Classic Roman dishes

All the best there is to eat (and drink) in Rome, Italy

Great dining experiences
The typical Roman evening meal is often huge and lasts for hours. Some suspect that this conga line of courses is just a scam to get tourists to order more, but Italians often do actually eat such gargantuan meals (though of late, less frequently in today's fast-paced world).

When dining out, you're expected to order at least two courses, and it helps when you stretch out dinner with good wine and lively conversation. If you're not up to a monster meal, however, just ask for a mezza portion (half portion).

Antipasti (appetizers)

You start off with an antipasto (appetizer):

  • bruschetta (simple, and among the best; peasant bread grilled, rubbed with garlic, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with salt; ordering it al pomodoro adds a pile of cubed tomatoes on top)
  • carciofi alla giudia (artichokes lightly fried in olive oil, a dish especially popular in Jewish Ghetto restaurants)
  • Primi (first courses)

    After the appetizer, your primo (first course) could be a soup—try stracciatella, egg-drop and parmesan in broth—or a pasta.

    Among the classic Roman pasta dishes are:

    • bucatini all'Amatriciana (thick, hollow spaghetti in a slightly spicy tomato sauce studded with pancetta [belly bacon] or guanciale [jowl bacon])
    • spaghetti alla carbonara (with eggs, pancetta, and cracked pepper)
    • pasta al pomodoro (in a plain tomato sauce)
    • penne all'arrabbiata ("hopping mad" pasta quills in a spicy tomato sauce)
    • gnocchi (potato-based pasta dumplings; traditionally served on Thursdays)

    Secondi (main courses)

    The daily special
    In addition to their regular offerings, the menus of many smaller Roman eateries still follow the traditional weekly rotation of dishes: Tuesday zuppa di farro (barley-like emmer soup), Wednesday trippa (tripe), Thursday gnocchi (potato dumpling pasta), and Friday baccalà (salt cod) and/or pasta e ceci (pasta with chick peas).

    When you get to the secondo (main course) you may encounter "traditional local cuisine:"

    • coda alla vaccinara (braised oxtail with tomatoes)
    • pajata (made of calves' intestines still clotted with mother's milk; sounds disgusting—and, frankly, it is—but also utterly delicious).

    If you shy away from such culinary adventure, other main courses could include:

    • saltimbocca (one of the best Roman secondi; the name means "jumps-in-the-mouth," and it's a tender veal cutlet cooked in white wine with sage leaves and a slice of prosciutto ham draped over it)
    • abbacchio à scottaditto (spring lamb so delicious the name avers you'll "burn your fingers" in your haste to gobble it up)
    • involtini (veal rolled with veggies—carrots, celery, or artichoke hearts—and stewed in its own juices)
    • bocconcini di vitello (veal nuggets, usually stewed with potatoes and sage)
    • pollo (chicken)
    • scallopine (veal cutlets, cooked in a variety of ways)

    Dolci (desserts)

    Finish off dinner with gelato (ice cream » more), a tartufo (which means "truffle" but on the dessert menu means a fudge center surrounded by vanilla ice-cream and chocolate ice-cream and dusted with cocoa) or tiramisù (espresso-soaked ladyfingers layered with sweetened, creamy marscapone cheese and dusted with cocoa).

    Bevande (drinks)

    Bread & Cover
    Italian restaurants have an unavoidable "bread and cover" charge (pane e coperto) of anything from €1 to €15 (though most often €2—€5) added on to your bill.

    If you order a table wine in Rome, you will most likely get a light, fruity white from the hills south of the city, either a Frascati or a Castelli Romani. Another excellent white wine from an Umbrian town north of Rome is Orvieto Classico. The capital's restaurants are also usually equipped with a cellar that draws on the best wines from throughout Italy.

    Top your meal off with an espresso (it really does help the digestion and, contrary to popular belief, while far more flavorful than a cup of American coffee is actually far weaker, at least so far as caffeine is concerned) and a digestivo, a shot of liqueur to "aid the digestion," usually an amaro (bitter) or a grappa (clear as water, crafted from the leftovers of the wine-making process, and it makes a good rocket fuel to boot. If you want the stuff that'll burn a hole in the table should you spill some, order a grappa duro; if you want it merely to put werewolf-quality hair on your chest, ask for grappa morbido).

    Tips & links

    General dining tips
    • "Pane e coperto" is not a scam: Nearly all Italian restaurants have an unavoidable pane e coperto ("bread and cover" charge) of anything from €1 to €15—though most often €2 to €5—per person that is automatically added onto your bill. This is perfectly normal and perfectly legal (though a few trendy restaurants make a big deal about not charging it).
    • Find out if service (tip) is included: Don't double-tip by accident. If the menu has a line—usually near the bottom of the front or back—that says "servizio" with either a percentage, an amount, or the word "incluso" after it, that means the tip is automatically included in the price. (If it says "servizio non incluso," tip is, obviously, not included.)

      Even if the menu doesn't say it, ask É incluso il servizio? (ay een-CLOU-so eel sair-VEET-zee-yo)—"Is service included?" If not, tip accordingly (10%–15% is standard).

      Don't be stingy about tipping, though. If il servizio is, indeed, already included but the service was particularly good, it's customary to round up the bill or leave €1 per person extra—just to show you noticed and that you appreciated the effort.
    • Tourist menus: The concept of a bargain prix-fixe menu is not popular in Italy. Some restaurants do offer a menu turistico ("tourist menu"), which can cost from €8 to €20 and usually entails a choice from among two or three basic first courses (read: different pasta shapes, all in plain tomato sauce), a second course of roast chicken or a veal cutlet, and some water or wine and bread. With very few exceptions, tourist menus tend to live up to their name, appearing only at the sort of tourist-pandering restaurants that the locals wisely steer clear of.

      However, a menu à prezzo fisso ("fixed-price menu") is often a pretty good deal, usually offering a bit more choice than a tourist menu.

      Then—especially at nicer (and pricier) restaurants—there is the menu degustazione ("tasting menu"), usually far more expensive (anywhere from €25 to €110) that is a showcase of the chef's best, or of regional specialties, and can make for an excellent way to sample the kitchen's top dishes.
    • Book ahead: For restaurants that I am truly eager to try, I go ahead and book a table—at least at dinner. I find that a corollary of Murphy's Law seems to apply. If you prudently book ahead, you are likely to show up to a half-empty restaurant and feel a bit like a fool for having worried about finding a table. If, on the other hand, you just show up at the door expecting to find a free table, the place will inevitably be packed and its bookings full for the evening.
    Culinary tours of Rome
    Italian dining phrases
    English (Inglese) Italian (Italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
    Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
    Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
    Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
    Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
    Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
    thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
    please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
    yes si see
    no no no
    Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
    I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
    I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
    Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
    ...a restaurant un ristorante oon rees toh-RAHN-tay
    ...a casual restaurant una trattoria
    oo-nah trah-toar-RHEE-yah
    oon ohst-air-EE-yah
    I would like to reserve... Vorrei prenotare... voar-RAY pray-note-ARE-eh
    a table for two una tavola per due oo-nah TAH-voal-lah pair DOO-way
    ...for 7pm per le sette pair lay SET-tay
    ...for 7:30pm per le sette e mezzo pair lay SET-tay eh MET-tzoh
    ...for 8pm per le otto pair lay OH-toh
    I would like Vorrei... voar-RAY
    ...some (of) un pó (di) oon POH (dee)
    ...this questo KWAY-sto
    ...that quello KWEL-loh
    chicken pollo POL-loh
    steak bistecca bee-STEAK-ah
    veal vitello vee-TEL-oh
    fish pesce PEH-shay
    meat carne KAR-neh
    I am vegetarian sono vegetariano SO-no veg-eh-tair-ee-YAH-no
    side dish [veggies always come seperately] cotorno kon-TOR-no
    dessert dolce DOAL-chay
    and e ay
    ...a glass of un bicchiere di oon bee-key-YAIR-eh dee
    ...a bottle of una bottiglia di oo-na boh-TEEL-ya dee
    ...a half-liter of mezzo litro di MET-tzoh LEE-tro dee
    ...fizzy water acqua gassata AH-kwah gah-SAHT-tah
    ...still water acqua non gassata AH-kwah noan gah-SAHT-tah wine vino rosso VEE-noh ROH-so
    ...white wine vino bianco VEE-noh bee-YAHN-koh birra BEER-a
    Check, please Il conto, per favore eel COAN-toh pair fah-VOAR-eh
    Is service included? É incluso il servizio? ay een-CLOU-so eel sair-VEET-zee-yo

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