A Food-Lover’s Guide to Rome

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

A few weeks ago I wrote about taking my toddler to a restaurant helmed by a Michelin-starred chef. His first bite of pizza! In Rome! With a fancy-pants chef! (I got a little emotional.) I loved reading your comments and wanted to respond to your requests for more picks for the city known as Caput Mundi, or Capital of the World.

Rome has had more than 3,000 years to perfect its national treasure-level food culture, and the city’s cuisine is now gloriously set in its delicioso ways. You’ll find both new and 200-year-old kitchens serving iconic dishes such as cacio e pepe, limone gelato, and pizza bianca (more on these below).

A Food-Lover’s Guide to Rome

Salivating yet? Me too. From my must-eat meal to the rooftop pasta-making class you need to put on your Rome itinerary, here’s where to find la dolce vita one bite at a time.

The One Food You Should Eat

If you spend more than a few days eating out in Rome, you’ll start to notice one type of pasta on almost every menu: cacio e pepe, which literally translates as “cheese and pepper.” Simple yet tasty, this Roman staple has a mere five ingredients: pepper, salt, butter, Pecorino cheese, and tonnarelli pasta.

Twirl your fork into this minimalist dish, prepared tableside, at Felice a Testaccio, where they’ve perfected the savory starch since 1936.

Tip: The Roman version of cacio e pepe does not have Parmesan in it, like many American recipes I researched suggest. If you want to be true to tradition, use Pecorino.

(Image credit: Trish Friesen)

All About Gelato

Gelaterias in Rome are more plentiful than Starbucks in Seattle — you find one every 15 steps. I took full advantage of the sweet treat’s accessibility, averaging three small conos a day.

My biggest takeaway: Not all gelato is created equal. Avoid the shops that sell gelato and newspapers, gelato and pizza, or anything other than straight-up gelato. You won’t find the ultra-fresh stuff at these establishments, and why settle for anything but gelato greatness?

Seek out the house-made, just-churned, no-preservative variety at shops such as Gelateria Old Bridge, where they’ve dished out the frozen dessert to lines of devotees for over 25 years, or Gelateria La Romana, a 70-year-old institution so faithful to the creamy craft that they make numerous small batches daily to ensure almost ridiculous freshness.

Must-Visit Market

With iconic eateries dating back to the 1800s — I’m looking at you, La Matriciana Antica Trattoria (since 1870) — and Michelin-starred mainstays such as La Pergola adding to Rome’s deep culture of cuisine, it’s hard to choose just uno restaurant in one of the world’s top food cities.

In the spirit of savoring many of Rome’s must-eats (all under one roof!), head to Mercato Centrale Roma. The multi-floor food hall, opened in 2016, brings together Roman staples and local food heroes like Gabriele Bonci, who took the art and science of pizza to new heights by patenting an organic wheat and cereal flour that creates a light and sought-after dough with just the right amount of crisp-factor.

Pizza is only the beginning. With stalls specializing in meat, cheese, pasta, fish, gelato, and wine — to name a few — Mercato Centrale is like a one-stop, city-wide food tour.

(Image credit: Trish Friesen)

The Dish I’d Fly Back For

Just thinking about the burrata-filled ravioli topped with Parmesan-cream sauce I ate at a ‘Gusto near Piazza del Popolo makes me salivate (and question why I don’t relocate to Rome permanently). Eating it once was not enough. While exploring the Eternal City I had to go back, again and again, which says a lot about the pillowy pasta, given that noshing on something more than once goes against my “no repeats” travel philosophy. I haven’t even tried to recreate it at home, as I’m letting its current absence from my life make my heart (and stomach) grow fonder while my airline miles gain a few digits.

The Drink of Summer

Within hours of touching down in the ancient city, I spotted a fizzy orange drink adorning restaurant tables everywhere. Naturally, I was curious (and thirsty!), so in an effort to “do as the Romans do,” I stopped to partake. When my server came by, I pointed to my neighbor’s drink and said “I’ll have what she’s having.” Turns out the “it” sip was an Aperol spritz, which I came to learn is Italy’s unofficial summer sipper.

My love for the Aperol spritz is so strong that the first thing I did when I got home — other than sleep off the jet lag — was make a beeline for the store to pick up Aperol, Prosecco, and San Pellegrino in an attempt to add a touch of Italy’s dolce vita (in liquid form) to my life at home.

The Foodie Experience You Need to Book

To me, tasting a destination’s delights is as important as marveling at its past. So, along with a few skip-the-line tours I booked for Rome’s major attractions — to avoid waiting in lengthy queues during the height of summer — I added a small-group pasta-making class to my activities list.

It was a participatory pasta night I’ll never forget, complete with endless Prosecco sips, bruschetta, and prosciutto-wrapped melon bites on a rooftop patio surrounded by lemon trees. Hovering somewhere between catered and casual, the class delved into the art of al dente without the fuss of making the perfect shape of tagliatelle. The result: Feeding my stomach (and my soul) in the company of new friends at sunset. Bellissimo!

What to Bring Home

The best souvenir I’ve brought home in years is the 1933-developed Moka Pot espresso maker I purchased in Rome. I’m so loyal to its bursting-with-flavor brew that I make a few cups con crema for myself every morning at home.

I swear I’m transported back there for a hot minute with my morning ritual, but the added bonus of my authentic Italian espresso maker is the java is so good I spend less at coffee shops, meaning I can put the extra dollars into my “trip back to Italy” fund.

(Image credit: Trish Friesen)

Getting There and Staying There

We wish the medieval saying “all roads lead to Rome” were true, but since there’s an ocean in the way, the quickest way to get there is a direct flight from major hubs such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, or Toronto to name a few.

As far as where to stay, on my visits I’ve checked into both hotels and Airbnbs to mix up the experience between touristy and local. One stay I’d recommend that combines both lodging concepts is Frattina 57, a four-room hotel. While there are no kitchens in the suites, the artsy boutique hotel sits on the sixth floor of a historic apartment block near the Spanish Steps, so convenience and romance are at your doorstep (as are the croissants and cappuccinos delivered to your room every morning).

Tip: Summertime is sweltering in Rome, so if regular stops for gelato aren’t enough to lower your body temperature, consider booking a hotel with a pool, or extend your Roman holiday with a trip to the Amalfi Coast, where you can continue to indulge in Aperol spritzes.

Dish on Rome’s primo bites! Tell us your top picks in the comments below.