Here’s the terrible truth about sandwiches in Rome: in my opinion as a sandwich-lover, they’re either absolutely fabulous, or they’re very uninspiring indeed.
Alas the vast majority of places that serve them in Rome have really sucky sandwiches – but read on to find out where the really incredible ones are.
Disappointing sandwiches in Rome
Most bars (cafés) only sell panini and tramezzini, which were pre-made and left sitting long before you arrive:
Panini (which just means ‘bread rolls’ – plural) are not the flatbread with the misapproriated name served in many other countries, but rather they tend to be hard and dry bread rolls with tough crusts and scant fillings, and no dressing. If the little sign next to them says “panino con il prosciutto crudo” then this means one or two slices of cured ham will be literally all that will be in it. If it says “formaggio” then you will get one or two thin slices of cheese, and nothing else. Sometimes, maybe, a wilting piece of lettuce.
Similarly a tramezzino is a pale imitation of the sort of square-bread-based sandwich you can get in other parts of the world. Triangular cut, heavy on mayonnaise, they are made early, usually in a factory offsite, using industrial white bread and cheap ingredients. They sit in piles in the refrigerated part of the bar under a single napkin, getting stale until lunchtime. They do tend to have slightly more ingredients in them than panini, such as egg and tomato, ham and cheese, salami and egg, etc. You buy them by the half-slice.
There are a few bars that make the tramezzini in-house and use better ingredients – but even then the bread is poor quality and often allowed to go stale.
Worse still are the tramezzini that are sold in supermarkets and vending machines. These are made with a type of bread that has been cured in alcohol to make it sterile, and then dried. It lasts for months and tastes dreadful. This type of sandwich will be sealed in a plastic box and may have a sell-by date three months in the future.
Good sandwiches in Rome
On the flipside Rome has really, really good sandwiches: gourmet sandwich shops, trapizzini (and its imitators), and pizze ripiene (stuffed pizza).
Great “regular” sandwich places include Roscioli, Panino Divino, All’Antico Vinaio, Il Panino Ingegnoso, and various other independent places, which offer a variety of interesting filling combinations, usually based on local ingredients, and a choice of different fresh breads.
Meanwhile trapizzini are triangles of fluffy pizza bianca (similar to foccaccia), split and filled with a traditional Italian secondo (protein & sauce). They’re sensational, albeit difficult to eat. Branches of Trapizzino are all over the city – from the birthplace of the chain in Testaccio, to Mercato Centrale in Termini station, to Ponte Milvio.
Trapizzino (the name is a mash-up of pizza and tramezzino) is a registered trademark – but it has nevertheless spawned various places ‘inspired’ by the form that have to market themselves under different names, such as the Vesperino, and very notably Mordi & Vai in Testaccio.
Mention must also be made of simple but glorious sandwiches made with porchetta, hog roasted with herbs, usually served on its own in a hard pane tartaruga (turtle roll) – but so savory and unctuous that it needs no dressing at all.
We also give a shout-out to many pizza al taglio places that sell pizze farcite or pizza ripiene – again slices of pizza bianca but this time usually the thinner Roman style – usually very fresh – split and filled with various proteins and salads such as tuna and radicchio, chicken salad, and if you’re lucky, fichi e prosciutto crudo when figs are in season.
Hamburgers and hot dogs in Rome
Italy’s awesome beef production has given rise to some of the most delicious hamburgers on the planet. Rather than industrial offcuts seen in many anglophone countries, the beef used in Italian burger restaurants – even the chains – tends to be high-quality steak, often ground as you wait. If you order a burger in a regular restaurant you may be surprised to find it served without bread, but there are places such as Smash Tag, Hamburgeseria, The Butcher’s Shop, Ham Holy Burger, and the vegetarian Flower Burger chain, that do burger in a bun, often with innovative Italian ingredients.
In Rome there is also a native Italian, very special and unusual fast food place based on the cuisine of Calabria, called Mi’Ndujo that serves its own brand of burgers made from fresh (and often spicy) Calabrian ingredients. Highly recommended.
Less positively, this author has seen hot dogs served occasionally in bars and at events around Rome. Unlike burgers, this dish has never been taken to heart by local chefs, and they are therefore invariably disappointing.
Finally, we suggest avoiding any Italian place that purports to serve ‘American’ food such as the Old Wild West chain, as it is always dreadful – and for sure avoid foreign fast food joints such as Five Guys the inevitable McD’s.
Nevertheless, while most sandwiches in Rome are best avoided, just a quick scratch at the crust (pun intended) will reveal true sandwich gems, and should send you running for innovative, fresh Italian recipes rather than the mass-produced, mediocre fare of both Italian sandwich production, and international junk food.