Some of the best restaurants in Rome are outside the usual tourist traps, and may not have menus that are translated into English. With this small glossary we will help you know what to order.
We’ve concentrated on the specialities typical of Rome and the surrounding Lazio region. There simply isn’t space to include all food items available in Italy, and besides, Italian food is strongly regional, so wherever you are in the country you should always eat the dishes typical to the area. This ensures you get the freshest ingredients too, usually from local farms, and you can be assured of the freshness: by law if something in a restaurant has been frozen, it will be identified with an asterisk on the menu.
The four courses of a typical Italian restaurant meal are Antipasto, Primo, Secondo and Dolce. Note that while you can have each one of the four courses available, it’s quite acceptable to skip one or two in order not to over-eat, as long as you keep them in the right order. At the bottom of this article you will find other terms you’re likely to see on a restaurant menu.
Antipasti – Appetizers
Bufala: fresh mozzarella made with buffalo milk.
Burrata: rich, decadent and delicious mozzarella mixed with cream, sometimes served with anchovies.
Carciofo alla romana: ‘Roman artichoke’ pan fried in olive oil with mint.
Carciofo alla giudia: Jewish artichoke – a speciality of the Ghetto – the whole artichoke flower and some of the stem, deep-fried.
Fiori di zuccha: pumpkin/zucchini flowers, usually stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies, dipped in batter and deep fried. So bad for you but so good.
Prosciutto crudo: uncooked salt-cured ham, also sometimes known in English as ‘Parma Ham’.
Prosciutto cotto: cooked ham.
Pecorino romano: a hard cheese made with sheep’s milk.
Scamorza: a cheese related to mozzarella, but dried during a smoking process, often served oven-baked.
Note: though burrata , bufala and scamorza can be sourced from Lazio and are usually really good and fresh, the absolute best stuff is usually brought in from the Campania region – but I’ve included them anyway.
Primi – First Courses (pasta dishes)
There are three ‘classic’ Roman pastas.
Carbonara alla romana: the classic Roman pasta, made with pancetta or guanciale (similar to bacon), eggs and parmesan. Nothing else: never any cream, peas, mushrooms etc. Please don’t make our mammas cry.
Amatriciana: pancetta or guanciale in a tomato-based sauce, occasionally seasoned with a little chilli pepper.
Cacio e pepe: a sauce made with pecorino cheese and and a lot of pepper.
Note that the shape of pasta you get in these dishes in Rome is secondary to the choice of sauce, though in Rome the first two are usually served with penne or rigatoni (medium-sized tubes), while cacio e pepe is often made with a longer pasta such as linguini or spaghetti. You also sometimes find any of the above them served with ‘strozzapreti’, short twisted bits of fresh pasta with a name that literally means ‘priest-stranglers’.
Secondi – Main Courses/Entrees
Abbacchio alla scottadito: grilled lamb chops served seasoned with a piece of lemon.
Bistecca: just the Italian version of beef steak, usually seasoned and cooked over a fire. Often you get to view the raw steaks in the fridge and choose the one you want. Usually priced by weight.
Coda alla vaccinara: oxtail in a tomato sauce. A lot more appetizing than it sounds.
Polpette: meatballs in a tomato sauce. Note that these are never served with pasta.
Saltimbocca alla romana: slices of veal, sage leaves, and prosciutto, dredged in flour and cooked in a white wine sauce. The name means ‘jumps in the mouth’ because it’s so tasty. And it really, really is.
Note that in most restaurants when you order these dishes, you only get the meat: they don’t usually come with their own vegetables. You should also therefore order contorni to go with them.
Contorni – side dishes
For all of the dishes below, anything in padella is a vegetable pan-fried with a little garlic and chilli. Al forno or arrosto is oven-roasted.
Cicoria: related to our chicory but is the leaf of the plant, and is more like spinach.
Fave al guanciale: fava beans pan-fried with guanciale.
Insalata: usually a plain salad of lettuce leaves, sometimes arugula (rocket), carrot and a few other ingredients, that you dress yourself with the salt, olive oil, and vinegar that will be provided on the table.
Piselli alla romana: peas cooked with prosciutto.
Puntarelle: the stems of a green arugula-like plant, dressed with oil, garlic and anchovies. Really good.
Spinaci: spinach leaves.
Roman pizza is thin-crust and very light on toppings, coming in rossa and bianca, only the former of which has tomato sauce on it. They use pumpkin flowers as a topping as well as more familiar things like alici (anchovies), prosciutto and salsiccia (sausage). It also goes against the grain of the Italian cooking philosophy to mix too many ingredients, so you’ll get one slice with an anchovy on it and the next with a basil leaf, etc. Capricciosa is a nice full style of pizza toppings, made with mozzarella, prosciutto cotto, mushrooms, artichokes and tomatoes.
Note that “pepperoni”, as we understand it in the context of pizza, doesn’t exist. Peperoni just means “peppers” as in bell peppers (and chilli peppers are peperonicini), while what we think of as pepperoni is similar – but not the same – to what is called salame piccante, or salsiccia piccante.
Dolci – Desserts
Rome doesn’t really have any super-famous signature desserts, but tiramisu is always a winner, and there are some amazing Sicilian pastry shops and gelaterie in the city.
Other terms to look out for
Guanciale: pork jowl – cured like bacon and absolutely delicious.
Minestra: vegetable soup.
Nervi: a dish made from cows’ nerves with mint. If you like this kind of food adventure go for it, but though I’ve tried all of the offal Rome has to offer, I don’t really want to again.
Panino: word for sandwich, usually in a bread roll (which is the literal meaning of panino: small loaf).
Pizza bianca: not actually a pizza! It’s flattish bread, dressed with salt, similar to what we refer to as focaccia
Pizza prosciutto e fichi: a piece of pizza bianca cut down the middle and filled with cured ham and figs
Porchetta (pork-ETT-a): whole roast pig, stuffed with herbs, roasted and thinly sliced. Often served in a panino. Highly recommended.
Salsa: just means sauce.
Sugo: also means sauce, often tomato-based.
Tartufo: truffles, either nero (black) or bianco (white)
Tramezzino: a triangular white-bread sandwich with various fairly conservative fillings served in bars.
Trippa: tripe (cow’s stomach).
So hungry after writing this…