Ah! Rome... the eternal city, filled with local trattorias, romantic osterias, wine bars, and plenty of tourist traps. Today we are going to teach you exactly how to explore Rome like a local. To eat and drink like you are in a Fellini film you must travel outside of the centro storico for a taste of the real, working man's Rome. Read on to see our Italian wine experts favorite dishes, restaurants and gastronomic destinations.
Rome’s cuisine and gastronomic identity is built on cucina povera, literally translated to peasant food but more commonly interpreted as utilizing everything and not throwing anything away, from the common vegetable scraps to the innards of the pig. Seasonal ingredients are still the status quo in Rome and it shows in the quality food establishments. When in season, typically around February, artichokes are seen at every outdoor market and every restaurant. There are two main artichoke dishes: Carciofi alla Giudia and Carciofi alla Romana. Alla Giudia is a recipe stemming from the Jewish diaspora fried to perfection, hence the name. For those who don’t know, Rome has a Jewish quarter contributing to Rome’s gastronomy, both by dishes that are seen on menus and also to its cultural identity. Alla Romana is when the artichoke is braised and becomes fork tender. The best way to try both of these dishes is side by side, carefully examining the differences of the two dishes while being marveled by the simplicity and completely different mouthfeel and experience.
Some establishments that do this dish exceptionally well are first in the Jewish district, the eternally popular Nonna Betta which is most famous for the Carciofi alla Giudia. For the Carciofi alla Romana, a quaint yet very popular trattoria in the hip neighborhood of Trastevere is Da Enzo al 29. Arrive early, as it seems like almost every night this place is packed with locals and tourists alike. The perfect wine pairing for this dish would be trying one of the local wines made out of an indigenous red grape called ciliegiolo, the same name as cherry. A light bodied red with good acidity and very drinkable which can cut through the salty and delicious artichoke dish. Podere Orto, a winery outside of Rome makes a great small production ciliegiolo that is farmed organically. Another great producer making this wine is Podere Sassi, making a sparkling red out of the same grape. Be warned! This wine goes down fast, almost too fast.
Quinto quarto, or literally the 5th quarter is another pillar to Rome’s food scene. What this means is Romans love to eat almost every part of the animal, including, intestines, lung, oxtail, tripe and heart among other specialties. This was not born out of choice, but of necessity. Back in the day, Romans divided an animal based on class: The first quarter, or primo quarto, were considered the best cuts of meat and went to the Nobility. The second quarter was for the clergy, the third quarter went to bourgeois, the fourth quarter went to the soldiers, and finally, the fifth quarter went to and and was divided among the rest of the population.
Trippa alla Romana, is one of Rome’s most recognizable dishes consisting of the lining of the fourth cow’s stomach, tomato sauce, onions, celery, chili flakes and the two fundamental ingredients: Pecorino Romano, a hard sheep's cheese produced locally and mint leaves. It is considered a sin to name a dish Trippa alla Romana without Pecorino Romano and mint leaves. Two restaurants that excel at this cuisine are Santo Palato in the San Giovanni neighborhood and is internationally recognized as serving some of the best offal dishes in the city. This restaurant is run by one of the best female chefs in all of Italy and her dishes speak for themselves. The other restaurant, a newcomer to the Roman dining scene is Trecca, in the Ostiense neighborhood based on “cucina mercato” or a menu based on what is available that day at the market. A good wine pairing for a hearty dish like this would be a medium bodied red like that of Cantina Marco Merli just north of Rome. Mainly consisting of the Sangiovese grape, with a bit of international varietals mixed in there, this wine is balanced and complements these dishes perfectly.
One other pillar to Rome’s cuisine are its pastas. Not all pastas are created equally and not all pastas are cooked the same way in Italy. For Romans, pasta must be “al dente” but not just the al dente we know, extremely al dente. Depending on who you ask, which is very normal when researching the origins of any regional, Italian cuisine, these dishes hail from villages not too far from Rome, but the eternal city has adopted them as their unofficial food mascot. Cacio e pepe, alla gricia, carbonara, and amatriciana are guaranteed to be on every true Roman trattoria’s menu. The first three pasta dishes originated pre-tomato when Italy was still not yet introduced to the “golden apple” or pomodoro as we know it now. The tomato was not introduced to Italy until around 1548. Although these pasta dishes do not have extensive ingredients and can seem very easy to put together, you have to know what you're doing to serve an exemplary plate of cacio e pepe or one of the other dishes to keep the locals and tourists alike coming back for more. The backbone to these distinctly Roman pastas are high quality pasta, pecorino romano cheese, and the incorporation of salted pasta water to create a wonderfully creamy sauce and texture.
Cacio e pepe, the “simplest” of the four pastas, consists only of pecorino romano cheese, freshly ground black pepper, and some of the salty pasta water to bring it all together. Alla Gricia consists of the same ingredients as cacio e pepe, but with the addition of guanciale, or cured pork jowl. Carbonara, adding one more ingredient to the mix has an egg in the sauce as well. The “outlier” is amatriciana which consists of onion, guanciale, tomato sauce, and pecorino romano. Do you notice something slightly strange? None of these pastas require olive oil.
Two of our favorite restaurants that serve these quintessential Roman dishes are the classic Armando al Pantheon and the newer bistro, Epiro. Armando al Pantheon is a stone's throw away from the Pantheon smack dab in the middle of Rome. The spaghetti alla gricia is one of the best dishes anyone can have and the service is impeccable. The sommelier, Diego, will always point his guests in the right direction when pairing wines with classic pasta dishes. Epiro, in the San Giovanni district makes a heavenly carbonara with one of the more interesting wine lists in the city, focusing on low intervention wines mainly from Italy, France, and Spain.
It is easy to find a good meal in Rome, but look where the locals eat to find a true Roman experience that is unforgettable.
Nonna Betta - The Restaurant Nonna Betta and Jewish Tradition
Armando al Pantheon- Gargioli's Family - Roman Cuisine from 1961
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