History is everywhere in this city, wherever you go along its labyrinthine ‘vias’ – some of the world’s most iconic structures are set so you can just turn a corner from a piazza and have your breath taken away as it looms in front. Whether it’s the Colosseum, Vatican city, St Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon and the dozens of other historical treasures in Rome, about two and a half millennia’s worth of culture, architecture and heritage are to be found in this cradle of human civilisation.
But the Eternal City’s long, rich, chequered history lies not only in its buildings spread over its undulating hilly suburbs, but is alive and breathing in its culinary culture.
While Italy’s best food is probably not to be found in the capital city – as my Italian foodie friends Lorenza Vitali and Luigi Cremona, some of Rome’s most well-respected food critics, were quick to point out over a leisurely alfresco lunch at their cosy city-centric Campo de’ Fiori apartment – it does have its fair share of culinary gems, only to be found if you know where to look.
Here is my curated guide to some of Roma’s tastiest gourmet secrets:
The food tour
Food tours are aplenty in Italy, but for one that really takes you off the beaten track and under the skin of Rome, the Taste of Rome tours from Roma Si bespoke tours are perfect. A friendly guide customises the tour according to preference, but typically it can start with a visit to Eustachio, a historic coffee bar dating back to the 1950s, which is frequented by politicans for coffee breaks (it is located near the Pantheon); in Rome, coffee isn’t a leisurely affair, but rather something quick that regularly punctuates the day. Locals claim it is the best coffee in Rome, and I couldn’t disagree, having tried the creamy coffee served in warm cups in the tiny, quick-service space. I was next taken to Nonna Vincenza, a pastry shop, where you can find the best cannolis in all of Rome – again, a tall claim, but not unfounded. Tucked away as most of these places are, with nondescript signage in historic buildings, they would be hard to find without an in-the-know guide on hand.
From here, my next stop was the Campo de’ Fiori market – set in a square in the heart of the Old Town, Rome’s best known food market is open every morning, with fresh, seasonal produce on offer, as well as cured meats, homemade products such as oils and sauces, and lots more.
Having worked up an appetite, we then headed to Il Pastaio di Roma, on Via de Coronari, a tiny specialty pasta bar. A firm favourite with locals, they churn out a small selection of fresh, homemade pastas with classic sauces such as carbonara (a Roman specialty) in plastic plates and forks – who needs fine china when you have such beautiful, silky pasta just waiting to be devoured? Conveniently, right next door is one of Rome’s best known gelato outlets, Gelateria del Teatro ai Coronari, where you can try creative flavours such as white chocolate with basil and rosemary-sage, to name just two – they come up with innovative new creations all the time. The tour can also incude a visit to Rome’s renowned Jewish ghetto district, where I tried unique delicacies like artichoke pizza, while taking in the history. This tour lasts about three hours, but others can include everything from trips to the Porta Portese market in the trendy Trastevere district, to wine tastings.
The cooking class
Daniela del Balzo is a friendly, twinkle-eyed modern day version of an Italian nonna who swapped a high-powered corporate career to pursue her passion for food with tailored cooking classes at her home in the posh, leafy suburb of Aventine Hill. Having developed a passion for food from her mother and grandmother, she honed her skills at renowned culinary schools Gambero Rosso and Le Cordon Bleu. Her classes are intimate, with never more than six to eight people, and are customised to what each group wants. The day can start with a trip to the nearby Testaccio market to source fresh produce, where she also gets to know her class better and decide the menu depending on what everyone wants, and what is available, followed by hands-on cooking in her light, airy kitchen. Typically, a class consists of a five-course menu – my highlight was learning one of Rome’s specialties, the saltimbocca, which I’ve loved for a long time – and the day’s labours are then enjoyed by everyone around her dining table. You also get a certificate at the end of the class! But the paperwork is not what you should be booking into this for, it’s the opportunity to get an inside look into life in Rome, and learn about Roman and indeed Italian regional cuisine from an expert.
The pizza place
No trip to Italy is complete without pizza, and for some of the best pizza in Rome, you need look no further than Emma ristorante and pizzeria, tucked away in one of the narrow back lanes of the old town. The canopied outdoor seating area, like most other restaurants in Europe, is inviting, but meant to attract the tourist crowds – the in-the-know locals head straight indoors into the smart, inside bit, where exposed brick walls, white furniture and funky lights come together to create a modern, industrial warehouse-style vibe. The pizzeria menu offers delicious freshly made pizzas made with artisanal dough which come in a variety of styles, ranging from the traditional Margharita to the creative buffalo mozzarella, Scottish salmon and wild fennel pizza. If, however, you are in the mood for something different, the kitchen menu offers a selection of innovative, ingredient-led Italian dishes.
The shopping spree
Fortunately, many of Rome’s foodie attractions are located in the old town area, popular with tourists, which means a meander around the atmospheric alleys will lead you to stumble upon gems like De Bellis pasticceria, a pastry shop offering delectable French-inspired creations from celebrity patissier Andrea de Bellis – a box of their eclectic treats make for great gifts. Another must-visit for foodie shopping is Roscioli, a well-known cheese place where you can sample and shop for everything from burrata to Rome specialty Pecorino Romano. They also have a nearby deli where you will find cured meats, dried pastas and more aged cheeses. Cheese fiends should also not miss Beppe E I Suoi Formaggi, a hole-in-the-wall tasting and shopping destination for fabulous artisanal cheeses.
The sightseeing pit-stop
It’s an accepted fact that restaurants near popular attractions are usually tourist traps offering overpriced, sub-standard food. But, sometimes, after hours of pavement pounding, one has no choice but to settle for whatever is available. Luckily, there is one restaurant that combines a tourist-friendly location with fantastic food. Armando al Pantheon, located, as the name suggests, within spitting distance of the Pantheon, has been serving up classical Roman dishes using seasonal ingredients, in a cosy trattoria ambience, since 1961. Highlights of the menu such as Roman-style grilled bread with butter and anchovies, cold cuts sourced from the region, tripe in Roman style with cheese and tomatoes, spelt soups and dumplings, and traditional Roman cakes, really represent how Roman cuisine has developed over the centuries.
Chef Claudio Gargali, a smiling, effusive character who speaks little English, but has carved out a name for himself amongst Rome’s foodies, ensures that with reliably good traditional food at good-value prices, the restaurant is always packed with tourists and locals alike.
A version of this feature was previously published in BBC Good Food ME.