Not all dishes in Italy are alike. It may seem like the same pasta and pizza, but every region has its own specialties. Each region is as fanatic about their dishes as they are about their soccer teams. Like proud parents, I found that Italians boast about these dishes and how the local ingredients impart a flavor “impossible to replicate” anywhere else in Italy, let alone the rest of the world. I ran into these proud locals everywhere in Italy, and Rome was no different. Rome’s just bigger, so there are more local dishes and more braggarts. From these braggarts I learned the nuances of each Roman pasta dish and a few places to eat them in the eternal city.
Key ingredients to several Roman pasta dishes are pecorino Romano cheese and guanciale (meat from the pig’s cheek). Pecorino is a hard sheep’s milk cheese. Similar in texture to parmigiano, but it’s sharper and saltier. Guanciale, similar to pancetta but made with the pig's jowl instead of belly, is sweeter and has a more fatty flavor. Purists believe the pasta dishes of Rome are not authentic without it (no pancetta substitutions for them). Chili peppers (peperoncini) and black pepper are used in many of the dishes, too.
There are two types of pasta in Rome that aren't as prevalent elsewhere, bucatini and tonnarelli. Bucatini (which translates to little hole) is long pasta, a little thicker than spaghetti with a hole in the center. You cannot slurp up the long strands, so you better get deft at your pasta and fork twirling before eating this without making a mess. Tonnarelli is a thicker, more squared, version of spaghetti. When you find a restaurant where they make it in house, many times in the cacio e pepe dish, it’s a good bet to order it. You'll also see spaghetti, penne, and rigatoni, as you would throughout Italy.
Romans combine a few ingredients in different ways to come up with their pasta dishes. Below is a list of the pasta dishes of Rome and a little explanation of each.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara – Roman classic made with pecorino cheese, guanciale or pancetta, parmigiano cheese, black pepper and eggs. When the eggs and cheese hit the hot pasta they combine to make a creamy sauce that clings to each strand of spaghetti.
Bucatini all’ Amatriciana – After carbonara, this may be the next most popular pasta from Rome. It’s made with guanciale, pecorino Romano cheese, tomatoes, chili peppers (peperoncini), black pepper and a little wine. Purists will say that onions do not go in this dish, but many places add them. Guanciale is the key to this dish; and pancetta shouldn't be substituted here.
Bucatini alla gricia – Even more ancient than amatriciana, it’s made with pecorino cheese, black pepper, and guanciale. It’s amatriciana without the tomatoes, made before tomatoes were brought to Italy from America.
Cacio e Pepe - A spicy version of the American mac and cheese. Two ingredients added to the pasta – pecorino and black pepper combine to make a creamy and peppery sauce.
Rigatoni con Pajata - An ancient dish and part of cucina povera (food of the poor). It has a tomato-based sauce made with intestines from a suckling lamb. The milk has just begun to digest (ok, don't think about it, just eat it) adding a ricotta-like consistency, sweetness and milkiness to the sauce.
Penne all’ Arrabbiata – Arrabbiata means angry, and this dish is called angry because it’s extra spicy. Very much like amatriciana, made with tomatoes, chili peppers, guanciale and pecorino. This dish has less guanciale and more peppers than amatriciana.
Pasta alla Coda Vaccinara– Ragu made from braised oxtail stew. It’s rich and dense, with a deep meaty flavor. One of the best meat sauces I've ever tasted.
Pasta alla Papalina– Similar to carbonara but uses prosciutto (cured pork) instead of guanciale and has pecorino, parmigiano and eggs like carbonara. Peas are commonly added to the dish.
Fettucine Doppio Burro – This dish was created by a chef in Rome named Alfredo, who made it for his pregnant wife. The restaurant Alfredo alla Scorfa is still open. The sauce is a combination of pecorino cheese and butter. Butter is added before and after dishing the pasta, and the cheese and butter emulsify to make the “sauce.” There is no such thing as Alfredo sauce in Italy, but some say this as close as you will get to one.
Gnocchi– Gnocchi made from semolina flour is Roman, but wait for Thursdays. On Thursdays many restaurants in Rome make potato gnocchi fresh and in-house. Known as Gnocchi Giovedi (Thurday Gnocchi), these are the gnocchi of Rome I prefer.
Like any other tourist city, Rome has its traps, too many of them in the center . I've been lucky to get guidance from Romans, expats and other bloggers in Rome. Below are 10 of my favorite spots for eating some of Rome’s delectable dishes of pasta.
UPDATE: After two trips to Rome in 2011 and more pasta eating, I have new favorites and need to make some changes to the list. Below is my revised Top 10 trattorie as of December, 2011.
Capo di Ferro - (Piazza San Cosimato in Trastevere) Dense, rich and meaty rigatoni alla coda vaccinara was awesome. They also make a good bucatini all’ amatriciana. It's just north of the piazza with few tables outside and several inside.
Da Danilo - (Via Petrarca 13) One of the best carbonara in Rome. This trattoria, a little away from the center in Esquilino, serves up traditional Roman pasta and secondi.
Agustarello Testaccio (Via Giovanni Branca 98 in Testaccio) One of the places to go for offal dishes in Testaccio, they make a good rigatoni con pajata along with the carbonara and amatriciana.
Felice a Testaccio - (Via Mastro Giorgio 29 in Testaccio ) First time there, I tried to walk up and get seated. I was alone and clearly a foreigner, so they didn’t seat me, even though there were plenty of empty tables—all with reserved signs. After several phone attempts I was successful. I think only because my Roman friend called to make reservations and joined me. All the pasta plates are fantastic, especially the cacio e pepe. They have an award-winning tiramisu’ that is a decadent end to a great meal.
Flavio al Velavevodetto - (via Monte Testaccio 97) - Flavio, once a cook at Felice, reopened this restaurant previously named Velavevodetto (Roman dialect for I told you so) and added his name to it. The osteria, built into the Testaccio hill of broken amphorae. You can see part of the hill from the dining room. They make delicious Roman pasta dishes. I especially liked the amatriciana. They also serve up classic Roman secondi and have a variety of house specialties, too.
Settimio al Pelligrino (via del Pellegrino 117 near Campo dei Fiori ) Family-owned restaurant where you must ring the doorbell to enter. They make Roman dishes in a casalinga (homemade) style, and every Thursday mamma makes pillow-like gnocchi.
Da Bucatino (via della Robbia Luca, 84/86 in Testaccio ) This casual corner trattoria was near my apartment, and I went there many times for the bucatini all’ amatriciana. My first time there, they gave me a bib to eat the bucatini, and were shocked when not one drop of sauce landed anywhere on the table, me or the bib. The waiters look like a cast from Grumpy Old Men, but their hearts are as big as their stomachs. The rigatoni con pajata is also very good.
Taverna Trilussa - (via del Politeama 23/25) In the heart of Trastevere, this taverna makes a good amatriciana, gricia and tonnarelli cacio e pepe. Their fried antipasti are a great start, too.
Roma Sparita - (Piazza Santa Cecilia in Trastevere) I was told by several Romans this is the place for Cacio e Pepe in Rome, and it is. The trattoria is in a piazza in a quiet part of Trastevere.
Da Gino - (Vicolo Rosini 4 north of the Pantheon ) Gnocchi on Thursday are one of the best I had in Rome. They also make a great carbonara with house-made tonnarelli, and the house dish of tonnarelli alla ciociara is Gino's most popular dish. The place is hidden away in an alleyway but packed with locals. I think I was the only American in the place. You dine under murals and on cloth covered tables, banging elbows with those jammed next to you.