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