As many of you may know by now our mom (aka Marmo) organizes culinary trips and tours in Italy through her company Gourmet Getways. The fascinating people she’s met and resources she has accumulated doing this is quite outstanding. I was lucky enough to accompany her on her last recon-mission to Rome and had the opportunity to meet up with Katie Parla, a food and art historian and sommelier who has been living in Italy since 2003. Katie is a freelance writer and provides customized, private tours for small groups.
I admit to finding her lifestyle (or what I imagine it to be) fascinating. Italy has an intense culture: the flavor (both where food is concerned and lifestyle), the art, the history…the rambling ancient and medieval streets that are treacherous to walk on after troppo vino….it can all be very overwhelming. I wanted to get the insider track from Katie on what her life is like as an ex-pat and get some travel tips while I was at it.
*Above Photo: flat bread pizza at Roscioli.
1. What’s a typical day like for you in Rome? Do you even have a typical day?
I don’t really have a typical day, but I every morning I grab a slice of pizza bianca (a Roman flat bread), either at Roscioli or Forno Campo dei Fiori. Then I might do some writing or lead a market tour, followed by lunch (often pizza by the slice), then do some writing, meet a friend for drinks then go out to dinner.
2. What’s it like being an American living in Rome, and what advice would you give to travelers?
Obviously everyone has a different experience but I really enjoy it. I get to live two realities, that of the Rome dweller and that of the ex-pat. I wouldn’t want to have to be 100% dedicated to the former or the latter, but if I had to quantify it, I’d say I’m 75-25. I would suggest that travelers to Rome give themselves the chance to be a Rome dweller, at least partially, by staying for more than a few days, renting an apartment in a residential area, using public transport, and going food shopping in markets and small shops.
3. Tell us a little bit about the tours you lead and why you take this particular angle.
Well, I have degrees in Art History, archaeological spelunking, and Italian Gastronomic Culture, so my tours are in-depth explorations of these subjects. My tours tend to be interdisciplinary, as it is impossible to isolate single themes in a place like Rome where so many layers intermingle. On a food tour, the discussion might start on artichokes, then turn to botanical archaeology, then frescoes depicting vegetation. It can get nerdy.
* Above photo: Pasta Cacio e Pepe from Roma Sparita.
4. What is your favorite Roman dish and place to get it?
Tough question! Can I have more than one favorite dish? I’d probably say Roscioli makes my favorite carbonara, Roma Sparita my favorite Cacio e Pepe, Checchino dal 1887 my favorite Trippa alla Romana, and Pipeno my favorite Fiori di Zucca.
*Above Photo: a veggie vendor at the Testaccio Market.
5. The local food movement has been gaining ground in the US. Is this an issue in Italy/Rome or not as much (seeing as Italy is not over-run with Walmarts and Mega-Markets)?
While the large chain stores aren’t as prevalent in Italy as they are in the US, there has been a massive rise in the number of supermarkets over the past couple of decades. And in Rome, more market stalls are vacant than ever. A group called Coldiretti is seeking to combat that by promoting the consumption of local produce and other products. They run a weekend farmer’s market near the Circus Maximus and another (called Roma Farmer’s Market) in the old slaughterhouse in Testaccio. Over the past couple of years, some restaurants geared towards locavore eating have been opened. In June, the NYT published an article I wrote on the subject.
6. Tell us a little about being a sommelier and how you incorporate that knowledge into your tours or food adventures in general.
Well, I do have a sommelier certificate but, rather than using it for restaurant work, I lead wine tastings that focus on the cultural history of wine in Italy. I use a selection of wines to teach about grape cultivation, regional difference, and food culture, usually doing tastings at a wine bar or two in the center of town. I do a lot of traveling for food research and try to visit vineyards and speak with wine producers as much as I can. As you can imagine, eating and drinking are inextricably linked in Italy so you cant really study the food of an area without considering its accompanying wine.
* Above Photo: Burrata mozzarella at the St. George Hotel in Rome.
7. What is a little known Roman (or Italian) food that you think is just off-the-hook (so to speak)? And how can tourists get their hands on it, or recreate it?
Well, I don’t know how obscure this is anymore, but burrata is one of my favorite foods on the planet. If you can’t go to Puglia in southern Italy to eat it, Roscioli in Rome carries it. Beware. It is addictive. I have found pretty good burrata at Chelsea Market in NYC.
8. What’s a fantastic off-the-beaten-path Roman museum or site or nook ‘n’ cranny that is often overlooked?
There are so many! I am always shocked how few people visit Palazzo Massimo alle Terme with its spectacular Roman sarcophaghi and fresoces. Santa Prassede is another favorite place that is often overlooked and has amazing medieval mosaics. The Parco degli Acquedotti just off the Via Tuscolana is certainly off the beaten track and is a very cool public park with aqueduct ruins that lumber through the countryside. Palazzo Valentini under the Provincia building next to Piazza Venezia is super cool. Two villas decked out in marble mosaics and wall veneers were uncovered in 2007 and recently they have been open to the public. I went there last week and was the only visitor.
You can learn more about Katie, her writing and tours here.
And here is another article Katie wrote for the New York Time Travel section: In Rome, Really Local Food.
Thank you, Katie!
Oh and spelunking? That’s just cool. Speeee-lunk.