The City Dweller's Guide to Rome

Where were you born and where did you spend your childhood?

I was born and raised in a suburban town called West Windsor just outside of Princeton, New Jersey. When my parents moved there in the 1970s it was all farmland (NJ is the garden state, after all). Now it's mostly housing developments. It has its charms, but I dreamed of getting the hell out of there and living in NYC. I never did make it, but I'm okay with that.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a city dweller; someone who could go to a movie, a bookstore, and a museum all on the same block. I wanted to be someone who had a million interests and who could be cool but also speak Latin. I was a weird kid.

In an alternate universe, what is your other dream job?

Living in NJ and running my dad's restaurant Clydz with him, and particularly overseeing a very fun Italian wine list and cocktail program.

How did you end up doing food in Rome?

I've been interested in food, drinks, and hospitality ever since I was a little kid, so even though I initially moved to Rome for Classics and Art History, I started taking wine education courses almost immediately. I then got my MA in Italian Gastronomic Culture. I founded my blog in 2008 and wrote about food and restaurants and issues with the local food systems. I started writing articles and books for a bunch of international publications, and I'm still at it!

What do your parents think about what you do for a living?

They think I spend all day talking and thinking about carbonara and pizza and they are correct.

What's next for you and your business?

On March 29, 2016, my forthcoming cookbook Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City will be released, so for the next couple of months, I'll be on book tours doing loads of Rome-themed events, dinners, and signings!

Hardest part about doing business in Rome?

The obstacles you've already heard of—sexism, bureaucracy, nepotism—are all very real, but the biggest challenge for me is an absolute absence of mentorship. Finding creative energy, inspiration and support in an environment like this is a constant struggle.

What's happening with food in Rome that nobody's talking about (yet)?

I think all the really good things happening in Rome right now—a growing number of quality bakeries, the rise of natural gelato, some interesting fast food spots, the rise of craft beer, a blossoming cocktail culture—have all been covered in the press. What continues to go under-documented are the non-Italian food cultures present in the city. Some really special places like Mesob, an Ethiopian restaurant, or the non-sushi menu at Taki fly under the radar because Roman food is (and probably always will be) the dominant category.

How does all of Rome's history and tradition affect the way chefs, restaurants and hotels operate?

Tradition informs the way kitchens execute dishes and the kinds of dishes that they offer. There's relatively little interest in rapidly evolving the local cuisine or using modern techniques (and most of these attempts are huge flops anyway), so Rome's cuisine remains a clearly defined category. It bears noting that not all traditions are equally revered, so less popular items (especially the labor intensive ones) disappear from menus and home tables as a result. Clients expect those core local dishes like carbonara, cacio e pepe, trippa alla romana, and abbacchio allo scottadito to always be available, and restaurants comply.

Best tip for Journyers visiting Rome?

Plan your dining experiences based on recent, independently vetted suggestions. It's OK to have a loose plan, but you can eat very, very badly in Rome if you wing it or stick to that list your friend used 5 years ago.

And skip the Vatican Museums and visit works by Michelangelo, Raphael, and others in museums and churches that aren't criminally overcrowded. The Villa Farnesina and Saint Peter in Chains should be at the top of your list!

Tip for those who want to make a living in food and travel but don't know how?

Start at the bottom, work hard, learn constantly, and be useful. If you think you might be interested in wine, work a harvest. If kitchen work intrigues you, apply for a job wherever you think you can learn the most. Intern at a travel publication with a properly structured internship program.

As an American woman in Italy, what are your thoughts on tropes like Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun?

Eat Pray Love is repellent, and the Rome section is boring and superficial. Under the Tuscan Sun (the book) is different because Frances Mayes is an accomplished writer who knows and understands Italy. Hers is not a story I can relate to personally (I moved to Italy when I was a poor and clueless 22-year-old and I will never have a parking spot, much less a villa), but she's a smart woman and I respect that.

What's your packing personality?

I always tell myself that I'll get some app or make a usable checklist to help me. I'm sure there are resources for disorganized and forgetful packers like me, but I'll probably never learn and be forced to buy underwear, socks, and Mac chargers every time I take a trip.

Most surprising item in your luggage?

Inevitably an odd number of shoes.

Best foodstuffs to bring (or smuggle) back from Rome? 

If you can avoid the beagles at baggage claim, snag a whole guanciale at La Tradizione on via Cipro. I always bring loads of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano back to the States. I get those at La Tradizione or Roscioli and have 200 gram chunks vacuum-sealed for travel. They make terrific gifts.

What are the biggest changes in how American chefs interact with Roman food and culture?

In the past few years, Roman food has become much more present on America's restaurant tables, going beyond the obvious carbonara and cacio e pepe to showcase other dishes and flavors. Places like Marta in Manhattan, Roman's in Brooklyn, and Roman Candle Baking Co. in Portland have all adapted the spirit of Roman cooking for their local audiences. I also love that places like Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan and Brooklyn Bread Lab make Rome's classic pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice), introducing a ubiquitous genre to the US.

Photos: Flickr/Bert Kaufmann, @katieparla 

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