Q&A with Rome Culinary Expert Katie Parla

Rome-based food-and-drink expert Katie Parla has a pretty enviable job: she eats her way around the Italian capital in order to discover, write about, and educate others on its venerable culinary culture. The American journalist, who is Indagare’s Rome editorial contributor, also leads foodie tours to give visitors a taste of what the city has to offer beyond the well-trodden paths of the Historic Center. Parla recently compiled some of her delicious findings into a beautiful cookbook, Tasting Rome, which celebrates the Eternal City’s dining and drinking scene…far beyond Caprese salads and classic trattorias (though she’s got nothing against those, either).

Here, Indagare chats with Katie about her favorite street food in Rome and how to avoid the dreaded tourist-trap restaurant.

What initially brought you to Rome? What did it take to get past the city’s touristy veneer and find the real Roma? 
I moved to Rome in 2003 after graduating from Yale with a degree in Art History. I had decided years earlier, during a high school trip to Italy, that I would move to Rome when I grew up. I don’t think my family thought I would actually follow through, but the decision to move remains the only life plan I have ever deliberately executed. The moment I landed, I was intent to learn everything I could about the city, its people and its culture, so I moved in with Italian university students, lived in a peripheral neighborhood, avoided ex-pats and immersed myself in a side of Rome that visitors—and even some residents—never see.

Coming from New Jersey, how did your appreciation for Italian food change after you moved to Rome?
I grew up in an Italian American family and, like most people who are part of that culture, I thought I was Italian. When I began visiting Italy, however, it quickly became clear that while I may have Italian blood, I had an American food experience. There is no such thing as Italian food, really. Instead there are a series of regional cuisines and they barely resemble some of the things Italian Americans eat.

Tell us about the meal that made you fall in love with Rome.
It goes all the way back to my fateful high school trip when I discovered gelato. Is that a meal? Probably not, but the whole gelato category left a huge impression. After the gelato novelty wore off, I stayed in Rome mainly because of my desire to know what Romans eat and why and how the local food culture developed.

What is your favorite spot for a delicious lunch? How about a big night out?
I love visiting Armando al Pantheon, a historic trattoria near the Pantheon. The dishes are simple and classic and the owners are incredibly hospitable. It feels a bit like eating at home. On date night, it’s all about Metamorfosi. The cuisine is contemporary European and the dishes are fun and refined.

Many people visit Rome without delving into its flourishing craft cocktail and beer movement. Where are your favorite spots to experience it?
For Roman Cocktail Culture 101, a visit to the Jerry Thomas Speakeasy is a must. The faux speakeasy opened in 2009 and changed the way people in the Italian capital think about drinking and cocktails. The next stops would be to Caffè Propaganda and Co.So. for a deeper dive into the variety of Roman cocktails.

Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa’ transformed the craft brewery landscape in town and it remains one of my favorite places for a pint. Open Baladin is super fun and it’s a great place to sample Italian craft brews.

If you had to leave Rome and knew you could never come back, what would your last meal be and who would you invite?
It would have to be Cesare al Casaletto and I would invite my family and friends and all the chefs, bakers and mixologists who contributed to Tasting Rome. We would eat the menu, starting with all the fried starters and followed by pasta, entrées, vegetable side dishes and lots of wine!

Besides Rome, what are some of your favorite culinary regions in Italy? How about the world?
I love pizza, so Naples is one of my top culinary destinations. My favorite spots there are La Notizia (Via Michelangelo da Caravaggio; 39-081-714-2155) and Da Attilio (Via Pignasecca 17; 39-081-552-0479). Campania’s Alto Casertano region, which is home to gorgeous heirloom produce, historic cheese factories and possibly the world’s best pizzeria (Pepe in Grani; Vicolo S. Giovanni Battista 3; 39-0823-862718), tops my list of favorite regions. I also love Palermo’s street food and the rustic fare of Abruzzo’s mountainous sub-regions.

I find the food of the American South to be endlessly fascinating and all the rich cuisines are fun to explore. Turkey is probably my favorite place to eat thanks to the country’s biodiversity and the intensely regional nature of the nation’s food culture.

We’re so prone to ordering the classics when traveling in Italy—what are some offbeat menu picks one shouldn’t miss in Rome?
I think there are a lot of Roman classics that remain off the radar of visitors. Rigatoni con la pajata (pasta with suckling calf intestines) is incredibly Roman and should be on every (adventurous) diner’s hit list. Also, don’t skip the vegetables, which are found in the contorno section of the menu. Some are so seasonal that they never make it onto the printed menu, so you have to know to ask for them. Things like vignarola (a stew of peas, favas, artichokes, and lettuce) are in season from March to early May, and are a must if you’re visiting then.

What are your tips for distinguishing great restaurants when wandering through a touristy neighborhood such as Rome’s Historic Center or a spot like Positano on the Amalfi Coast?
The odds are if you’re in a touristy neighborhood there are nothing but duds. I think the only way to tell the difference these days is to find a trusted independent source, which itself isn’t so easy. Your best bet is to leave Rome’s historical center or to skip Positano and eat in a lesser-known village like Cetara instead.

What was the most surprising thing you learned when doing research for your gorgeous new cookbook, Tasting Rome?
I had a hunch, but it’s shocking just how many restaurants pass off cheap imported artichokes for the prized local variety.

Lightning Round

  • Favorite wine to drink with a plate of cured meats: Vej Metodo Classico from Podere Pradarolo.
  • Cacio e pepe or carbonara? Cacio e pepe.
  • Best cooking hack: Salt meat in advance.
  • Guilty-pleasure snack: Haribo gummy bears. I know they’re poison but I need them.
  • Most addictive Roman street food: Mordi e Vai’s brisket sandwich.
  • Most craved vacation (non-Italian) cuisine: Southeast Anatolian or any other regional Turkish cuisine.
  • Real-life foodie hero: Andrew Zimmern.
  • Most treasured souvenir: Austrian Riesling from the 1980s purchased for a song on a trip to The Wachau.

– Marley Lynch on April 28, 2016

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