If you’re interested in Roman cuisine or tourism and have done even a little bit of research, you’ve no doubt come across the name Katie Parla. A New Jersey native, Katie has been living in the Eternal City since 2003 and is the quintessential source for anyone planning a trip there. She’s an expert on the city’s food, restaurants, markets, wine and cocktail bars and so much more.
She’s not just another tour guide or cookbook writer spewing out perfunctory recommendations or recipes. Whether she’s taking visitors on a tour of the Testaccio neighborhood, or explaining the history of a recipe from Rome’s Jewish ghetto, Katie brings to her work a deep knowledge of the city’s traditions and culture. Not surprising, given that in addition to her degree in art history from Yale, she received a master’s degree in Italian Gastronomic Culture from the University of Rome and a sommelier certificate.
This latest enterprise (and she’s got many, including her blog, katieparla.com
and apps not only for Rome but Istanbul as well) for this 36-year-old dynamo is the new cookbook, “Tasting Rome,” filled with some surprisingly contemporary interpretations of traditional cuisine, and some nearly lost recipes as well.
I hope you take a few minutes to read my interview with Katie and buy her cookbook. I know cooking from it and talking to her made me yearn to be back in Rome. I’m giving away a copy to one of my readers. All you have to do is leave a comment at the end of the post, telling me what is your favorite thing to do in Rome – whether it’s visit a museum, stroll its cobbled streets, linger over a gelato, shop the outdoor food markets, eat at a favorite restaurant, or prepare a classic Roman recipe. And if you haven’t been to Rome, let me know why you’d like to go. Make sure to leave your email address or some way I can contact you if you win the book.
Ciao Chow Linda (CCL): Given all the cookbooks that have been published about Roman cuisine, what else is there to say about it?’
Katie: I think what hasn’t been said is the way that people eat in Rome today – some of the perhaps less well known, minority dishes that haven’t been covered. I wanted to do a deeper dive into some Roman novelties – not novelties in the sense of modernist cuisine, but the sort of portable or fast food form that has evolved because of the tragic economic crises that have really dramatically changed the way people eat. Roman cuisine (cucina Romana) has a pretty strict definition. It’s a set of ingredients and dishes and techniques that coalesces in the 1960s and 70s — and there are wonderful, spectacular books that recount old school classics. But I wanted to also give importance to trattorias and historic places, like Armando Al Pantheon, and newer places like Cesare Al Casaletto or Flavio Al Velavevodetto.
What’s really wonderful about these places is that they’re doing old dishes that have fallen off of menus. So I wanted to pay respect to the traditions and address traditional flavors but also acknowledge that the cuisine of Rome, like all cities, changes. It has to in the 21st century, because the lira has gone away, there is 43 percent youth unemployment, very low wages, and a high cost of living. People shop differently, they eat differently and there are a lot of terrible foods in Rome right now and I wanted to focus on the delicious things and the people dedicated to making them with respect for tradition.
CCL: I’ve known about Rome’s Jewish food and eaten in restaurants in the ghetto there for decades, but I never knew about Libyan Jews in Rome and their cuisine until I read your book. Can you talk about that?
Katie: The Libyan Jewish tradition is one that most people don’t know about because so many of the restaurants in Rome that people associate with Jewish cuisine serve the local Jewish classics – deep fried artichokes, pezzeti fritti, which are battered and deep fried vegetables, aliciotti con l’indivia (anchovies with endive), the classic Roman Jewish dish, which is not even that well known outside of Rome.
But the Libyan Jewish cuisine is something you either find on home tables or hidden in the back of the menu at restaurants in the Jewish ghetto, because all but one of the kosher restaurants in the ghetto is owned by Libyan Jews.
If I were doing a classic survey of Roman cuisine, I would have to exclude the Libyan tradition because there’s no critical mass there, but I didn’t want to ignore the small features of the local cuisine that don’t get much attention.
That led the cocktail culture to be introduced in the book, including craft beer. I also talk about labor in kitchens not being Roman, but South Asian or North African. So I think there’s so much in this book that hasn’t been written before because so much of the canon of Roman cuisine has been so traditional for so long and Rome-centric for so long without acknowledging that the city’s cuisine has been influenced by outsiders — Abruzzesi in particular, Calabresi, and people coming from all over Italy and beyond.
CCL:What is the biggest misconception people have about Roman food?
Katie: That it’s always delicious, that you can’t get a bad meal in Rome, when actually, Rome, like all cities, really does build its restaurant tradition on the tourist trade. Tourists have been coming to Rome since antiquity, through the middle ages and Renaissance as pilgrims. People have been complaining about mediocre meals or feeling ripped off in restaurants for centuries. Rome is a place where it feels really good to be eating in a trattoria. There are elements of it where maybe people think the food tastes better in Rome and when you’re on vacation, but when you devote your life to inspecting ingredients people are using or systematically tasting all the carbonaras in town, it’s clear that certain venues emerge as being a cut above and other places rest on laurels, to use a Roman term.
CCL: Are there restaurant recommendations in Rome that you keep completely to yourself and friends, and don’t share with the public?
Katie: There are none that I keep completely to myself. I don’t believe in keeping those details private. There are places I endorse more than others because I know that when visitors go to Al Moro for example, they’re going to be treated like garbage and they’ve been there for 60 years. I love Al Moro. I think it’s a wonderful experience, but you might be treated really badly and you might be stuck in the room with all the foreigners. And you might have some tricks played with your bill. Something negative could easily happen, and it’s such an expensive place, which really diverges from the trattoria price point, that I can’t in good conscience tell people go there, because they’ll go and they’ll often feel over charged for an experience where they’re marginalized as foreigners.
CCL: What are some of your favorite restaurants in Rome?
Katie: My favorite is Cesare al Casaletto. That’s a place run by two rather young Romans who worked in fine dining and were really bored with the novelty and the whole fine dining scene and they wanted to go back to the flavors of their parents and grandparents. They do really exceptional trattoria food, the place feels incredibly warm, and there’s a natural wine list which most trattorias don’t have, which is perfectly suited to the cuisine. Natural wines are those made with the least possible intervention in the vineyards and cellar. There’s a limited use of sulfur or sulphuric compounds. They often ferment with native yeast from the grape skins, rather than introducing lab yeast. It’s sort of an old school traditional approach to winemaking that’s becoming popular again.
CCL: You have a section in the book devoted to cocktails and other drinks. Has ordering cocktails instead of wine become a really big thing in Rome?
Katie: Cocktails are having a moment. Most of the cocktail bars in Rome serve undrinkable nonsense – like really bad knockoffs. But there a few spots doing awesome cocktails, with Italian spirits, and Italian liqueurs, including red bitter liqueurs. In Rome, being a mixologist is somewhat like being a chef. You can get a certificate and you can call yourself a mixologist or call yourself a chef, but having the skills and the knowledge to craft something that is actually delicious – that requires a lot of practice, and not that many people have that yet.
Places like the Jerry Thomas project, or Caffè Propaganda are staffed by people who are really dedicated to the drinks culture. And although a lot of their training started in the American craft cocktail movement, or was influenced by the American craft cocktail movement, in the past few years, the really good part of Roman cocktail culture has started to embrace the flavors of Italian aperitifs, Italian vermouths, and amari (bitters) that are used in cocktails rather than as a digestivo at the end of a meal. So it’s something super new by Rome standards, but the cocktails in the book, most of which were contributed by mixologists, are really fun.
There’s an awesome bay laurel recipe that was donated by an eel fisherman who’s been fishing on the Tiber River for about 87 years. No one fishes for eel anymore. If you were writing about Roman cuisine, you would never mention someone like that, but I think it’s a moment when the sort of smaller, minority factions of Roman cuisine deserve to acknowledged because the more mainstream things have already been covered.
CCL: I noticed you included a recipe for nervetti, something I’ve only recently seen and eaten in Italy in all the years I’ve been traveling there. Are there any other recipes you wanted to include but couldn’t, for space or other reasons?
Katie: I was really psyched that nervetti ended up in it. It’s like a cartilage in salad. Nobody makes them anymore. You have to get knuckles and kneecaps and boil them forever. It’s not a food that people bother making, especially in Rome. There are only a few restaurants that make it – Tacchino and Flavio, and Augusto also makes it. There were a lot of offal dishes that I wanted to include, but you can’t obtain the intestines of milk fed veal in America, so we couldn’t have the famous Roman pagliata dish in the book.
CCL: What’s your favorite food in the world?
Katie: My favorite food is pizza. I’ll have pizza from Naples, I’ll have pizza from Rome. One of my favorite foods in the Roman category is pizza by the slice — sheet pan pizza. I love so many cuisines. There are features of the Roman cuisine that I dream about. When it’s artichoke season, eating simmered artichokes is the biggest joy in life. When Catalonian chicory comes into season, eating that with anchovy dressing is a ritual that I crave. But I find elements of British food, Turkish food, Syrian food, Lebanese food, and American food, especially from the American South, to all be deeply satisfying in its own way.
CCL: If you could eat only one more meal in your life, what would it be?
Katie: That would be the pizza tasting at Pepe in Grani, a pizzeria in Campania. The pizza tasting consists of ten pizzas. You almost die at the end of it anyway.
CCL: Anything else you’d like to tell us about the book?
Katie: Well, a lot of people fancy themselves Rome experts because they live in Rome, but understanding the cuisine requires more than just being surrounded by it or growing up in it. So I’m really proud of the academic approach and the research-based approach that I apply to Roman food. It’s super rewarding to be able to tell people not just how to produce recipes, but also why they’re important, why we should preserve them, and why these flavors deserve to be celebrated, even if they’re nerves with parsley sauce.
Katie is currently traveling through the U.S. on a 22 city book tour. If you want to see whether she’ll be near you, check out www.katieparla.com/events.
Sorbetto di Pesche e Vino (peach and wine sorbet)
printable recipe here
2 cups diced peaches, plus 1 whole peach
3 T. fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
1/2 cup plus 1 T. sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 T. dry white wine
2 sprigs fresh mint (optional)
In a medium bowl, combine the diced peaches and lemon juice and set aside.
Combine 1/2 cup of the sugar and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan over low heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow the syrup to cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes. Transfer the syrup to a food processor, add the diced peaches and lemon juice, and process until smooth. Add 1/4 cup of the wine and process again, then chill the mixture in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or overnight.
Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
If you don’t have an ice cream maker, pour the chilled mixture into a gallon-size freezer bag and lay it flat on a tray. Freeze until solid, then break up the mixture into large chunks and blend in a food processor until smooth, working in batches if necessary. Transfer the mixture to a container with a lid and freeze until firm.
Meanwhile, peel and dice the whole peach and combine it in a small bowl with the remaining 1 T. sugar and 2 wine. Allow to macerate for at least 30 minutes. Serve the sorbet garnished with the wine-macerated peach and mint (if using).
All photos and recipes reprinted with permission from Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City. Copyright (c) 2016 by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill. Photographs copyright (c) 2016 by Kristina Gill. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.