If you’re wondering where to eat next time you’re in the Eternal City, remember this motto: “When in Rome, eat where the Romans eat.”
At the point when you’ve become really hungry touring the sun-drenched streets of Italy’s ancient capital, it’s all too easy to get sucked into a touristy “ristorante” near a major tourist attraction, with English menus and accordion music piping through tinny speakers. But chances are good you’ll be paying over the odds for underwhelming food — and missing out on some of the best cuisines you’ve ever tasted.
The truth is, Romans are foodie fanatics, despite their relaxed demeanor about just about everything else. When it comes to eating, they set the bar high. This means if a restaurant is packed with locals, most likely, the food is going to be good.
What exactly is Roman cuisine?
Compared with other cuisines, the authentic Roman fare is relatively understated, with a rustic simplicity that reflects its ancient roots. The majority of Cucina Romana is actually based on “Cucina Povera” (peasant cuisine), based on local, seasonal ingredients.
Vegetables plucked fresh from market stalls, like artichoke or zucchini blossoms, take center stage in many dishes, as does “pecorino Romano,” a piquant cheese made with sheep’s milk from the nearby countryside. Of course, you can’t talk about food in Italy and not mention pasta, which is also the main feature in countless Roman dishes — most notably pasta cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) and amatriciana (pork sauce).
Rules of Eating in Rome: A Quick Rundown
1. Don’t arrive too early. Romans eat late! Restaurants don’t open their doors for cena (dinner) until 7:30 or even 8pm, and most Italians don’t eat until 9pm or later. Hours are limited for lunch too, with most places only open between noon and 1pm. Even small grocery stores shut for the afternoon. Plan your appetite accordingly!
2. Don’t judge a restaurant by its appearances. Bad decor doesn’t necessarily mean bad food. Often, it’s quite the opposite.
3. Don’t expect a big breakfast. You won’t find hot breakfast dishes, like eggs and bacon, in Rome. Strong coffee and a cornetto (or croissant) is the norm.
4. You have to pay for water. As in most of Europe, in Rome, water isn’t free. You always have to pay for it. Italians don’t not drink tap water when dining out. A liter bottle is served with every meal, and you’ll be asked to choose between mineral water natural (still water) or frizzante (carbonated water).
5. Don’t expect ice in your beverage. “Italian ice” may be a thing, but Italians don’t put ice in drinks. You could ask for it, but just know ice is generally used to keep fresh fish cold — not drinks!
6. Don’t expect “Italian food” as you know it. Chicken parmigiana, spaghetti bolognese, pasta primavera, and fettuccine alfredo are all Italian-American inventions. In Rome, you’ll rarely find cream sauce on pasta, or chicken in restaurants.
You also shouldn’t ask for parmesan for your pasta if it’s not already on there. Italians are pretty strict about what they’ll put cheese on, so it will be offered if it’s appropriate to the dish.
7. Bread is extra. If you’re not interested in the breadbasket on the table in front of you, speak up. Each person at the table will get charged for that bread. Don’t ask for butter, or oil and vinegar to dip your bread in either — they don’t actually do that in Italy. Instead, use your bread as la scarpetta (the little shoe) to mop up the sauce on your plate after you’ve finished your meal.
8. Always ask for il conto (the check). You’ll never feel rushed out of a ristorante in Rome — in fact; you’re more likely to feel forgotten than hurried. Italians eat at a very relaxed pace, so servers assume that you will want to linger as long as possible. For that reason, if you want the check, you have to ask for it.
9. Always keep your receipt until you have left the premises. The Guardia di Finanza (financial law enforcement agency) is very strict, and you might be charged if you don’t have your ricevuta (receipt) when you leave — so make sure you are given one, and hold onto it.
10. Don’t assume they take credit cards everywhere. Many eateries are cash only.
11. There are no doggy bags in Rome. The concept of “wrapping it up” doesn’t exist in Italy. Portion sizes are smaller, anyway.
12. FINALLY… Don’t rush. Meals can last hours in Italy. Savor them!
Eateries in Rome
Italy has no shortage of eating establishments to suit every pocket and personality, and Rome is no exception. Beyond the low-key restaurants and high-end eateries, you’ll find street stalls, open-air markets, rainbows of creamy gelato to satisfy your sweet tooth, and caffè bars at every corner where strong coffee flows like wine — and vice versa.
With the dizzying array of options, thankfully eateries in Italy have very clearly defined roles. When you walk into an osteria, for example, you know you’re going to get a reasonably priced meal in an unpretentious setting. When you walk into a pizzeria, you’re going to get pizza. Eating establishments in Italy don’t try to be all things to all people — they concentrate on what they do best.
No matter where you decide to eat, show people that you’re human and say “Buongiorno” or “Buonasera” — a basic greeting. And when the waiter asks “Cosa vuole da bere?” it means “do you want a drink?” They’re not asking you if you want a beer, no matter how it sounds.
The single most popular place to eat in Rome? The bar, believe it or not. Also sometimes called caffè bars, these family-friendly gathering places are the heart and soul of daily life in Rome. It’s is the place to catch up with friends, indulge in conversation, or simply relax and read quietly. You can visit the bar any time of day — they open their doors early, sometimes as early as 6 am, and they stay open fairly late, usually until around 10 pm. They serve mostly soft drinks, juice, alcohol, and coffee.
Locals drink their coffee standing at the bar to avoid the extra charge to sit down — tavolo (sitting) can sometimes be four times as expensive as banco (standing)!
If you want to order coffee like a Roman, you have to be very specific. Espresso is simply “un caffè.” With a drop of milk, it’s “un caffè macchiato.” “Caffé corretto” is an espresso that is “corrected” with a shot of cognac or grappa. Bear in mind; however, that cappuccino is strictly a morning drink in Rome — it’s almost taboo to order it after 10 am. And there’s is no such thing as “coffee to go” in Italy — it’s made to be savored, even if it’s served in the tiniest of tazze (cups).
The food at the caffè bar is simple but substantial. You’ll find things like tramezzini (sandwiches without crusts) or pre-made panini with light fillings on the menu. Stop in if you get hungry in the middle of the afternoon to stave off hunger until the ristorantes open later in the evening.
You can also stave off “thirst” and enjoy an aperitivo, or a pre-dinner drink at the bar — usually a mixed drink or a glass of wine. Want an authentic Italian cocktail? Go for the Negroni (gin, vermouth rosso, and Campari, garnished with orange peel).
House wine is very affordable — it’s often the same price as water! Even if you only see bottles on the menu, you can ask for un bicchiere (glass), un quarto (quarter liter) or mezzo litro (half jug).
Bars always serve sputini, or snacks, to enjoy with drinks, including potato chips, olives, nuts or thinly sliced focaccia or frittata. Seriously, what’s not to love?
Check out: Sant’ Eustachio Il Caffè (Piazza di S. Eustachio, 82)
Osterie is the kind of family-run eating establishments that epitomize Italy. In days of yore, osterie were mainly local boozers for men, but over the years, they started introducing food. Customers developed a craving for the convivial combination of good food and local wine — and eventually, simple, regional fare became the main focus of osterie. Osterie are mostly open at night, from around 7 pm until late, but some open their doors for the lunch crowd (12:30 to 3 pm). Relatively inexpensive and rarely ostentatious, osterie are the hidden gems — hiding in plain sight — of Rome’s dining scene.
Check out: Il Pommidoro (Piazza dei Sanniti 44, San Lorenzo)
Trattorie are often family-run and similar to osterie in the fact that they generally have a low-key, checked tablecloth vibe and serve simple, reasonably priced fare. You might not always get the blow-your-socks-off meals you can expect in more upscale eateries, but chances are, you won’t be disappointed either.
Check out: La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali (Via della Madonna dei Monti)
It’s pretty self-explanatory — a pizzeria serves pizze (the plural of pizza). Nobody should visit Italy without trying real Italian pizza, at least once. The best pizzerie open in the evenings, when the wood-fired oven is lit. If you have a hankering for a lunchtime slice, order “pizza a taglio” at a takeout place.
Do as the Romans do:
- Eat your pizza with your hands.
- Order beer or a soft drink with your pizza, instead of wine or water.
- Don’t order pepperoni pizza, or you’re going to get pizza with peppers.
- If you want a pizza with meat, order one with salami.
- Pizze aren’t shared in Italy — one pizza per person!
Check out: Sforno (Via Statilio Ottato 110-116)
If you love good wine as much as you love good food, “wine not” head to an enoteca? With a vast wine selection and range of delectable offerings, these wine bars are the recipe for the perfect evening in Rome. Although they might sound slightly pretentious, they range from extremely high-end to extraordinarily casual.
Check out: Il Goccetto (Via dei Banchi Vecchi, 14)
Translating literally to “hot table”, a tavola calda serves pre-made hot food. Just like a cafeteria, you line up with a tray and select what you want, buffet-style — but that’s where the similarities end. You won’t find microwaved, dried up casseroles or mushy, overcooked side dishes. Instead, you’ll find an array of artisanal local foods on display, along with arrosti (roast meat), pizza a taglio, and insalata (salad). Most tavola caldi open up at around 11am.
Check out: Volpetti Pui (Via Alessandro Volta, 8)
The paninoteca, which translates to “bread roll place”, is a specialty sandwich shop. Even the simplest fillings, like prosciutto with nothing else, can be off-the-charts delicious. Paninteche are generally open during the day.
Check out: Paninoteca slurp (62, Via degli Scipioni, 00192)
Spaghetti lovers, this is the spot for you. These no-frills food joints generally serve handmade pasta and a secondi at low price points.
Check out: L’Archetto (Via dell’Archetto, 26, 00187)
Gelaterie — Rome in a Cone
Gelato probably tops most people’s Rome bucket lists, and luckily, “gelaterie” (ice cream parlors) are scattered all over the Eternal City like sprinkles. Gelato is Italy’s answer to ice cream — but it’s made with more milk, so it’s denser, and the flavor is more intense. Uniquely Italian gusti (flavors) include pistachio, nocciola (hazelnut) bacio (chocolate hazelnut cream), pera (pear), mandorla (almond), stracciatella (chocolate shavings), frutti di bosco (mixed berry), amarena (sour cherry cream), and pure milk (fior di latte).
If you’re worried that filling up on cacio e pepe and carciofi alla Romana will leave you no room to indulge in this sweet treat afterwards, just use this convenient Italian excuse: “il gelato fa bene alla digestione” (gelato is good for the digestion).
Here are a few tips for gelaterie:
- Look for signs saying “produzione propria” or “artigianale”, which are indications that the gelato is handmade, and therefore high quality.
- Avoid gelaterie that have bright green pistachio or mint flavors, or gelato that looks overly fluffed up — these are signs that the ingredients aren’t natural.
- Gelaterie is usually buzzing with people, so you have to be assertive. Repeating “scusate” (excuse me) with a charming smile will help you work your way to the front of the mob.
- Never split a gelato with someone else. You’ll regret it.
Check out: Old Bridge (Viale dei Bastioni di Michelangelo, 5, 00192)