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.
In this guide 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 local to the area.
Food in Italy is also very seasonal. Sometimes you’ll see something on the menu that is just not available for most of the year (but the locals will know this). Don’t be outraged: it’s something that ensures you get the freshest ingredients too, usually from nearby farms, and you can be assured of the freshness. It’s so important, in fact, that by law if something in a restaurant has been frozen, it will be identified with an asterisk on the menu.
The four standard courses of a typical Italian restaurant meal are antipasto (appetizer), primo (pasta), secondo (meat/protein) served with contorni (sides), and dolce (dessert). Note that while you can have each one of the four courses available, most Italians will tend to skip one or two of them in order not to over-eat.
Salads are often served after the main course, unless they’re an insalatone (big salad) that is designed to take the place of one course. At the bottom of this article you will find other, more general terms you’re likely to see on a restaurant menu.
One thing to note: if you’re used to huge portions of pasta (the “family style” of serving dishes, common to Italian-American restaurants, is not common here – in most restaurants each person gets an individual portion) you may be surprised at how little you’re given – instead, take the opportunity to revel in the al dente texture and fresh flavors.
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. Seasonal.
Carciofo alla giudia: Jewish artichoke – a speciality of the Ghetto – the whole artichoke flower and some of the stem, deep-fried. Seasonal.
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, 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.
*A note on these fresh cheeses: though burrata , bufala and scamorza can be sourced from southern 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 because they’re available in Rome.
Primi – First Courses (pasta dishes)
There are three ‘classic’ Roman pastas, cooked with an absolutist attitude towards ingredients. If you want authenticity you must not remove or substitute ingredients, nor add any garlic, cream, peas, mushrooms etc. (At home you can of course add/remove/change all you want, but then you are NOT permitted to use the names below. It’s like saying “this is strawberry jam but made with blueberries” – so it’s blueberry jam. Same as if you change the recipe of a classic dish – probably delicious but doesn’t have the same name. Please don’t make our mammas cry.)
Carbonara: the king of classic Roman pastas, made with guanciale (cured pork jowl), eggs, pepper and pecorino cheese. You may find carbonara made outside Rome using pancetta and parmigiano but then it isn’t ‘alla romana’.
Amatriciana: guanciale in a tomato-based sauce, occasionally seasoned with a little chilli pepper. (Per its name, the recipe is actually from Amatrice but has been adopted by grateful Romans.)
Cacio e pepe: pasta in a tangy sauce made with pecorino cheese and and a lot of pepper.
Pasta alla gricia: a little less commonly found than the three dishes above, this is sort of a combination of cacio e pepe and carbonara – it’s pasta in a sauce made with guanciale in a cheesy, peppery pecorino sauce.
Note that the shape of pasta you get in these dishes in Rome is often secondary to the choice of sauce; though the first two, while sometimes served with long pasta, are usually served with penne or rigatoni (medium-sized tubes), cacio e pepe and gricia are often made with a longer pasta such as linguini or spaghetti. You also find any of the above served with ‘strozzapreti’, which are short twisted bits of very fresh al dente pasta with a name that literally means ‘priest-stranglers’.
Secondi – Main Courses/Entrees
This is just a tiny selection of the dozens of secondi available in Rome.
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.
Trippa: a member of the ‘quinto quarto’ (literally ‘fifth quarter’ – offal, much loved by real Romans), this is tripe, in other words cow’s stomach.
Note that in most restaurants when you order these dishes, you only get what’s offered on the menu: they don’t usually come with their own vegetables. You should also therefore order contorni (sides) to go with them.
Contorni – side dishes
Usually ordered to go with a secondo piatto, you can also order any of the below on their own – restaurants are pretty flexible about which dishes you order (as long as you don’t try to change the recipe!). Handy to know if you’re a vegetarian in particular. For all of the vegetables list below, on the menu you’ll also see the cooking method listed too. Anything in padella is pan-fried with a little garlic and chilli. Al forno or arrosto is oven-roasted. Saltato means stir-fried.
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. Seasonal – generally only found in the fall. Really, really fresh tasting, and absolutely delicious.
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 tiramisù is always a winner, and there are some amazing Sicilian pastry shops and gelaterie in the city. And of course there’s the amazing gelato, found everywhere.
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.
So hungry after writing this…
Now see for yourself and book a food tour in the historic center of Rome. Eat, drink, learn, have fun!