Federico Fellini, the man who has best portrayed the city of Rome, used to say that life is a combination of magic and pasta. The Italian capital has plenty of the first and there’s no need to give any advice on where to find it. The second can also be found in abundance, although the choice is so wide and varied that it’s a good idea to be well-advised. That’s why we’ve decided to make a special effort for you and try out the Eternal City’s gastronomic delights. It goes without saying that these places are famous, if not with tourists then with Rome’s residents, so it’s well worth booking in advance and having an alternative dish in mind, metaphorically at least.
Cacio e pepe
Rome’s typical pasta isn’t as famous as others but that’s by no means a measure of its taste. Leave the better-known dishes to others. People from Rome opt for cacio e pepe. Its name means “cheese and pepper” and that’s exactly what you’ll find in this pasta dish.
It’s usually prepared with tonnarelli, a kind of square spaghetti. That’s how they make it at Da Felice, considered by many in Rome as the trattoria with the best cacio e pepe in the whole city. The fact that they’ve been making it for 70 years and across three generations might have something to do with it. The walls are covered with photographs of the numerous celebrities who have eaten here, although one poem stands out. It’s by the actor and director Roberto Benigni, who claims that Felice “is not a man but poetry,” and that, “the day he dies, Christ will receive him with open arms, embrace him and, in the middle of all that chaos, say to him, ‘Come on Feli, make us a cacio e pepe.’” Unfortunately, that day arrived in 2009 and while we imagine Felice transformed into a divine pasta chef, down here his son Franco continues to satisfy more earthly appetites. As a Plan B if there’s no space here (highly likely) Tanto pe’ magna is worth checking out.
Many raise their hands to their heads in despair at the culinary fiascos baptised as paella in places like the UK. But these slip-ups are nothing compared to what the international community has done with carbonara. The authentic recipe doesn’t include cream, let alone sausages, and there’s no bacon at all. Its ingredients are raw egg (more yolk than whites, it must be said), parmesan and guanciale, an unsmoked cured meat something akin to pancetta but much more delicate and flavoursome.
If you ask anyone from Rome where to try this pasta dish, they’ll invariably answer with a name: Enzo. The trattoria Da Enzo has been open for more than 50 years in the Trastevere quarter and is a genuine bastion of tradition in the city of Rome. It’s a lively, authentic eatery, untouched by pretension. People come here to eat, not to take cute selfies. If you order artichokes alla romana before the carbonara to awaken your appetite, you’ve hit on a winning combo. For those who prefer a modern version of the classic carbonara, there are many (very tasty) options to try at Eggs.
Another classic from Rome, amatriciana could be considered as a variation on carbonara but with the egg replaced by tomato. Although less famous, it’s equally delicious and over the years amatriciana has become a genuine symbol of the city. If there’s one restaurant which has been able to capitalise on this gastronomic asset, then it’s La Vecchia Roma. The fact that they flambé the pasta and sauce inside a giant cheese wheel right at your table adds to the spectacle and the eatery’s reputation. But table tricks don’t keep a place open for 100 years: this restaurant survives because of the quality of its products. And the amatriciana is their star dish. It’s difficult to get a table here. If you can’t, a highly recommendable option is Matricianella, a spot that’s 100% Rome, right in the city centre.
Does spaghetti bolognese actually exist? The question is no joke. Piero Valdiserra has just written a book on the issue (courting much controversy, by the way) in which he asks why a dish that is so famous abroad is undervalued or even disowned inside Italy. Spaghetti alla bolognese certainly existed; there are written records of the dish from the 16th century. But in Italy, bolognese (which is really called ragù) is always served with tagliatelle not spaghetti. Valdiserra rejects “the purists’ Talinan campaign” and suggests reviving this unassuming dish for its tourist appeal.
Until that happens, distrust any menu that highlights spaghetti (instead of tagliatelle) bolognese (instead of ragù). In any case, plenty of places in Rome make the dish, although few specialise in it. Dal Bolognese (the name gives it away) is perhaps the best known. A variation on the theme, substituting the beef with wild boar, is even more common here on the streets of Rome. If you fancy trying this hearty option, drop by Trattoria da Priscilla.