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What Romans are Really Eating Today

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Regardless of the setting, whether a library or a trattoria, one conclusion about Roman cuisine consistently emerged as I researched for Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City: what we eat in Rome today—not to mention how much of it and where we do it—has changed dramatically over the past decades.

Katie and Kristina Gill's book, Tasting Rome.
Katie and Kristina Gill's book, Tasting Rome.

The city's food culture may still be shrouded in the romantic stereotypes forged during the post-war economic boom, but Rome's food systems and consumption patterns have shifted. The past 10 years of economic crisis have been particularly transformative, leading to new dining formats and driving new ways of eating and drinking.

Here's what's delicious in the 21st century:

Testaccio Market
Testaccio Market Photo by Ryan Powell

1. Market Dining

The Testaccio Market, which re-opened in 2012 in a modern building near the old slaughterhouse, has been a pioneer in market dining. Until Mordi e Vai opened on the Via Beniamino Franklin side of the market three and half years ago, hot prepared foods were non-existent in Roman markets.

Today, nearly a dozen stalls in the market serve food, everything from deep fried artichokes to gluten-free pasta. Trailblazer Mordi e Vai is still the best of the lot, specializing in sandwiches filled with simmered meats and offal, and providing hearty economical food to market vendors and students.

2. Independent Wine Shops

For years, the Roman norm was for wine bars (and restaurants) to entrust their wine lists to huge distributors, which in turn provided discounts and bottle storage. The result was affordable but overwhelmingly conventional wine lists all over town. Over the past few years, a number of independent wine bars and shops have opened in and around the center of Rome. Owners work directly with vineyards or collaborate with small, specialized distributors to build quality-driven wine lists full of character. The Trastevere neighborhood just welcomed Les Vignerons, the city's premier natural wine shop that relocated from the eastern part of the city.

Olive Oil Gelato

Olive Oil Gelato by Amanda Hesser

Affogato allo Zabaglione

Affogato allo Zabaglione by mrslarkin

3. Natural, Artisanal Gelato

Walk into most gelato shops, peruse the ingredients list, and you're likely to find a litany of unexpected items, from artificial colors and flavors to vegetable fats and emulsifiers. Only a small fraction of the city's gelaterie use all-natural ingredients and churn gelato from scratch, but the number is growing.

A few long-established artisanal shops like Settimo Gelo, Fatamorgana, and Il Gelato di Claudio Torcè have been joined by others embracing a natural approach to gelato making: Otaleg, Gori, and Carapina. Unfortunately, institutions like Giolitti gave up on all-natural ingredients long ago, but their competitors are shaping the way some local gelato eaters choose Rome's most beloved frozen snack.

5 Bitter Drinks We Wish Were a Bigger Deal in the US
5 Bitter Drinks We Wish Were a Bigger Deal in the US

4. Craft Cocktails

While Rome's luxury hotels have hosted cocktail bars for decades, it wasn't until The Jerry Thomas Project opened in 2009 that the city welcomed its first craft cocktail bar aimed at the masses. Led by the Jerry Thomas team and mixologists like Patrick Pistolesi of Caffè Propaganda and Massimo D'Addezio of Co.So. and Chorus, the city has a small but growing number of bars where you can find a thoughtfully mixed cocktail, often intended to showcase the bitter flavor profile of historic Italian liqueurs.

Carciofi alla Giudia – Roman Jewish-Style Artichokes
Carciofi alla Giudia – Roman Jewish-Style Artichokes

5. The Cucina Tripolina (Libyan Jewish Cuisine)

As culinary tourism in Rome has gained momentum over the past few years, the Jewish Ghetto has become an increasingly popular dining destination for visitors in search of famous local specialties like carciofi alla giudia (deep-fried—aka Jewish style—artichokes).

A number of restaurants and takeaway shops have opened, many of them owned by Jews of Libyan origin. Accordingly, the menus at places like Ba' Ghetto and Ba' Ghetto Milky list ancient Roman Jewish classics like pezzetti fritti (battered and fried vegetables) and concia (fried and marinated zucchini) beside those of the cucina tripolina like spicy fish stew with couscous and syrup-soaked sweets.

6. Counter Culture

The steep costs of restaurants in a complicated economy has driven new dining formats. Places like Retrobottega in the centro storico and Pianostrada in Trastevere serve food at counters built around open kitchens. The casual service and limited seating cuts back on overhead and cultivates a closer relationship between the cook and the client. Prices at such places are also adapted to frugal customers who may want to dine out, but can't commit the time or funds to a full-blown restaurant meal.

"Fast food" at Pizzarium
"Fast food" at Pizzarium Photo by Ryan Powell

7. Fast Food

Let's forget for a moment that the Subway brand has been expanding in Rome for years and focus instead on Rome’s home grown fast foods: pizza by the slice and supplì (rice croquettes). Venues like Trapizzino, Supplizio, and Pizzarium thrive because they offer clever twists on local flavors in affordable, portable formats. All three places prominently feature fried snacks and often draw on non-Roman dishes for inspiration, as in the case of Trapizzino's Naples-inspired onion and beef rice croquette.

At Pizzarium, owner Gabriele Bonci acknowledges Rome's large Calabrian population in his "'nduja in carrozza", a twist on "mozzarella in carrozza" (a breaded and fried mozzarella sandwich), in which he layers mozzarella with spicy sausage from Calabria.

’Nduja in Carrozza

’Nduja in Carrozza

katieparla katieparla
Makes 6
  • 12 ounces mozzarella, cut into 12 slices
  • 2 tablespoons ’nduja
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup bread crumbs
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Neutral oil, for frying
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Tags: Travel, Food History, Books, Italy Week