Jersey girl made good, real good
PHOTOGRAPH: RICK POON
When I met up with Katie Parla at a Princeton coffeehouse, she was finishing up the first round of a U.S. tour for the cookbook she recently wrote with coauthor Kristina Gill, Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City (Clarkson Potter). “I have only three events this week,” she said without irony, reflecting the whirlwind her life had become after the book was published to universal acclaim in March 2016. Five months later, it was in its third printing. Born and raised in West Windsor, Parla has made Rome her home base for the last 13 years.
Parla’s U.S. tour had kicked off, fittingly, with a tasting and book signing at Clydz, the New Brunswick restaurant that her father, Mike, has owned since 1997. The book’s foreword is written by another veteran of the New Brunswick restaurant scene: Mario Batali, who worked at Stuff Yer Face while a student at Rutgers. He calls Parla an “expert on all things Rome— particularly food, wine and beer.”
True to its subtitle, the book’s recipes range from traditional pastas (cacio e pepe, spaghetti alla carbonara) to street food, as well as the long-forgotten dishes that underpin today’s world-class Roman fare. The book has also drawn praise for painting an invaluable picture of the food scene for travelers. Corby Kummer of the Atlantic calls it “useful for anyone wondering what and where the city eats today.”
Parla moved to the Eternal City shortly after earning a degree in art history from Yale in 2002. “When I wasn’t thinking about art history or archaeology,” she says, “I was thinking about food.” Very early on, she began conducting private tours and lecturing on the history of Rome and its archaeology. “The more time I was spending doing tours in Rome, the more I gave food recommendations and the more I wanted to share with a wider audience,” she recalls. She began blogging and using social media to share her food and drink finds.
“I started taking a sommelier course to prepare me to work in restaurants and hotels. Then I started giving wine tours,” she says. Soon Parla found her wine tours veering away from technical tastings to commentary on the cultural aspects of wine, and then to the culture of food. “So I started doing a lot of independent research,” she says. In 2008 she earned a master’s degree in Italian gastronomic culture from a Roman university. “I decided I was going to focus my writing on food,” she explains. “I would still do tours on other topics, but very quickly I became a stringer for a lot of newspapers and magazines that were cutting staff.”
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF CLARKSON POTTER
“Curious travelers come back
again and again to get a deeper
understanding of the culture.
And food is a very good way
to translate that.”
By 2011, she was not only a sought-after tour guide but an established journalist recognized as an authority on the Roman food and wine scene. Her byline has appeared in the New York Times, Food & Wine, Lucky Peach, Wine Enthusiast, Condé Nast Traveler and Saveur, among many other publications.
In 2016 her website, parlafood.com, won the Saveur Readers’ Choice Award in the “Eat the World” category. She has appeared on the History Channel and was a featured guest on the Rome episode of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel.
These days Parla offers no fewer than 25 specialized tours, ranging from the culinary to the archaeological and art historical, as well as wine and beer tastings and craft-cocktail seminars. “There are all these academic interests people have in Rome. But there are also intelligent, curious travelers who come back again and again to get a deeper understanding of the culture. And food is a very good way to translate that, because through food we can talk about, say, Italian unification and the food system and how hygiene in the marketplace is dictated by these external bureaucratic organizations.”
Parla once thought she needed to work in a restaurant in order to write about food. But, she admits, “I knew that I didn’t want to work for someone. I wanted to be a sort of independent contractor–entrepreneur.”
This penchant, she says, “comes directly from my parents.” She and her twin sister, Lauren, 36, grew up with a father, Mike, who was a chef and a mother, Jo Ann, who started her own catering company after she and Mike divorced when the twins were six. These days, Jo Ann Parla is a real estate agent who also serves on the board of the West Windsor Community Farmers’ Market, where she often conducts seasonal cooking demos. Says Katie, “I think the farmers’ market is amazing because, obviously, there wasn’t such a market when I was growing up. It’s something I could never, ever have imagined was possible.”
Despite growing up surrounded by West Windsor’s cornfields, Parla says she had only a vague notion that New Jersey was a bastion of agriculture. “My mom always took us to farmstands, so I grew up picking strawberries and blueberries. She’s a great home cook and we would come home and cook what she bought,” she says. She cites that experience as one of several that sparked her lifelong interest in food, Mike Parla’s restaurant work being another. “With him we got to eat all the foods we weren’t allowed to eat with my mom. I think Lauren and I ate our way through all the chicken fingers Central New Jersey had to offer,” she says, laughing.
Both Parla parents have taken Katie’s tours while visiting her in Rome. “My mom comes at least once or twice a year,” she reports. “My dad is very deeply devoted to his restaurant—and now to his garden!” Mike Parla has a 17-acre farm in Sergeantsville, which supplies Clydz. Katie’s twin, Lauren, helps there. When Lauren visits Katie in Italy, the pair enjoy going to the beach. Their favorite is lesser known, a “really gritty place off the coast of Naples that’s super fun.”
Parla makes a point to come
home each August, she says,
“So I can have Jersey corn
and Jersey tomatoes.”
Even as a teen, Parla was interested enough in food to eat at restaurants in Princeton by herself. Among her favorites were the now-iconic Hoagie Haven and small, no-frills Chinese places like the erstwhile Karen’s Chinese. These days, when she’s back in the area, she makes a point to go for dim sum at Shanghai Bun in Princeton Junction. And Conte’s, the venerable Princeton pizzeria, is, she says, “near and dear to my heart, even though I’m aware that it runs contrary to a lot of the local-sourcing issues I talk about.” Parla makes a point to come home each August “so I can have Jersey corn and Jersey tomatoes.” She also tries to be home around the holidays.
What’s next for Parla? “I’ll continue to focus on artisans—and not just on people making food in restaurants, but also cheese, wine, or spirits.” Specifically, she’ll turn her attention to the products of the Southern Italian regions of Calabria, Basilicata, Campania and Molise (but not Sicily). “No one writes about Southern Italy, which has virtually no voice. It’s sparsely populated and poor in certain parts, or extorted by Mafia,” she explains. “It will require a lot of hardcore research, but I love these areas. I want to talk more about the reality of the food systems in Italy.”
Although she plans on staying in Rome, Katie Parla hopes to spend more time back home, including spotlighting local products prepared in an Italian or Roman spirit. “I find new energy when I come back to the Princeton area. I’m so inspired by the food companies that have opened and how the agricultural identity of Central Jersey—while it’s not totally intact because of real estate development—still includes these really green, rural parts. This is very different from the visions that people have. I mean,” asks this Jersey girl, “how often do we find ourselves having to defend New Jersey to people?”
POLLO ALLA ROMANA
(Chicken with Tomatoes and Bell Peppers)