Yes, there are tourist traps; yes, there are bad restaurants in Rome. But, dear reader, it is also true that bad dishes happen to good people – I’m convinced there are earnest foodies who, sadly, aren’t skilled in the art of ordering from a menu. Totally not-even-remotely-Roman dishes happen to curious-palated-yet-ill-fated foreigners.
There’s a lot of good eating to be had in Italy and often a restaurant menu can be overwhelming so I’ve narrowed it down to the top dishes you have to try before getting back on that plane at Fiumicino.
Why You’ll Fall in Love: This is a Roman classic. Forget cream, forget bacon – this is made with the natural richness of eggs and either delicious guanciale (pig’s cheek) or smoky pancetta. It’s a celebration of saltiness and while it is undoubtedly Roman, the story regarding its invention is a little vague. Some say it came about after the war when the presence of the Americans brought about an abundance of eggs and ‘bacon’, however, most link it to the ‘carbonai’ (coal miners or charcoal workers) among whom it is believed to have been quite popular. It certainly tastes like a hearty dish a coal miner might tuck into. Foreigners can wince at the idea of cooking the egg and cheese mixture purely by the heat of the freshly cooked spaghetti and a little pasta water but trust me, once you’ve tried this dish in Rome you will weep at the shameful imitations overseas involving chicken, cheddar cheese, creme fraiche or – God forbid – ham! In terms of your pasta choice, most places in Rome will serve it with the simple spaghetti. Tonnarelli is a very thick homemade pasta that is also a must-try yet I wouldn’t recommend it with this rich sauce as it’s already quite a heavy dish.
Where To Try It:
Zii Umberto: Piazza della Malva (Trastevere)
You can sit inside or out and the piazza is always buzzing. The waiters love to joke around and it attracts a cool young crowd. Particularly good for lunch time.
Da Gino: Vicolo Rosini 4 (Campo Marzio)
Much more romantic, very kitsch. They do a great classic carbonara or if you want something with a few more ingredients try their ciocciara: peas, mushrooms, white wine and cheese – their signature dish. They hardly ever answer the phone and they’re almost always booked out. Good luck getting a table.
La Carbonara: Via Panisperna, 214 (Monti)
Monti is a very fashionable area and this place is always full with a mixed crowd of locals and tourists. The setting is cozy and the food is homey and delicious.
Why You’ll Fall in Love: We’re talking about guanciale and tomatoes topped with a little pecorino cheese. Many tourists confuse this with ‘arrabbiata’, which is another tomato-based pasta sauce bringing together garlic and chilli – the spiciness giving it its ‘angry’ namesake in Italian. Amatriciana on the other hand, comes from the town of Amatrice which is in the province of Rieti just out of Rome. It evolved from a much older recipe called ‘gricia’, which didn’t even use tomatoes as it was before they were imported to Italy – can you even IMAGINE Italian cuisine without the ubiquitous pomodoro? Now when it comes to choosing a pasta for this sauce I’m not sure how to advise you. Traditionally in Amatrice they do it with spaghetti, Romans are known for using bucatini (tubular spaghetti) which is pretty incredible… but, wait, there’s another option: when this sauce coats those big fat rigatoni (which are like penne but ridged) it’s hard to imagine a more heavenly sauce-meets-pasta love affair.
Where To Try It:
Casa Coppelle: Piazza delle Coppelle, 49 (Campo Marzio)
They have limited outdoor seating but it’s my favourite place to go when you want to dress up for a date but not break the bank. The decor is very elegant inside but still homey and welcoming and their amatriciana comes out in a generous big bowl covered in plenty of pecorino.
I was going to add more options but this is a dish you can find in literally every restaurant in Rome and even in the touristy joints it’s rare that they’ll mess it up.
CACIO E PEPE
Why You’ll Fall in Love: It’s unlike any pasta dish you’ve ever tasted and believed to be one of the most ancient recipes. You’ll ask the waiter, “So… again, what’s in it?” And he will repeat “Just cheese and pepper.” Let me clarify, I’m not even a cheese fiend and I go mad for this dish. Initially, when I first arrived in Rome, the thought of drowning plain pasta in only cheese with no fresh vegetables or even basil had me imagining something infantile and bland. But this is Italian cooking at its best and curiously, not something you can so easily imitate at home. When the richness of pecorino romano, the perfect amount of pasta water, homemade tonnarelli pasta and fresh ground black pepper come together you will find yourself grinning and shaking your head in reverence. Like the carbonara, this is again, a glorious example of how creaminess can be achieved without cream. I promise you, it is NOT some congealed cousin of macaroni and cheese, but rather, a dish that lets you really luxuriate in that slight bite in the al dente pasta, the sharp saltiness of the cheese and Italians’ gift for stripping things back to celebrate a single flavour yet still serving up steaming plates of comfort food.
It is believed that the shepherds first concocted this recipe as the sheep’s milk cheese would keep for long journeys and the pepper was added because it generated heat and would keep them warm on those long cold nights sleeping out in the open air.
These days there are those who believe the pepper should be heated through in a pan with olive oil; there are chefs who prefer using a mix of pecorino and parmigiano; and there are those who believe that only egg pasta should be used to enhance the creaminess of the dish.
Where To Try It:
Ristorante Pecorino: Via Galvani, 54 (Testaccio)
This family-run place is one of my favourites. The owner Alfredo Lucarini serves up rustic dishes to mostly locals. No outdoor seating, no table without a booking and you’ll need to catch a taxi if you’re in the centre. But this is worth it. In my opinion, it’s a much better experience than the usual spots food journalists wax lyrical about in this same neighborhood like Felice and Flavio al Velavevodetto.
Equally, all of the trattoria-style restaurants listed above serve up their own scrumptious version of this classic.