When someone told me before I left for study abroad in Rome that “all they eat in Italy is pizza and pasta,” I was ecstatic; at home, especially as a vegetarian, my diet revolves around mainly carbs, and eating pasta almost on a daily basis has become a routine. Upon arriving in Italy, I discovered that eating carb-heavy meals was not just a regular occurrence, but a way of life, and that in fact, Italians do eat more than just pasta and pizza.
From what I have observed in my almost month-long time in Rome is that the process of eating is much more of an “event” than it is in America. In Rome, it is encouraged to spend multiple hours at a restaurant to eat your food, drink wine, have a post-dinner cappuccino or digestif, and chat with friends. Waitstaff won’t rush you out of a table like they sometimes do at the Cheesecake Factory. Food comes in multiple courses, and eating is a sensory experience that needs to be appreciated with ample time. Besides a meal in a restaurant, even something as simple as getting an americano at a local café requires a chunk of time. In Italy, there’s no Starbucks (in the entire country, I was sad to learn) and an espresso beverage isn’t available in tall, grande, or venti, rather, one size, and rarely in a styrofoam to-go cup. In general, I’ve discovered, the concept of “to-go” food and drinks isn’t really a thing here. However, the Italian coffee culture is one thing I’ve grown to love. Each morning before class, I stop at il bar, aka the coffee shop next door run by a local Italian family to get a fresh-brewed cappuccino for just €1.
Authentic Italian food has surpassed my expectations. At most restaurants, pasta is homemade and prepared fresh with a variety of sauces. The best pasta I’ve had so far was homemade ravioli stuffed with burrata cheese in a pistachio-butter sauce topped with shrimp. A close second is tonnarelli a cacio e pepe, thick square-shaped spaghetti in a cheese and pepper sauce, widely popular in Italy and an up-and-coming food trend in the U.S.
Now for the second quintessential Italian dish: pizza.
Although in America we like to garnish our pizzas with heavy meat and/or veggies, ingredients atop any pizza tonde (round pizza) or slice are usually limited to three and under: pizza margherita, with basil, mozzarella cheese, and tomato, is my personal favorite. Fresh pesto on pizza is also incredible. If you walk into any pizzeria to get a few to-go-pieces, pizza isn’t priced by the slice, but instead, cut into rectangles and priced on its weight. There’s been times where I’ve been able to sample many different types of pizza and have a filling dinner for under €5. Pizza tonde is also relatively cheap, and you can usually find one hot and fresh out of a brick oven (in true Italian style) for around €9, with bubbling cheese and a perfectly chewy yet crispy crust. My newest pizza topping obsession has to be mozzarella di bufala, which is a variation of mozzarella cheese made from buffalo’s milk that is slightly tangier than the original. To be fair, all Italian cheeses I’ve had so far have been infinitely better than the versions we have in America (looking at you, Kraft singles.) Going to college in America’s dairyland has introduced me to a variety of delicious cheeses, and I’d be betraying my fellow Cheeseheads if I said Italy’s dairy scene was better than Wisconsin’s. However, Pecorino Romano definitely gives sharp cheddar a run for its money.
Last but certainly not least on the agenda is the perfect treat to cool off on a warm Spring day in Rome-you guessed it: gelato. Romans seem to eat gelato no matter what the temperature outside is-it’s the perfect treat to enjoy while strolling around the city. Gelato is lower in fat than ice cream, which is how I justify eating it on a daily basis, and comes in all sorts of flavors you wouldn’t see elsewhere-stracciatella, crema, and biscotti are unique to the country and, topped with homemade whipped cream and a drizzle of warm chocolate, may just be the best snack ever invented.
Besides the main dishes of pasta and pizza, other amazing foods that are a must-try in Rome include (but are not limited to):
- Fried artichoke (better than it sounds, I promise)
- Caprese salad
- Suppli (deep-fried risotto balls filled with cheese)
- Crema della Nonna gelato (a flavor that tastes like slightly lemon-y pound cake)
- Panna Cotta with Fruit
- Cannolis from Don Nino
- Any type of pasta
- Literally anything with Nutella
As I continue my culinary journey in Italy, I’ve tried to keep an open mind about most dishes. I’ve learned that the best approach to an unfamiliar cuisine is to always say yes to trying something at least once. That’s a lot easier to say in a country where food is such a large part of the culture, and I have not yet been disappointed by any food, drink, or snack I have yet to try. Stay tuned as I continue to eat my way through Italy, potentially gain the study abroad 15, and discover amazing new concoctions over the next few months!