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Eat Like a Local in Italy

Group dining at Al Convento, in the Amalfi Coast village 
of Cetara

Photo: Simon Watson

Prosciutto and Parmigiano in Emilia-Romagna

After passing through Tuscany’s classic hills we head north into the rich flat plains of Emilia-Romagna, land of rosy prosciuttos and vast circumferences of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Of aged aceto balsamico and pastas crafted from eggy sfoglie (sheets) thin enough to read through (ideally). All this awaits us in Modena, the affluent ducal town revered by Italian gastronauts. Our guide is Massimo Bottura, a chef who marries sensuous Slow Food preservationism with futuristic invention at the Michelin two-starred Osteria Francescana. I can’t wait to visit his favorite food artisans. One of them, Giancarlo Rubaldi, presides over Bar Schiavoni, in Modena’s exquisite covered market. Oblivious to the huge lines, Rubaldi meticulously assembles our lunch. To start, an artwork of bread, smoked swordfish, and baby tomatoes, with pistachio for crunch. Then, an inspired panino of duck breast with pistachio, raisins, and syrupy balsamic vinegar.

An hour later we’re in the Apennine mountains south of Modena, watching Parmesan wheels bob in brine baths at Caseificio Rosola di Zocca, Bottura’s favorite dairy. “Belle, no? ” he says, beaming at the Bianca Modenese cows in the shed. When the cheesemaker ceremonially splits open an 80-pound, 2 1/2-year-old wheel, we all eat rolling our eyes like Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Expert tasters say that a great Parmesan should have a “brothy,” nutmeg-tinged scent. I say—pure umami.

I say “pure elixir” back near Modena, at the museum attached to the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale consortium, in Spilamberto. Ferociously artisanal and endlessly complex, cask-aged balsamico tradizionale is to the supermarket version what a Ferrari (another Modenese export) is to a Hyundai. Except aceto production is as slow as a Testa Rossa is fast. Skill, microclimate, and pazienza…molta pazienza, intones Luca Gozzoli, the consortium’s gran maestro. Later we ponder his words over dense, chocolaty squares of torta barozzi, a singular specialty hinting surprisingly of peanuts, at Pasticceria Gollini, in the nearby town of Vignola.

At dinner that night at Francescana, we savor musky-sweet satiny petals of culatello, the king of prosciutto, aged for 36 months in the foggy lowlands near Parma by Massimo Spigaroli, a salumaio who counts the Prince of Wales among his fans. Then toothsome dime-size tortellini, bathed in the rich, velvety cream from Caseificio Rosola. We exchange eye-rolling with Bottura—he’s wolfing down the same dish near his kitchen door.

Wine, Goat Cheese, and More Gelato in Piedmont

“No more dairy or pork fat—just vino!” Barry yawps as we battle traffic on the autostrada heading northwest. It so happens our next destination is Italy’s viticultural mecca, Piedmont. To most this means Big B’s: Barolo, Barbera, and Barbaresco. Us? We come to chase the elusive grail of Timorasso. Timo-wha?

The answer lies in the vine-patched compact hills of the Colli Tortonesi area in southern Piedmont. Here, a maverick winemaker named Walter Massa has resurrected an ancient, indigenous white grape: Timorasso. Vigneti Massa, his farm, presents so humdrum a face we initially drive right past. Obscure still to many international grape geeks, Massa’s wines have earned multiple tre bicchieri, the highest distinction from Gambero Rosso. He takes us to a trattoria up in the hills and plies us with Colli Tortonesi delicacies: salame nobile made with fancy parts of the hogs elsewhere reserved for prosciutto; Montebore, an intriguing wedding cake–shaped cow- and sheep’s-milk cheese. And then we drink Timorasso. Imagine the spicy-floral-mineral charm of a Riesling trapped in a creamy powerful body of a noble white Burgundy. “Bellissimo! ” Barry exhales.

And suddenly we’re saying sad arrivederci to our aromatic Fiat at Malpensa.

On the plane I ponder the red-wine stains in my notebook. Ah yes…from the dinner given by Roberto and Patrizia Damonte of Malvira winery, in the Langhe region, which produces delightfully earthy Roero Nebbiolos. A little starstruck by the Piedmontese wine royalty—Barbaresco baron Bruno Rocca and Barolo queen Chiara Boschis—I overtwirled some of their austere, elegantly finessed wines.

More Piedmontese memories pulse back. The creamy, pungent mysteries of that Robiola di Roccaverano goat cheese aged by master affineur Gian Domenico Negro of Arbiora. “Don’t forget Davide Palluda’s conserves,” Barry says. How could I? The talented young chef at All’Enoteca restaurant, in the small Langhe town of Canale, not far from Alba, packs duck, rabbit, and guinea fowl into olive oil and waits three long years until they achieve the plush concentration of a confit (crazy-good!).

My last memory reprises our trip’s first taste—gelato. Us among a riot of schoolchildren, spooning local-seasonal smooth frozen stuff from paper cups at Agrigelatera San Pé, near Canale. “Agri” because this countryside gelateria doubles as a dairy farm, wholesome manure smell and all.

The latte for the gelato? Pumped from cows that very morning, of course.

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