10 Traditional Roman Foods to Try

Traditional classic Roman dishes are heavily “nose to tail” or “quinto quarto” as this city is proud of eating ALL of the animal, and all plants. Some of these traditional dishes are coda alla vaccinaria (beef tail), trippa (tripe), and pajata. Romans also eat an immense amount of seafood, much of it raw. In terms of classic dishes not mentioned earlier, here is my list of Roman dishes to try. I have listed the dishes sort of in order of what time of the day you might try them, not in order of preference. I’ll mention what I think of them in the description.

Maritozzo: Is a cream filled brioche bun. Usually eaten for breakfast or as a snack. This is delicious but quite ridiculous.

Suppli: Is the deep fried rice or pasta croquette incredible popular with Romans. Available everywhere and usually sold at pizzerias (which is weird because there is nothing deep fried at a pizza place except for this…) and eaten as a snack or appetizer. “Suppli” is the word for telephone cord because the melted cheese looks like an old fashioned telephone cord. I don’t really like this but it is super famous.

Fiore di zucca: Stuffed zucchini flowers almost always filled with mozzarella and salted anchovy. Some places will make it without the anchovy if you ask, but that would not be authentic. The anchovy adds a touch of salt and umami. Most places make this dish and it looks like a UFO, unidentified fried object. I prefer it at places where they use light batter or breadcrumbs. I also prefer it without the anchovy because I like the delicate flavor of the zucchini flower.

Taglio pizza: Is square focaccia type pizza sold by weight. There are so many kinds of pizza I recommend going to a chain like Alice (ah-lee-cheh) and ask for small pieces so that you can try different flavors (This is also a good thing to order for a party). Romans eat pizza for breakfast (my preferred Roman breakfast), lunch, and party snack. Usually the pizza had for dinner is not “al taglio” but Roman style. A Roman style pizza is ONE round pizza per person. No sharing. You eat with a knife and fork. Beer is usually the thing to drink with pizza in the evening. Pizza is not something you would cook at home because you need a pizza oven. The taglio pizzas are baked in industrial electric ovens but a dinner pizza (The Romans consider it a social thing done from 9 pm to midnight) is usually baked in a wood fired oven (forno a legna).

Porchetta: Is from a town near Rome (but then everyone likes to claim that they invented gelato, so don’t let that stop you), but is much beloved here. It is a deboned pig rolled up with crackling/pork rind on the outside and inside it is flavored with rosemary and other herbs. Usually served sliced as a sandwich component.

Pasta carbonara, cacio e pepe, gricia, and amatriciana: These are the four most common pasta sauces in Rome. Carbonara is made with guanciale (pork jowl bacon) and egg yolk. Usually with spaghetti or short pasta. Almost never with fresh pasta. Cacio e pepe (caw-chee-oh-eh-peh-peh) is pecorino cheese and black pepper. People make a big deal that this is a creamy sauce without any cream. Pecorino is sheep’s milk cheese common to this part of Italy. It is much in texture like Parmesan. Cacio e pepe (cacio is related to the Latin word for cheese. Formaggio is the modern Italian word for cheese). Gricia (Gree-chaw)is the same sauce as carbonara but without the egg. Amatriciana (Ah-mah-trey-chee-ah-na) is named after a town called Amatrice. It is a sauce with tomatoes, guanciale, and pecorino. I prefer the carbonara, but generally I prefer pasta with clams or meat sauce.

Pasta is eaten as a meal on its own or as a first course. In general, most Romans do not eat three or four course meals on a daily basis. If they eat pasta for lunch, then they probably won’t eat it for dinner. Also, the portions in Rome are not as huge as in the USA. Italians generally consider certain sauces appropriate for certain shapes of pasta. Most of the Roman sauces I have mentioned work on both long and short pasta. Almost always on dried pasta, which gives a better tooth and mouth feel.

Gnocchi alla romana: Roman gnocchi are larger dumplings that are sliced and served “au gratin” hot from the oven. Thursday is the day to eat gnocchi because traditionally, as Catholics, Friday would be a day of fasting or lights meals, like fish. Gnocchi are usually on the pasta menu because it is a type of pasta made of potato and flour.

Puntarelle: Is the classic Roman salad. It is made with the white stalk of the chicory leaf which are trimmed, put through a metal tool to split, left in cold water to “open up,” and then served with anchovy dressing. I prefer this without anchovies, because then it’s a crunchy fresh tasting salad.

Cicoria: Is usually sautéed chicory. It is always in season, on every menu, and always the vegetable of the day. It’s bitter.

Carciofi alla giudia (Jewish style artichoke) and Roman style artichoke: The Jewish style is deep fried until the artichoke looks like a flower. The Roman style is steamed and dressed with olive oil. I do not like the deep fried ones because the artichoke flavor is gone. I adore steamed artichokes, but I usually just steam them in my microwave. Italians also eat the stalk of the artichoke so when you buy them, they will sell them with the stalk attached.

Guanciale di manzo: Is beef cheek. This is always served slow roasted. The Romans are famous for eating the “off” cuts.

These were the dishes that are typically Roman and perhaps less “scary” to try. Plus, gelato. Always gelato and tiramisu. If you are given a choice of dessert, I would always choose the tiramisu. Otherwise, have a coffee and go get a gelato. Gelato shops are open all day, usually from morning (when they may serve pastries) to midnight or later. While restaurants almost always close from 3 pm to 7:30 pm, a gelateria will always be open.

The Artichoke King

Trimmed artichokes ready for purchase.

As it is once again artichoke season, I have been thinking about them again. There is more to this thistle than one would think. There was once an artichoke mafia and the head of that was called the “The Artichoke King.” This was way back in 1920 in America. The mayor of New York, at the time, La Guardia (that guy who got an airport named after him) took a hard stance against the mafia. In his words: “A racketeer in artichokes is no different than a racketeer in slot machines.”

In Italy, the artichokes are sold with the stem, which is also edible.

The artichoke even inspired poetry. In this poem by Pablo Neruda of which I quote a short bit:

Scale by scale,
We strip off
The delicacy
And eat
The peaceful mush
Of its green heart.

There are many different types of artichokes.

The artichoke was also considered an aphrodisiac for many centuries. Marilyn Monroe was the first official California Artichoke Queen in 1949.

Cardi, or cardoons, can be grown in the dark, making them white.

The artichoke is related to the cardoon, the artichoke thistle, which is part of the sunflower family.

A “Jewish style” artichoke is a fried artichoke.

I had a realization last winter — the microwave is an excellent steamer. I discovered this after I had heard about this from some cooking show or another. Previously (and perhaps because I had a mother who did not own a microwave) steaming artichokes involved that weird satellite dish steamer, scalding steam, and balancing the atomically hot metal thingy with heavy artichokes. Now, I simply wash and steam (I like to let my artichokes have a good drink of water when I bring them home so that the leaves plump up). Then into the microwave for about five minutes per artichoke depending on the size.

These mini artichokes fit in a muffin tin.

Today, there is no longer an artichoke mafia but the artichoke type most commonly sold in the US, are the kind with the hairy heart. I wish they would switch to the kind that has an edible heart.