If you’re reading this, then chances are that Katie Parla has your dream job. As an Italian food author, critic, and expert, Parla eats her way across Italy to dig into the recipes behind the country’s most unique dishes.
Over the years, Parla has written, edited, or contributed to over 30 food-focused books and travel guides. Meanwhile, she has bylined articles for The New York Times, The Guardian, Saveur, Serious Eats, Eater, the gone-but-not-forgotten Lucky Peach, and many more high-profile publications.
Her latest work, Food of the Italian South, showcases the simple cooking techniques and complex flavors of the lower peninsula with 85 recipes and 100 mouthwatering photographs.
Recently, Parla took some time to chat with Slice about the rich history of Italian cuisine, the evolution of pizza around the world, and much more:
Zach Links: How did you get your start as a food critic and author?
Katie Parla: When I moved to Rome in 2003, I found myself constantly thinking about food, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I realized food writing was an actual discipline. After that, I got my masters in Italian gastronomic culture at the University of Rome and started pitching stories, critical reviews, and articles everywhere.
ZL: Many don’t realize how incredibly regionalized Italian cuisine is. What would you say defines Southern Italian cuisine? How did it evolve?
KP: It’s interesting because [Southern Italy] has lot of isolated villages that have super unique recipes. Still, there are a lot of things that are classically Southern that you find in all different regions.
Ingredients like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, durum wheat used for breads and pastas – none of these things were actually native to Italy, but they were introduced over millennia, particularly when the Arabs conquered in the 9th century and when the New World was being plundered by the Spanish.
ZL: Your latest work focuses on the Southern peninsula, but you’ve also written a great deal about Roman cuisine. If an American had only a couple of days to spend in Rome, what are the dishes you would tell them to target?
You also have to have pizza with mortadella, that’s a pizza bianca flatbread, unadorned and filled with slices of mortadella – they have that at Forno Campo de ‘Fiori and Panificio Bonci.
Then there are the classic pastas, both the ones that are famous to travelers and the ones that Romans consider to be part of their pasta canon. So, you have to eat Gricia, Amatriciana, Carbonara, Pajata (the cooked intestines of unweaned calves), and sugo di coda (pasta with oxtail).
Tripe and Oxtail are extremely important to Romans – they are MUSTS. You have to get Roman style honeycomb tripe cooked in tomato sauce and seasoned with pecorino cheese. Or, get Coda alla Vaccinara, which is oxtail segmented in tomato sauce and enriched with lots of celery, pine nuts, raisins, and cocoa powder.
ZL: I visited Bologna on my last trip to Italy and I was blown away by the quality and uniqueness of the food. But, I was pretty much the only American there. Why don’t more Americans go to Bologna?
KP: Most Americans stick to destinations that have a lot of monuments in them, places like Rome, Florence, Venice, or they go somewhere that has been told is a cool place to go, like the Amalfi Coast. And, Emilia Romana, in spite of how delicious the food in Bologna and Modena can be, remains a secondary destination or tertiary destination for most. It’s shocking.
ZL: For us Americans who do not have an Italy trip on the docket – What Italian pizza style do you think will be the next to gain traction in the United States?
KP: The Roman style pizza by the slice is the next to blow up. No question.
Pizza by the slice in Rome takes two forms. There’s pizza al taglio, popularized by Gabriella Bonci, and I’m not even up on how many U.S. cities they’re planning to open Bonci in. They’re open in New Orleans and I believe they’re already putting the finishing touches on Milwaukee and Chicago. But, that’s something people have been making in New York for a while too, at My Pie Pizzeria Romana for roughly ten years.
There’s also the other style, pizza alla pala, which is cooked on the floor of the oven rather than in a sheet pan, resulting in a wonderfully crispy flatbread. Jim Lahey (of Sullivan Street Bakery) has been making this for years, patterned after Rome’s Forno Campo de’ Fiori, where he studied.
Both are done by the slice, with alla pala being the bakery version that gives you a substantial base that can support lots of toppings, which creates a fuller meal. I think that’s the next big wave, at least in the cities that are enthusiastic about their pizza. Surprisingly, I think New York is not quite as enthusiastic about different styles as Jersey City, across the river.
ZL: You obviously love and champion Italian pizza, but do you ever find yourself craving pizza from back home in New Jersey?
KP: I grew up just outside of Princeton, so Conte’s is the place that brings me back to my childhood. My favorite in New Jersey is Razza in Jersey City, but they weren’t open when I was a kid.
ZL: What do you make of the regional American pizza styles that have strayed from the original recipes of Italy?
KP: Here’s the thing – there’s a lot of Neapolitan, and even VPN certified pizza in the U.S., that sucks. It’s like soup on poorly fermented dough. I don’t understand why that’s supposed to be exciting.
The regional styles, I’m into them if they’re digestible. I recently visited Detroit and found a place with a Detroit slice that came with its own bottle of ranch. That’s appealing, but only in theory.
The thing is, when I eat pizza, I want to be able to eat pizza every single day, because that’s what I do for a living. If I go to New Haven [Connecticut], for example, I can eat tons of it because the dough is properly fermented and not super dense.
ZL: What do you eat when you need a break from pizza and other Italian food?
KP: I love Sichuan, regional Thai cuisine, and tacos, in their many forms. I crave spice and heat. I also love regional Turkish cuisine, especially Southeastern Turkish and Anatolian.
ZL: In addition to Food of the Italian South, where can people find more of your work?
KP: All of my articles are available on KatieParla.com and my Instagram (@KatieParla) is where I show off my meals and let everyone know about my appearances. My next cookbook, which I’m starting next week, will be Food of the Italian Islands. That one is scheduled for release in Spring 2021.