Being in the Eternal City is, well, an experience and trying to sum it up into just one word is an impossible feat. Historic, chaotic, loud, powerful, cultural, religious, cosmopolitan, beautiful, influential, see there’s just no way to sum it up.
Every day there is an opportunity to come across a building with so much history it makes you feel miniscule, a chance to dart through all the Vespa’s racing around the city, and most importantly the ability to eat incredible, unmatched pasta for every single meal.
Now there are a lot of different meals you can eat in Rome and trying to explain what you should eat and where for every single one would probably take up a piece of paper long enough to wrap around the Colosseum, so for both our sakes, I will focus solely on the pasta. The mouth-watering, soft and delicate pasta of Italy that I miss more and more each day.
If you find yourself in Rome or are just dreaming of your vacation there one day there are five pasta dishes that you must try while enjoying la dolce vita. Cacio e pepe, Spaghetti carbonara, Bucatini all’amatriciana, Spaghetti ai frutti di mare and Gnocchi.
Even then you’ll only be scratching the surface but if you can check all five off your list, you’ll be ordering like the locals in no time.
Cacio e pepe is a simple, creamy, satisfying meal. Traditionally it is made with spaghetti and coated in pecorino cheese and freshly ground pepper. Cacio: cheese. Pepe: pepper. Learning the names of these dishes is also a small Italian 101 lesson. The quality and freshness of each ingredient is what really makes the dish. While you can easily create it at home with some old pepper and grated cheese it will never be the same as having it in a traditional Roman trattoria where every ingredient is top quality. Pecorino is the regional cheese of Rome so it is one of the best places to try this meal. The creamy, spicy flavours of this dish really give it its elegance that makes it into the top five. I tried this dish at Tony’s in Trastevere, however, Tony’s is a bit more Americanised than most places and you can probably get an even better meal at a homey little trattoria anywhere in the city.
Ah, carbonara. I’ve had this dish so many times with so many variations but nothing compares to the dish I had on my second day in Rome. It was my first meal out after arriving and after the first bite I knew my next four months were going to be some of the best of my life. Rich, creamy and decadent; you easily could end up eating it for every meal for the rest of your time in Rome, and you’d enjoy every last bite as much as your first. Again, this dish is usually made with spaghetti but can also be done with fettuccine, rigatoni or bucatini. The dish is based on eggs, cheese, guanciale (pig’s cheek) and black pepper. Many non-Italians will make it with bacon but it is infinitely better with guanciale. Spaghetti carbonara is available in basically every restaurant in Rome but make sure you don’t pay too much. A plate of pasta can cost anywhere from €7 to €14 so I would aim for the lower end of the spectrum as it’s usually a good idea what the locals would pay.Bucatini all’amatriciana is also commonly associated with Rome but is actually from the town of Amatrice, thus the name. The sauce is a zesty combination of pancetta (or guanciale) and tomato. The dish is usually made with bucatini in Rome, a thick rod shaped pasta with a hole in the center (basically it looks like oversized spaghetti). Personally, I think the thickness of the pasta makes it a bit tricky to eat, but that may have just been my lack of familiarity with it. There is a lot of controversy over this dish, some Romans call it matriciana and add onion to it, while people from Amatrice often make it with spaghetti and pancetta and never, ever put onion in it. As a warning this can be a somewhat spicy dish, so if you prefer milder food be forewarned. I had my first bucatini all’amatriciana at Trattoria Antonio which is located just steps from the Pantheon; it’s a homey, family-run little restaurant which makes some killer food.
Fruit of the sea! In English it sounds like a strange name for a pasta dish but it really just means pasta with a myriad of seafood flavors. This dish can include all types of seafood and all over Rome I never had a frutti di mare dish that I did not absolutely fall in love with. This dish can be a little bit pricier because of all the seafood but it is 100% worth it. I was surprised to see that many Roman dishes don’t include that much seafood but when they do, they do it right. The best spaghetti ai frutti di mare (sometimes called the Fisherman’s Special) I found was actually outside Rome in the small port town of Anzio at Ristorante Mare Nostrum. It was a simple half hour train ride from the city and there wasn’t much else to do there but eat, though I would have travelled much further for this meal. My dish had prawns, clams, mussels, crawfish, squid, the whole shebang. It was draped in a rich, savory broth and I could have kept eating it for days.Gnocchi is so popular in Italy that many restaurants set aside a whole day for it every week. Gnocchi Giovedi. Or Gnocchi Thursday in English but it does lack that clever alliteration. Most Thursdays I would spend my lunch break walking over to the local pizza place, Pizzeria da Simone, and drooling over the five or six different trays of gnocchi offered. There was gnocchi with a creamy salmon sauce, gnocchi with fresh pesto, gnocchi with tomato and mozzarella, gnocchi with warm tomato sauce, basically it was gnocchi heaven. I also had some amazing spinach gnocchi with a rich gorgonzola sauce at La Rustichella near the Vatican. That may have even been my favorite dish while in Rome so after you’ve gone to visit Pope Benedict XVI and the famous cupola, refuel nearby with some delicious gnocchi.
When eating in Rome it’s hard to go wrong as long as you stay away from the major tourist trap restaurants. You’ll often be able to spot those if they have big pictures of the food outside or if they feature a “Tourist’s Menu.” Even though it may look like a good deal, I promise you can get better food at the small trattoria in the alley next door. The only other piece of advice I can give is enjoy yourself! Don’t skimp on Italian pasta, yes it is a big platter of starchy carbs, but you won’t be the same without trying it. I’ve seen firsthand the kind of disappointment that creeps up on you later when you realise you should have fit in those last few bites or should have just gone ahead and ordered both an entree and a main then kicked on with a little dolci… They don’t call it the good life for nothing.
Tony’s: Via della Cinque (near Piazza Trilussa (off the Lungotevere, near the Ponte Sisto)) in Trastevere, Rome, Italy
Trattoria Antonio al Pantheon: Via dei Pastini 12, Rome, Italy
Ristorante Mare Nostrum: Via Riviera Mallozzi, 20, Anzio, Italy
Pizzeria da Simone: Via Giacinto Carini, 50, Rome, Italy
La Rustichella: Via Angelo Emo, 1, 00136 Rome, Italy