Bucatini all'Amatriciana

Oh yes! The incredible, juicy meat adds tons of flavor in many of the typical pasta dishes served in Rome and the Lazio region. The flavorful guanciale is the bacon of choice, made specifically from pork cheek (a.k.a. jowl bacon).

Below are three of the most common Roman pasta dishes known to star the guanciale. They all are pretty similar, as you will see. Keep in mind, a good sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper is usually added on each as well.

alla Gricia: The name Gricia means little bits. Typically served on spaghetti, bucatini or regular penne, the pasta includes little bits of seared guanciale and coated with grated pecorino cheese (local to Lazio region).

alla Carbonara: The name translates to coalminer-style and is typically served on spaghetti. The sauce includes bits of seared guanciale, freshly grated pecorino cheese and eggs. Here in Rome, the egg is less cooked, giving the sauce a creamer texture; however, down in Campania where my relatives are from, the egg is drier, like a scrambled texture.

all’Amatriciana: This popular pasta dish, served throughout Rome, originates from the local town of Amatri; thus its name, meaning Amatri-style. The sauce, again similar to the Gricia dish, but instead of adding egg, this dish includes tomato sauce with the seared bits of guanciale and freshly grated pecorino cheese. This sauce is typically served with bucatini pasta.

Note, the particular pasta shapes paired with each sauce. For example, bucatini – thick and hollow spaghetti – is served with Amatriciana because the sauce seeps into the hollow of the pasta, allowing the flavor to be in every bite. On the Carbonara, the egg and cheese stick onto every strand, also grabbing the bits of seared guanciale.

As you can see all three of these pastas include simple three ingredients. One thing to keep in mind is that these dishes came from the kitchens of the poor – whom made do with the little ingredients they had access to. Therefore, like any dish, the quality of these ingredients make the dish.


My exploration of Rome’s typical pasta dishes starts with the seemingly simple, yet incredibly delicious Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe.

This traditional dish uses three simple ingredients tonnarelli pasta, grated Cacio cheese and freshly ground black pepper. Its simplicity implies the dish started as a most likely everyday dish thanks to the region’s shepherds producing the popular Cacio cheese.

A break down the three ingredients:

  1. Tonnarelli are egg noodles that are a thicker, squared version of spaghetti. The dough includes egg yolk, giving the pasta a yellow hue, but more importantly, a rich flavor.
  2. Cacio is a Roman cheese made from milk of ewe – adult female sheep. Similar to Pecorino, Cacio is semi-soft and mild flavor with a slight kick.
  3. And, pepe is simply black pepper (typically freshly ground).

After the pasta is boiled and removed from heat, it is tossed into a bowl containing a bath of freshly ground black pepper and a scoop or so of the pasta water. (Some recipes call for adding small amounts of melted butter or olive oil.) Once the pasta is coated, a large amount of freshly grated Cacio is quickly mixed in creating a creamy texture. As you spin the fork and spoon to mix the pasta you are introduced to the cheesy and spicy aroma. Topped with freshly grated Cacio and a sprinkle of black pepper, the dish is then served immediately.

It doesn’t seem too complicated, but the trick is to keep the cheese mix creamy. When cheese heats up it typically melts then clumps. To prevent this, mix the cheese in last, after the pasta has been tossed once (with the pepper and pasta water) already away from the heat – which allowed it to slightly cool already. Still away from heat, add cheese and mix quickly to avoid those ugly clumps and create the beautiful, creamy, peppery sauce. Some suggest using a fork to mix helps break down the cheese. You can see this done in some restaurants as the server mixes the cheese into the pasta right at the table.

Maritozzi con panna

8 November 2011

This morning, I went on the hunt for a special Roman sweet called maritozzi con panna. These sweet Roman sugar brioche buns are filled with whipped cream and served at breakfast – but I found them available all day.

The name maritozzi stems from the word marito (husband) giving it a marriage connotation. Originally, it was custom for the groom, as proof of his love, to give these buns to his future bride, who referred to her future husband as maritozzo (quasi-husband) – hence the name of the sweets. In some regions, including Le Marche, maritozzi were larger loaves served at Easter, at the time of Lent. In Rome, maritozzi are small buns available year round and typically served with cream.

Although these sweet brioche buns look simple, the process for making the dough is a long one: it must rise overnight for at least 12 hours. Once the buns are baked and cooled, a slit is cut and filled with fresh whipped cream. Simple. As you bite into one of these cute little clouds of sweetness, you will know it was worth the wait.

The maritozzi pictured here was the size of a large hot dog bun. The brioche was the usual light sweet bread and the freshly whipped cream had just the right amount of sugar for a slight sweet taste – not too sweet.

For those that fear whipped cream (or can’t have it for dietary reasons), there is an alternate version, which incorporates raisins (and nuts) in the dough mixture and served as is or with a dab of cream on top. Also important to note, that some recipes also add anisette liqueur for flavor.

Maritozzi can be found in pastry shops around Rome and are usually served in the morning with coffee or afternoon with a coffee or liqueur. In fact, some say the typical Roman breakfast includes a cappuccino accompanied with Maritozzi con panna (with whipped cream) – but seems to me like you can enjoy one at any time of day.

Fave dei Morti

Today, 2 Nov., marks the Day of the Dead for many cultures including Italy. This day is not a celebratory one, Italians usually have the time off form work to visit the tombs of loved ones in their honor.

As I learned about this tradition, my food-inquiring mind immediately wanted to know what Italians eat on this day. Yes, it’s true – in Italy, there is a treat for practically every holiday. So, I conducted a cookie survey in the bakeries of Rome. It was a tough job, but I was honored to take this one for the team.

As I stepped into each warm and sweet aroma filled establishment, restraining from jumping into the piles of freshly baked goodies displayed in the windows, I spoke to the proprietors and learned of Rome’s Death cookie Fave dei Morti (Beans of the Dead).

Of course, the first question that came to mind was: “why beans?” Well, it turns out these cookies – made with almond paste and cinnamon – are circular in shape and squished, resembling the form of dried fava beans – a common snack or ingredient for soups and other dishes found in the autumn season.

I also learned, these cookies are offered only in the month of November, not just to honor the dead, but to officially marking the true start of the fall season.

Yes, of course, we had to include a taste of these yummy treats on our Rome food tours. So for a limited time only (the month of November), those lucky tourists that sign up for a When In Rome Food Tour will get a chance to taste these delicious “beans of death” and tell their friends all about it.

Note: Fave dei Morti are offered in many bakeries in Rome only in the month of November. We will make the effort to include these cookies in tastings on our When In Rome Food Tour for the month of November. Please keep in mind, as we get closer to the end of November, these cookies will begin to disappear.

Gnocchi alla Romana

28 October 2011

Gnocchi [pronounced yneau-kee], as many Americans know them, are small, thick pasta, with mashed potato mixed into its dough. Typically, we serve these gnocchi with a simple tomato sauce, basil and mozzarella; or we use a basil pesto. Of course, in Italy, gnocchi are served in many other ways – but the size and shapes are usually the same: fingernail-sized oblong, thick orbs. The dough for these orbed gnocchi are made in two ways: flour+water or flour+water+potato. However, it was surprise to me when, on a When In Rome Food Tour scouting trip, I went to a local pasta-maker here in Rome and found a third type of gnocchi…

Gnocchi alla Romana sounds like just another way to serve the oblong orb gnocchi we know. In fact, if found on a menu, one would think it was just another way to serve the commonly known thick pasta. Not true. It turns out the Roman-style gnocchi are shaped like thick discs, cut like cookies. Instead of potato, the dough for these discs is made with semolina flour and eggs – giving them a yellow hue.

I was intrigued, so I asked the pasta-maker how to serve these interesting Roman gnocchi. She simply explained Gnocchi alla Romana are typically baked with nothing but butter and grated Roman cheese – Pecorino. In fact, she handed me a small tin-foil tray containing six of these discs with butter and grated cheese. She instructed me to just place the tray into the oven until the cheese is melted to a slight golden color. She proceeded to tell me Gnocchi alla Romana can be served as the first course or, in larger quantities, as the main course.

Although these discs were originally eaten in Rome, they can be found throughout Italy, as discs or different shapes, and sometimes referred to as Gnocchi di Semolina alla Romana. However, looking at the ingredients – cheese and butter – the dish sounds more like something found in Italy’s northern Piemont region – the region closest to France. In fact, this dish is also found in France as Gnocchi de Semoule. It is of no surprise that the origin of this pasta dish is unclear and still a topic of culinary dispute.

In my recent post, I mentioned that the pizza bianca is the most common strolling snack for Romans. In recent days, as I entered into the bread bakery to purchase my pizza bianca, I discovered something new (for me). Apparently, the Romans tend to enjoy this specialty bread with a couple slices of fresh mortadella as a quick and simple snack – typically, in the period before lunch or in the afternoon just after school lets out.

Yes, you read that correctly, it is a snack on the way home from school or just for an afternoon stroll. The pizza bianca is warm with only 2-3 slices of thinly sliced fresh mortadella – very, very simple. Pictured here is the deliciousness I bit into before remembering to photograph it for all of you – sorry, but I couldn’t resist the aroma.

How to order: Similar to any pizza al taglio, the attendant will indicate with a knife the size of the pizza you would like. After agreeing to a size, the attendant will cut and weigh it, then punch the price into the machine. The attendant will then slice the pizza in half, between the crust. The mortadella is then weighed separately because it is offered at a different cost per weight. The attendant will punch in the numbers and then place the 2-3 slices in between the pizza bianca – like a panino (sandwich). This panino is then wrapped in paper and handed to you to stroll the streets or wander home, keeping your appetite at bay. Remember to take the printed cost and pay the cashier before you walk out to enjoy the delicious Roman treat.

Of course, we at When In Rome Tours can teach you to order properly without any hiccups. Sign up for the Eat As The Romans Do tour for a taste of pizza bianca and other delicious Roman specialties.

Depending on the time of day, you will notice the attendants preparing large trays of mini pizza bianca panini – filled with mortadella, salami or prosciutto. These trays are usually ordered ahead of time – typically for a party or a quick gathering.

pizza bianca da portare via

Among many of its food specialties, Rome is also known for the pizza al taglio – which literally translates to ‘pizza by the cut’.

These pizzas are long and narrow and served by the slice. On just about every street you may stumble upon small shops displaying these delicacies. One can say this tradition pretty much stemmed from the simple, and the most popular pizza bianca (white pizza), commonly found in the fornaio (baker) – look for the word forno (oven) on the sign.

You will notice the pizza a taglio has a slightly thicker crust than restaurant pizza. This is because it is made with a different dough – closer to bread dough. It is said that the pizza bianca was created in ancient times by bread bakers as an indicator of the temperature of the wood-burning ovens. They created a simple dough and placed it on the wood, no baking tin, to test if the heat of the wood was hot enough for baking bread. Today, the pizza bianca has a light lather of olive oil. An alternative version called the pizza rossa (red pizza) includes a light layer of tomato sauce.

How do you order a pizza al taglio? Well, first you decide what pizza you would like. Then, tell the man/woman behind the counter. They will put the knife to the pizza to ask if the size is OK, from there you can tell them if you want more or less. Once you agree on a size, they will slice and weigh your pizza.

After confirming that was all you wanted, the attendant will then print out a receipt with the total cost for you to hand to cashier to pay. To confirm proper packaging, the attendant will also ask if you will eat it on site (mangiare qua) or take it away (portare via) – let’s break that down:

  • Mangiare Qua (Eat Here): After heating up your slice, the attendant will slice it in half and place it on a tray and hand it to you.
  • Portare Via (Take Away): After heating up your slice, the attendant will slice it half, fold it over like a sandwich, wrap the bottom half in wax paper and hand it to you to eat as you stroll.
  • Portare Via, Mangiare Dopo (Take Away, Eat Later): Without heating, the attendant will slice in half, fold it over like a sandwich and wrap it up in wax paper.

Be sure to add this simple snack onto your list of food to try in Rome. Or simply discover more delightful delicacies with a Rome food tour.