In Rome traditional cuisine reigns supreme. Most chefs follow the mantra of freshness over fuss, and simplicity of flavor and preparation over complex cooking methods.
So when Romans continue ordering the standbys, it’s easy to understand why. And we’re talking about very old standbys: some restaurants re-create dishes that come from ancient recipes of Apicius, probably the first celebrity chef (to Emperor Tiberius) and cookbook author of the Western world. Today Rome’s cooks excel at what has taken hundreds, or thousands, of years to perfect.
Still, if you’re hunting for newer-than-now developments, things are slowly changing. Talented young chefs are exploring new culinary frontiers, with results that tingle the taste buds: fresh pasta filled with carbonara sauce, cod “tiramisu,” and mozzarella gelato with basil sorbet and semisweet tomatoes are just a few recent examples. Of course, there’s grumbling about the number of chefs who, in a clumsy effort to be nuovo, end up with collision rather than fusion. That noted, Rome is the capital city, and the influx of residents from other regions of the country allows for many variations on the Italian theme.
Via Cola di Rienzo is home to two of Rome’s best specialty shops: Franchi (Via Cola di Rienzo 200, Prati | 06/6874651), is a gastroshop that sells high-quality cured meats, Italian cheeses, wines, pastas, and fresh truffles. Next door, Castroni (Via Cola di Rienzo 196/198, Prati | 06/6874383) is well known among expats for its imported foreign foods from the United States, Great Britain, Japan, India, and Mexico, as well as its impressive selection of candies, preserves, olive oils, and balsamic vinegars. Castroni is a great place to stop in for caffè (coffee) and a cornetto (an Italian croissant).
If there’s one vegetable Rome is known for, it’s the artichoke, or carciofo. The classic Roman preparation, carciofo alla romana, is a large, globe-shape artichoke stripped of its outer leaves, stuffed with wild mint and garlic, then braised. It’s available at restaurants throughout the city from February to May, when local artichokes are in season. For the excellent Roman-Jewish version, carciofo alla giudia— artichoke deep-fried until crisp and brown—head to any restaurant in the Ghetto.
What may appear to the naked eye as spaghetti with red sauce is actually bucatini all’amatriciana—a spicy, rich, and complex dish that owes its flavor to an important ingredient: guanciale, or cured pork jowl. Once you taste a meaty, guanciale-flavor dish, you’ll understand why Romans swear by it. Along with guanciale, the simple sauce features crushed tomatoes and red pepper flakes. It’s served over bucatini, a hollow, spaghetti-like pasta, and topped with grated pecorino Romano cheese.
Coda alla vaccinara
Rome’s largest slaughterhouse in the 1800s was housed in the Testaccio neighborhood. That’s where you’ll find dishes like coda alla vaccinara, or “oxtail in the style of the cattle butcher.” This dish is made from ox or veal tails stewed with tomatoes, carrots, celery, and wine, and seasoned with cinnamon, pancetta, and myriad other flavorings. The stew cooks for hours then is finished with the sweet-and-sour element—often raisins and pine nuts or bittersweet chocolate.
For many travelers, the first taste of gelato is one of the most memorable moments of their Italian trip. With a consistency that’s a cross between regular American ice cream and soft-serve, gelato’s texture is dense but softer than hard ice cream because it’s kept at a higher temperature. The best gelato is extremely flavorful, and made daily. In Rome a few common flavors are caffè, pistacchio (pistachio), nocciola (hazelnut), fragola (strawberry), and cioccolato fondant (dark chocolate).
Roman pizza comes in two types: pizza al taglio (by the slice) and pizza tonda (round pizza). The former has a thicker focaccia-like crust and is cut into squares. These slices are sold by weight and available all day. In Rome, the typical pizza tonda has a very thin crust. It’s cooked in wood-burning ovens that reach extremely high temperatures. Since they’re so hot, the ovens are usually fired up in the evening, which is why Roman pizzerias are only open for dinner.