When they call Rome the Eternal City, they're not talking about it being the seat of civilisation or an ancient city of culture and learning. They're talking about Romans eternally sitting down to eat their eternally popular pasta.
The Romans I know eat pasta every day. They don't really like to travel outside of Rome in case they have to eat risotto. This unbridled pasta dependence goes back to ancient Roman times, when Emperor Cicero documented his love for laganum, the long flat, wide sheets of pasta that begat lasagne, in 111BC.
So many of the pasta dishes we know and love are Roman to the core. The most eternal are pasta alla carbonara, all'amatriciana, cacio e pepe, alla gricia and gnocchi alla Romana, made with semolina rather than potato. Most are simple to the point of austerity, testament to centuries of making do with very little.
And yet you don't last as long as Rome has without being able to evolve and adapt.
The classic old Roman restaurants are still worthy of homage – and even more precious, as the ageing chefs and owners face their own mortality. But a new generation of chefs is kicking in, young, occasionally female, and even non-Italian. The cutlery may be in a bespoke drawer beneath your table, the wines may be biodynamic, the staff in T-shirts. It's that combination of ancient and modern – like this handful of memorable pasta dishes from a few Roman restaurants I love – that makes Rome one of the most exciting cities in which to eat today. As it ever was.
Salumeria Roscioli, for spaghettoni alla carbonara
Roscioli started life as a salumeria selling prosciutto and cheese. Then they put in a few tables so people could stay, eat a panino, maybe a quick bowl of pasta. Then they needed a few more tables. Now, Roscioli is one of Rome's busiest restaurants, and there's a special charm in being squeezed in among fridge cabinets and wine shelves, attended by rushed but efficient waiters. But pay attention. You are here for the carbonara: the thick, long, round and aggressively al dente spaghettoni hit with a salty, lactic mix of Roman pecorino and moliterno cheese, cracked black Sarawak pepper and crisp flecks of guanciale (pork jowl), riched up with golden egg yolks from Tuscan producer Paolo Parisi. It's unbelievably rich, salty, creamy, cheesy and perfect.
Retrobottega, for cappelletti with roast carrot and smoked herring
To know what and where Roman dining is right now, walk into this narrow gullet of a gastronomic lab in the historic centre of the city, where young chefs Alessandro Miocchi and Giuseppe Lo Iudice are disrupting tradition in the most delicious, almost architectural, ways. The daily changing menu could run from a simple onion soup to artichokes with fresh, toasted hazelnuts. But the real drawcard is the pasta – immaculately folded tortellini filled with silverbeet and parmigiano; the long, slow swirl of beautifully bitey trenette peppered with sauteed baby squid and fresh chanterelle mushrooms and the smoky sweetness of cappelletti with roast carrot and herring. A recent renovation added more elbow room (it used to be very squeezy).
Matricianella, for rigatoni con coda alla vaccinara
This rustic, old-world trattoria is as Roman as they come, specialising in local fried specialties such as deep-fried artichokes in the Jewish style, lots of offal, roasted abbacchio (suckling lamb) and of course, some mighty fine pasta, like a richly braised oxtail ragu with rigatoni that combines two of Rome's favourite foods in the one dish. Opened 60 years ago, it's now run by brother and sister team Grazie and Giacomo Lo Bianco. Their wine list is huge, but with really fair prices (last time, my bottle cost less here than at Rome airport's duty-free store).
Armando al Pantheon, for spaghetti cacio e pepe
Armando Gargioli opened this venerable Roman institution, adjacent to the historic Pantheon, in 1961. Today, it is managed by his sons, Claudio and Fabrizio, and grand-daughter Fabiana. You will be among tourists, but this is one of Rome's truly iconic old school trattorie, complete with a gorgeous wood-panelled dining room lined with framed paintings and sketches. On the tables are Roman cuisine's greatest hits, from wild boar bruschetta and trippa alla romana to pasta all'amatriciana and alla gricia. The pick is the cacio e pepe, in which the pasta is seemingly emulsified with the cheeses and cracked pepper rather than physically sauced.
Marzapane, for linguine with tomato and basil
Alba Esteve Ruiz, who cooked at the celebrated El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, opened this calm, elegant ristorante in 2013. Here, she combines Michelin-starred Spanish inventiveness with Roman tradition, a light hand and a sharp eye for presentation. Her linguine with tomato and basil is shockingly graphic, with a tower of twirled pasta coated with lurid basil-green and tomato-red sauces, but it still tastes comfortingly familiar.
Santo Palato, for bucatini all'amatriciana
Having cooked at the Michelin-starred Metamorfosi, young chef Sarah Cicolini helped open this ochre-walled, natural-wined trattoria in Rome's San Giovanni district, injecting new life into Roman dishes such as bucatini all'amatriciana, trippa alla romana and chicken liver frittata without rewiring their DNA. Inspired by her grandmother's cooking, she even does that great Roman classic of rigatoni with milk-fed veal intestines (pajata).
Pierluigi, for spaghetti with scampi and tomato
Sitting out on the courtyard here on a warm summer's night as limos pull up in the narrow street dropping off the highs and lows of Roman society is as close as you and I will ever get to Federico Fellini's masterpiece La Dolce Vita. From American presidents to Italian supermodels, the well-heeled crowd is here for Lorenzo Lisi's vast spread of fish and seafood, the award-winning wine list, the spaghetti alle vongole veraci, and the summer-bright spaghetti with scampi, datterini tomatoes and sweet, sweet basil.
La Pergola, for fagotelli La Pergola
The ambitious, inventive Heinz Beck launched this finer-than-fine dining restaurant, perched in a luxury hotel on top of Monte Mario, back in 1994. He went on to be awarded three Michelin stars and hailed as Rome's best chef – not bad for someone born and raised in Germany. Beck's devilishly clever twist on carbonara is the La Pergola fagotelli, in which cheeses, pepper and guanciale are miraculously encased inside paper-thin parcels of pasta – a new way of playing with a taste as old as time.