Roman Food Guide: Eat Like a Local in Rome
I don’t think it’s a secret that Tony and I love to eat. As bloggers, we cover all aspects of travel, but food is definitely one of our favorite topics. Needless to say, Rome was an obvious place for a little food-venture and for coming up with a Roman food guide. Our research on local specialties had us drooling all over our keyboards. Stuffed zucchini flowers, truffled pecorino, and Roman Jewish-style artichokes were just a few treats we wanted to try. We couldn’t wait to start eating.
As it turns out, navigating Rome’s labyrinth of restaurants and food markets was a lot more challenging than you might expect. The city is gigantic, very touristy, and much of the center is plagued by mediocre, overpriced tourist fare. So where could we find authentic Roman food including specialty cheeses, a home-cooked meal, or the best gelato? Obviously, we didn’t want to spend our good money on bad food. So we did what any sensible blogger would do: we sought professional help.
We joined forces with Eating Italy Food Tours to take advantage of their insider knowledge and expert guides, and then the eating began. After exploring Rome’s food scene for a month, here is our Roman food guide to help all the foodies out there get the most out of their own Roman food adventure.
Roman Food Guide: Start by Looking in the Right Neighborhoods
For an authentic Roman food experience, you obviously need to find an authentic neighborhood. We decided to explore the working-class enclave of Testaccio on Eating Italy’s Taste of Testaccio Tour. Our food guide Sarah from New Jersey met us in a cafe for a typical Roman breakfast of coffee and cornetti before we headed into the backstreets for some serious sampling.
First off was pizza al taglio, which means “pizza by the cut.” Invented in Rome, this popular variety of pizza with a slightly thicker crust is baked in rectangular trays and sold by the slice. As we stuffed our faces, Sarah pointed out that Volpetti Piu’s pizza margherita was ranked number 3 in all of Rome. Yum! While you might be inclined to view pizza served up on cafeteria-style trays as just a cheap take on “real pizza”, that would be a MAJOR mistake. Some of the best pizza in Rome is sold by the slice decked out in layers of Parma ham, artichokes, sausages, chili peppers, anchovies, zucchini flowers… you get the idea. It’s really good.
The tour was a culinary treasure hunt with discoveries around every corner: aged balsamic vinegar at Rome’s top deli, fluffy tiramisu in a chocolate cup at an out-of-this-world pastry shop, and fresh tomato bruschetta at Testaccio’s large indoor market. At every stop, our food guide Sarah made sure we were learning the foodie skills we needed to navigate Rome on our own, what to look for in a butcher, where to buy the freshest produce, how to judge good cannoli. Even better, Sarah brought Testaccio to life by introducing us to the people behind the counters, connecting stories and faces to the wonderful Roman food we were eating.
At restaurant Flavio al Velavevodetto near Monte Testaccio, we sampled three classic pasta dishes: carbonara, cacio e pepe and amatriciana. If it sounds like a gluten-fest, it definitely is. But never fear, Eating Italy accommodates people with food allergies allowing them to experience Italy’s food scene as well. Very cool. Our 4-hour walk finally ended at Giolitti’s for gelato. It was there where our food guide Sarah gave us one of our most meaningful life lessons – how to differentiate between fake and real gelato. Apparently, we had been choosing all wrong (but more about that later).
Roman Food Guide: Eat Like a Local in Rome
Once you are a bit more familiar with Rome’s food and restaurant scene, you should head out and explore on your own. As we mentioned before, restaurants in tourist central are often expensive and quite average, so venture into some of the surrounding neighborhoods and start exploring. Is that cute little trattoria on the corner full of locals, or did a Dutch tour group just waltz in? Is the waiter outside aggressively trying to drag you to their empty tables offering you special half-price deals? If you apply a bit of logic, you should be able to find a decent meal.
Of course, decent is not always good enough. Sometimes, you want outstanding. Well, that requires a bit more work. Ask around. Get recommendations from your receptionist or your Airbnb host, or talk to the food guide on your tour. Also scour the Internet. Check out Tripadvisor’s Restaurants in Rome (but read carefully) and scroll through a few food and destinations blogs. We recommend Eating Italy’s Travel Guide and Blog for things to do and eat in Rome. Also check out Gillian’s List, and Maria Pasquale’s HeartRome.
During our time in Rome, we stayed in the Prati neighborhood. When asking around for a good trattoria, we got the same recommendation from three different sources: Hostaria-Pizzeria Giacomelli. We had noticed this restaurant before, and it was always packed with locals. Needless to say, it was a hit. The prices were excellent, the service was great, and the Roman food was even better. We went back several times and indulged in pizza with anchovies and zucchini flowers, grilled sword fish, spaghetti topped with clams, and octopus salad. We loved watching the local families stuffing their faces on Sunday evenings. Romans REALLY know how to eat… so watch them and learn! Or better yet, get up, walk over to their table, and ask them what they are eating. If there is one thing Romans like to talk about, it’s food.
Roman Food Guide: Learn to Cook Like an Italian Grandma
One of the funnest ways to experience local food culture is to take a cooking class. We thought Eating Italy Food Tours‘ Cook Dinner with Nonna was a blast, and we can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s not every day that you get to cook a 4-course dinner with a real Italian grandmother.
Our cooking class with Nonna Bruna and her translator Guilia was set in a converted residential apartment. The large kitchen and the adjacent dining room felt so homey, it took me way too long to realize that Nonna Bruna didn’t actually live in the cooking studio. It’s a great setup. I really felt I was cooking dinner with friends.
Within minutes, Nonna Bruna had the six of us whisking, cutting and mashing away to prepare an extravaganza of gnocchi, zucchini stuffed with minced veal, meat balls in tomato-basil sauce, and the all-time Italian classic tiramisu. Once in a while, we stopped chopping to sip Prosecco, nibble on finger foods, and listen to grandma Bruna’s engaging stories, which Giulia translated for us.
Nonna Bruna’s personality humorously shines through as she shapes your cooking skills. While American couple Rexi and Fred excelled in the art of stuffing zucchini, Irish mother and daughter Helen and Sarah needed a little extra guidance to whip those gnocchi into shape. Of course, Tony and I fought our own battles. It turns out that oversoaking your ladyfingers is a major no-no when making tiramisu. Luckily, Nonna Bruna was always there to help. Although she doesn’t speak English, she’s the perfect communicator and a born entertainer who turned this cooking class into a very fun social family event. Beyond cooking, this ended up being the best Roman food and one of the best cultural experiences we had in Rome.
While the recipes and grandmothers may change depending on the day or season, the cooking class is a fantastic experience not to be missed. Also, you walk away with some really wonderful recipes.
Roman Food Guide: Cook Up a Pasta Storm in Your Own Kitchen
One of our greatest travel secrets is to stay in an apartment with its own kitchen. We love experimenting with local foods and ingredients to create our own TnT concoctions. So after figuring out where to shop and how to cook like an Italian, preparing your own meals in your own kitchen is the next logical step. It’s also a great way to bypass Italy’s higher-than-average restaurant prices.
And making something great doesn’t have to be a lot of work. Take, for example, the Roman food classic cacio e pepe: The easy-to-make dish only has three ingredients – tonnarelli pasta, pecorino romano cheese, and fresh black pepper. Served typically al dente, it’s absolutely delicious. While we are on the topic, pasta in Italy can be very al dente. We love it, but it’s not to everyone’s taste. Some people on our Roman food tours found it hard to swallow (pun intended). I guess that’s the advantage of being your own chef, you decide how firm or limp you like your pasta.
On a little side note about shopping: We love little mom-and-pop delis and local farmer’s markets, but we understand that people on vacation don’t want to spend all day scouring the city for the right products. Others might feel a little awkward in local shops trying to order cheeses or specialty sausages with a line of locals standing behind them. One convenient alternative is Eataly, a gigantic Italian food mall near the Piramide metro stop. While some locals might point out that Eataly is a bit more expensive, we didn’t mind paying a little extra to find all their great products in one place.
There are aisles and aisles of things you’ve always wanted to try and maybe some things you’ve never heard of before: lemon-and-mint salt, black and white truffle, ravioli with ricotta and pear, sweet or spicy salamis, porcini mushrooms, crumbly pistachio nougat, aged parmigiano and pecorino, Tyrolean-style pumpkin spaetzle… the list goes on. Inside Eataly, there are also quite a few restaurants offering specialties from all over the country, so it’s a good place for a bit of experimentation. If nothing else, it’s a great opportunity to get your bearings before you strike out into the more intimidating local food scene.
Roman Food Guide: Take a Food and Wine Pairing Class
After all the cooking and eating you may still be wondering which wines to serve with your next 10-course dinner, right? We certainly did. Should we serve a different wine with each course? Does red or white matter? Or is it all just a matter of taste? These were the questions that sparked my interest in Eating Italy’s Italian Wine & Food Pairing Class, a wine and food pairing class designed to fine-tune your senses and provide you with some useful tools to impress your friends.
Our group of eight met at Mentelocale in Trastevere. The authentic Roman trattoria wasn’t your typical classroom, and the charming master sommelier Marco not your typical teacher. No blackboards or books, just a 6-course dinner paired with 6 wines, a wonderful host, and great company.
Our dinner-class progressed from buffalo mozzarella and fried anchovies through two pastas to schiacciata di Chianina culminating in an apple pie followed by gorgonzola. All the while, Marco served us different wines starting light and bubbly with Prosecco and ending sweet and soothing with Passito, a chilled dessert wine. Marco defined Italy’s top wine regions and explained the qualities of each wine.
While you might have taken wine courses in other countries, the art of matching wines to specific foods is a more distinctly Italian tradition, which is quickly catching on in other countries. Marco’s extensive education and understanding of Italian and Roman food culture means you really learn something in this class. It turns out, the right wine can totally transform a dish. Sometimes it was very obvious, and sometimes I really had to push my palate to taste the difference. What we loved most was that Marco had us drink the “wrong” wine with a specific food to really understand how tastes can clash. Very interesting and enlightening.
As the evening went on and the pile of empty bottles grew higher, so did our spirits. We have to say that Marco was absolutely hilarious and totally unpretentious, which made this wine pairing course even more enjoyable. He relates perfectly to wine pros and newbies alike – you do not have to be afraid of this course. In the end, our food guide Marco gave us some great tips for enotecas in Rome and handed us a very useful one-page wine and food pairing guide. To get a sense for Marco’s humor, check out his tongue-in-cheek tips for taking a wine tour.
Roman Food Guide: Explore and Be Adventurous
There’s only so much we can tell you. In the end, it all comes down to how willing you are to explore new culinary territory. Our most important advice to anyone – be adventurous! Rome has plenty of exciting street food and while you are out exploring, grab whatever strikes your fancy.
If you are in Testaccio, try supplì – fried risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella or minced meat – at Trapizzino. Another Roman food classic is deep-fried artichokes easily found in the Jewish Ghetto. If you pass through Campo de’Fiori, we loved the nearby bakery/deli Il Fornaio. You can buy Nutella tarts, pizzas al taglio, tozzetti (Roman-style biscotti) and a dozen other amazing baked goods.
But most importantly, eat gelato like there is no tomorrow. Just make sure you don’t fall for the tourist fluff. As we learned from our food guide Sarah on our walking tour in Testaccio, good gelato isn’t airy, looks dull (no artificial colors), and isn’t covered with excessive fruit or candy. (Who would’ve thought that electric-blue gelato filled with M&Ms and gummi bears wasn’t authentic?) If you happen to be near the Vatican, try the gelato at Old Bridge. Their prices include a dollop of whipped cream, but you have to ask for it. Go to Rome and eat, eat, eat. If you discover anything especially wonderful or have any other recommendations, tell us about it in the comment section below.
Plan Your Trip to Rome
When to Go – Rome is an amazing place, no matter what time of year. From October to April, however, tourist crowds clear out a bit and hotel rates tend to drop.
Accommodation – Rome has lots of accommodation, but during European summer vacation, make sure to book ahead. We recommend searching for great deals on HotelsCombined.com, a site which finds the best deals for you across numerous top hotel booking sites, including booking.com and agoda.
If you plan to stay for more than a few nights, it’s cheaper and more comfortable to stay in an Airbnb apartment (which we did). If you haven’t used Airbnb before and you click through this link here, you get a credit toward your first stay. The amount varies, but it’s usually between $25 and $35. Not too shabby.
Tours – Rome can be positively overwhelming, and navigating the city’s labyrinth of restaurants and sightseeing hot spots can be challenging. For this reason, Rome is one of those places where visitors can definitely benefit from taking a tour or two. During our month there, we joined several fantastic food and walking tours to take advantage of their insider knowledge and expert guides. We can highly recommend Eating Italy Food Tours for their outstanding and authentic Roman food tours. Regardless of whether you take a tour with them, check out their great food tips and restaurant recommendations in Rome.
Moreover, we recommend Storytelling Rome Tours for their insightful, off-the-beaten-path tours, and Take Walks (Walks of Italy) and City Wonders for their quality tours in and around Rome. Also, make sure to check out Viator, which offers a huge selection of Rome tours from food & wine, skip-the-line, early-access and VIP tours to Tiber River cruises to exclusive private tours.
Guidebooks – We always travel with Lonely Planet guides. They are great for historical and cultural information, maps, walking tours, highlights, and itineraries. For Rome, you have several options, from more specific to more general. You can use the Lonely Planet Rome, the Lonely Planet Italy, or the Lonely Planet Europe if you are planning to travel to other European countries. If you prefer a more visual guidebook, we recommend the DK Eyewitness Travel Rome.