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Parma Perfection: Parmesan, Prosciutto, and Pasta

Jessica Schwartzberg/staff Parma, Italy

Photo: Jessica Schwartzberg/staff

The people of Parma have such a high opinion of their city they think of themselves as Parmesans first and Italians second. This can be traced in fair amount to the native cucina, which they consider to be the best in the region (Parma is one of the eight provincial capitals of Emilia-Romagna)—ergo the best in Italy, ergo the world.

Geography is destiny. Parma lies in northwest Emilia-Romagna. The region spans nearly the entire breadth of Italy, sharing borders with Tuscany and Liguria to the south and Lombardy and the Veneto to the north. A huge swath of the Po River plain, the biggest and richest tract of farmland in the country, falls inside Emilia-Romagna’s boundaries. The three great foods associated with Parma—Parmesan cheese, prosciutto, and handmade pastas (especially little ones you fill, such as tortellini, cappelletti, and anolini)—owe their first debt to this extraordinarily fertile land. Wheels of Parmesan are branded with the year and month they were produced, so you know exactly what you’re getting. Aged for 18 months to three years, the cheese is generally at its most expressive at about two years. Winter Parmesan has a deeper, more complex flavor than that made in summer.

Everybody’s a pig expert these days, but Parma shows up the amateurs and opportunists for what they are. Culty culatello is a cured boneless ham made from the choicest muscles—the top and bottom round—of the hind leg. As with prosciutto, the challenge is in the salting. Not enough and the meat spoils. Too much and you mask its inherent sweetness. Next to the round on the other side of the bone is a morsel that becomes fiocchetto. Everyone knows pancetta, but how many have sampled Parma’s special version, fragrant with red wine and a suggestion of garlic?

Alba, in the Piedmont, is but one Italian city that disputes Parma’s claim to gastronomic dominance. Not to mention Naples. But the counter- claims roll off the backs of Parmesans like so many truffles and tomatoes. You could call it hubris. Or you could just call it superior taste.

Restaurants

La Greppia

If no one had told you this is one of the three or four finest places to eat in Parma, you might guess it anyway before even lifting a fork. In front of an interior window that looks from the dining room into the immaculate kitchen is a beautiful tableau of baskets, draped with linen and filled with house-made pastas. Perfectly ironed tablecloths tumble onto wood-framed chairs with upholstered backs and seats. Carts freighted with cakes, cheeses, and vinegars and other condiments sail across a polished terra-cotta floor. None of this would mean anything if it were tainted by fussiness or pretension. But La Greppia is not preoccupied with its good looks and doesn’t even ask to be thanked for attending to the details—the tip-off that this is a great restaurant. Chef Paola Cavazzini makes a point of hiring only women. (There are a lot of donne in Italian restaurant kitchens, but how many run them?) The trademark antipasto is pears poached in red wine with a dense Parmesan spuma, or mousse, whose only other ingredients are milk and cream. Borage lends its grassy flavor to semolina gnocchi the size of hazelnuts. Strawberry risotto—made with puréed fruit, onion, Parmesan, butter, and nothing else—sounds like a gag until you taste it. Goat in umido (slow-cooked in a covered pot with tomato and white wine) is served with buckwheat polenta. La Greppia is the kind of restaurant where you order one dessert, get four, and are billed for one.

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