You’ll hear it again and again: There is no such thing as Italian food. Cuisine across Italy is so regional, in fact, that you’ll see entirely different piatti (plates) from one city to the next — a variety that makes traveling and dining even more of a pleasure. Eating an area’s specialties not only connects you to the culture, it also helps ensure that you're eating fresher and more local, too.
Rome, of course, is no different. Want to know what to order while in the capital city? Here are some of its most beloved dishes — and, just as importantly, where to find our favorite versions.
Roman artichokes are world-famous; in fact, they’ve even been given protected-origin status (PGI, or Protected Geographical Indication) by the European Union. While you can find them steamed, stewed or thrown onto a pizza, one of their most satisfying treatments originated in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, where they come fried to a lighter-than-air crisp. Today, you can find “Jewish-style artichokes” across Rome — but some restaurants make them far better than others.
Just remember that, like other types of produce, these are seasonal. Outside of the months from February to May, the “Roman artichokes” you see on menus either have been frozen for months or are imports from elsewhere. So at that time of year, it’s best — not least of all for your taste buds — to let the artichokes be. Order another seasonal delicacy instead, such as puntarelle from November to February or fiori di zucca (zucchini flowers) from June to September.
In season, try carciofi alla giudia at Nonna Betta, a Jewish Ghetto institution considered to serve up one of the best versions of the dish in all of Rome.
This pasta dish couldn’t be simpler: pecorino Romano cheese and fresh black pepper are swirled with cooking water from the pasta to make it creamy (and then, obviously, swirled with the pasta — cooked al dente, of course — itself). But the fewer ingredients and steps to a dish, the more important it is that they’re all perfect, right? And no place does it more perfectly than Rome, where the dish originated.
Try cacio e pepe at (big surprise!) Cacio e Pepe, which has managed to remain a surprisingly hidden gem, given its easy location in Prati and its local reputation for solid Roman classics.
Another classic Roman pasta, this takes the pecorino Romano and fresh black pepper of the cacio e pepe but adds in guanciale (smoked pork jowl) and egg. Nothing else is added, especially not cream or peas, which means the dish is a fresher, lighter version of the comfort food you might know from back home.
Try carbonara at Da Danilo, a tiny trattoria in Esquilino that has received several awards for its classic, slightly upmarket Roman cuisine. Its version comes with the smokiest, crispiest chunk of guanciale you’ve ever tasted.
This is Rome’s classic “red sauce,” made from San Marzano tomatoes, guanciale, white wine and pecorino Romano. (Some spots add onion, too.) It’s the perfect stick-to-your-ribs dish, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one I dig into year-round.
Order it at Cesare al Casaletto. The trattoria does every Roman classic so well, amatriciana included, that it's a magnet for locals and visiting foodies alike — despite its off-the-beaten-path location (it’s at the last stop on the No. 8 tram).
5. Flavio al Velavevodetto
Culinary traditions stemming from cucina povera, or “peasant cuisine,” can be found across Italy. In Rome, thanks in large part to the slaughterhouses that were in operation here, cucina povera often hinges on the use of offal — the parts of an animal that normally would have been thrown out. Daring diners might want to try trippa alla Romana (Roman-style tripe) or pajata (the intestines of an unweaned calf). But those looking to dip just a toe in first should order coda alla vaccinara, which is oxtail, slow-cooked until the tender meat is falling right off the bone. You can find it served either as a secondo (second, or meat, course), in a thick tomato stew, or on top of pasta as a primo (pasta or soup course).
Try it at Flavio al Velavevodetto, a popular trattoria serving up traditional Roman cuisine in the most appropriate neighborhood: Testaccio, home to Rome’s slaughterhouses (and the heart of the city’s traditions of eating offal).
Wrap tender veal in prosciutto and sage, marinate it in white wine and fry it up. No wonder the name “saltimbocca” means “jump in your mouth” in Roman dialect. In general, Roman restaurants do their antipasti and primi better than their secondi — but this is one meat dish to be sure to try.
We like the saltimbocca at Armando al Pantheon, which has been serving up Roman classics around the corner from the Pantheon since 1961.