a taste of Tuscany, Ristorante Nino is a real institution, with well-dressed waiters, pristine pressed tablecloths, old-world charm, and plenty of hearty Tuscan fare to boot.
2. Pasta is a primi
It goes without saying that one cannot live on pasta alone, and indeed, pasta is meant to be only one of several courses. You should be padding your order out with antipasti, secondi (usually a carne or pesce), as well as contorni (side dishes). These are some very Roman options.
Mozzarella in Carrozza
'Mozzarella in Carrozza' literally translates to 'mozzarella in a carriage', the carriage here being two slices of bread. Coated with egg and then fried to a crisp until the mozzarella becomes hot and molten, this is like grilled cheese perfection.
While the South have arancini and arancine, the Romans have their own version of deep-fried rice balls, called 'supplì'. Although these are traditionally meant to be a starter before a pizza dinner, Supplizio, launched by chef Arcangelo Dandini (of his eponymous restaurant L'Arcangelo) specialises in this Roman street food item.
Artichokes are a mainstay on any Roman table. There are several different ways of cooking it — fried in a batter (carciofi fritta alla Romana), Jewish-style (carciofi alla Giudia), or simply braised with white wine (carciofi alla Romana). One of the best places to get it at is at Giggetto, which is based in the Jewish quarter. Here they do it "Jewish-style", meaning it is steeped in a lemon juice solution before being deep-fried in olive oil.
Another lesser-known way of cooking artichokes is 'al mattone', or baked with bricks. The weight of the bricks flattens the artichokes, and the leaves crisp up nicely as a result. Try this at Trattoria Valentino, a gem in the Monti neighbourhood, that really packs in the locals at both lunch and dinner. Charmingly, the daily-changing menu is written on a small chalkboard that they bring directly to your table, and will helpfully try to explain to you in English — though they dissolve into relief once you absolve them of this responsibility.
3. Get used to al dente
All pasta is cooked 'al dente', meaning, "to the tooth". The pasta here, whatever shape it may take, is always relatively firm. It retains its structure, and has a bit of a bite to it. After all, since pasta-making is a revered craft, the pasta should really be a part of the dish in its own right, and not merely a vessel for sauce. While many a foreigner might turn their nose up at this, believing it to be undercooked, even the children here eat their pasta without complaints — as it is meant to be.
4. Keeping it in the family
Nothing quite warms the heart like the knowledge that a restaurant is family-run. Going to a family-run place can almost always be a safe bet, as it is hard to imagine such a place over-charging you for food that they wouldn't feed their own children, cutting corners out of laziness, or treating you with anything but the warmth and hospitality reserved for one's own. These are some of the best family-run restaurants in Rome, where you can squeeze in with the locals, and where a great time is virtually guaranteed. Sometimes you can't even tell the difference between patron and staff, as the regulars look so at home here.
Taverna dei Fori Imperiali
This centrally located restaurant has been passed down through four generations. Currently heading up the kitchen is Alessio. His wife, Maria Grazia, runs the floor together with their son, Aldo, while their daughter, Claudia, takes charge of their dessert menu. Their menu is divided into 'Roman specialties' as well as 'house specialties'. If you want to take a break from cacio e pepe, supplì, and everything else Roman, this is as good a place as any to do it. One such house specialty is the fettucine with veal ragout and truffle.
This restaurant is located in the heart of the Jewish ghetto, right beneath the ruins of Portico D'Ottavio. At the helm are two brothers, while their mother takes charge of the till. Their non-traditional desserts are supplied by the bakery next door, Dolce Roma, which is actually owned by Stefano, the older brother.
This place is famous for its carciofi, but also for its grilled lamb chops. While they don't rank highly in terms of online ratings (though you should know by now that ratings aren't always to be trusted), Romans are incredibly passionate about this place, and come in droves on the weekend.
5. Be late
Romans generally don't tend to eat dinner until 9pm. To get the full experience, you need to go when the restaurants are buzzing. Otherwise, you'll just feel like that one keen person who turned up a little too early for the party. Also, if you're hungry by 7pm, you're evidently not having enough Giolitti, Gracchi or Grom gelato.
6. Refrain from taking photos at your meal
This one is easier said than done, but nothing invites more attention or screams FOB more than whipping out a camera. (This particular item was a bit difficult to stick to for the purpose of this article, of course.)
7. Always have wine at dinner
Wine lists in a Roman restaurant can be an intimidating affair, many of them much longer than the actual food menu. It is Italy after all. If the different regions and vintages are too much for you to handle, ask for 'vino della casa' (house wine), choose between 'rosso' (red) and 'bianco' (white), and let them know whether you'd like it by the glass, carafe or bottle.
8. Take your time
There is a popular myth that the ancient Romans used to have vomitoriums, where they would purge after gorging themselves. What this may lack in historical accuracy, it makes up for with symbolism, as this really is a trope for just how much the Romans love their food and drink. Every meal is a long, drawn-out occasion that takes place over several courses, and almost inadvertently involves wine, as well as an espresso to cap it all off.
9. Eat standing up
Of course, no one has time for such languorous meals all the time. Sometimes a quick fix is just what you need, but it doesn't have to be any less delicious. Most people are aware that the Italian way to have your coffee is standing up at the bar, but the same applies to certain foods, especially pizza. It's a relatively inexpensive way to experience Roman cuisine, and a decidedly local way to do so as well.
Gabriele Bonci is known as 'the Michalengelo of pizza'. His pizzeria is located a short walk away from The Vatican, and arguably just as many people make the pilgrimage to this place as they do to the Holy City. To deal with the never-ending crowds, they have a haphazard system of sorts. Grab a queue number and when yours is shown on the mounted screen, elbow your way to the front, choose whatever catches your eye, and they will give it a quick blast in the oven for you. These are far from your average pizza, as the toppings feature inventive flavours like purple cauliflower, as well as chickpeas and ham, just to name a few. At just over 12 euros for four slices, it's a fantastic way to experience new flavours.
So the story goes that a man called Stefano Callegari invented the 'trapizzino' some years ago, the word itself being a contraction of the words 'tramezzino' (a triangular sandwich) and pizza. The dough is shaped into thick triangles, baked off, and then sliced open and stuffed with all sorts of fillings.
There are traditional ones like polpette (meatballs in a tomato sauce), trippa alla romana (tripe), as well as more ethnic options like an Ethiopian stew, and some vegetarian-friendly numbers like eggplant parmigiana. It's a good way to make more "exotic" things more enticing to the locals, as well as making more classic dishes more accessible for foreigners. Killing two birds with one stone, really. At about 10 euros for three, it's a relatively inexpensive experience.
Forno Campo de Fiori
The most famous market in Rome is Campo de Fiori ('Field of Flowers'). Open every day except Sunday, it's always bustling with activity. Just as famous is Forno Campo de Fiori, a bakery which specialises in 'pizza bianca', or "white pizza". This is pizza that is not "rossa", i.e. topped with a tomato sauce.
10. Romans are prepared to queue
Whether it's for coffee at Sant'Eutstachio il Caffe and Tazza D'oro, or for gelato at Giolitti, Romans will queue. It is wise, therefore, to make a reservation in advance of your visit to any restaurant. Of course, if what you're after is gelato or coffee, then it simply can't be helped. Be patient — it'll be worth it.
11. Be enthusiastic about your food
Several times during the meal, you might find the staff popping up to ask, 'Tutto bene?' It is important at this stage to realise that Romans will let it be known that they've enjoyed their meal — they're all exclamations and superlatives, all hands and gestures, as they enthuse about their food. Remember, you don't have to be like an Asian mother with impossible standards. Tell them 'Tutto bene, grazie mille', and watch them beam both at your appreciation and clumsy Italian.
About Stephanie Ang
Raised in Singapore, Stephanie is a PR girl who's more than a little obsessed with food and drink, as well as the culture surrounding it. When she's not working for an artisan food company, she's writing about the latest restaurants and bars in London. Her current project is eating her weight around Italy.
- Image: Stephanie Ang
- Image: Getty Images
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