I didn’t know what to expect when eating out in Rome, but being a huge foodie, I was certainly looking forward to the experience. After all, pizza and pasta are among the most popular dishes in the world, making Italian cuisine a global powerhouse.
I took some time to put together a list of restaurants to try and spared no sources: travel guides, locals, Anthony Bourdain, Google reviews, you name it. And after sitting down for dozens of meals across the city in average-priced restaurants (around 25 EUR per person), this is what I’ve learned about eating out in Rome.
Burrata antipasto from La Tavernaccia a Testaccio
Rome for foodies: the do’s and don’ts of dining out
The five-course meal
Meals are usually split into five courses, beginning with an antipasto, which can consist of fried or marinated vegetables, or cured meats and cheese. Then a primo (a pasta dish), followed by a secondo (some form of stewed or roasted meat) with a contorno (a side dish). Finally, a dessert or dolce (from Tiramisu to Panna cotta, but always incredibly sweet).
Unless you have a raging appetite or plan to sit down for a three-hour meal, you’ll most likely only have two or three dishes. Sharing is also an option, as this is not frowned upon. After dinner coffee usually means espresso. But the meal really ends with a digestive or digestif (limoncello, amaro, or grappa).
Traditional trattoria in Rome
The difference between osteria, trattoria, and ristorante
Eateries in Rome are usually referred to as either osteria, trattoria, or ristorante. Historically, osterias were informal taverns where drinks were served and people would bring their food, whilst trattorias operated as casual places to eat. Ristorantes, on the other hand, would offer a more sophisticated dining experience. Nowadays, the significance of those titles has primarily disappeared and can be used interchangeably.
The use of seasonal ingredients
Some restaurants have a modern take on Roman cuisine. Others have been serving the same dish for decades. But because meals are generally prepared with fresh, seasonal, and simple ingredients, alternatives tend to be similar around town.
Moreover, certain foods are only served on specific days of the week (Thursdays are for gnocchi, Fridays for cod, and Saturdays for tripe). Avoid tourist traps by having a quick browse at the menu beforehand. If you spot several non-Roman dishes, such as spaghetti and meatballs, run!
Seasonal produce at Testaccio Market
Pasta is served al dente
I like my pasta softer (some may say overcooked), but in Italy pasta is served al dente (to the tooth). This means it will be quite firm to bite. If your taste is similar to mine, it may take some getting used to its consistency.
Reservations and service
I would advise you to always book a table in advance. If you just show up, even if you do so early, you may be out of luck. Popular restaurants can get very busy, and service standards are different. Don’t expect friendly or attentive staff to be the norm.
Cacio e Pepe in Parmesan basket from Roma Sparita
English is not widely spoken outside the main tourist areas. Unless you have internet access, I’d suggest you look up the menu in advance to learn what’s available.
Tipping and extra charges
Tipping is not as widespread in Rome as in other European cities. Some restaurants can include a servizio (service charge). Either way, it is common practice to leave the extra change behind as a sign of appreciation.
A few places may also have an additional charge, or coperto, which is a flat rate of two to three euros, just for sitting down for a meal. This custom dates back to the traditional osterias.
Occasionally, restaurants may charge for pane (bread), even if you didn’t ask for it. Tap water is not standardly offered in Rome, so expect to pay a couple of euros for a bottle of naturale (still) or frizzante (sparkling).
Many shops and restaurants remain closed during August
And to wrap up my Rome for foodies guide, beware of opening times as they vary throughout the year. Some restaurants will shut their doors during August, for the summer holidays. Many restaurants close one day a week, as well as in the afternoon. To my surprise, I found this day to be Wednesday on more than one occasion, and Sunday far less common.
Overall, food plays a major role in the Roman lifestyle. Learning what to eat and when to eat it is a great way to embrace the culture. In the end, what I’ve learned about eating out in Rome is that it is not just about the food. It’s an opportunity to slow down, bond through meaningful conversations, and ultimately, just relish life.
I hope my Rome for foodies post gave you a good glimpse of dining etiquette and customs. Let me know your thoughts using the comment section below.