By Anthony Stoeckert
When Katie Parla graduated from Yale in 2002, she saw her classmates embark on careers in investment banking, or jobs with the CIA. Not wanting to take a typical Yalie path, Ms. Parla went on to a much different life, one she had dreamed of since she was a teenager.
”I wanted to move to Rome ever since I was 16 and studying Latin in high school and was very obsessed with the classics,” Ms. Parla said. “So I decided when I was a sophomore in high school that I’d move to Rome.”
She did just that in 2003. With her degree in art history, she thought that would be her career path, but she went in a different direction.
Ms. Parla grew up in Princeton Junction, and graduated from West Windsor Plainsboro High School in 1998. She grew up in a foodie family — both of her parents worked in restaurants, they met while working at Good Time Charley’s. Her father stayed in the business, and today owns Clydz, the restaurant and martini bar in New Brunswick.
”Soon after moving here, 13 years ago, I became really captured and obsessed with the food culture,” Ms. Parla said during a phone interview from her home in Rome. “Not in a romanticized way but I noticed that a lot of the food I was eating wasn’t the sort of spectacular, local, seasonal things Italy is known for. I wanted to know why, and I wanted to understand the Roman food system and how Italians source food.”
She started studying Italian gastromonic culture at the University of Rome, and got her master’s in 2007. She already had been writing, contributing to guide books, but things began to change when she started blogging about food in 2007, writing reviews and profiles of chefs.
”My blog was read by a number of editors and they invited me to contribute to the websites or their newspapers,” she says.
She started writing for “The New York Times” in 2009, and food websites in the U.S., U.K. and Australia. Her writing now includes cookbooks, and she will discuss her career, branding, and her newest book, “Tasting Rome” (Clarkson Potter) during an appearance at Mrs. G TV and Appliance Center in Lawrence, April 8, beginning at 8:30 a.m. The appearance is being sponsored by the Women’s Council of Realtors.
”’Tasting Rome’ is a panorama of Roman cuisine, which acknowledge the classics,” Ms. Parla said. “And you’re going to find everything you want in a Roman cookbook, the cacio e pepe recipe, the carbonara recipe. But it also addresses some of the new ways that Romans have been eating for several decades.”
Ms. Parla co-wrote the book with Kristina Gill (who also took the book’s pictures), the food and drink editor at DesignSponge.com, a home and lifestyle website. Mr. Parla says that when she moved to Rome, she had a romantic notion that there was a certain way Romans ate, but that isn’t the reality.
”Romans eat in a lot of different ways,” Ms. Parla said. “Some of them eat a lot of fast food, some of them eat a lot of vegetarian food… So what I wanted to do with the book is showcase some of the best features of cuisine in Rome, without necessarily being bound to critical mass.”
So she dug into some lesser-known cultures, such as Rome’s Jewish community, about 13,000 in a city of 4.3 million people. “Tasting Rome” includes a chapter to the city’s complex Jewish food culture. That includes writing about the city’s Libyan Jewish food.
”Libyan Jews arrived here in 1967, and no other book has really addressed the Libyan Jewish cuisine,” Ms. Parla said.
Another under-reported Roman food and drink topic she writes about is cocktails.
”Although there isn’t a very vibrant cocktail culture here, there are some cool cocktail bars, so I wanted to spotlight some of the mixologists,” she said. “I think what the book does is curate the best of what is happening in Rome food and drink, and does it with a lot of historical background.”
When asked what American cooks can take from a book written about cooking Roman food, from someone who has lived there for 13 years, Ms. Parla says it’s easy to cook with a “Roman spirit” here in the States.
For example, she says proteins are fairly universal, so you can make Roman-style chicken with local bell peppers and delicious Jersey tomatoes.
”If you put your own personal spin on it, it doesn’t make it any less Roman, because every Roman approaches these traditional dishes a little bit differently,” Ms. Parla says. “It’s by their own personal choice of what herbs to add or whether to use garlic or not, or what color pepper to use… I don’t believe you can only cook Roman food in Rome.”
”Tasting Rome” limits recipes that include obscure ingredients. Ms. Parla encourages people to use the best ingredients available — local vegetables, quality pasta — and add a personal touch.
During her appearance at Mrs. G, Ms. Parla will talk about personal branding through the lens of her experience in Rome. She likes to give a timeline of what she’s done these past 13 years, starting out as a “classics geek” to cookbook author, and how she learned from making mistakes.
”I like to share what I’ve learned working independently, and then building a team and verbalizing, What are my goals?” she said.
As much as she loves Rome, Ms. Parla has her favorite foods back home, which she’ll be enjoying during her visit to New Jersey.
”I eat all the dumplings I can physically handle when I go back to the States,” she said. She’ll also head to her favorite pizza place in Jersey City, and will visit restaurants in central and north Jersey, including, of course, Clydz.
When asked what the biggest misconception people have about food in Rome, Ms. Parla is quick to answer:
”That you can’t have a bad meal.”
Mrs. G is located at 2720 Route 1 Business, Lawrence. For more information, go to mrsgs.com or call 609-882-1444.
By Anthony Stoeckert