“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, so goes the famous proverb that means to follow the customs and traditions of a destination being visited. Although it’s somewhat of a cliché these days, the saying still holds weight when traveling to the Eternal City itself. There is simply no better way to discover the Italian capital than by immersing yourself in the local culture – and the one thing that the residents of Rome place above all else is food! Here are some tips on how to eat like a Roman on your vacation to Italy.
Book with The Roman Food Tour
On your first full day in Rome we recommend booking an experience with The Roman Food Tour. Taking a food tour has the potential to be a lovely introduction to a city, but oftentimes these excursions are pricey and lack authenticity. Nothing deflates the travel spirit more than being led around a bunch of touristy sites by someone who isn’t even a local. But with The Roman Food Tour, you can book with confidence as they are the highest rated of their kind on Tripadvisor and have thousands of happy customers.
This company champions the slow food movement which is all about preserving local food cultures and counteracting runaway globalization. A team of friendly and knowledgeable guides accompany you down the hidden alleys of Rome – off the beaten path – to explore the real flavors of Italia that are waiting at gourmet producers, trattorias, osterias and pizzerias. With groups limited to 12, guests are able to enjoy an intimate tour and receive insights into Roman customs that go beyond gastronomy.
Stay Away from Tourist Traps
Visitors to Rome might be tempted to grab lunch while sightseeing at spots like Piazza Navona or the Trevi Fountain. The problem with this is that no locals eat in these areas because a) the restaurants are expensive and b) the quality is not as good. For this reason, it’s important to plan your explorations properly so you’re not rushing to find a place to eat when you’re “hangry” (we’ve all been there)! Instead, book tables at trattorias that aren’t teeming with tourists and visit the attractions after a full stomach.
Eat Like a Roman at Trattorias
Trattorias are family-run establishments that are a lot smaller and simpler than ristorantes. Despite their modest appearance, these joints offer the best cuisine in all of Italy. One neighborhood that you should check out in Rome which is filled with locally loved trattorias is Trastevere. For example, Peppo al Cosimato is a top choice here due to its seafood based pastas and wood fired pizzas. You can’t leave Roma without trying their pizza called Franky – slices of buffalo mozzarella, and red and yellow plum tomatoes!
Take your Time Eating Meals
Food isn’t simply the means to get full in Rome, it’s a way of life. Going out for dinner is an event that combines cuisine, conversation and relaxation into one. Romans don’t expect slow service but neither do they want to be rushed, so the top restaurants know exactly when to pour the wine and the precise moment when the meals should be served. This allows enough time for an appetite to build without the table getting twitchy. Each bite ought to be savored slowly. There is never a need to hurry in Rome.
Try the Roman Street Food, Supplì
Italy isn’t known for its food sold on the street like other countries around the world (say Mexico). Yet, there are still some fantastic snacks one can find in Rome while on-the-go. Supplì is the most iconic in this regard – golden deep fried risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella, typically served as an appetizer in pizzerias. They are similar to Sicilian arancini but with a few differences. If you are searching for a little locale that sells these morsels of goodness look no further than Supplizio located in the city center.
Go Beyond Just Pasta and Pizza
Rome is a pasta and pizza paradise but there are many other traditional foods to try. When visiting the restaurants and markets you should keep your eyes peeled for artichokes. Roman style artichokes are stewed with mint, parsley and garlic and Jewish style ones are deep fried. This delicious vegetable peaks between December and April. Then, for all the meat lovers out there, the range of beef and pork eats are just as epic. Panino con porchetta (roast pork sandwich) makes for the perfect light lunch or snack.
Show Etiquette When Eating Pasta
Each region of Italy has its own versions of pasta and Rome is no different. There are four famous pasta dishes to wrap your lips around here: spaghetti alla carbonara, bucatini all’amatriciana, spaghetti cacio e pepe and pasta alla gricia. The proper etiquette for eating long pasta is to use a fork (no spoon or knives) and to wrap three or four strands around your fork until you have the perfect mouthful. A tiny bit of slurping is okay but don’t make a big scene – it will be frowned upon, especially in the local trattorias.
Know the Different Types of Pizza
Pizza is a staple of Rome and it comes in a few forms: tonda, al taglio and pinsa. Tonda, a round pizza pie cooked in a wood fire oven, has a paper thin flat base that crunches gloriously with every bite. Al taglio, on the other hand, means “by the cut” and is sold in rectangular slices after cooking in an electric oven. The most common time to gobble al taglio is at lunch or as a snack, while tonda pizza is usually a dinner meal. Pinsa is lighter, bubblier and digestible – and is often described as a “cloud-like pizza”.
Have a Simple Breakfast Before 11
If you’re an American or British traveler heading to Rome for the first time it may be surprising to learn that a typical Italian morning begins with the simple pleasures of a cappuccino and pastry. There are no pancakes or big breakfasts in sight. Lunch and dinner are the two main courses and so breakfast is always a light affair enjoyed between 7am – 11am. Coffee with milk is ordered before 11am and then espressos later. Espressos can be intense for those who aren’t used to them but you will adapt soon enough.
Get in Sync with the Eating Times
Romans have breakfast from 7am – 11am, lunch from 12pm – 3pm and dinner from 7pm – 11pm. It’s not uncommon for locals to go out for dinner as late as 10pm in the summer. That might sound crazy but it’s easy to sync into after a few days of following the schedule. Gorging late at night means travelers will still be full in the morning and won’t be craving a proper meal until 12pm. It’s also important to note that the sun sets quite late in Rome during the summer, so eating after dark is the natural thing to do.
Save Room for Gelato and Tiramisu
The great thing about Roman desserts is that they can be consumed anytime. Tiramisu is the ultimate post-dinner option while gelato is ideal in the afternoon. Our friends at The Roman Food Tour have a key piece of advice when it comes to choosing the right gelateria, featured in this blog – The Best Restaurants in Rome. They suggest avoiding gelaterias that sell brightly colored ice cream as that entails artificial coloring. Instead, opt for gelato that looks natural such as pistachio in a light earthy green color.
Head for an Aperitivo Before Dinner
When attempting to eat like a Roman, another vital component to your daily diet is the aperitivo. The word is derived from the Latin verb “aperire” which translates to opener. This cultural ritual begins at 7pm and finishes before dinner. Popular drinks like spritz are paired with snacks, from bowls of olives to pizza bianca to salads. One can find aperitivos everywhere in the Italian capital, not just in restaurants. Bistros, cafes, cocktail and wine bars all pour their own unique drinks accompanied with scrumptious snacks.
Cook Up Traditional Roman Fare
For visitors to Rome who are staying at an apartment or airbnb equipped with its own kitchen, one day should be spent shopping at a food market and whipping up your own Roman fare. Fresh produce abounds at markets like Campo de’ Fiori and you can pick up all the ingredients you need – be it meat and fish, fruit and vegetables, or pasta and sauces. A fun alternative to cooking alone is to book the best cooking class in Rome with The Roman Food Tour. It will be an appetizing four hour experience you never forget!
These are by no means the only steps you need to take in order to eat like a Roman but they cover the basics. Food is a religion in Italy and it penetrates all levels of society – including the wealthy elite who take fine dining to new heights and the working class who revel in the “cucina povera” that has become famous around the world. Whatever your foodie preferences are, you will find more than your fair share of culinary delights in the Eternal City. Go with an open mind and see where your taste buds lead you!