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Parma Perfection: Parmesan, Prosciutto, and Pasta

Jessica Schwartzberg/staff Parma, Italy

Photo: Jessica Schwartzberg/staff

Make sure the torta bocca di dama, a crumbly-chewy confection that combines bitter-orange marmalade, meringue, almonds, and amaretti, is the one you order. The service is amazing. But you guessed that. 39/A Strada Garibaldi; 39-0521/233-686; dinner for two $144.

Ristorante Cocchi

Parma’s best restaurant is inserted in a hotel so plain and weirdly located (on the far side of the ring road that wraps the city) you can’t believe you’ve got the address right. Believe it. Cocchi is supercivilized without even seeming to try. The professional waitstaff, also with no obvious effort, attend to a clientele of Italian businessmen, neighborhood dads out with their teenage spawn, and loud Americans. Strolghino, a skinny salami made from lean leg meat, is carved tableside, swaddled in a linen napkin. Strolghino’s extreme tenderness, delicateness, and near resemblance to fresh, raw sausage meat is a result of just 15 to 20 days of curing. But what you’re really here for are the rice preparations, savarin and bomba di riso. The first tops Parmesan- and risotto-filled envelopes of cooked ham with veal polpettini and porcini ragù. To make a “bomb,” pigeon is marinated, braised, and deboned; hidden and layered inside a rice-lined dome; and baked. Whether or not the province of Parma reaches its culinary apotheosis with this dish has been debated since the 16th century. 16/A Via Gramsci; 39-0521/ 995-147; dinner for two $115.

Parizzi

No matter how allergic you are to joyless, pompous restaurants, any eating survey of Parma would have to include this one, especially if someone else is paying. Beyond the silver chargers with crocheted doilies, flights of Parmesan and prosciutto are offered at 16, 26, and 29 months and 13, 24, and 36 months, respectively. The rest of the menu (pheasant ravioli with fried leeks, truffle, and marsala sauce; pig’s head with honey, chicory, and quail eggs) is a model of voluptuous lily gilding. 71 Via Repubblica; 39-0521/285-952; dinner for two $173.

Trattorias

Trattoria Antichi Sapori

Set in the countryside just outside the city, Sapori is more ambitious, refined, and serious (but not too serious) than most trattorias in the Parma area, offering modern dishes so as not to seem old-fashioned (Parmesan gelato melting over a luscious hunk of molten eggplant in a pastry nest), and classic dishes so as not to seem out of touch with the past (taglioni, a cousin of tagliatelle, with octopus, shrimp, and cuttlefish). Oven-browned potato gnocchi with onion marmalade falls somewhere in the middle. And who knew that a form of sbrisolona—an almond-and-polenta dessert I have been making and loving for 30 years—is from Emilia- Romagna?Sbrisolona is more cookie than cake and on the menu of practically every restaurant in Parma. Some find it chokingly dry, but that’s their problem. The name translates as “she who crumbles,” a reference to the charmingly ragged pieces you get when you break into it (slicing is useless). Eat with vin santo. 318 Strada Montanara; 39-0521/ 648-165; dinner for two $100.

Osteria del Gesso

Even more than Antichi Sapori, this restaurant seeks to set itself apart by offering both traditional and innovativa cooking. So I was cautious, wary of a meal that could easily be not one thing and not the other. Some of Gesso’s ingredients—New Zealand lamb, basmati rice, foie gras—also worried me. But the osteria has legs. A platter of sbrisolona sits on a counter inside the front door, a good start. The menu gives the age and maker of the prosciutto (28 months, Leporati), and culatello (20 months, Consorzio di Zibello), another excellent sign. They say it’s impossible to have a bad plate of pasta in Parma (not my experience), but the rabbit-mousse agnolotti and Swiss chard–and-ricotta tortelli are exceptional. Americans are unreasonably averse to eating horse. What a loss. At Gesso the meat is sautéed in strips, then molded into a disk with braised baby onions and a lovely little salad of arugula, radicchio, and cherry tomatoes. 11 Via Ferdinando Maestri; 39-0521/ 230-505; dinner for two $118.

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