This is the third part of our travel series on Northern Italy.
Fresh from our time in Brescia and Lake Garda, we were feeling adventurous and excited to be on the open road. Our destination was Parma, which we knew was home to great culinary riches; favorites like stuffed pasta, prosciutto di Parma, eggplant parmigiana, and of course parmigiano reggiano cheese. We felt our appetites growing with each passing kilometer.
Still, we had some ideas for the journey. Melissa and I have fallen in love with rural tourism, and we knew the area surrounding Parma was littered with old castles and quaint little towns. We set our sights on the Rocca Sanvitale, an impressive fifteenth-century castle surrounded by a peaceful yet imposing moat and home to an important fresco by the great local artist Parmigianino. The roads were fast, well-marked, and uncrowded, and we were excited for what lay ahead.
Fashion and Food: Parmigiano Reggiano and Stuffed Pasta
We never made it to the castle.
Exiting the highway, the ramp took us past a parking lot where scores of cars were competing for turning room with families sporting large shopping bags. A prominent sign displayed the word: “Outlets.” Intrigued, we stopped in for a look.
It was a gold mine of Italian fashion. There were Armani suits, Furla handbags, Zegna ties, countless uncomfortable yet fashionable shoes, and numerous other fancies that I could never afford back home, all at shockingly discounted prices. Taxes would be refunded at the airport. We were overjoyed.
Since this was Italy, we were also pleased to find that the Fidenza Village outlets offer an excellent restaurant, the Hostaria delle Terre Verdiane. This gave us the opportunity to join the other shoppers who had paused to enjoy the region’s spectacular cuisine.
Naturally, we started with a generous plate of parmigiano reggiano, the king of cheeses. It arrived surrounded by little glass dishes containing honey and a colorful assortment of fruit mustards for dipping, each one complementing the parmigiano with its own blend of tart, sweet, and spicy. A final dish offered balsamic vinegar, another of the region’s great contributions to world cuisine and a terrific pairing for the parmigiano.
Emilia Romagna is the land of stuffed pasta, and we couldn’t resist a plate of tortelli—beautiful handmade ravioli—stuffed with spinach and ricotta and topped with fresh basil pesto and cherry tomatoes. The pesto was applied lightly enough so that the tortelli remained the star.
The pesto itself was the star of a traditional Genovese dish of trofie al pesto, a preview of our time in Cinque Terre (post forthcoming). The trofie are rolled-up pasta shapes that the Italians have concluded are scientifically proven to be the ideal vehicle for pesto.
Casual Dining in Parma: Prosciutto, Risotto and Eggplant Parmigiana
Parma is a small city with some great historic value. The highlight is an octagonal 13th-century baptistery, which rises impressively from one of the main squares. A pedestrian street called Strada Farini takes happy locals and visitors alike up and down past clothing stores, cafés, gelaterias, and enticing specialty food stores.
We stopped at the well-recommended Trattoria Corrieri to sample some more of Parma’s signature dishes. The place is cavernous, with vaulted ceilings, exposed brick pillars and hungry patrons dining on traditional specialties in a busy and casual setting.
One of those specialties is prosciutto di Parma; a giant mound of it arrived resting on a bed of greens and surrounded by cherry tomatoes and little balls of fresh mozzarella. The prosciutto was soft and tender, offering the deep prosciutto taste one would expect but without the stringiness we often get back home. It arrived with a plate of torta fritta—the restaurant’s signature fried puffy bread that was beautifully crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.
Since we were in Parma, we couldn’t resist ordering the melanzana parmigiana, which, it turns out, only loosely resembles the eggplant parm we have back in New York. It is a baked eggplant dish, served simply with tomato sauce and fresh grated parmigiano reggiano cheese. It was not fried or covered in mozzarella. I’m sorry to admit we didn’t love it.
We did love a plate of three kinds of handmade tortelli, filled with cheese and herbs, pumpkin, and prosciutto. They arrived on a bare plate topped with nothing more than melted butter and grated parmigiano reggiano, just as they are meant to be eaten. The variety helped us enjoy the sweetness of the pumpkin, which was terrific but may have been too much for an entire plate.
Back on the Strada Farini, we swung by Emilia Cremeria, which was crowded with people of all ages looking to enjoy some of the best gelato around. The gelato comes in all flavors (we opted for hazelnut) and is made from organic milk and all-natural ingredients, served in waffle cones only to avoid wasting paper cups. (Gluten-free cones are available.) The gelato is beautifully presented with a signature cookie pinned to the side.
Down a narrow street off Strada Farini was our lunch the next day, served at Trattoria del Tribunale, which we chose on a tip from our innkeeper. The place feels very old-world, with exposed brick pillars and doorways, stucco walls, and white tablecloths. It serves all the regional classics: torta fritta, three kinds of tortelli, and prosciutto of every kind.
Wanting something different, we went for a dish of asparagus risotto, which came out nice and creamy. The short-grain rice was al-dente and the dish had the soupy consistency that characterizes the best risottos. It also benefited from some good parmigiano reggiano, of course.
A Side-Trip to Reggio Emilia: Aged Balsamic Vinegar
Having visited the Baptistery and Parma’s Baroque-era wooden theater (and having enjoyed some great food), we decided to take an afternoon side-trip to Reggio Emilia in search of some really, really excellent balsamic vinegar. We associate balsamic with the next town over, Modena, but in fact Reggio Emilia has its own fine balsamico-making tradition, and in any event it was closer.
On a tip from the tourism office (which tried to sell us, unsuccessfully, on all the other great things to do in Reggio Emilia), we snuck down an alleyway and ducked into a store selling all sorts of typical products of the region: parmigiano reggiano, cured meats and sausages of various kinds, and of course aceto balsamico. An older lady and her middle-aged son introduced themselves as the owners, and we struck up a conversation; them in Italian and us in Spanish with hand gestures, plus the few words of Italian we had picked up. Anyway, we had the universal language of food.
“Per provare,” she said, cutting a generous chunk off a block of parmigiano onto a piece of wax paper. She puddled some 15-year balsamic next to it and we mopped it up. It was sweet and delicious, with the thick consistency of maple syrup. “Il è molto delicioso, muchisimas grazie,” I babbled in my best Italianish.
“Prego,” she replied. More chunks of parmigiano tumbled onto the paper. Off the shelves came vinegars of all vintages: young 3-year, maturing 8-year, well-aged 15-year, and very serious (and expensive) 45-year. She was still pouring.
“Mangia tutto!”proclaimed our new best friend, noticing that we looked hesitant.
I knew what that meant. We went to town, enjoying the sharp, grassy qualities of the parmigiano and the rich sweetness of the balsamico, which came together for an incredible combination of salty and sweet.
“Con que mangiamos tutto este aceto?” I babbled, curious what one might do with such an ingredient, which was obviously too rich, sweet and expensive—even at the source—for salad dressing. Something about “fragole,” she said, which I was pretty sure meant strawberries, and “gelato,” she explained, making drizzling motions with her fingers. I babbled that “il è perfecto con parmigiano también.”
We loaded up. Bottles of 8-year and 15-year for us, the same for Mike, and some good 3-year bottles to distribute as gifts. Our fragole have never tasted the same since.
Next Stop: Cinque Terre
We had a great time in Parma and Reggio Emilia: seeing the sights, strolling the narrow streets, and enjoying some terrific food. Still, we were excited as we got in the car and headed off to the Southtwest. Our destination was Vernazza, a one of the five coastal towns of of the Cinque Terre, where we expected to find peaceful sea views, fresh seafood, and warm focaccia. There was some good food ahead.
To be continued…
Hostaria delle Terre Verdiane
Frazione Chiusa Ferranda, 36, Fidenza Parma, Italy
Tel. +39 0524 525559
Strada Conservatorio, 1, 43100 Parma, Italy
Tel. +39 0521 234426
Trattoria del Tribunale
Vicolo Politi, 5, 43100 Parma, Italy
Tel. +39 0521 285527