MY PRIVATE ITALY: In Rome, eat like a Roman

Monday, 11 September 2017 08:12 Written by
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When you are in Italy, eat like a local.

Yes, because if you do not know Italian cuisine you might think you are eating a typical Amatriciana in Florence, or enjoying a typical Mortadella in Venice. The fact is that Italian cuisine is not a national but a regional cuisine, and each region has its own specialties: if you find the same dishes in another region, many times the "national" version is far from the original, “local” one. So, it's time to venture into a world of typical restaurants where you will not find Italians but Romans, Venetians, Florentines, Neapolitans.

Let's start from Rome.

Compiling a list of the best dishes of Roman tradition is not easy. First, some historical hints.

In Republican and Imperial Rome, meals were usually 3:

- breakfast (ientaculum), which included bread, cheese, olives, dried fruit, milk and honey, and, for the poorest, only bread with milk or wine;

- midday snack (prandium), often taken in one of the many “tabernae” or “thermopoly”, the diners of the time. In ancient Rome cooking at home was uncomfortable because small, dark kitchens filled with smoke and soot; many homes did not even have a kitchen. Therefore most Romans ate in public places, “thermopoly”, or “popinae”, taverns.

The thermopolium (from Greek thermos, "hot", and poléo, "sell") offered hot food and drinks, to take away or to be consumed on the spot, such as buns, sausages, skewers, fried fish, cheese, olives, some vegetables, fruit . To have an idea of ​​how these "hot plates" were popular, just think that a city of about 15,000 inhabitants - as was Pompeii in the first century AD. - counted 190 such places. In these premises you would see a counter with several grooves (sometimes deep down to the ground), to contain beverage and food containers. On a small hearth in a corner cooks would heat bronze or terracotta pots.


- Dinner (coena), the main meal of the day, began between 3 pm and 5 pm. For the very rich it lasted at least three hours and included three moments:

  1. gustatio, with a series of appetizers (eggs, salad, mushrooms, olives, crustaceans, sausages, cucumbers, truffles and various sauces) accompanied by mulsum, ie wine mixed with honey or watered;
  2. first course, including various fishes, birds (cranes, peacocks, flamingoes, parrots), then beef, lamb and pork, as well as all kinds of game. Roman cuisine also liked to combine meat of different animals in the same dish, by stuffing or even "disguising" a certain flesh under the remains of another animal, for the sake of astonishment;
  3. second course, more or less a "dessert", based on fresh and dry fruit, honey sweet and apples.

Dinner was prepared in triclinias, rooms so called because they were furnished with three sofas, each of which accommodated three people, lying down. They ate half-sided on their side, leaning on their left arm and drawing food and wine from the table with their right hand. Generally they ate with hands, and in fact it was considered elegant to bring food to the mouth with the tip of the fingers. Only the spoon was used (the fork will be introduced fairly late), the knife was not needed because the servants previously reduced food in pieces. Another habit, that might seem rude in our times, was to throw the remains of the food eaten on the ground, but for the Romans it was a sign of appreciation and a demonstration of abundance.

Today's Roman cuisine is quite different from the one of ancient Rome, having absorbed many culinary specialties of different cultures and neighboring regions, but on the other hand it strongly defended its genuineness from intromissions and foreign fashions, while maintaining the simplicity of popular cooking. It is based on nutritious ingredients coming from the countryside, served in abundant portions because until a few years ago it was necessary to feed a population engaged in physical work in the farms. It is a "poor" kitchen, which best exploits less "noble" ingredients (for example in meat cuts, as seen in the abundant use of the so-called fifth quarter).

So here are my favorite dishes when I'm in Rome.

Maccarone m’hai provocato e.. io me te magno!

Although flesh, especially vaccine and sheep, is widely used in Roman cooking, the cornerstones of this kitchen are first courses.

Like every Italian, I remember Alberto Sordi, the great Roman actor, as Nando in the film "An American in Rome". The great Alberto attacked with voracity a plate of pasta claiming to have been provoked and wanting to destroy it: "Maccarone, you provoked me and now I destroy you, maccarone! I eat you". Rome is the homeland of first courses, maccaroni, pasta, fettuccine and more. In Rome, pasta always leaves you breathless!

Alberto Sordi

La Carbonara


Nobody knows the true story of “Pasta alla Carbonara: maybe it was “invented” when the Allies invaded Italy, or maybe it is a transformation of the original “cacio e ova” (cheese and eggs) pasta form Ciociaria (a small region south of Rome) and always existed but was never coded. However, Pasta alla Carbonara remains one of the most beloved pastas in Rome.

The "Carbonara" is so called because it apparently was the typical food of “carbonai” (coal workers). Its condiment is fairly easy to prepare, mixing pork cheek, egg, pecorino cheese (the true Carbonara does not include Parmesan cheese, a typical cow cheese of Northern Italy, but sheep cheese, the animal once bred in Rome's surroundings), pepper and oil. It is an extremely simple dish to prepare, really in the reach of anyone, but preparing a good Carbonara requires care and attention, because pasta must be kept “al dente” even if cooking is done in two different times.



The pasta known as "Amatriciana" (or "Matriciana" as it is often pronounced in Romanesque dialect) originated in a small village in Lazio called Amatrice. The ingredients are few and genuine: olive oil, pork cheek, parmesan cheese, pecorino cheese, tomato and a pinch of chili, everything seasoned with salt and ground pepper.

Eat it all without messing up your shirt, and try out the famous “risucchio” (suck) of the “bucatino”, a “must do” experience to have when you are enjoying Roman recipes at some trattoria in Trastevere.

A variation of the Amatriciana is the "Gricia", practically Amatriciana without tomato sauce! Gricia was popular among shepherds for its “easy to find” ingredients, namely spaghetti, pork cheek, Amatrice's pecorino, lard, black pepper and salt.

Do you want to witness a colorful debate among Romans? Ask them whether or not to add onion in the Amatriciana. There are schools of different thought, but why not miss the opportunity to hear some "Aha!, ma che stai a scherzà?” (Are you kidding?), yelled in the alleys of the most popular quarters?

Other first courses

If you like simple condiments, taste one of the oldest dishes: Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe (Spaghetti Cheese and Pepper). The history of “Cacio e Pepe”? It is said that shepherds brought pieces of seasoned pecorino, black pepper and dried pasta with them: three ingredients that can be easily preserved and keep their quality for a long time. Pasta, pecorino and pepper, an amalgam too simple for not touching your heart: the trick for a good “Cacio e Pepe” dish is just to dose and stir them well.

If you want to eat something different from pasta, try "Gnocchi alla Romana"! Perhaps considered more "delicate" than the other dishes, the presence of butter, milk and Parmesan Reggiano will console you from the absence of pork cheek and black pepper. And if you want soup, Vignarola is the dish that celebrates spring. Beans, peas, artichokes, lettuce, fresh onions and pork cheek make up a tasty dish, among the most loved and reinterpreted ones.

And after the first course?

After the first course you have …. Abbacchio!

The lamb, up to one year old, is a traditional Easter dish, and not only. You will find it cooked in the oven, with some sauce to give it you more flavor, or in the simpler version "Scottadito": lamb chops with lard, salt and pepper, cooked on a hot grill. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside.

Cooking is not easy: the ribs are often very small and may be cooked for too long. Traditionally you eat it very hot and directly with your hands, so that you “must” lick your fingers.

If you want to dare a little more and taste some dishes of the less "romantic" Roman tradition, choose "Trippa alla Romana". We are talking about a food boasting a story of thousands of years: Greeks preferred to roast it directly on the grill, while Romans used it initially in the preparation of sausages.

But do you know what “Trippa” is? Well, I'm sorry for those who have a weak stomach, because it's just stomach we're talking about, and precisely the stomach of the cattle. Trippa is traditionally enriched with pecorino and mint although there are many variants.

"Coda alla Vaccinara” (Oxtail) is another of those dishes that, together with Trippa, are generally not considered by many tourists. In the past, this cut of poor meat had such low economic value that it was often given away to butchers for free. There is very little meat between the caudal vertebrae of the cattle and only a slow cooking at the right temperature can give it the soft consistency we are accustomed to. The sauce is then an excellent “intingolo” in which to sow slices of bread.

Another classic of Roman cuisine is "Pollo con I Peperoni” (Chicken with Peppers). The typical August dish combines the delicate flavor of chicken with the aroma of peppers, which are usually cooked separately and joined with white meat only afterwards.

Do not miss the classic "Saltimbocca alla Romana" (Saltimbocca means "skip in your mouth"): veal slices with a slice of ham and a sage leaf held by a stick. Where are they fried? In butter, obviously!

Jewish cuisine has influenced the Romanesque one, leaving clear traces in preparations and in some typical dishes. Artichokes, introduced in Italy in the 15

th century by the Arabs, have become a fundamental element of Roman cuisine. After cutting out outer leaves, you flatten the vegetable and dip it in hot oil until the heart is cooked, then raise the flame to make the artichoke crisp.

As to cheese, in Rome you will enjoy the sheep cheese par excellence, the "Pecorino" DOC, which is also produced in other regions (Tuscany and Sardinia, for example), but boasts a millennial tradition linked to the Eternal city.

At the end of the meal, try "Ciambelline al vino di Marino" (little doughnutswith wine from Marino), the classic "Bignè di San Giuseppe" (fried breads stuffed with cream), "Maritozzi con la panna" (croissants with cream) and “Mostaccioli”, biscuits with hazelnuts and nuts.

And when it is very hot, at the end of a busy meal look for one of the kiosks along river Tevere where they sell the famous "Grattachecca", a glass of "scratched" ice with the addition of fresh syrups and fruit.

Shall we go to Castelli Romani?

If you are staying in Rome a bit longer, especially on weekends, follow the Romans "fuori porta" (outside the city gates), in the Castelli Romani area!

The Roman Castles are a collection of villages and urban areas, many of which have their own castle, south-east of Rome. Each of these communes should be visited to discover the art and history that lie behind every ancient villa and alley or just to spend a day out on a walk from Rome. Do not miss Frascati, with its parks and villas, Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer residence, and Nemi with its medieval hamlet.


Go to the discovery of the "Fraschette", the typical inns of Castelli Romani, hidden in small towns scattered around the lakes. The Queen of Castelli is the "Porchetta d'Ariccia" (small pork of Ariccia), but do not miss the local cheeses and salami, all watered by a generous bottle of Romanella, the sparkling sweet wine of the Castles.

So, shall we meet at “Castelli”?

Read 4233 times Last modified on Friday, 27 October 2023 07:43
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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