Katie Parla Knows Italian Food

"Kitchens only need a few essentials."

The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Katie Parla is a Rome-based food writer and cookbook author who recently released her second book, Food of the Italian South. Here’s how she became the Italian food expert she is today, and what she cooks at home when she isn’t on the road researching.

I became totally obsessed with Rome during a high-school trip. I decided then I was going to live in Rome when I grew up. I studied Italian and art history at college and moved about six months after graduation. Other Italian cities are cool, but Rome is and always has been it for me. The first few years I was there, though, I wasn’t thinking about food writing at all.

But I started to have all of these amazing experiences traveling in Italy and eating and drinking nice things. I wanted to share it with a wider audience. I also wanted my writing and knowledge to improve, and to have academic credentials to back up my work, so I got my master’s in gastronomic culture.

I started freelance food writing in 2009. Something that cooking and writing have in common is multitasking and planning ten things at the same time in different phases. Still, though, I didn’t even consider the possibility of writing a cookbook. It was years of me cooking a lot for myself, meals for one, with Italian boyfriends, learning their mother’s traditions. I was not thinking about recipe writing or food writing as a profession. Cooking was just something that I did. My profession was writing about culture.

When people read Food of the Italian South, I want to motivate them to travel, or at least think about an entire part of Italy (the south) that often is visited for single locations — Amalfi Coast, Pompeii, Capri. I want to give people really striking visual representations of the beauty of the rural south. I have about 100 folders with information that helps me jog my memory about things I ate years ago.

When people read Food of the Italian South, I want to motivate them to travel.

Recipe development is something that I think needs to be intuitive. It’s actually a matter of standing in front of the stove knowing what the final taste is and getting there. If I learned one thing while writing my book, though, it’s that I shouldn’t be trusted to drive with passengers. I learned to drive in suburban New Jersey. I’ve adapted to the illegal passing and the speeding, and my photographer was alarmed, to say the least.

When I’m at home cooking for myself, I just want pasta. I just really want spaghetti with garlic, oil, and chili. Or pasta alla gricia. I’ve realized in the past several years that I need salads, so I add those in.

Kitchens only need a few essentials. In terms of your pantry: dried pasta, garlic, capers, olives, tomatoes, anchovies. You can do a pretty fun range of dishes with that. Add in a protein, fish, chicken. Add salt early and often, seasoning throughout the process.

Kitchens only need a few essentials.

I really like Deep Cut; I don’t actually have a lid for any of my skillets, so that is cool. I love the depth of it, and I do a lot of involtini, which are rolls, and for me, it’s the perfect size — the sauce is able to do its thing around the rolls. I got this recipe when I was in the swordfish capital of Italy. It’s simple: Mix some breadcrumbs with olives, capers, and grated cheese, and make a thick paste by adding water. Spoon a few tablespoons of the mixture on one end of a thinly sliced swordfish fillet; then, starting at the end with the filling, roll the fish up and seal with a toothpick. Meanwhile, make a sauce with olive oil, garlic, and tomatoes. Cook the fish in the sauce for about fifteen minutes — fish cooks fast! And then you turn them once, and finish them off.

Photos by Vincent Tullo

It's good because it has a range of savory flavors, uses up stale bread, and it's pretty healthy! And it’s especially great when tomatoes are in season.