If you have eaten at a Roman restaurant at any point in the past 10 years, you have probably asked yourself what the hell people are talking about when they bang on about locals eating small portions. Pasta servings have been growing steadily since the arrival of the euro, when purse strings began to tighten and dining patterns began their slow and likely irreversible change. Back in the day, wallets (and stomachs) could accommodate long, multi-course meals. But now, budget-conscious Romans go out to eat far less frequently, and when they do, they order fewer dishes.
Seeking to fill seats, restaurants attract patrons by pumping up their pasta portions. Many exceed 150 grams (5 ounces), about double the average pre-euro serving. In another break from tradition, many Romans now make a meal out of just pasta and a side dish–epic five-course meals are a thing of the past–so never feel pressure to order every course. I certainly don’t, nor would I be physical capable of eating so much food…and I can eat. Here are my top 10 Roman pasta dishes (plus runners up), all equally delicious, and some more abundant than others:
Cesare al Casaletto: Rigatoni co’ la pajata (the intestines of milk fed veal)
Pajata, the cooked intestines of unweaned calves, is one of the cornerstones of Rome’s quinto quarto (organ meat) tradition. Though it was banned until earlier this year, there was a small black market for this delicacy, which is tied into rings and simmered in tomato sauce. The heat transforms the mothers milk into a ricotta-like substance inside the intestinal casing. The cooked pajata is then tossed with rigatoni and dusted with grated Pecorino Romano. At Cesare al Casaletto, Leonardo Vignoli’s rigatoni alla pajata is the always flawlessly balanced. Also Awesome: Gricia; Fettuccine with chicken innards.
Armando al Pantheon: Ajo, Ojo e Peperoncino (garlic, oil, chili)
Claudio Gargioli, the chef-owner of Armando al Pantheon (Salita dè Crescenzi 31, +39 06 6880 3034), calls this dish “pasta dei cornuti” (cuckold’s pasta) based on the local lore that adulterous wives would whip it up quickly, having spent their day otherwise engaged, to distract their unsuspecting husbands. The dish is certainly quick to make, but it takes plenty of practice to properly marry the flavors. Claudio gently cooks garlic in olive oil, infuses the oil with chili, then adds a large ladle of pasta water to the pan, reducing to concentrate the starch. The pasta is then finished in the watery sauce, which reduced further to intensify the garlic and chili flavors and bind them to the pasta. The finished dish is subtly creamy and mildly spicy with a pleasant garlicky finish. Also Awesome: Spaghetti alla Gricia.
Flavio al Velavevodetto: Cacio e Pepe
Flavio De Maio of Flavio al Velavevodetto (Via di Monte Testaccio 97, +39 06 574 4194) got a late start in professional kitchens. After a career in tech, he changed gears to join the Roman institution Felice a Testaccio where, guided by Felice himself, he perfected the trattoria’s forte: cacio e pepe, pasta tossed with finely grated Pecorino Romano and coarsely ground black pepper. After Felice’s passing in 2009, Flavio opened his own place in Testaccio where he serves a variation of his maestro’s recipe, blending a thick paste of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano with hot tonnarelli, a splash of pasta water, and pepper. The thick and creamy result is delightfully savory and perfectly piquant, a clear sign that Flavio learned from the best. Also Awesome: Rigatoni alla Carbonara; Ajo, ojo e peperoncino.
Pipero al Rex: Spaghetti alla Carbonara
At Pipero al Rex (Via Torino 149; +39 06 481 5702), chef Luciano Monosilo serves contemporary cuisine influenced by his time in Italy’s top Michelin-starred restaurants. But his greatest dish is Rome’s most iconic: spaghetti alla carbonara. Monosilo’s secret to an exceptional carbonara is, not surprisingly, his technique. He warms a mixture of egg yolks, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and black pepper in a bain-marie, then adds the pasta off the heat, and tosses vigorously with crispy cubes of guanciale and some (not all!) of its rendered fat. Purists might scoff at this slightly lighter version, but the proof is in the pasta. Also Awesome: Cappelletti in Brodo.
Colline Emiliane: Tortelli di Zucca (pasta filled with pumpkin)
Few places in Rome have been able to maintain high quality in the face of decades of hype. Colline Emiliane (Via degli Avignonesi 22, +39 06 481 7538) is a rare breed. The owners, the Latini family, have been serving the rich foods of their native region of Emilia Romagna at this unassuming place near the Trevi Fountain since 1967. They dedicate hours a day to prepping and rolling their egg-based pastas, transforming some of it into tortelli stuffed with pumpkin. The boiled pasta is finished with butter and sage, creating a flawless sweet, savory, and herbal union. Also Awesome: Lasagna.
Da Danilo: Strozzapreti al Lard di Colonnata e Pecorino di Fossa (with cured lard and cave-aged cheese)
Danilo Valente and his mother Lina are known for their Roman classics like carbonara and cacio e pepe. And if you visit Da Danilo (Via Petrarca 13, +39 06 7720 0111), you should order those, too. But never skip their Tuscany-inspired Strozzapreti al Lardo di Colonnata e Pecorino di Fossa. A supremely light tomato sauce is enriched with softened ribbons of cured fatback, then tossed with strozzapreti, twisted strands of a simple flour and water pasta. The plated dish is finished with freshly grated sharp aged sheep’s milk cheese, which balances the unctuous lard. Also Awesome: Carbonara, cacio e pepe.
L’Arcangelo: Gnocchi alla Matriciana (potato gnocchi with tomato, guanciale and Pecorino Romano)
While potato gnocchi in Rome got their start as a Thursday-only dish, these diminutive dumplings are now served all week long in many venues across town. Unfortunately, most are heavy and gluey and lack the ideally pillowy texture. At L’Arcangelo in Prati, chef Arcangelo Dandini has gained a cult following for his supremely light potato gnocchi, which surpass all others in flavor and texture. He dresses them sparsely with a gently cooked fresh tomato sauce, strips of guanciale and Pecorino Romano. While a some call this condiment “amatriciana” and attribute its origins to the town of Amatrice 100 miles northeast of Rome, Dandini rejects this as urban legend and instead calls the dish “matriciana.” Also Awesome: the seasonal summer dish, a sort of ridged fettuccine with chicken livers and gizzards.
Tavernaccia da Bruno: Lasagne Cotte nel Forno al Legna (wood oven baked lasagna)
Back in the day, fresh, egg-based pastas were associated exclusively with festive occasions. This custom is certainly waning in favor of an instant gratification culture, but what tradition has lost, Tavernaccia da Bruno’s (Via Giovanni da Castel Bolognese 63, +39 06 581 2792) clients have gained in the form of luscious layers of lasagna, bechamel, and meat sauce. It is a regular item. The Roman-Umbrian trattoria-pizzeria is Trastevere’s best kept secret thanks, in part, to their wood-fired oven, which is put to excellent use. Also Awesome: pappardelle with squab.
Il Sanlorenzo: Spaghetti alle Vongole Veraci (with clams)
In spite of its proximity to the sea, Romans historically didn’t eat much fresh fish and even today, going out for pesce is an occasion. Il Sanlorenzo (Via dei Chiavari 4/5, +39 06 686 5097) in the Centro Storico is an elegant destination for such a pescatarian outing. The menu changes according to seasonal availability. And when the local clams are sweet and plump, they are served with spaghetti, garlic, chili, and oil. The Spaghetti alle Vongole Veraci is a dish that is surprisingly complex in spite of its simplicity, thanks to the unmatched freshness of the clams. Also Awesome: Pasta with razor clams.
Roscioli: Rigatoni Burro e Parmigiano (Butter and Aged Parmigiano-Reggiano)
As if pasta with butter and Parmigiano weren’t simple and delicious enough on its own, Roscioli had to go ahead and improve on the quintessential comfort food. True to its roots as a purveyor of fine foods, Roscioli (Via dei Giubbonari 21, +39 06 687 5287) takes Rigatoni con Burro e Parmigiano to the next level with top-notch bronze-extruded pasta, Echiré butter, and a blend of 30- and 36-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano. Also Awesome: Spaghetti alla Carbonara and Rigatoni alla Gricia.