Katie Parla is a Roman food expert, writer and traveler extraordinaire. Her most recent book, Tasting Rome, is a culmination of knowledge and experiences gathered over 15 years of living and eating in Rome. Her expertise has made her an authority in regional Italian cuisine, and she even served as a food consultant of sorts for Aziz Ansari when he shot the second season of Master of None. Parla recently took a trip to Tokyo, Japan (this interview was conducted prior the trip), and to prove it, she took over our Instagram this past weekend! We asked her about how she researched her trip and what tips of the trade she could share.
I know you offer tours in Rome. Could you tell me how you go about designing your tours?
The culinary tours are like neighborhood immersions. So whether it’s Testaccio or the Trionfale district, they’re sort of grazing itineraries through those zones with the purpose of both feeding people and teaching them how to approach shopping and dining in Rome. It also gives them the historical context of the dishes and of the neighborhoods themselves. So instead of eating 10 things in a row and not think about what they signify in Rome, it’s much more paced grazing. And they’re all customized. For example, for the Trionfale district, I borderline insist that we get pizza by the slice, but if people are more interested in sweet things, savory things or wine, everything is tailored to what people want.
Do all those neighborhoods lend themselves to easy grazing? Are all the stores close to each other?
They’re all three-hour itineraries, so I think coincidentally a lot of the venues are usually a five- or eight-minute walk apart. I started as an archaeological and art historical guide. I’m trained to not allow any of the time between destinations lapse. So we use the time between destinations to talk about architecture or urban planning and how it relates to that part of the city, whether it’s a historical part or 20th-century fascist-era design part.
Do you have any tips for people who are traveling to a place where they’re not familiar with the language?
No one really expects you to be fluent, but I think it’s so key and pays major dividends to just learn basic polite phrases, like “hello,” “thank you,” “please.” No one in Rome or anywhere in Italy expects visitors to be fluent, but do they want eye contact and a salutation when people walk into a place.
Wherever I travel, I always check out supermarkets and food halls to see how locals eat and shop. Located in the basement of the Tokyu Department Store near the east exit of Shibuya Station, Tokyo Food Show offers mind-boggling variety of gourmet products ranging from musk melons that will set you back a couple hundred bucks EACH to exquisitely marbled meat that is similarly luxurious. @katieparla #FRTakeover #FRFantasyTravel
When you’re traveling abroad and you’re looking for the local restaurants, what kind of research goes into that? Say you’re not familiar with the language — it’s harder to Google these things.
I’m actually going to Japan for the first time, and my research was pretty simple. My research has been basically surveying all the insane food people that I know, cross-referencing their lists, building a spreadsheet, dividing things by genre — because I know when people come to Rome, often they feel like they want to eat a lot of trattoria meals, but then after three days they’re done with carbonara and cacio e pepe — creating a Google map, planning things out as best I can Googling locations and schedules. Instagram’s been really, really useful. I think there are a lot of chefs, food writers or food people that when they do travel, they’re documenting everything with images and with geotags, which are really helpful. I’m following a ton of people who are in Tokyo right now who are [using] the Japanese geotags, which are obviously really difficult for me to figure out, but a little bit of Googling can sort of reverse-engineer the itinerary. It’s expensive to travel, obviously. It’s definitely so important to go to places where people are either wonderful innovators or have special traditions and to support them by documenting my time there, so I try to do a lot of research.
What did you do before Instagram?
Before Instagram I would text friends for their lists. I always found a lot of websites are super-duper reliable; there were certain food writers who would document a pretty visit or a somewhat thematic thing that I thought were really trustworthy. For example, I find Paris a really, really overwhelming city, but Alex Lobrano is a really great resource and someone you can actually write to and say, “Hey, I read about this in your book or your article, what do you think of this itinerary?” When there really aren’t that many sources to cross-reference, then I’ll hire someone to build an itinerary for me.
Is there a travel mistake that you try to avoid?
I think a travel mistake that I’m trying to break myself from doing is to not plan any time to just walk around and look at stuff. So maybe overplanning is something I’m guilty of, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily a mistake. Sometimes, maybe I don’t know all the etiquette, and I think that’s a big mistake. My brain can only fit so much information, so I’ll try to learn local customs and stuff but I’ve lived in Europe for so long that I don’t really know other cultures with the same depth, so I get a little panicked about not knowing how to act in some places. So I think the travel mistake is overplanning or not doing enough research about how to behave or how to eat certain things in certain ways. I just don’t want to offend anyone.
What does the term “fantasy travel” mean to you? Is it the people you’re traveling with, location or cuisine?
I think it’s all of those things. It totally depends on where you are. When I think of fantasy travel in Italy, I think of finding super remote places that few if any tourists have been to, or discovering that one example of that salami or cookie or wine that no one makes in that way anymore because of vanishing traditions. Whereas for this upcoming Tokyo trip, everything seems like a total dream. Every food photo that I’ve seen, every street photo that I’ve seen, every description of how to find an off-the-map bar or restaurant — that just seems so otherworldly to me. So those are two very different experiences.