Parma Perfection: Parmesan, Prosciutto, and Pasta
In a city where regional loyalties eclipse national ones, Christopher Petkanas discovers a transcendent local cuisine. Here, 10 places where Parma’s trilogy—Parmesan, prosciutto, and pasta—reigns supreme.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Forget the pastas at this salumeria-trattoria (you have to pass through the shop to reach the dining room) and build a relatively simple, for once not ridiculously rich, lunch of fine-grained Felino salami—named for the nearby village where it is produced—and torta di erbe, a savory tart covered with pastry and filled with sautéed spinach, Swiss chard leaves, and/or beet greens. According to Lynne Rossetto Kasper, author of The Splendid Table, the standard work in English on the cooking of Emilia-Romagna, Parmesans believe the hay- and grass-scented air in Felino is responsible for the salami’s elegance. It’s a romantic idea. 27 Via Farini; 39-0521/233-528; lunch for two $72.
Croce di Malta
Say you knew some stylish, young, design-conscious Parmesans. And say they’d just redone an old farmhouse outside the city. Their eat-in kitchen might look like Croce di Malta. The concise menu (supple tortelli, fragile polpettine, silky Bavarian cream) changes daily. 8 Borgo Palmia; 39-0521/208-681; lunch for two $86.
You could eat breakfast at this historic, aristocratic landmark every day for three months and never have the same pastry twice. Like all Italians, the Parmesans like their cornetti filled with just a scraping of preserves. Most places offer apricot and stop there; the day I was at Torino, it had apricot, peach, strawberry, black cherry—and blood orange. If it’s mid-morning or later, it’s nice to chase all that sugar and fruit with a half-dozen or so chic little sandwiches, made with glazed brioches and barely spread, say, with anchovy paste. It takes a while to get the hang of eating off a plate with a fork while standing in the middle of the shop. Once you do, you’ll feel like a regular and part of the scene. 61 Strada Garibaldi Giuseppe; 39-0521/235-689; breakfast for two $6.
Parmesans take the pulse of their own city at this hectic institution, where the cheap nibbles are strangely better than the panini you pay a lot more for. If all you know of Lambrusco, Emilia-Romagna’s most famous-slash-notorious wine, is disco-era Riunite, Fontana will bring you up to speed. One revelation is that Lambrusco doesn’t have to be nauseatingly sweet (though it always has at least a gentle, frizzante degree of sparkle). A well-made secco is pungent with fruit and teasingly earthy. 24 Via Farini; 39-0521/286-037.
Cheese and More
Casa del Formaggio
Parma has an embarrassment of remarkable shops selling salumi, Parmesan, and prepared foods. You’ll never see a tourist in this one. 106 Via Bixio; 39-0521/230-243.
Christopher Petkanas is a T+L special correspondent.
When to Go
The sunny days and cool nights of spring (March–May) and fall (September–November) are ideal for renting a car and exploring the city and the surrounding countryside.
Alitalia, Delta, and Continental fly daily from the New York area to Milan. Trains depart regularly for the hour-long trip to Parma.
Where to Stay
Palazzo dalla Rosa Prati
great value Antiques-filled rooms and suites set in the heart of the city. 7 Strada al Duomo; 39-0521/386-429; palazzodallarosaprati.it; doubles from $260.
What to Do
Camera di San Paolo
Two exquisitely frescoed rooms by Renaissance master and Emilia-Romagna native Antonio da Correggio. 3 Via Melloni; 39-0521/533-221.
Don’t miss the museum’s collection of prized Baroque paintings. 15 Piazzale della Pilotta; 39-052/233-617; artipr.arti.beniculturali.it.
One of Italy’s legendary opera houses; its season runs from January to mid-April. 16 Via Garibaldi; 39-0521/039-393; teatroregioparma.org.