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This New Italian Cookbook Is the Sicilian Trip You’ve Been Dreaming About

Katie Parla's new book is a colorful, extensive must-have for anyone who likes carbs, wine, and ‘The White Lotus.’
This New Italian Cookbook Is the Sicilian Trip You’ve Been Dreaming About
Composite by VICE Staff

Katie Parla is quickly becoming one of the great modern encyclopedists of regional Italian cooking. Her own cookbooks include Tasting Rome (with Kristina Gill) and Food of the Italian South, and she also authored National Geographic’s Walking Rome: The Best of the City and Eater’s “The 38 Essential Rome Restaurants.” In addition, she’s co-written a couple of other great contemporary bangers: American Sfoglino with Evan Funke and The Joy of Pizza with Dan Richer. Her writing straddles the perfect line between academic and historical context and a deep joy of eating—you learn a lot from reading her books, but you also feel the need to stop what you’re doing (unless you’re watching Ted Lasso) and make u sfinciuni (onion and tomato flatbread), panelle (chickpea fritters), and impepata di cozze (mussels with black pepper).


Parla told me she’s worked on her newest opus, Food of the Italian Islands, for the past five years, but, really, it seems that she’s been researching it her entire life. A New Jersey native with deep familial roots in Sicily, Parla grew up with “a sort of a vaguely Sicilian identity, from an Italian-American standpoint.” After visiting Sicily—which is, in terms of Italian islands, one of the GOATs—for a research trip during her undergraduate studies at Yale, she was hooked; now, years later, she’s literally lost count of how many of the islands she’s visited (in conversation, she’s quicker to name the ones she’s missed, which seem to number very few). Parla embodies the energy we love in our favorite food personalities: She can go HAM on Mount Etna wine and Select Aperitivo and smash crazy pastas all night, but can also go long about Sicilian street food of the 9th century and how the glycemic index of cooked pasta affects your digestive system. Everyone from food history nerds to humble carb lovers will love this one.

$35 at Amazon
$35 at Parla Publishing
$35 at Amazon
$35 at Parla Publishing

Food of the Italian Islands is a colorful, fun, staggeringly informative journey through a region of Italy that doesn’t get enough love in cookbooks (though it certainly does in Michelangelo Antonioni films and The White Lotus). Parla is uniquely capable of showing us a new side of Italian food that goes way beyond the classics, which is why this book is an absolute must-have (it’s also just, like, a distressingly beautiful volume that somehow made me find Chicago inadequate for a few minutes). 


A couple days before the book’s release on March 9, Parla talked to VICE about why street food is so important in the Italian islands, how there came to be seven (yes) pesto recipes in this book, why overcooked pasta is actually bad for you, and the island you should definitely visit first. And, yeah, we talked about The White Lotus, too.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed.

VICE: Hi, Katie. In the book, you mention that your family has roots in Sicily. Can you talk a little bit about your personal connection with that part of Italy? 

Katie Parla: I think like a lot of Jersey-born Italian-Americans with Sicilian roots, I grew up with sort of a vaguely Sicilian identity, from an Italian-American standpoint. Some of the foods were similar. We knew the family left Palermo, but there was no other connection. Nobody spoke Italian; my great-grandfather left in 1906 and was the last person to visit until I went during college on a research trip. I took a train from Rome to Palermo, didn’t know what was going on at any given time, barely spoke Italian, but felt nevertheless really connected to the place. I went to the natural harbor where my great-grandfather was born, and ate lots of panelle and a lot of pane câ meusa, so a lung and spleen sandwich. I was on a budget, so it was the perfect city to land in, because everything was, at the time, [using] the Lira, so it was, like, 50 cents to eat everything. It was really special. That was my first foray, and I just loved the city and it’s been amazing to watch. 


All of the islands you talk about in the book have very unique histories and cuisines, so how would you describe the food of the Italian islands? Are there any qualities that most of these places have in common? 

Italian regional cuisine varies from place to place, even village to village, but what brings the islands together thematically is that people had to raise and cultivate the animals and foods that could sustain them during either times of terrible weather—even Sicily was sometimes challenging to land on. I definitely have gotten stuck on smaller islands during storms. They had to be able to make the most of abundance, especially after summer harvest. So, there’s a lot of dried legumes, dried beans, vegetables that are cooked in vinegar and then preserved under olive oil. And while fish, I think, comes to mind when we’re thinking about Italian islands, it’s really a lot of preserved foods and things that can be cellared that define the large islands like Sicily and Sardinia, and all the little guys. 

And then of course they all have a lot of wine—many of them are volcanic, so they have incredible mineral-rich soil, which is inhospitable to various blights and infestations, so the vines are particularly ancient in contrast to most of the mainland.

You said that the islands number in the hundreds, but that Sardinia should be my first destination. Why is that? 


I think it’s the most wild and weird place. And while it’s definitely a biased point of view from someone who has spent a lot of time traveling in the islands and has checked all the boxes already, I think what’s really special about Sardinia and what makes it different from the other islands is that you can really go there and have an adventure. There is not a ton written about it. If you rent a car and have a vague itinerary about places to stay, you can explore these villages, coastlines, mountains, pastures, and you feel like you’re discovering something new, whereas a lot of the other islands feel like you’re just walking in the footsteps of a lot of Instagram influencers, and Sicily really blew up last summer. I expect White Lotus will have a great impact. I mean, just anecdotally, I’ve received hundreds of messages like, “Oh, I’m planning my White Lotus trip,” and I’m like, “Oh god.” [Laughs.]

I actually was not going to bring this up, but since you mentioned it, I’m curious: Did you watch The White Lotus, and if so, what did you think of it? 

Loved. Loved. Taormina, like Capri, like the Amalfi Coast, was developed for Anglophone and Northern European, like, ballers, a hundred years ago. And so the character of it, I think, is really well showcased by White Lotus, where people are kind of isolated in a place that maybe has Sicily in features, because Mount Etna was visible in the distance, but there wasn’t anything classically Sicilian about their experiences. They were drinking Aperol spritzes half the time.


Reading through these recipes, it feels like the communities you talk about take street food way more seriously than a lot of other places in the world—definitely the U.S. Why is there such a strong emphasis on street food?

I think especially in Sicily, street food is part of the identity because, historically—and I’m just going to address the last century—the way that people eat today in Palermo on the street, whether it’s a slice of sfinciuni [onion and tomato flatbread], panelle with fried potato croquettes stuffed into a bun, various cartilaginous bits poached in lard and served on bread, those are things that everyone can afford, and they’re things that allow you to have this convivial moment in the middle of the day. Most home dining is done in the evening. People are out, they’re working in the markets, doing their jobs, and they don’t have the resources to sit down for a formal meal. And the custom of bringing your lunch to your desk is not a very strong one in Italy. There are even contractual obligations that you’re not supposed to stay in the office continuously through your shift—you gotta leave. So, there’s that brief and intense period in the middle of the day that you gotta eat something, and it’s always fun to go to that street food vendor that you go to all the time. It’s something that really defines the course of the work week in Sicily. 


Pesto is a huge deal in the islands, and it seems like varies a lot between regions, which I didn’t realize. Was there one that you found especially interesting or surprising? What did you learn about pesto while you were working on this book?

One thing that you learn to do in Italy in the summer is avoid turning on your stove whenever possible. It’s really freakin’ hot. So these no-cook pestos that are using just nuts, garlic, herbs, oil, sometimes cheese, sometimes tomatoes, are a way to make something fresh and light. You gotta boil water, fine, but you’re not sitting coaxing the flavors out of ragu for hours. You’re getting something that is just of the moment. You can make tons of it and put it in the freezer, or serve it the next day. It’s a practical choice for islanders.

The one I think is most interesting is the one from Carloforte, a little island off the Southwestern coast of Sardinia. It’s a tuna-canning island that was settled by people from Genoa; more accurately, they had left Liguria and Genova, gone to Tunisia to farm or harvest coral. When their supply dried up, they appealed to the King of Sardinia for a place to work and live, so they settled on this island, the main town of which is called Carloforte. Of course, they brought their Ligurian traditions with them, including that pesto with basil that we’re all so familiar with; but also in Carloforte it's also combined with tomatoes and tuna.


That was the most interesting thing in that section, that there was a tomato pesto that’s dairy-free.

Oh yeah.

So, then, how would you define pesto? When I think of what Americans think of as pesto, it’s a very specific thing. That’s obviously not the case here. 

The Genovese pesto is a global phenomenon. Wherever you go in the world, outside of Italy, when you hear pesto, you think about that particular preparation. They just have incredible PR for their pesto. It’s literally protected by traditional food-producing customs. Whereas, pesto just comes from the verb “pestare,” which means smashing up with a mortar and pestle. Of course, you don’t have to go that far—you can use a food processor. But in any event, you’re mashing and then emulsifying ingredients, which could include tomatoes. Certainly in [some places], tomatoes are used in the pesto.

The section about digestibility I thought was really interesting. Like you wrote, it’s not something Americans really talk about—it’s like people have a block against talking about that part of the dining process. Can you explain what distinguishes the food in this book with regards to digestive health? 

I’m not sure that this is necessarily unique to the islands—it’s kind of an Italian obsession—but people think about how they’re going to process their food. They surely inform you if they have not done so efficiently after you’ve fed them. It is not a TMI culture at all. When you eat things, you do so in quantities and combinations that, either for superstition or custom, make sense. So, when you’re having a full-on meal with all the courses, you start with a small amount of antipasto, which can be heavy stuff—a little bit of cheese, a little bit of salami. Then, you move on to your starch, whether it’s pasta, risotto, or polenta. Then, you have your meat, then, vegetables. Vegetables are incredibly important—at home, people eat a lot of fresh vegetables. And dessert is often fresh fruit. It’s all a way to pack fiber into your body so you can efficiently digest your food and stave off the Italian terror: constipation. 


Also, the custom of drinking digestivi at the end of the meal is meant to promote digestive health. You might have also caught the part in the book about cooking pasta very, very al dente, a term called al chiodo, so that it spends more time in your mouth being processed with saliva, and your body processes it more efficiently. Al chiodo pasta has a lower glycemic index, and there are all these features that sort of scientifically promote efficient digestion.

I loved reading that part, because I think it’s the first time I’ve ever read a scientific or molecular argument about why you shouldn’t overcook pasta. It’s usually just, like, Gordon Ramsay yelling, “I hate overcooked pasta! It’s bad!” I love that you give a reason why. Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you want to make sure people know about this area, the food, or about the book?

There are a lot of hand-shaped pasta recipes in the book, and there are QR codes that show you how to do it. It looks really crazy when you see lorighittas on a plate, but then when you see how it’s made, you’re like, “Oh, I can do that.”

There was one of the breads where I thought, I don’t know how I could pull that off

Look, Gianfranca Dettori, who’s the bread pro… there’s something magical about what she does. I made a decorative bread. It looked like my three-and-a-half year old nephew made it, but a grown ass woman did. It just takes, you know, an artistic hand. But, if you make a very stiff, unleavened dough and treat it like Play-Doh and make something decorative, anyone can pull that off.

Buy ‘Food of the Italian Islands’ on Katie Parla’s website or on Amazon.

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