Katie Parla is a Rome-based food and beverage educator and journalist. Originally from New Jersey, she has spent the past fifteen years in Rome, writing and giving tours on such diverse topics as underground Roman archeological sites and the modern craft cocktail scene.
Katie has been my own mentor in all things Roman since my first visit to the city in 2010, and she continues to be my most trusted resource there. She is the co-author of the recently published Tasting Rome, and she is currently finishing up two new books, one on the cooking of Southern Italy and one on the home-milling of flour for baking.
In our conversation, Katie discusses how Rome has changed in the past fifteen years, what she learned from being trolled online, and why people should start planning a trip today to Southern Italy.
Justin Naylor: Good morning, Katie! You’ve been living in Rome full-time now for fifteen years, and I imagine that’s been long enough to really see some significant changes in the city, both gastronomic and otherwise. Many people probably think that things don’t change much in Italy, but of course they do. So maybe we could start with some of the changes since you relocated from the US to Italy.
Katie Parla: Yeah, for sure. There have been so many changes – and you’re absolutely right, that there is this romantic idea that Italy is this place where the food culture and its food system is sort of trapped in amber, pristine and preserved. In reality, the past fifteen years have been pretty heavily influenced by the economy, which makes sense if you think that a little over fifteen years ago the Euro became the currency and the price of everything went up. That affects how people can shop and also how restaurants can source. In both cases, there’s plenty of data to support that whether people are buying for a restaurant or for their homes, they’re very frugal and often choose conventional products over artisanal ones out of economic necessity.
We had a number of difficult years, financially. Although on paper Italy is out of a recession, most people would report that they don’t really feel as though there’s been much relief. The 2009 financial crisis was really devastating, and not just for people’s finances – I think, also, for the morale of Romans, and Italians as well. I think part of that romantic stereotype of Rome is that people go out and they’re at restaurants and they’re spending time together and lingering over really long meals. That perhaps was the case for some people pre-Euro, but in the crisis economy people couldn’t go out as much, and if they went out at all, they were looking for deals or looking for value or looking to save where they could. Going back to that romantic stereotype, the idea that when people go out they eat an antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, and dolce, a wine-fueled meal that concludes with coffee and disgestivo – that’s like a special occasion today. It used to be more of the norm, and now when people go out, they go out for a couple of dishes. They might split a dessert, a carafe of wine rather than a bottle. People have to be really savvy with how they spend at restaurants. And this sort of carries over into other dining, as well. Fast food – which is a term that I use to describe the sort of indigenous custom of eating pizza by the slice or suppli’, as well as the more globalized brands – has become a really big feature of the local food panorama. We have both grim fast food options these days, as well as some really exciting ones.
JN: How have the chefs responded to this change? Is there anti-EU sentiment like in Britain?
KP: I think there’s not quite the same anti-European Union sentiment that there is in the sense of the Brexit debacle, but it’s not as though Italians went to a vote recently to see if they want to stay in or out. Romans, in general, have survived financial difficulties for 27 centuries. It’s not a new thing for them. They adapt, just like anyone else. And that also applies to chefs. I think that in Rome there are restaurants and trattorias where the places exist to serve really great food. Sometimes the owners are exceptionally bad at business, so rather than getting the cheapest raw materials they go for the more expensive things, the more time-consuming items. Those are the places that I really love, and I know you do, too. So, bad at business, great at food.
KP: Whereas, the restaurant business since antiquity has been driven by demand for cheap food. I don’t think there’s been necessarily a cataclysmic shift, because there were lots of place serving not-great food before, and I think that continues to be the case. I think that people’s response ranges from indignant – some people have straight-up retired, preferred not to have to navigate the difficult margins that are the reality today in the business more than ever. But the silver lining is, you do have a lot of young people who went away from Italy to find work abroad, had experiences in the food industry and the beverage industry, have come back and put their knowledge and lessons to work back home, investing the money that they earned abroad, and also, I think, a bit more conscious of what Roman flavors are, what Roman food is. When you leave a place and then return to it with a little time and distance, you can actually reflect on things that as a full-time resident you may have taken for granted. I definitely see that happening in the craft brewing industry, in the street food industry, in the cocktail and bakery category. So that’s really exciting, and I think it’s also part of the very natural evolution of Roman food. Roman food has constantly been changing; if we were doing this interview forty years ago, we would be talking about a totally different food culture; thirty years ago, 130 years ago. The city’s food culture and the realities around it are constantly shifting.
JN: How have your own tastes changed in the last fifteen years? Are there restaurants that you really enjoyed when you first moved to Rome that now you’re sort of embarrassed to admit that you enjoyed?
KP: [Laughter] I realize I don’t have the capacity for shame, so I’m not afraid to admit that when I got here, every gelato tasted amazing. I would go to, like, Giolitti and Della Palma. I spent a summer doing thesis research here during college and all those terrible, exceptionally bad trattorie on Vicolo del Cinque served what is objectively disgusting food, but it tasted so good to me at the time.
JN: Since you work with a lot of tourists who are in Rome for the first time, I imagine those experiences help you relate to where they’re coming from, when everything just seems amazing.
KP: Yeah! Food tastes better when you’re in a beautiful street that looks like a natural movie set. But I think I did arrive here with already two decades of conscious food experiences. I did grow up in the restaurant business, I was always working in restaurants, I spent most of what I earned working in high school and university on food. When I went to college, of my work-study funds, half went to my Italy fund, and the other half went to eating Ethiopian food and Indian food and all sorts of cuisines. I learned by eating various national and regional cuisines that, yeah – maybe that first chicken vindaloo that you have blows your mind, it’s the best thing you’ve every eaten, but then you try another one and you start to create a frame of reference. The same is true for carbonara or trippa alla Romana. While I might have been predisposed to be thinking about the quality of food, I did grow up in America, where we don’t judge food based on its digestibility factor, which is certainly something that people consider here. So, yeah, that plate of tripe might have tasted really good, but if it sits heavily in your stomach, was it really a successful dish?
JN: Do you think that is was mostly just experience, or did you have a mentor along the way who helped you distinguish good cooking from mediocre?
KP: You know, it was kind of a combination of factors. Almost as soon as I got here, I enrolled in a sommelier certification course, and that came just before my Master’s in Italian Gastronomic Culture, so I was already thinking of food in a more formal and academic way than most recent arrivals. I worshipped, and continue to worship, Maureen Fant, who is the smartest human. I read every word she ever wrote, she was an incredible resource, and I’d like to think of her as a mentor. She’s been really generous with me. I learned a lot from her; I still do. It was a number of factors and ultimately a personal decision to treat food as a discipline, and not just as the object of some review or article or travel piece or blog post.
JN: You’ve written about how it was not food but archaeology and history that took you to Rome in the first place, but that you quickly got entranced by the city’s gastronomic culture. Once your interests shifted toward food, what kept you in Rome as opposed to another Italian city?
KP: Rome for me is a relationship with a city that sort of transcends any explanation. I am utterly obsessed with the urban decay of this place. The things that keep me here are actually not the archaeology and the food and the wine, it’s more like I feel really at home in dilapidated 1960s failed experimental housing projects.
JN: So not the famous tourist center, but the periphery that the tourists never see.
KP: Yeah, I mean, what is so fascinating to me is that just short of 150 years ago, Rome’s population was under 150,000 and it saw these huge booms in population. So you have all this stuff that’s happening beyond that central nucleus where very few today Romans even live. Like the Borgate, the housing projects of the ’30s, they could have been monstrosities or hideous but instead they are so elegant. All the tensions, immigration, and political movements that drove the development of the city, I find that thrilling.
JN: How soon after you moved to Rome full-time did you start the blog?
KP: I started my very primitive Apple first generation website in 2006. It wasn’t anything like what it is today. It was about underground archaeological sites, and wine, and random trips, and museums, and snacks, and all sorts of random things, and no one read it. While I was doing my Master’s the following year, I bought the domain parlafood.com, which was meant to be the website that accompanied my thesis, and once that was done I thought, I should probably use this for something. The name was super dumb, but, whatever, who cares? What did I know at the time, that it was important to have a cool name? So, in 2007 that’s when Parla Food was born. Back then, I didn’t think my name had or would have any type of real recognition, so I also had a personal website, katieparla.com, and eventually – this is probably about four years ago – I ditched Parla Food and moved all the content to katieparla.com. This might be a really boring part of the interview.
JN: People are really interested in this, though – we live in this strange age where, as you say, you start writing, you have no reputation, no one knows who you are, and it’s very difficult. But once you reach a certain tipping point, things go viral, and someone can go from being completely unknown to being well-known very quickly. What do you think the turning point was for you?
KP: It had to be in 2009 when I had my first by-lines in the New York Times, which came about because I had been writing so much on my blog and for some other smaller publications. I was banging out so many articles about so many Rome things, and that got the recognition of a New York Times editor, and that really catapulted my public profile. Back in 2009-2010 I was filing a lot of travel stories on Italy and Turkey and the US, just writing whatever I could for them. That led to a lot of other writing gigs. So it really snowballed, and now I write for a pretty wide swath of the food world.
JN: How did you connect with the New York Times initially? Was it the result of good luck, or did you reach out to them?
KP: I had zero confidence that I would ever write for the New York Times. It never occurred to me even to ask. In 2008-2009 they were developing their now-defunct In Transit website, and the travel editor was talking to one of the Metro section editors, saying, “I need a Rome stringer, do you know anyone in Rome?” and the editor responded, “Yeah, Katie Parla.” I got an offer and I was like, What the hell, this is crazy. Of course this is insane. Unbeknownst to me, people were actually reading my blog and the articles that I had been filing for other publications. I didn’t know that anyone had been reading them. So, that was a nice surprise.
JN: And I imagine your advice to anyone in the position you were in then would be to keep working and make sure your content is super high quality, and just keep at it?
KP: This is probably terrible advice, but I would say never say no to a paid writing gig as long as you are able to maintain your integrity. Never say no, and write until you are on the brink of mental breakdown. Forsake a social life. Something good might happen. Again, this is very bad advice! [Laughter]
JN: As you developed a more prominent reputation and profile in Rome, how did Romans eventually react to this when they figured out there was this American woman writing about Roman food culture, developing a lot of influence in the English-speaking world?
KP: It totally depends on the venue, because there are some restaurants that are very much online, following the food press, and others that literally don’t care that I write about them for major publications – all that they care about is that I’m a regular and I have been for a long time, so my occupation is completely unimportant to them. But, yeah, I had a pretty violent entry into the Italian food press world. [In 2010] I wrote a take-down of a restaurant called L’Arcangelo; I wrote what I thought was a super-funny, very interesting take-down of the place. Then, a year later, one of the big food blogs basically wrote an article saying, Who is this bitch writing about our food? Clearly, Americans should be eating spaghetti with ketchup on it. I’m not joking – this is basically what the article said. And the response in the comments section was basically, Who does this person think she is? She can’t know anything; This restaurant is untouchable; She ordered wrong – that last part is actually true; in Roman restaurants you don’t order what you want, you order what they’re good at. I got really, really viciously trolled by a lot of men – I now know who they are because I figured it out – anonymous avatars who just like nothing more than degrading women, foreign women as a bonus. That was a very painful moment, and this trolling lasted a good two weeks, with all sorts of personal messages to my email. It was really f—ed up.
JN: I know you have a thick skin, but it must have been really difficult. I can’t even imagine.
KP: The reason I do [have a thick skin] is because this happened. I was like, OK, that sucked, and now I’m totally over it. I’m disappointed that it had to take something like that. I didn’t sleep for two weeks; it was a nightmare. But then I was like, I don’t care what anyone thinks about me. These people didn’t read what I wrote, they don’t know where I come from, they don’t understand me, they have no interest or intellectual curiosity in my origins or my credentials. While maybe at first my confidence was shaken a bit, I now can take anything. I think that’s important, because I don’t work for L’Arcangelo, I don’t work for trolls. I promote Roman food culture as I see it, and try to teach people about it. I work for my editors and my readers, not for anyone else, and I’m not trying to impress people who have no interest in fairly judging what I do.
JN: There’s a happy ending, though, insofar as you eventually developed a very good working relationship with Arcangelo, right?
KP: Yeah, I mean, no one really wants to be in a long-term fight here. They want to be in a short fight, and then make peace. People are into arguing, they’re into drama – especially in this very incestuous food world – but they don’t want long-standing feuds, they just want a passionate fight and then some sort of resolution. And that’s exactly what happened.
JN: I watched the presentation that you did at Google a few months ago, and in the question period someone described you as their hero. I understand why this is, especially to a lot of young people who are interested in writing about food and wine as you have. You’ve been very successful, but I imagine that you’re not really comfortable being anyone’s “hero”.
KP: Sure. Yeah, being someone’s hero, I feel completely unqualified for that. However, if I take a step back for a moment, I have worked very hard in a sometimes-toxic place, and, yeah – I work my ass off. I write a lot. I don’t do press trips or go to openings or accept invites in exchange for access or free food. I’m proud of that. In terms of my output, I know I could do more, I could always improve, but I hope that the fact that I’ve really, really tried to make it in a difficult city and have succeeded can provide some sort of hope to other people wanting to do the same. I could be a better role model, and a better hero, but taking myself out of the equation, it’s really important for people to have someone to look up to. It’s not a given that someone has this dream career and someone has that career already, but if a younger or less-experienced person can look at what I have accomplished and find some inspiration in that, awesome. I always am looking to friends and colleagues and assessing how they’ve been able to achieve what they’ve done, because working is hard, freelancing is hard. Just surviving can be hard sometimes. So, having heroes is important. I was super uncomfortable being called a hero, but I’ll take it.
JN: You were at Google as part of your book tour for Tasting Rome (2016). Could you talk a little bit about how that book came about?
KP: So, I was at lunch with Kristina Gill, who is the photographer and co-author of the book. She told me about a book that she had been trying to sell for four years, about the favorite recipes of Roman taxi drivers. I thought, That’s a terrible idea, no one likes Roman taxi drivers. So I was like, “Hmmm. Why don’t we do a profile of the city of Rome through its food instead?” I had been writing about those very topics for years, so it seemed like a great opportunity. We got together a proposal – actually, on my website there’s a very detailed post about how to write and sell a cookbook proposal – our agent, Alison Fargis, gave us a template, and so we basically said, this is what the book is going to look like, this is what the book is going to sound like, these are some of the concepts we want to cover, and here’s how we’re going to sell it. That was a really important feature of the proposal, and really critical to selling it for a very nice rate. Because one way to become extremely impoverished is to write a cookbook. Getting paid for it is very important. But I digress.
JN: So, one reason that you were able to get a good rate – not only was the proposal good, but you already had a pretty significant platform. People I talk to who would like to do something similar are frustrated because the first thing any agent will say to them is, “Before we develop any proposal, you need to have a pretty massive platform.” Is that your experience as well?
KP: I think if you have a massive platform, you can sell a book that is not a good idea. Having a massive platform gives authors a lot more in the way of leverage in selling a not-interesting idea. But if you have an interesting idea and you can argue in favor of being able to sell it, that’s important too. Selling isn’t just having 1 million Instagram followers. In the proposal, I wrote, “I’m going to go on a very aggressive book tour, selling this book through events.” I already had lots of experience running and selling out events, so I knew that with some organization and planning, and a lot of caffeine, I could sell the book, which is exactly what I did. In my next proposal, I’ll have to add that my mother will sit in front of Whole Foods with a trunkful of cookbooks and hand-sell them to people, because that’s basically what she does! [Laughter] She should get a cut.
JN: I love it – there’s nothing like mom. So, speaking of social media and having a significant platform, do you enjoy that aspect of your work, or do you feel it’s a necessary evil?
KP: I love Instagram; I’m an instant-gratification person. I love Twitter, but for politics more than food – if there are any readers that are easily scandalized, do not go on my Twitter feed. And Facebook for me is a necessary evil. It is absolutely the number-one way that Italians communicate, especially Italian food businesses. I don’t have a passion for it, but I do use Facebook. I use my personal page to post the larger articles that I write, and then I do a lot of visual stuff on my Katie Parla professional page, and some event promotion there too.
JN: I’m sure you’ve been gratified by the success of the book, and you put obviously a lot of effort into the book and the proposal as well. Have you been surprised at all – I guess no matter how much you believe in a project, it’s always a roll of the dice as well. Have you been pleasantly surprised by the success of the book?
KP: I was completely delusional, so I thought we were going to sell 100,000 copies. I’m very happy with the sales now. The reason why Clarkson Potter bought Tasting Rome is that they saw this as a book that will be relevant for a long time. The sales have been really consistent, I continue to tour – I’ve got events coming up in the summer, so two years after the book came out, there’s still interest. I’ll be able to sell the book, and share the book with people. But honestly, when you write your first cookbook, you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what good sales are, what bad sales are, if your launch is successful. All of that stuff is stuff you figure out later. In retrospect, yes, I learned a lot, definitely, marketing and selling Tasting Rome. I’ll hopefully be able to apply some of those lessons to future publications and do even better numbers.
JN: Especially for a cookbook, in a completely inundated market. It’s interesting to me, because when I started paying attention to Italian cooking about 15 years ago, around the same time you moved to Rome, there were books on Tuscany and books on Italian cooking in general, but Rome seemed to be under the radar. In 2007, Maureen Fant’s great book came out, published by Williams-Sonoma, and it seems in the last ten years, and especially in the last five, interest in Rome has exploded – there’s yours, there’s Rachel Roddy’s wonderful book that I love so much. How do you account for the sudden explosion of interest in Rome?
KP: Rachel’s book is so good! I attribute it to two things. In cookbook publishing, a book is considered a “competing title” if it’s been published within ten years. So, there weren’t many Rome books with large distribution that had been published within ten years. Maureen Fant’s book is such a good book, but it’s so hard to find – Williams-Sonoma makes it hard to get. But it’s awesome – I love that book so much, it’s my most-stained cookbook. So, it was time for another Rome cookbook. I love Rachel’s book as well, but the fact that it was a British title meant it wasn’t seen as a competing title in the American market, even though it now is available in the US under a different title [My Kitchen in Rome]. And then Jerusalem was a really transformative title – that’s Ten Speed’s book about the city of Jerusalem, really using the city as the anchor for the subject, for the recipes. In 2013 and 2014, a lot of books about places and regions and subregions were coming out, and so it was sort of the right time. Definitely, those two things.
JN: How do you distinguish Tasting Rome from some of those other books?
KP: I think Rachel said it best: her book and my book are friends. There are maybe a few recipes that overlap, but they’re really different stories of Rome. Rachel’s is her personal story, rooted in her life here, her building a family here, her partner and his relationship to Testaccio, her relationship to Testaccio. Instead, Tasting Rome – it’s not academic, of course, but it’s a little more rooted in history and interviews, and it’s really connected to individual people, like Flavio de Maio’s carbonara or Claudio Gargioli’s gricia – individual stories. While Rachel’s book is more of a personal account, Tasting Rome gives a voice to some of the people who really define Roman food but don’t know English or don’t have a platform. So, the book speaks on their behalf.
JN: Chefs are traditionally protective of their recipes. Were the chefs you profiled happy or reluctant to share with you?
KP: Both. The reason people are so generous and open with me is because I go to their restaurants. I don’t take free food, I pay for everything, I am a devoted regular, so they’re willing to share their recipes with me. Except Arcangelo, who deliberately gave me the wrong recipe, so I made him go into the kitchen and make gnocchi in front of me while I followed him around with a scale.
JN: And now you’re just finishing up a new book. I would love to hear about that book, and when it’s coming out, and anything about that process you’d like to share.
KP: Actually there are two!
JN: That’s even better news. Do tell!
KP: My solo title – are you ready for it – is called “Untitled South Italy Cookbook”.
JN: It’s been untitled for a while, I think. Is that changing soon?
KP: No. It won’t change soon, because the publication date has been pushed forward. In the publishing world, they don’t decide or sign off on titles until a certain period before the book is published. “Untitled South Italy Cookbook”, which is finished – the photographs are shot, all that is done – will come out in Spring 2019. The titled Flour Lab cookbook, which I am coauthoring with my friend the chef, miller, and baker Adam Leonti, formerly of Vetri, is coming out in the fall. It’s about milling flour at home for pasta, pizza, bread, and pastry. The photos were shot in January and I’m just about to receive my copy edits back.
JN: That’s so exciting!
KP: It’s about 25 archetypal recipes, so there’s how to mill flour at home for certain shapes of pasta in order to get the best extensibility, or whatever the characteristic is that you need. You can mill at home or go to your local mill – like Castle Valley in Doylestown – and choose the grain based on what you need to make or bake. The South Italy cookbook, on the other hand, is similar to Tasting Rome, in that it’s about 85-90 recipes, each preceded by a headnote, and then lots of features. But rather than focusing on a single city, it focuses on various aspects of Southern Italian food culture, and I define “South Italy” as the lower peninsula – Molise, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria, and Puglia.
JN: The Rome book took a lot of research, I’m sure, but it was also very familiar already. This book, I imagine, required a tremendous amount of research, travel, etc. What are some of the main takeaways of the experience?
KP: In a way, the Rome book was already written in my head, because I had been researching so many of these topics for so long. Naturally I had to spend some time tracking down recipes and developing recipes. That was not super time-consuming; I wrote Tasting Rome so fast. The South Italy cookbook, on the other hand, was a lot of travel, a lot of driving, a lot of taking photos of terrain and really trying to distill a very, very vast and varied landscape into a sort of South Italy 101 container. I want people to read the South Italy book and immediately start planning a trip, and feel immediately connected to those places and their flavors. It was a bit challenging to stuff a lot of information into the same amount of space as Tasting Rome.
JN: Despite the diversity of these Southern regions, which have their own character, what are some things that tie those regions together? Does anything unify the cooking of the regions you wrote about?
KP: There are a lot of vegetables, a lot of dishes that are just inadvertently vegan, tons of pulses and legumes, and pulpy, brothy soups. Until the mid-1800s, all the regions I mentioned were under Bourbon rule. Now, of course, they’re under Italian rule for the moment, but who knows what’s going to happen next. I think the intensity of flavors – especially from Calabria – I like to communicate that; the variety of things you might find on a Pugliese table, with lots of coastline with interior land; Campania having a tradition of pork, but using it as a flavoring – there are individual characteristics of each region, and of course of the subregions. It’s a veggie-driven society.
JN: Which I guess is connected historically to the fact that these regions were often poor, compared to some of their Northern counterparts, and of course meat is expensive. So it makes sense that veggies and legumes play the dominant role.
KP: And a lot of the meat dishes were holiday-oriented.
JN: Is there a lot of hot pepper as well?
KP: There is quite a lot of pepperoncino, especially in Calabria and parts of Campania, and they’re sort of smoky peppers in Basilicata, but a lot of the ingredients that you find are the New World ingredients. There are the things that define the South – peppers and tomatoes, eggplants that came from North Africa and the Middle East, artichokes – those things that now have been absorbed into other parts of Italy, but really have been rooted down in the southern regions much longer.
JN: And you hope your book convinces people to go to these places, which could really benefit from more tourism.
KP: Completely. Rome, Florence, and Venice have become so insanely packed. I think visitors to Italy are looking for an experience that feels, for lack of a better word, authentic and real. And with full insurance coverage, you can do anything to the car! You can drive it down a mountain if you want to.
JN: [Laughter] Good to know!
KP: That’s going to be maybe the subtitle of the book: Get a car, get full coverage. You can drive to all these incredible places. Literally, all over Cilento, you’ll encounter more cows than humans, on the road, free grazing. It’s so amazing. There’s all this crazy delicious food. The interior of Basilicata is so unspoiled. These are regions that have been depleted of population, so there’s this sort of haunted mystery around them. They’re really, really special, so I do want people to travel there.
JN: Speaking of grazing, what did you learn about mozzarella di bufala for this book?
KP: Mozzarella di bufala is produced in several parts of Campania. The flavor of the cheese is the product of the fermentation and the diet of the buffaloes, and the salinity of the cheese, which can be manipulated by the producers. I actually don’t eat that much buffalo mozzarella because there are only a few places where I know it’s coming from very happy animals. But when I do, you can taste it – the flavor of the mozzarella changes throughout the year. It shouldn’t be too acidic or too tangy, but it should have a little bit of that brightness to it. It should be juicy, and milky, and squeaky almost. It’s something that we can’t even get here in Rome, with very few exceptions. It’s a process that’s best experienced at Taverna Penta, where the animals are eating wild herbs and a sort of cocktail of different things that grow on the property, as well as Tenuta Vanullo.
JN: When I’m talking about mozzarella di bufala, I often find myself defending the wonderful city of Naples. I realize it’s not for everyone, a little rough around the edges, but I know you love Naples too. What would you say about Naples to someone who has never been there, and is thinking about visiting? How would you describe the city and characterize its food and culture?
KP: Naples is like all those great cities on the water: there’s chaos but also calm at the same time, in a strange way. It’s the global pizza capital, so people are into carbs. And it was the capital of a kingdom, so it has palaces and chapels and avenues, all the things that went along with being not just an administrative capital but a culture capital, an art and music capital. It’s so amazing and has such terrible PR, it’s kind of shocking. Admittedly, on my first trip I was a little nervous, because it was very chaotic, it was a lot. But with every trip, I become more infatuated with the city. It has more character and more soul than Florence could ever dream of having – no offense to Florence fans.
JN: I often find myself defending it for those who think it’s a dangerous place.
KP: It’s not. Have you been to Philadelphia?
JN: [Laughter] Fair enough!
KP: I love Philly, but Philly’s more dangerous than Naples, a million times over. But if you are afraid of encountering organized crime, don’t come to Italy at all, because it’s absolutely everywhere – whether it’s the stereotypical mafia goons, or the incredibly entrenched extortion for protection racket that is absolutely pervasive, to the deep corruption within many levels of government controlled by mafia families. It’s absolutely ubiquitous. Maybe because of Gomorra and because these stories that come out in the media, Naples seems to be more wild and dangerous than it is, but it’s not as though every other part of Italy is mafia-free. On the contrary.
JN: Does the presence of that sort of corruption – at this point, you’ve been there fifteen years – are you stoic about it, or does it still kind of creep you out, knowing that these things are going on?
KP: I mean, I think about it all the time. You know, in Italy you can’t really change things, except with your consumer choices. So I like to go directly to things, I like to see the land they come from, I like to have an understanding of how things are being made, and I know that that is a really time-consuming endeavor that not everyone can handle, but I think it’s really important to acknowledge that if you’re eating food, you’re probably contributing to the mafia at some level, and all you can do is try to lessen it through specific choices. So, when you go to a market and you see that oranges cost 1.5 Euros a kilo, that’s probably because the mafia has enslaved African men to pick them. If artichokes are super cheap, the ones that come from Puglia may have been plucked out of the ground by enslaved Romanian women. So, understanding the food system, understanding the extent to which the mafia is involved in the food system, and making your choices accordingly, acknowledging that it’s going to cost more to avoid that system, that’s the only way to do it as a regular consumer.
JN: We haven’t talked yet about wine, even though that’s a huge part of what you do; as you mentioned before, you have your sommelier certificate. I know this is a big topic, but how would you describe your approach to wine in general? For people who are new to Italian wine, how would you describe the Italian wine landscape at the moment? What kind of wines do you seek out, what philosophies of winemaking do you most admire and try to promote?
KP: I do offer wine tastings; in addition to the private food tours I offer, I also do private wine tastings for groups up to six people. My approach to wine is to give a panorama, not necessarily of the whole Italian wine scene or market, but more to get people comfortable with the geography, and the grapes that come from the geography of Italy — because Italy has twenty regions, they are vastly different economically, linguistically, topographically, and not everyone is going to be able to visit all of them and see where grapes are grown and see how the food and wine interact with each other. I try to lead people through a tasting that focuses indigenous grapes, that focuses on how wines are made, and to some extent tries to demystify wine. I like to stick to really traditional wines, ones that haven’t been manipulated by a lot of intervention from the winemaker, whether that’s a lot of wood in aging or the use of reverse osmosis to change the alcohol by volume or the acidity levels. I personally drink almost exclusively natural wines, wines that are made not necessarily in the total absence of sulfur dioxide, but with very small, minimal amounts, and indigenous yeast, rather than lab yeast. My natural wine palate can even tolerate some volatile acidity, so sometimes more extreme wines, but also really clean wines that you might not think fall into the category, because they don’t have some of the defects that you associate with natural wines. And in the US right now, because a lot of sommeliers are interested in these smaller, artisanal producers who are using less intervention and really showcasing local grapes, you find tons of examples of natural wines in smaller shops, especially, like Moore Brothers, which you know well.
JN: We probably should wrap it up there, then. I really appreciate your time, Katie, I appreciate all the mentoring you’ve done for me over the years.
KP: For sure.