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Know Before You Go: How To Dine in Rome Like a Local

Your cheat sheet for dining out in the Eternal City.
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Erica is an experienced travel and lifestyle journalist, author, content strategist, and podcaster based in Rome. Italian and American, Erica seeks out real-time, authentic stories for Ciao Bella and Ciao Bella podcast. Additionally, she is the editor of content of ISSIMO, an Italy-focused lifestyle platform; contributing editor to Fathom; and a regular contributor to The Washington Post, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, BBC Travel, The Guardian, and more, covering travel, art, design, culture, hotels, food, and wine. As an author, she has penned more than a dozen travel books for Fodor’s, Insight Guides, and Lonely Planet. Check out her recent work, and find all of her articles on Contently.

With long menus and busy waiters, for foreigners, eating out in Rome can be daunting, but as any Roman will tell you, it’s about knowing what you want, keeping it simple, and sometimes just asking for help. Whether it’s decoding an Italian menu, trying traditional Roman dishes, or what to do about tipping, our cheat sheet takes the guesswork out of how to order food in Italy and gives you the essential tips for eating Italian style.

Which type of restaurant should I eat at in Rome?

Outside view of Ristorante Dolce Vita in Rome
Evening in Piazza Navona in Rome.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

One thing's for sure, there's no shortage of dining establishments in Rome.

You’ll come across a few names for places to eat in Italy, and much like a diner, a restaurant, and a café, each dining establishment provides a different experience, and so too do the ristorantes, trattorias, and osterias of Rome. While they all offer the same sit-down service, the differences between each place to eat are as follows:

Ristorante: Usually upscale in nature, ristorantes showcase Roman high cuisine. Think formal service, innovative menus, formal service, and, if you’re so inclined, a Michelin star or two.

Trattoria: A less formal and less expensive option, trattorias are typically what come to mind when we think of eating out in Rome. Elevating Roman cuisine while retaining its renowned simplicity, the trattoria offers a postcard-worthy Italian dining experience.

Osteria: Traditionally a wine bar, the humble osteria has since evolved into a simple dining experience in Rome too. Small plates of simple food to share are typically on the menu, making osterias great for trying local Roman delicacies as you explore Rome’s top sights.

Finally, there’s one more place to eat in Rome you’ll be craving to try, the pasticceria. Serving Rome’s best pastries and baked goods, a pasticceria is the perfect place to try a sweet cornetto or the renowned maritozzo.

How many courses are there in an Italian dinner?

Antipasti at Restaurant Da Enzo in Rome
Antipasti at Restaurant Da Enzo in Rome.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

There are four standard courses (detailed below) but you definitely don't have to order all four if you aren't hungry.

An Italian menu can appear completely overwhelming. Primi, secondi, cortorni, and dolce can make a meal seem never-ending. Luckily, you can pick and choose which courses you want, or you can spend a leisurely few hours enjoying them all; dining in Rome is all about doing it your way.

If you’re feeling a little daunted by what each course entails, here’s our cheat sheet for an Italian menu:

  • Antipasti: Consists of small dishes that can be shared or enjoyed as an amuse-bouche-style plate. Anchovies, olives, artichokes, and cheese are typical Roman antipasti.
  • Primi: Primi means "first" in Italian. It's not quite a starter, yet not quite a main, primi dishes are usually pasta, rice, or soup dishes.
  • Secondi: Secondi means "second" in Italian and usually consists of meat or fish dishes. Secondi is sometimes split into pesce (fish) and carne (meat) courses, with fish being served before meat.
  • Cortorni: Not a course as such, cortorni means "side dish" and usually makes up the vegetable side dishes to accompany your secondi.
  • Dolce: Simply translated as “sweet,” dolce is the course for dessert lovers.
  • Digestivo: A course of after-dinner drinks to settle the stomach, digestivo is the ideal way to end your Italian meal.

Looking at a menu, you might think Romans never stop eating. However, the locals rarely eat a full five- or six-course meal. So, how do you dine like a local in Rome? An antipasto and a primo or secondo will usually suffice as a meal, or skip the antipasto and save space for your favorite dolce instead.

If you’re looking to eat light in Italy, Milanese food writer Sara Porro advises ordering “two antipasti, since the antipasto is generally a small portion. Or ask for a mezzo porzione (half portion), which normally costs anywhere from 50% to 75% of a regular serving.”

What should I order for dinner in Rome?

cacio e pepe is a simple pasta sauce made by tossing a mix of pecorino Romano and parmigiano reggiano cheese with pasta water over freshly cooked spaghetti.
Dinner service at a trattoria.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

Don't leave Rome without tasting at least one of the four iconic dishes the Eternal City is known for.

Now that you understand the menu, it’s time to decide what to eat in Rome. Each Italian region has its own delicacies, and Rome is no exception, from world-renowned pasta sauces to humble vegetable dishes. One of the best things to do in Rome is take a cooking class to get a true appreciation for Italian food, but if you’re dining out, these are the best dishes to try.

Rome is known for four iconic pasta dishes. Whether you try them all or not, it’s good to know what you’re ordering:

  • Cacio e pepe: Now world-famous, cacio e pepe is a simple pasta sauce made by tossing a mix of pecorino Romano and parmigiano reggiano cheese with pasta water over freshly cooked spaghetti. It is then seasoned generously with freshly cracked black peppery.
  • Pasta alla Gricia: The addition of guanciale (salt-cured pig cheek) to cacio e pepe makes pasta alla Gricia a rich and coveted Roman pasta dish.
  • Carbonara: Unlike the cream-laden versions found in America and the UK, traditional pasta alla carbonara is simply made with a sauce of egg yolk, which cooks as it is added to the hot pasta, fried guanciale, and Pecorino Romano cheese.
  • all’Amatriciana: Traditionally, this sauce comes from Amatrice in Lazio, but has long been a staple of Roman cuisine. The addition of passata sauce to the alla Gricia base makes this dish less cream yet utterly irresistible.

There are two types of Roman artichoke dishes worth trying. Enjoyed across Italy, the carciofi (artichoke) has become a must-try dish when visiting Rome. Prepared two ways, we suggest trying both before you leave the Eternal City.

  • Carciofi alla guida: Hailing from the Jewish ghetto in from, carciofi alla guida is a crispy fried artichoke with a meltingly soft center.
  • Carciofi alla Romana: A softer, more yielding dish, carciofi alla Romana is an enticing, pan-braised artichoke often flavored with garlic.

Of course, you must try a traditional Roman dessert. The maritozzo is a can’t-miss treat when visiting the Italian capital. Originally made by Roman wives for their laborer husbands (maritozzo translates to husband in English), this sweet bun is filled with enough rich cream to keep you going while you explore Rome’s ancient sights.

Is dining out with kids in Rome easy?

An outdoor family meal on a Rome side street
An outdoor family meal on a Rome side street.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

Kids are always welcome at the table in Rome.

If you’re on a kid-friendly adventure in Italy, you’ll want to know they’re well-catered for. In true Italian style, Roman restaurant staff treat every meal like a family affair. Children are always welcome at the table, so the staff are usually very accommodating to young guests and can help you choose the best dishes for kids to try. Most restaurants in Rome don’t provide a kids' menu, so if size matters, ask for a mezzo porzione (half portion). Parents of kids with particular preferences need to simply ask for pasta bianca (plain pasta).

Related: Top Things to Do in Rome with Kids

Frequently asked questions

A server brings out food at a restaurant in Rome.
A server bringing food to an outdoor seating area.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

Everything you need to know about dining etiquette in Rome.

Should you tip your waiter in Rome? An eternal debate among travelers, should you tip and when to do it, can often make the end of a meal awkward. Luckily, Rome, true to nature, keeps this custom simple. The general rule is that you don’t have to tip in Roman restaurants.

However, you might still be impressed by the service and want to leave a small tip. Roman locals will often leave a few Euros on a table when leaving a restaurant, which can be a good way to shed those pesky coins before you head home. In a high-end ristorante, you might want to add 10% to your bill for exceptional service, but there’s no obligation here either.

One thing to note on your bill is the coperto, or cover charge, you find on the check that jumps the price up. Often listed as pane (bread) or servizio (service), this is not a built-in tip but a per-person service charge that covers the cost of bread, place settings, table service, and other unquantifiable aspects of the hospitality. Even if you don’t eat the bread (or ask for the bread to be removed from the table), the sitting charge will still be included.

What time do Romans eat dinner? Roman locals tend to work long hours, pushing dinner back until around 8pm. Although this is fairly common across Southern Europe, it might take getting used to for some travelers.

Whether at a chic trattoria or innovative ristorante, dinner is often the main event of the evening, and it’s not uncommon to see locals dining through midnight. However, if you’re only ordering an antipasto and a pasta dish, you’ll probably be finished at a more respectable hour.

If you’re finding yourself far too hungry for dinner at eight, then fear not. The clever Italians often indulge in a post-work, pre-dinner aperitivo. You could compare the tradition of aperitivo with happy hour; however, in classic Italian style, the joy of aperitivo is centered around food and community.

What's the best way to enjoy an aperitivo in Rome? Best enjoyed with friends or family, you can enjoy an authentic aperitivo by grabbing a table at any of the bars or trattorias surrounding the piazzas at around 6.30pm. Let your waiter know you’re there for aperitivo and small snacks such as olives, cured meats, fresh bread, and cheese will be served alongside your choice of drink. For a true taste of Italy, choose an Aperol spritz or Campari soda, then sit back and do what Romans do best: Enjoy “la dolce vita” or the sweet life, and watch the city go by.

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