Classic Roman dishes

Bucatini all'Amatriciana, one of my favorite Italian dishes, A taste of Rome, Rome, Italy (Photo by stu_spivack)
Bucatini all'Amatriciana, one of my favorite Italian dishes

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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)

Teh 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)
  • 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)

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 town. 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).

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