I thought i would make this post a little lighter than the last one and focus on the one thing that brings joy to every heart, and travellor, in Italy – the food!!!
Residents of Italy, as opposed to travellors, will understand the importance of the title not being “Top 10 things to eat in Italy”. This is because, as I have mentioned before, Italy is a country of REGIONS, and towns, and none more so obviously than when it comes to food.
When I first arrived in Rome, after several months of eating what I called Italian food, I was longing for a change and enquired of my Italian friends if we could go to a different type of restaurant and eat another type of food. “Oh sure”, they answered, “we will arrange it. Plenty of variety here in Rome. We could go to a great Abruzzi restaurant we know, or the Sardinian restaurant on the corner is good, and there is an amazing Tuscan place in town and a new Sicilian place opening up.” Not quite what i had in mind but a good demonstration of how different the food is between regions. And not just regions. If you are wanting variety it is often enough just to drive an hour up the freeway to the next little town, and the food will be different with unique dishes and ways of preparing salads, pastas, desserts etc.
Often dishes that you can get in one part of Italy are unavailable in others. So it would be a shame to focus on general “Italian” dishes at the expense of the local cuisine and that way you can taste your way around Italy knowing that the variety will be significant.
For example it took me about seven years to work out why I couldn’t find Spaghetti Bolognaise on the menu in Rome. I attributed this fact to it possibly being an Anglo-Saxon made-up Italian dish, like garlic bread that is not available ANYWHWERE in Italy. Until I took a holiday to Bologna. Then I found it on every menu. Rome of course has its own version, but it is made with pork meat not beef and is called Spaghetti con Ragu. If you want Spaghetti Bolognaise when you are in Italy you need to go to Bologna.
Therefore this post will focus on the top 10 dishes to eat in Rome primarily because they are mostly only available in Rome and represent some of its best cuisine. They are not the type of dishes that the average Italian home cook would make as they are quite tricky or have special ingredients. They are the type of dishes that Italians go out to eat. All the restaurants featured in my post ‘Top 10 Restaurants’ will have these dishes available. I have written the dishes in the order of how they will appear in the menu and in the order you are supposed to eat them.
There were so many yummy savoury dishes that I ran out of numbers before I got to dessert so I have cheated and included a number 11. Also you may have heard me comment previously that Roman desserts are not prolific or spectacular. Especially when you compare them to the ice-cream desserts of Calabria, Sicily and Puglia or the creamy custards of Tuscany and Umbria. Also Romans have available at all times spectacular ice-cream which is not only a dessert but a daily medicinal requirement, and recommended to all travellors at all times, and they have adopted the Tiramisu (probably the most like a ‘national’ dessert that Italy has) with avengence, so no need to suffer a dessert desert when you are in Rome, but not alot of desserts that you can only have in Rome. The one I have included is the only one unique to Rome unless you count Chestnut honey which the Ancient Romans used prolifically as a dessert and which I also recommend you try.
Just one other thing then. Roman cooking is characterised by two things – its simplicity and its focus on offal (which i have reccomended only in one dish but should be tried in its various forms if you have the stomach for stomach…..). This is because of its history of being a Papal city, one of the most signficant. Traditionally most of the best cuts of meat and produce went to the Vatican, and the local food producers of Rome had a prolific amount of Priests and nobles connected with the Vatican who they could provide food for. It meant that the local citizens were left with the lesser cuts of meat. The general poverty of the food producers and other city dwellers meant that simple, local, ingredients, along with offal was what made up their cuisine. Like many culinary traditions, the food of the poor became adopted by the rich and now its quality and custom is entrenched in the average modern Roman diet.
Here are the first five, next five, next week.
1. Fiori di Zucca. Stuffed zucchini flowers. These are spectacular and not to be missed and to be eaten at every opportunity possible. Many of my ‘regret’ moments are about the fact that I did not eat enough Fiori di Zucca when I had the chance. They are also not to attempted at home. I tried it once and have had much empathy with my gynachologist ever since. It is almost impossible to open up the delicate petals enough without splitting them to get in the ingredients you need to get in there to qualify them as stuffed, and it takes ages. These beauties usually come two or three to a dish and are small and light. They consist of the end of the zucchini, the flower, stuffed with golden, melting mozarella and a sharp tasting anchovy (just enough to flavour it), dipped in a light batter and quickly deep fried. Have I mentioned they are divine?
2. Olive ascolane. Stuffed olives. Much more robust than the Fiori di Zucca they are green olives stuffed with pork mince, covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried. They are like little mouthfuls of intensely flavoursome and chewy peices of heaven if you like olives and pork. They usually come 8 -10 to a plate.
3. Spaghetti Carbonara. No translation available. This dish is not to be missed and comes after the antipasti dishes mentioned above. It is usally served as a spaghetti but can also be served using penne or rigatoni as the pasta. If you have ever eaten what you think is a Spaghetti Carbonara outside of Italy, you will be quite surprised, and then very angry with the previous person who cooked you Spaghetti Carbonara. This is a thick, rich and highly filling dish. It is the Italian version of bacon and eggs and therefore can be eaten as early in the day as you want and is recommended as a great hangover cure. It is simply eggs cooked together with so much parmesan cheese (Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano) it is scary, until a cream develops. It is then thrown together with some small pieces of pigs cheek or pigs stomach (guanciale or pancetta) lightly fried in their own fat and then mixed with the pasta. More parmesan and a splash of pepper usally accompany it. Under no circumstances is cream used. Talking and fast movement may need to cease for some time after this dish has been eaten.
4. Amatriciana. Same. This is a pasta dish which can be served using Spaghetti, Penne, Rigatoni or Bucatini. The pasta sauces is made from tomatoes, pigs cheek (guanciale), a pinch of chilli and Pecorino (sheep’s) cheese. It is salty, flavoursome, and makes you feel like you could run a marathon afterwards. It is my hands down favourite food in all of Rome.
5. Spaghetti Caccio Peppe. Spaghetti with Sheep’s cheese and Pepper. And lastly for today we come to another Roman favourite. It is so simple and sounds so foreign that many people shy away from it but it is also not to be missed and one day long into the future you will remember how good this dish tasted. It is served only with Spaghetti and it comes with a mountain of fresh sheep’s cheese (Pecorino) finely grated on top of it and dusted with a thick layer of black, cracked pepper. Your job is to mix it all in until the cheese melts and then just eat it. Talking will not be possible during the eating of this dish and it is fun to watch the face of the person eating this dish as the unlikely yumminess hits them again and again.
If you enjoyed this post and want to read more about Roman and Italian food and food stories, my book ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons‘, will have you longing for pasta and searching for an Italian/Roman food fix! Available at your local bookstore (in Australia) or from
Stay tuned for the final top 5 things to eat in Rome!