Bite Into the Best Food in Rome with an Italian Food Expert

October 17, 2018

How did a nice girl from suburban New Jersey grow up to become one of the world’s leading experts on Italian food and cooking? “My mother shopped at seasonal farm stalls and is an amazing cook, and my Sicilian-American father has always been in the restaurant business,” says Katie Parla, 36, whose beautifully photographed Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes From an Ancient City, was published by Clarkson Potter. It’s a cookbook, a gastronomic tour of Rome, which Parla has called home for 13 years, and a favorite of chef Mario Batali, who wrote the introduction.

“As a kid I was spoiled at the table. Mom, whose family is from the Italian region of Basilicata, made great pasta sauces, but I was a New Jersey kid who loved spending time at her dad’s restaurant, because it meant all the Shirley Temples, chicken fingers and curly fries with extra cheese sauce I wanted,” explains Parla with a laugh.

Parla’s conversion to serious gastronomy began in 1996 when she visited Rome, her first trip abroad, as a 16-year-old high school student studying Latin. “I knew from the first day I arrived that Rome was where I belonged,” she says. She returned to New Jersey and, concurrent with her high school classes, began taking Italian language lessons at the local community college and art history classes at Rutgers, a short train ride from her home. She continued to pursue art history, with a focus on Roman antiquity, at Yale. “I spent my college summers in Rome on research grants, and the food was a total revelation to me. I identify as an Italian-American, but the food I’d grown up eating had nothing to do with the Roman kitchen, so I found it both fascinating and delicious,” says Parla.

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In 2003, Parla moved to Rome full time and began teaching history at a local boarding school. In 2004, she founded a company specializing in small-group private tours of Rome with gastronomic and cultural themes. The same year, she began writing and editing guidebooks to the city for the Rough Guides, Time Out, Dorling Kindersley, National Geographic, Fodor’s and other publishers. She became a certified Italian sommelier in 2006 after completing the sommelier training course run by FISAR, the Italian Federation of Restaurant and Hotel Professionals, and in 2008 she completed her M.A. in Italian Gastronomic Culture and founded her website, katieparla.com, where she’s “the best friend you wish you had—the one who grew up in New Jersey so she’s fun and easy to talk to, but she’s lived in Rome for 13 years and knows all the best places to go for food, and more importantly, cocktails.”

“One of the questions I’m asked most often is what is the best food market in Rome,” she says. “I send people to the Trionfale market (Via Andrea Doria 41, Monday-Saturday) in the Prati neighborhood near the Vatican, because it has over 200 stalls and offers such a spectacular array of seasonal produce.

Many of the vendors are farmers, and you find foods here like nettles and wild greens that you don’t see at other markets. The fish mongers are outstanding, too, since what they sell is locally landed.” Instinctively generous, Parla shares an assortment of her other favorite Roman addresses on the following pages.

For all the Roman Pasta Classics: Flavio al Velavevodetto

Flavio al Velavevodetto may have only opened in 2009, but its atmosphere and décor give it the feel of a long-established institution. The historic feel is only amplified by its location—it’s built into an archaeological site. I visit Flavio’s cavernous dining rooms for all the classic pastas: carbonara, gricia and amatriciana, each studded with bits of cured pork jowl and liberally dusted with Pecorino Romano cheese.”

For a timeout from pasta: Mesob

“Whenever I need a break from pasta and offal, I hop on my bike and pedal to the Via Prenestina in eastern Rome where a converted garage is home to the Ethiopian restaurant Mesob. Owner Kuki Tadese serves family recipes—richly spiced stews and simmered vegetables—on sheets of sourdough flatbread at wicker tables in the traditionally decorated dining room.”

Best Roman Style Quick Bite: Mordi e Vai

“At the edge of the Testaccio Market, Sergio Esposito and his wife Mara serve family recipes like simmered beef and stewed tripe on locally baked bread. Although the concept of serving portable versions of Roman classics might not seem innovative, it is a total novelty for Rome and Mordi e Vai perfectly balances the local need for authentic flavors with the demand for a quick, affordable dining option.”

Best Gelato: Al Settimo Gelo

“There are more than 2,500 gelato shops in Rome but singling out the best is easy. Only a handful use all-natural ingredients and Al Settimo Gelo is among this small but important crew. The pistachio, hazelnut, chocolate, almond and zabaione flavors are extraordinarily rich and creamy on their own, but benefit from pairing. Thankfully, each small cup or cone comes with at least two flavors.”

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Discover Roman Jewish Cooking: Nonna Betta

“Amidst the Jewish quarter’s many mediocre dining options, Nonna Betta dutifully reproduces the delicious dishes that owner Umberto Pavoncello grew up eating just a few buildings away. Nonna Betta serves all the local Jewish classics—fried artichokes, marinated zucchini, anchovy and endive casserole and ricotta cake—and is the only place in central Rome where these traditional items are executed with care.”

Best Sunday Lunch: Tavernaccia da Bruno

“You’ll be hard pressed to find a place with nicer staff or more comforting food than this family-
run trattoria in Trastevere. Founded in 1968, Tavernaccia da Bruno serves a mix of soulful Roman classics and slow-roasted meats. On Sundays, they also serve fabulously rich, béchamel- laced lasagna baked in a wood-burning oven.”

Best Roman Breakfast: Roscioli Caffe

“Romans aren’t known for their breakfast culture—a cheap espresso/pastry combo is the standard—but when the historic Roscioli baking family opened this café-pastry shop in central Rome they changed the game by offering coffee made from custom-roasted beans and carefully crafted, butter-based sweets, both a rarity in the Italian capital. I visit daily for a caffè doppio (double espresso) and maritozzo con panna (a sweet bun filled with whipped cream).”

Best lunch near the Vatican: Pizzarium

“Just a few blocks from the Vatican Museum’s entrance, pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci transforms pizza by the slice, Rome’s ubiquitous fast food, into a gourmet experience. His dough develops exceptional flavors and aromas through slow, cold fermentation and is topped with seasonal produce from biodynamic farms and cheeses and cured meats culled from Italy’s top artisans. I never miss a slice of the surprisingly light potato and mozzarella pizza.”

Where to eat off-ally Roman: Cesare al Casaletto

This neighborhood trattoria, which is known for its delicious fried starters and traditional pastas, is my top spot for offal in Rome, and of course Rome is one of the most offal-loving cities in the world. The rigatoni co’ la pajata (pasta with suckling calf intestines), fegatelli di maiale (grilled pig’s liver) and trippa alla romana (tripe stewed with tomatoes, pecorino and mint) are refined in spite of their humble ingredients, and if you’re not up for an organ recital, the braised oxtail is superb, too.”

Best new style Roman cooking: Mazzo

“Francesca Barreca and Marco Baccanelli opened their 10-seat neo-trattoria in Rome’s eastern periphery in 2013. The couple got their start hosting pop-ups and doing performance cooking, but they have settled into restaurant life, teasing Roman flavors into new forms like simmered lamb and pecorino croquettes, or oxtail terrine.”