How to Eat Well in Rome (And Avoid the Food Traps)

I am obsessed with Italian food and especially Roman food. Coming from a big Italian family I grew up on homemade meatballs, fresh lasagnas, and anise-flavored pizzeles. I never really thought of this as any particular kind of “cuisine”, it was just warm hearty food.

Eventually, I realized that not everyone has a saucy Nonna who makes her own tomato sauce. Then I went to Italy and fell in love. There’s something truly special about Italian food, and each tiny corner of Italy has its own unique customs and cuisines. I could spend my entire life discovering the thousands of varieties of cheese, cured meats and pasta. I could swim in a river of olive oil, I could walk the country end to end in search of the best gelato.

Maybe someday I’ll get to, but this particular week, I was focused on Rome. The Eternal City has scores of food culture all on its own, and it’s incredibly easy to find and try the local specialties. Unfortunately, in a city that attracts so many tourists, there are also a lot of “food traps”: places that trick tourists by selling low quality, inauthentic food.  So here is how eat well in Rome and avoid the food traps!

Exploring everything about Rome food

I spent a really happy afternoon walking and eating my way around the Roman neighborhood of Testaccio with Eating Italy Food Tours. Not many tourists make it over to Testaccio, although it has a reputation among local Romans as one of the best eating neighborhoods in the city. In addition to getting to visit some awesome local restaurants, I learned all about how to find authentic Roman food which is the key to how to eat well in Rome.

Fresh is Always Best

Fresh Food is Always the Best Food in Rome - How to Eat Well in Rome

Italy is like a Garden of Eden of food. There are so many amazing ingredients and most of them are sourced very locally. The easiest way to eat well in Rome is to find food that is fresh, local and seasonal.

The best way to truly experience the freshest Roman foods is to hit up the markets, of which there are many. There you will find Italy’s prize jewel: the tomato, in dozens of varieties, along with many other bright and vibrant vegetables. At the markets, you can also buy super fresh meat, cheese, fish and more.

Anything that’s made when you order it, versus pre-prepared, is also going to be way more delicious. Cannoli, for example, should always be filled after you order them, they will get soggy sitting out.

Pizza is A Dinner Food Only

Pizza is a Dinner Food Only - Eat Well in Rome

Best pizza al taglio ever

There are two kinds of pizza in Rome: the pizza al taglio, sold by the slice (or sometimes by weight) and cooked in a regular oven then kept warm under bright lights. This kind of pizza is good for a snack on the go, but if you want a legit round pizza from a real roman pizzeria, you need to wait until night falls.

Of course, that sounds crazy- pizza is an ALL the time food at my house. When you’re eating out in Rome however, the real, woodfired pizza, can only be found in the evening. This is because restaurants don’t fire up their ovens until at least 7 pm. If you’re being served pizza for lunch, it’s almost certainly either reheated or electric over-cooked.  So avoid pizza during the day if you want to eat well in Rome.

Beware of Fake Gelato

Want to Eat Well in Rome - Beware of Fake Gelato

Pistachio and black cherry gelato with home made whipped cream

I almost wish I hadn’t discovered this. I was doing so well in life enjoying my junky cheap gelato. Now that I’ve tasted the real thing though, I can never go back to before.

So the deal is, a lot of the gelato shops in Italy, particularly those near tourist sites, sell what is known as “fake gelato.” Instead of being made from natural ingredients, the fake stuff comes from a mix and basically tastes like cheez whiz compared to the real stuff.

Fake gelato is easily identified by its vibrant color (think strawberry that is a pink not found in nature, or bright green pistachio), it’s extreme fluffiness (it’s full of air) and usually a huge amount of decoration (distraction) on top. Real pistachio gelato (like the stuff above) will be a muted green, just like, well a real pistachio.

Once I learned about the fake gelato I started seeing it everywhere, and all of a sudden it didn’t taste as good either. Thankfully if you spend a little extra effort to look around, it’s never that hard to find the good stuff.

Look Where the Locals Eat

Want to Eat Well in Rome? Eat Where the Locals Eat

You guys already know this, but I’m surprised how many people seem to ignore this in Europe and go straight for that trattoria directly next to the Parthenon. You know, the one with the menu in 5 languages.

Look for the restaurants down the side streets, the unassuming places full of locals dining on things you don’t totally recognize. Look for the places that open later. This is going to be the key to how to eat well in Rome as Romans don’t eat dinner until 8 PM at least. On the food tour they gave us a hand out with a full list of recommended local places, so Mike and I ate well all week.

Roman Specialties to Seek Out

Eat Well in Rome - Seek Out Roman Specialties

If you want to eat well in Rome you have to try some of their local dishes.  Here are some of the must-try specialties of Roman cuisine:

Pasta Carbonara– Not always spaghetti, the few times I ordered this it featured thick al dente rigatoni with eggs, cheese, guanciale (pork cheek) and pepper. It wasn’t quite as creamy at the carbonara at home, but it is zesty and delicious.

Carciofi (Artichokes)– Fabulous when in season, either filled with garlic and cooked in olive oil or fried “Jewish style.”

Zucchini flowers– A little used part of the zucchini plant, usually deep fried with cheese and sardines.

Bruschetta– Bruschetta literally just means “toast,” but the really great kind is rubbed with garlic then topped with fresh tomatoes and olive oil. So fresh and delicious.

Or, you could take a food tour- one of my favorite ways to explore local food. Overall, the Eating Italy Rome Food Tour tour was one of my very favorite things we did in Rome, or maybe on this entire trip. We tried foods we might never have found on our own, and learned a lot, in a neighborhood that not many tourists visit. I can definitely recommend taking this tour, it’s a bit of a splurge but totally worth it in my book. Even if you don’t have an unhealthy obsession with olive oil.  But whatever you do be sure to eat well in Rome!

 

 

Special thanks to Eating Italy Food Tours for the complimentary Testaccio food tour. All delicious opinions are my own.

 

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How to Eat Really Well in Rome

Article by

Stephanie Yoder is a girl who can’t sit still! She is the co-founder and editor of Why Wait To See the World. Learn more about her here.


  1. Great post! My mouth is watering thinking about all the deliciousness in Rome. Glad to hear the advice. I’ll definitely keep it in mind when I travel there!

  2. Excellent advice! The food in Rome is simply fantastic. Even the touristy, inauthentic stuff isn’t terrible but you’re right: the little eateries and restaurants in the alleyways offer the tastiest options (and cheaper too!). We stayed in an apartment in Trastevere, an area of Rome that I would highly recommend to anyone staying for a few days in the city. By wandering through the alleys away from the piazzas, you’re sure to stumble upon some delicious dinner options there!

    • Tina Bruce says:

      Who did you rent your apartment through? Was it close to anything in particular? My mother and I are planning a trip out there tentatively in November.

      Are there any restaurants you would recommend?

  3. Fake Gelato?! – No! How dare they!!

    Great advice Steph – I loved the food in Rome but I think my favourite Italian food was probably in Florence! Florentine cuisine was gorgeous and so home-cooked! Probably closer to the kinds of foods your grandma cooked possibly? (you’re lucky to have an Italian grandma!!)

    • My grandparents were from far northern Italy, the Piemonte region, so I actually recognized a lot of their cooking styles when we went to Bologna and Milan. Mike’s family is from the far south so that will have to be our next trip.

      • Thanks for sharing! It’s so great that you’re able to visit your ancestral place of origin! I’m still waiting to go to mine! A little more complicated by the fact that my four grandparents are from diff parts of India!!

  4. I’m new to your site and fell into the fake gelato trap too! The real stuf is definitely worth it. Don’t waste your time with the fake gelato. I’ll be teaching in Spain this next year and will be trying to get to Italy again as I loved it so much the first time!

  5. I’m SO glad I’m reading this on my lunch time. Not that my lunch is anything as good as a plate of pasta carbonara and 2 scoops of legit gelato, but you know, at least I’m not salivating all over my keyboard 🙂

  6. Mmmmm, carbonara. We spent our honeymoon in Rome (4 years ago, eep!), and I’m pretty sure I found a way to have a cured meat in every meal. Including carbonara and a fab salad with duck prosciutto.

    I’m now drooling.

  7. Great advice! I definitely agree about eating where the locals eat. We tried one pizzeria recommended by a local, and the food was much cheaper (and tastier) than pretty much all of the more tourist-oriented restaurants we tried. I think my favourite thing about food in Rome (well, all of Italy) was how the pizza was served – it wasn’t cut into slices and shared among a group; usually a whole pizza was meant to be eaten by one person, so you just got a knife and fork and went for it!

  8. Oh dear… reading this was a huge mistake as we’re in the hinterlands of Vietnam and there is pretty much no foreign food to be found! I can’t even remember the last time I had pizza… And here I was foolishly thinking we’d have to cut Italy from our trip due to budget reasons. Clearly we’re going to have to find a way to make things work!

    • Steph says:

      It’s funny, when I was in Asia all I could think about was cheese. Then, when I was living in Argentina I missed Vietnamese and Chinese food desperately. Really can’t win!

  9. I’m drooling, everywhere, now I’m hungry and have to find something Italian to cook for dinner tonight! I hate getting stuck eating at tourist traps when I travel and always seek out where the locals eat to be sure I am getting an authentic experience and besides the food just tastes better. The first thing we usually do is find a local market and stock up on everything too.

  10. I’ve often found it difficult in big cities to find good places to eat unless you have a specific restaurant or neighborhood in mind. It’s been one of my greatest frustrations during traveling, especially in Europe! You make some great points here that are more helpful than simply ‘eat where the locals do’!

  11. I’ll have you know that I ate at a restaurant across from the Pantheon and it was the BEST damn pasta I’ve ever had! It was a really simple dish “Spaghetti Aglio, Olio, e Peperoncino” basically spaghettis with olive oil, garlic and chilli.
    OMG I could eat it again and again.
    But aside from that rare occurrence I agree, try to avoid eating in the touristy areas haha

    • Steph says:

      Mm I cook that at home all the time. To be fair- it’s hard to mess that up!

  12. Now I feel like Italian for lunch and it’s not such a workable idea today :-/…great advice though, especially with the gelato. I will probably be in Italy sometime in July, lookin forward to the food !!

  13. Looove Italian food. Luckily I have an Italian mother-in-law. 🙂 My favourites when in Italy are stuffed courgette flowers though. You can’t beat it!

  14. hmmm…I just ate but now I am hungry again. There is nothing better than eating a good pasta with a glass of wine for lunch in the Italian sun. Or cook your own food with amazing ingredients. Somehow they always taste better in Italy. Nice article!

  15. Couldn’t agree with you more! Italian food is good.
    As simple as spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and cheese I tried in Verona back then, it was super delicious…though it was in touristy area..
    Your post successfully made me wanting Pasta as my lunch 🙂

  16. Thank you for educating us about the tourist traps in Rome! Sadly, these tourist traps are everywhere…China has it bad and they are in your face about it too!

  17. We can definitely eat our way across any country we visit and Italy is one of the BEST. We did really well in Rome finding superb meals that were filling for two and not outrageously priced. One of our favorites was near the Colosseum at a little family run restaurant that happened to be next door to the one recommended in the guidebook we had with us. We’re happy to have made our own discovery and returned a few times for a light and filling lunch of fresh antipasto misto 🙂
    Oh, and we agree with you about the gelato. The color is a dead giveaway. We’ve also heard that if it’s displayed in plastic containers (as opposed to metal) then it’s fake gelato. We’d rather go without than eat the fake stuff 😉

    • Catarina says:

      I’m going to Rome next week!! Any chance you remember what that place was called or where exactly it was??

  18. I come from a big Italian family (on both sides) and I’ve never found anyone else who knows what zucchini flowers are!! They are my absolute favorite, my Noni makes the very best 🙂 Everyone usually thinks I’m crazy when I mention them, I’m glad I’m not the only one.

  19. Great post. I am obsessed with Italian food and also a pizza and gelato fanatic, but it has to be the real deal, and Rome really upsets me with all it’s tourist trap restaurants.

    I did a gelato making class in Sorrento, and I have never looked at gelato the same again! Actually, I am lactose intolerant, so usually I can pick the “fake gelato” from one bite, because they often use cream to make their gelato more creamy, but in “real gelato” the only flavours with cream, are the ones that are supposed to be cream based. But you are totally right – any gelato that the colour looks too fake, well, it probably is!

  20. Hello! Could anyone say: is it possible to buy fresh food ( fruits&vegetables) at markets using credit card or only cash is needed? Thanks a lot for answer)))

    • At the markets I would say mostly cash, especially for produce. I would definitely bring cash to be on the safe side.

  21. Lauren says:

    Just to note, the PARTHENON is in Greece, the PANTHEON is in Rome, so likely there are no “trattorias” near the Parthenon. That is a mistake so many tourists make. And another note, you would be wrong in saying that eating near the Pantheon is a bad idea. One of Rome’s best trattorias is next to the Pantheon, but you wouldn’t learn that on a tour from people with scripts who get kickbacks from the the places they take you to or tell you to go to.

  22. Milena Yordanova says:

    Italian food is one of my favorite cuisines. Very helpful post! I’m planning a trip to Rome, so I will be careful for fake gelato.

  23. Hi – I really enjoy reading about your travels. We are heading to Rome in October for the first time. Do you have any recommendations on where to eat? Thanks

  24. Forest says:

    I’m also looking for recommendations on places to eat! Visiting Rome in a couple months!

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