Street food Roman style – what it is and where to get it
If Romans have to break the holly ritual of sitting down for lunch in early afternoon they do it in a very specific way. There is no grabbing a chocolate bar or a 16 oz caramel macchiato (both non-existent in Italy) as a substitute for food. They may not have time for a sit down lunch, but they still eat real food.
The most common and authentic fast food in Rome is without a doubt pizza bianca. Now, don’t get your hopes up, this is not what we think of as pizza with toppings and gooey cheese. No. Pizza bianca in Rome is pizza dough stretched (not rolled) into a thin rectangle over a long board and baked to a lovely crispness in a wood burning oven. The dough is brushed (liberally) with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. That’s it. It is not as thick and fluffy as focaccia but it is moist, oily, salty chewy and crispy all at once. Very addictive.
The best way to have a pizza bianca is straight from the oven while it is still hot. This is not the kind of food you take home for later, unless you intend to eat it within minutes. Pizza bianca is handed to you wrapped in a piece of paper or a napkin and you eat it standing at the counter or just outside the store, oily fingers and all.
Each neighbourhood has its own bakery or pizzeria where locals go for their pizza bianca. We had a lovely forno-pasticceria on our block in the Prati (Colapicchioni) and stopped by for our delicious daily quota often. However, the best pizza bianca we had in Rome was at Forno in Campo di Fiori market. This small bakery, where you can stand outside and watch the fornaio (baker) at work through the glass windows, turns out pizza bianca and a variety of other baked goods all day long (almost). You can watch them stretch the risen dough onto a long wooden board, poking it with their fingers to preserve the air bubbles and create the uneven surface where the olive oil can pool. There is a line up in front of Forno all day long but it goes quick so do not despair. Pizza bianca is best when it’s fresh so make sure you get the one that just came out of the oven. You will eat the pizza bianca standing outside, rain or shine, although I hear from reliable sources that this is one of the two foods you are allowed to walk around with (the other being Gelato in a cone). We didn’t risk it.
The second most basic and ubiquitous street food would be the pizza rosa, essentially a crisp, thin pizza dough with topping of olive oil enriched red sauce and nothing else. It is baked into a long rectangle and served cut into square pieces from the long sheet of crisply baked dough.
Again, you can find pizza rosa at any neighbourhood bakery but the best pizza rosa that I found was at Antico forno Roscioli, also in the Campo di Fiori vicinity walking towards the Jewish Ghetto. Roscioli is a Roman institution and they also operate a restaurant-deli (Salumeria) down the main street near the bakery that is also a must try if you are in the Campo di Fiori neighbourhood. The Antico forno Roscioli is an exciting place to go into and I am sure your head will spin from the variety of delicious looking pizzas, breads and other baked goods. They also make fresh sandwiches in the smaller alcove on the left side of the bakery.
Pizza farcita – the pizza bianca sandwich
The next level of street food would be the pizza bianca sandwich called pizza farcita. It is a pizza bianca sliced in half horizontally and stuffed with a variety of toppings that mostly consist of meats, most commonly mortadella (pizza co la Mortazza) but also a variety of others like prosciutto, bresaola and more. Again, you can get this anywhere but some of the best were at Antico Forno Roscioli (see above). We also had one place in our Prati neighbourhood near Piazza Cavour that is very popular: Opulentia, la pizza farcita.
Pizza al taglio – pizza by the slice
Moving up from the basics Roman have the pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) that as can be expected, Italians have elevated to an art form. Now hear this: Romans wouldn’t dream of ordering a whole round pizza for lunch. If you see someone having a whole pizza at lunch you can safely bet they are tourists. Whole round pizza is eaten at dinner and never shared. One person, one pizza, and don’t mess with that rule or you would be viewed as brutta figura. Lunchtime or snack time pizza for Romans is consumed only in one form: by the slice.
Pizza by the slice at Pizzarium Bonci
Unlike the evening pizza they bake in a wood fired oven that takes all day to heat up properly, pizza al taglio is a quicker version baked in an electric or gas oven that doesn’t require long heating and hence can be ready at lunchtime. You get delicious seasonal toppings from artichoke, tomatoes, cheeses, vegetables and meats, pay by the weight of your slice and eat it standing at the counter or just outside the door. No walking around with this one.
You will find pizza by the slice in thousands of places in Rome, but one particular pizzaiolo / fornaio is unquestionably the anointed king: Gabriele Bonci, aka the Micheangelo of Pizza. Bonci operates two pizza by the slice locations, both near the Vatican. If you are venturing there I would suggest the Pizzerium Bonci location on Via Trionfale 38 for your first slice of pizza al taglio, then go to the main location on Via della Meloria 43. At the via Trifonale you pick your slice of pizza from a dizzying array of freshly baked pizzas displayed under glass. They will heat up your slice and you can enjoy it standing at one of the tables inside (only a couple) or outside (a few more). Pizza and beer go together and Bonci serves good Italian beer to go with the slice of pizza. We have been to both locations for this delicious fast food and I wish I could have one right now. Their pizza bianca is also one of the best.
Innovation built on tradition: Trapizzino
Leave it to the Romans to be innovative yet build on tradition. There is a new kind of street food that is rising in popularity and is absolutely delicious. Trapizzino is a cross between a pizza slice and a sandwich and the name combines two popular street foods: the tramezzino, a triangular shaped traditional sandwich, and pizza. The person behind the trademarked name is Stefano Callegari, who grew up in a restaurant family shadowing the baker. With a passion for pizza he studied the concept of street food in Rome and by 2008 had developed and opened his first Trapizzino.
The basis for the Trapizzino is pizza bianca with it’s characteristic flavours and textures but here it’s formed into a triangle shaped pizza pocket and stuffed with fillings from chicken cacciatore to broccoli and sausage, meatballs with red sauce, vegetables and many more. I first tried this street food in Testaccio on a food tour and was immediately attracted to the whole concept. A few days later they opened another location guess where? next to the movie theatre on Piazza Cavour where we stayed, so we stopped by for a Trapizzino several times over the next couple of months. Trapizzino is made to order, served in a paper cone, is easy to eat and absolutely delicious and fresh.
There are other street foods of course among which i Suppli are very popular. Suppli are rice croquettes wrapped around mozzarella and fried. The cheese center melts as they are fried, yielding a crispy on the outside, melted inside rice balls. Note that suppli and arancini are not the same. Suppli is elongated while arancini is shaped like a ball. If you are in Trastevere try i Suppli, a hole-in-the-wall take out place considered one of the best for these snacks.
There are other versions of street foods in Rome but I offered my favourites in this post and hope you enjoy them when visiting Rome.