Last year, Rome, Italy stayed true to its “Eternal City” moniker, holding its title as a top 10 tourist destination. This year it’s on track to welcome even more visitors.
Locals and out-of-towners alike in the city are food obsessed: They talk endlessly about what they’ve eaten, or plan to eat, often in the middle of a meal.
Pasta cacio e pepe, crisp fried artichokes and soulful braised oxtail generally grab the spotlight, but no one should sleep on Roman pastries, which rarely get the praise they deserve. Why is this so?
“Romans like things that are simple and genuine. Our traditional pastries are not fancy; they are robust, based on recipes of the peasant tradition,” says Rome native Heros de Agostinis, executive chef at the brand-new Anantara Palazzo Naiadi Hotel.
“Although maccheroni carbonara or amatriciana are the most famous Roman preparations, we also have the maritozzo.”
He calls the simple, surprisingly decadent brioche bun filled with sweetened whipped cream “the most Roman symbol of sweetness”.
Italian culture is beholden to tradition, from religious observation to the enduring importance of extended families. This reverence naturally extends to cooking, which is rule-bound (eschewing cheese with seafood, for example, and insisting on the “right” shape of pasta for various sauces). For centuries, it has defied evolution. But the late-1990s creation of the European Union, the increased accessibility of affordable airfares and the rise of food exhibitionism via social media have all contributed to Rome’s recent embrace of new styles and outside influences in the world of sweets.
Sure, Rome will never have Paris’s reputation for exquisite pastries. And there’s no shortage of underwhelming tourist traps and food trucks dishing out lame cannoli. But there are plenty of delicious and captivating Roman treats, from resolutely traditional pastries baked by generations-deep families, to delicacies from new-wave bakeries. Biscottoficio Innocenti
Tucked into a side street, Biscottoficio Innocenti’s intoxicating sugar and butter aromas attract lines of smart Romans waiting for a selection of traditional cookies. Four generations have baked here for over a century; now Stefania Innocenti and her daughter Maunuela use family recipes to create dozens of varieties of cookies, tarts and cakes. Their crisp, chewy brutti ma buoni cookies, made from ground hazelnuts, egg whites and sugar, are standouts.
Also notable are seasonal cakes like tall and airy panettone and the dove-shaped, made-for-Easter colomba.
A half-hour walk from the city centre, Trieste is a tourist-friendly neighbourhood that’s home to cathedrals, museums, parks, and, since 1950, this classic bakery that is virtually unchanged by time. The uniformed women behind glass cases dispense elegant tarts, jelly candies, biscotti and other confections and cookies by the kilo, but the best move is a freshly fried or baked custard-filled, sugar-dusted bigne, a cream-puff like confection.
Those who prefer their treats cold can go next door to the excellent Gelateria Marinari, which dispenses scoops of classic flavours like fior di latte, straciatella, zabaglione and pistachio.
This Sicilian pasticceria has been turning out treats like top-notch cannoli, exquisite marzipan and candied fruit since 1955. Tucked inside a modern building near Termini station, Dagnino’s interior retains every detail of its original mid-century charm, down to the live piano player on Sunday afternoons. Go for a mint-green cassetine Siciliane, an individual cassata made with fluffy ricotta, marzipan, sponge cake and a soft sugar glaze.
Or try the tronchetto de cedro candito, in which tender almond dough is wrapped around a sweet-tart filling of candied citrus fruits.
Forno Boccione Limentani
The line is long, the service brusque, but the fruit-layered crostata ricotta e visciole here, in the historic Jewish ghetto, is worth it. Comprised of rich shortbread dough encasing sweetened cow’s milk ricotta and sour cherry jam, the treat dates back to a 16th century Papal edict that forbade residents from trading in dairy products, hence the heavy double crust to obscure the sweet and creamy hidden cheese.
The crostata’s almost blackened exterior provides an intriguing flavour and texture contrast to the mild ricotta and tart cherries.
At Ineo, chef Heros de Agostinis’s ricotta mousse and sour cherry cannolo delivers traditional flavour in an updated package. Over at the Lobby Bar, guests and visitors can enjoy some of Rome’s best macarons, chocolate truffles and hazelnut pralines with their coffee and cordials.
For breakfast, offerings include a superbly tender mini maritozzo, a half-sized version of the brioche bun, sliced open and filled with rich whipped cream.
This tiny and much-beloved pasticceria in Esquilino has been setting the standard for Roman maritozzi since 1916. Their rich brioche bun is split like an open-faced sandwich and piled generously high with panna, or sweetened whipped cream; there’s no way to eat it elegantly, and you shouldn’t try. In the heavily-mirrored cafe room, where you can and should pick up a rich hot chocolate or grappa-spiked caffe corretto, you can check for any stray cream to be wiped away.
Antico Forno Roscioli
Some of the city’s best cornetti, whether plain or filled with pastry cream, fruity jam or chocolate are to be found at the famed Antico Forno Roscioli.
In operation since 1824, Roscioli checks all the sweets boxes, from classic cookies, like crunchy little ciambelline al vino cookies, and bouncy bomboloni filled with seasonal fruits, to a tender apple tart.
There’s also pizza bianca and pizza rossa and focaccia, elegantly dimpled and fragrant with olive oil, which is sold plain, or topped with the likes of burrata, pesto, speck, artichokes and mozzarella.
In chic Parioli, Grue offers a dazzling variety of delicious, visually stunning confections, many rendered in miniature, that are great for grazing. Partners Marta Boccanera and Felice Venanzi’s classical and modern sensibilities shine through in their salted peanut, black sesame and citrus tea-flavoured pralines.
Mignons – exquisitely crafted small confections – include a tiny pistachio bigne, baba au rhum, and Sicilian cassetine and cannoli studded with blood orange.
Grue’s elegant cakes are available in “monoportion” sizes; including the realistically rendered Peach, constructed of sponge cake bathed in a spicy, floral and fruity syrup and filled with rich vanilla custard.
Gabriele Bonci made his name making pies at Pizzarium Bonci. Now, at Panficio Bonci, in Vatican-adjacent Trionfale, he shows himself to be a master of cookies, tarts and even fried chicken. Rome is awash in mediocre margarine-based cornetti, but Bonci’s is all-butter, and it’s excellent. Bonci also offers a pared-down selection of the legendary pizza al taglio on which he built his mini-empire, including pizza bianca with mortadella, and artichoke and ricotta.
As for bread, the Richard Hart San Francisco sourdough is a complex loaf, at once tangy, sweet, bitter, crisp and chewy.
Forno Conti & Co
Sergio Conti is a fourth-generation baker; his family owned and operated Panetteria Romana & Spacio de Paste, in Trastevere, for over a century. “It was very traditional and maintained a Roman imprint,” said Conti. “I am attached to this tradition, but sometimes things have to change.” In 2021, he opened Forno Conti & Co in Esquilino, where he has added an exquisite pain au chocolat, as well as maritozzi and panettone, to his family’s traditional focaccia, ciabatta and pizza bianca. Conti’s sourdough fougasse, an intricately shaped pull-apart bread, both hearty and light, bridges the gap between old world and new.
At Marigold, Danish baker Sofie Wochner has delighted Rome with cakes and croissants, as well as rye breads, since 2018. An alum of Paris’s vaunted Rose Bakery and Ireland’s Ballymaloe, Wochner is a pioneer of Scandinavian sweets, the best of which include delectably soft and light cinnamon swirls made from a cardamom-infused dough, and equally tender tebirkes (buttery Danish pastries) with house-made Sicilian almond filling.
On the savoury side, Italian chef Domenico Cortese oversees breakfast, lunch and an enormously popular weekend brunch, which includes sourdough waffles and sandwiches that might be stuffed with pork belly and cabbage, featuring Sofie’s excellent breads. – Bloomberg