Drinking With Italian Food and Wine Expert Katie Parla

Cookbook author and expert of all things Roman, Katie Parla talks proper Neopolitan pizza, natural wine in New York and playing host in Italy to everyone from Action Bronson to Aziz Ansari.

Ops, a cozy restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn, is named for the Roman goddess of the harvest, the patroness of abundance and prosperity. It’s a fitting setting for drinks with Katie Parla, expert of all things Roman. She’s written, edited or contributed to over 30 books on Italy and has acted as a fixer for countless chefs, journalists and hardcore enthusiasts.

She’s arranged a three-day, 45-stop pizza tasting for Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri; led Andrew Zimmern to the best porchetta for his show Bizarre Foods; tucked into trapizzino with Action Bronson on F*ck, That’s Delicious; and served as a dialogue coach for the Emmy Award-winning second season of Master of None while it filmed in Modena and Tuscany. I myself first experienced her sweeping charm and deep knowledge while researching my book, Amarowith photographer Ed Anderson. We spent an entire day navigating Rome in search of pizza, pasta and gelato peppered with visits to historical sites. In short, if you know whats good for you, you don’t go to Rome without giving Katie Parla a call.

Parla’s already at the bar when I walk in, catching up with pizzaiolo Mike Fadem, who owns the place with Marie Tribouilloy and Gavin Compton. “Buonasera,” she says, bestowing me with a kiss on the cheek. There is no wine list here, but Parla spies an open magnum of Cantina Giardino Vino Rosato, one of her favorite Campanian wines, and asks for a pour as we slide into a corner banquette by the front window.

Down to earth, brazenly intelligent and quick with an F-bomb, the New Jersey native grew up in an Italian-American family and moved to Rome in 2003 to continue her study of art history. But she got sidetracked with an insatiable curiosity for Italian foodways and began chronicling her journey on her blog and in countless publications, eventually becoming an authority on Italian food and drinks. Parla is the author of the award-winning cookbook Tasting Romewritten with Kristina Gill, and the forthcoming Food of the Italian South. She also co-authored Evan Funke’s American Sfoglino and Adam Leonti’s Flour Lab, both of which will publish this fall.

“I really appreciate places like this,” says Parla, comparing Ops’ selection of Italian and French natural wines to Mostò, one of her favorite wine bars in Rome. She points to the magnum’s label, noting the pink and black graphics, which represent artisan-made jugs in Ariano Irpino where Cantina Giardino is made. “They ferment aglianico, a southern-Italian red wine grape variety, in terracotta jugs and the result is not funky or skunky or barnyard,” she says. In most cases, she explains, aglianico is over-the-top rich, which this short skin-contact incarnation defies. “It’s just really delicious grape juice, served chilled. I love super juicy rosés that look like red wines.”

After Parla’s praise I regret not ordering a glass myself, but my gin highball with marmalade, lemon, Amaro CioCiaro and soda is nonetheless refreshing. With just a glance at the menu, Parla runs point on the order, mildly teasing me about my peculiar aversion to onions; she passes on the Cicero pizza, first ingredient: “many onions.” First arrives a plate of sturdy radicchio drizzled with a creamy herbal dressing. Next, an empty can of Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes is upturned to create a makeshift pedestal for our oven-charred calzone, stuffed with mozzarella, ricotta, salami finocchiona and spigarello, a southern Italian heirloom variety of broccoli.

When Parla is back home in the States she admits she doesn’t entertain too many right-off-the-tarmac cravings, with the exception being Hainanese chicken rice (“poached chicken and the skin ground up with rice and really delicious sauces”) from Eim Khao Mun Kai in Elmhurst, Queens. And hoagies, of course. She says her local Wawa in New Jersey has gone downhill on the hoagie front, so she visits Hamilton or Trenton to get her fix, or goes directly to Philadelphia to hit up John’s Roast Pork for a cheesesteak.

Talk of hoagies naturally leads to pizza, and when it comes to American pizza, Parla says she has no love or nostalgia for the New York-style pie. “Though I do deeply love Best Pizza in Williamsburg. If a New York pie were good, that’s what it would be,” she says. I order a sour ale from Mikkeller Brewing and Parla has another glass of Cantina Giardino. “It’s such a great pizza wine,” she says.

On cue, our pizza lands on the table. “Most pizza in America can’t do this,” she says, holding up a slice to demonstrate how the light, slightly sour, chewy crust remains level in mid-air. “In America, and in Italy, there’s this epidemic of pizza-making. People say ‘I’m making pizza Napoletana and I’m following all the dogma bullshit so [it’s] so good it’s above critique,’” she says, drizzling some chili oil on her slice. “They’re following the rules, but the rules create a flawed product which is floppy and flaccid and soupy.”

I ask Parla what she was drinking during her college days in New Haven. “I don’t have any shame. I used to drink Alizé,” she says, referring to the Technicolor Cognac-spiked fruit liqueur. “I would feel terrible the next day. I also used to keep a keg of Natty Ice on my balcony.” When Parla is back in New York she tends to seek out natural French wine at either Ten Bells on the Lower East Side or The Four Horsemen in Williamsburg, and hits up Proletariat when she’s in the mood for beer (“Honestly, I like beer the most,” she says). She counts Dante as one of her favorite bars for cocktails, especially their Garibaldi, a blend of Campari and fresh, “fluffy” orange juice, a seemingly simple drink that rises above the sum of its parts. But Parla is quick to point out that no one in Italy knows what a Garibaldi is, at least by name.

“Italian bars in America have to exist as an interpretation. You can’t run an Italian bar in New York and tell people that they can’t have a cappuccino at 2 p.m. That wouldn’t be great for your Yelp reviews,” she says, reaching over to steal a sip of my beer.

With her new book, Food of the Italian South, Parla wanted to branch out from Rome and celebrate the lower half of the country. “Sicily, while wonderful, also monopolizes the travel and food content of most publications,” she says. “What was important to me was not to take any attention away from Molise, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria and Puglia.” In addition to dishes like paccheri alla cilentana and focaccia Pugliese, the book features recipes for Italian cocktails and homemade liqueurs, including DIY finocchiello and a sour cherry vermouth called ratafià. “The south of Italy is a place that’s stereotypical of warm hospitality, and if it’s a stereotype I’ve yet to be proven wrong.”

We finish our drinks and pause to survey the empty plates spread out across the table as Madonna’s “Lucky Star” kicks in on the stereo. “Do you mind if I eat this?” asks Parla, ever insatiable, reaching for the last piece of calzone.

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