Ham Dungeons, Vinegar Lofts, and More Adventures in Italy’s Oddly Specific Food Museums
Only in Italy can you go looking for a museum and end up in a ham dungeon. I had driven through a raging storm in search of the Museum of Culatello, an institution devoted to the history of the country’s rarest prosciutto, situated inside Antica Corte Pallavicina, a 14th-century castle near the Po River. But when I arrived at the looming edifice in pounding rain and shouldered open a wooden door, not a soul was about. The castle’s shadowy interior had the air of an abandoned opera set, all ravishingly frescoed salons with antique chandeliers.
Over rolling thunder I heard a sound from below, so I descended a stone staircase into sepulchral darkness. When my eyes adjusted, I found myself in an underground warren, surrounded by thousands of hams strung from the rafters like alien pods. The smell was as musty and inescapably organic as a medieval butcher’s shop — a vegetarian’s idea of hell, no doubt, but magical for me.
My unlikely road to the ham dungeon (aficionados prefer the more decorous cantina di prosciutto, though I think it lacks a certain something) had begun several days earlier, when I had set off on a self-designed gastronomic Grand Tour of Emilia-Romagna, the region midway between Venice and Florence that Italian gourmands consider sacred ground. Many travelers know its two main cities, Bologna and Parma, home to Bolognese and Parmigiano-Reggiano, the staples of “that’s amore” red-sauce eateries from New York to Sydney. More recently, the region has become famous for the lauded Osteria Francescana, the Modena restaurant from native son Massimo Bottura.
But Emilia-Romagna’s true culinary wonders are obsessively artisanal and embedded in their locations — which is perhaps why the region is home to the world’s densest cluster of highly specific food museums. They often serve the specialties whose stories they recount, combining two great pleasures of travel: the intellectual stimulus of the museum and the sensory delight of dining out. But could eating really be made more pleasurable by spending hours in such a cerebral setting? I had no choice but to undertake a heroic mission, driving across the land learning — and eating — as much as I could.
My journey began in the regional capital of Bologna, fondly nicknamed La Grassa, or “the fat one,” for its devotion to food. From my home base in a 13th-century inn, the Art Hotel Commercianti, whose balconies jutted so close to the Gothic spires of the Basilica di San Petronio that I could almost touch them, I wandered long arcades that cast dreamlike shadows. I paid my respects to Europe’s oldest institute of higher education, the University of Bologna, founded in 1088 and still humming with students. Nearby, I climbed one of the two remaining towers that teeter drunkenly over the city, built by crazed aristocrats during the Middle Ages.
Bologna has the world’s largest branch of the Italian food market Eataly, but it is the last place that needs one. The city’s crooked alleyways are lined with hole-in-the-wall salumerias, their tables spilling out onto the sidewalks and piled high with mountains of cheese and ham. The city’s oldest restaurant, Osteria del Cappello, has been going strong since at least 1379, and even its placemats ooze tradition. They are reproductions of a culinary dice game created in 1712, a version of snakes and ladders featuring thumbnail reviews of the city’s many osterias. The Osteria del Cappello itself, the place mat informed me, once specialized in partridge lard accompanied by croutons, although these days it offers a creative range of pastas that go far beyond the Bolognese cliché.
I asked the chef, Marco Franchini, whether any other osterias in the dice game had survived. Only one, he said—Osteria del Sole. Down yet another lane I found a packed tavern, walls covered with faded photos of long-dead patrons. It was bare-bones, but as atmospheric as a scene from a Visconti movie. This was where Bolognese people unwound, bringing picnic food and sipping Lambrusco for two euros a glass. It’s a wonder the whole city isn’t always drunk.
The process of edging my silver Fiat out of Bologna’s ancient street maze and onto the autostrada had the air of a professional driving challenge, but that made it only more rewarding when I turned off for my first stop, the village of Spilamberto, where a majestic palazzo is home to the Museum of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. A sculpture of a black vinegar droplet and a store selling balsamic gelato confirmed that I was in the right place — as did the fragrance, which wafted into the street in waves of sweet and sour. Handcrafted around Modena, traditional balsamic is matured for 12 to 25 years, with the slowly evaporating liquid poured into a series of ever-smaller barrels. “We give the barrels names,” explained director Cristina Sereni, pointing to one draped with a hand-sewn sash that read emma. “They’re mostly female. Some are male. But we have nonbinary barrels, too.”
At last we ascended into the “vinegar loft.” The most historic barrels were confiscated from the Duke of Modena by Napoleon in 1796 but saved by a local bank; another set belonged to an even greater celebrity, Chef Bottura. The attic had the air of a shrine, which only intensified when Sereni ushered me to an altar-like table and solemnly poured two drops onto tasting spoons. “You are going to taste a symphony of flavors,” she said. The 12-year-old vecchio (aged) vinegar exploded with rich, deep sweetness and acidity, while the 25-year-old extra vecchio was a velvety nectar that left me reeling. I staggered out past a gift shop that sold minuscule flutes of the latter for $90 each. “It’s a terrible business model,” Sereni told me. “Balsamic vinegar has never been a way of making money. It was originally produced for family or religious holidays. What people were giving was a small part of their hearts.”
In the province of Parma, Italy’s agricultural heartland, no fewer than eight food museums are located in a landscape where every inch of soil has been tilled since antiquity. I nosed my Fiat into the ever-narrower laneways of the city, past perplexed cappuccino drinkers at outdoor cafes, to my hotel, the Palazzo Dalla Rosa Prati. The provincial capital, also called Parma, is more stately and calm than student-filled Bologna, but just as quirky. It’s home to Europe's first modern theater, the 17th-century Farnese, and was home to Napoleon's second wife, Marie Louise of Hapsburg. She imbued the city with a French flair — it's dubbed "the Paris of Italy" — and a Gallic fondness for horse meat, which is served as carpaccio in bloody, circular patties. (It's still a rarefied taste; so far, a Museum of Horse Meat has yet to be established).
One of the great pleasures of my gastro-circuit was that it led me to lovely rural sites I would never otherwise have heard about, let alone visited. Just north of the city of Parma, at the end of a quiet, tree-lined road near the village of Collecchio, an 11th-century Benedictine monastery houses both the Museum of Pasta and the Museum of the Tomato. The most fetching exhibits at the latter concerned the history of can labels — a century ago, illiterate shoppers would recognize brands from the striking designs — and, my personal favorite, a collection of can openers, which looked like torture implements.
In the Museum of Pasta, a long wall displayed the 300 known shapes of pasta, with a touch screen to match each one with its ideal sauce. As my guide, Stefania Bertaccini, explained: “If you eat pasta twice a day every day, you have to have lots of shapes or you get bored!” Inspired, I rushed to the café-restaurant, where I sat at an outdoor table and ordered cappelletti in brodo di cappone, meat-stuffed bundles of pasta in capon sauce, while imagining the Benedictine monks working their herb gardens in this same, flower-filled courtyard during luncheons past.
Just as idyllic — and eccentric — was the Museum of Parmigiano Reggiano, devoted to Parma's iconic cheese, housed in a circular 1848 farmhouse beneath the spectacular walled village of Soragna. It had a special section on the patron saint of cheesemakers, a shepherd named Lucio who could make sheep miraculously reproduce, as well as what must surely be the world's largest collection of cheese graters, which were almost as wicked-looking as the can openers. This time the tour ended at a delicatessen, where I happily nibbled on a 36-month aged chunk.
By now I was at risk of becoming glutted on culinary lore. Should I head to the Museum of Felino Salami, I wondered, devoted to a type of peppery sausage? The Museum of the Marinated Eel? I opted to go top-of-the-line: Emilia-Romagna is ham country, and I had yet to try culatello, Italy’s rarest and most revered porcine product. Only 30,000 culatellos are made each year, and few leave the Po Valley. Which explains how I found myself lost in the cobwebbed darkness beneath thousands of hanging haunches.
After a few disorienting minutes, I heard a welcome cry: “Chi è? Who’s there?” The jovial manager, Giovanni Lucci, led me back toward the light. I had arrived at the Antica Corte Pallavicina, a splendid 14th-century castle and former marchese’s residence in the village of Polesine Parmense. It offered far more than just a museum and a vast curing cellar for 5,500 culatellos — it also had a dozen hotel rooms, a working pig farm, and, its most revered asset, a Michelin-starred restaurant.
As the rain continued to pound, I settled into a room overlooking the castle gardens, then at dusk headed down to the restaurant, where I sank into a thronelike velvet chair by a stone fireplace, beneath gilt-framed paintings and a vaulted ceiling painted with a faded trompe l’oeil scene. The candlelit meal was in a glass-walled annex, and began with the beloved culatello, which was cut in near-transparent slices, each bursting with flavor. Chef Massimo Spigaroli strolled by at regular intervals to fill me in on the backstory of the ham, whose name means “little ass.” The one-to-three-year maturation process has not changed since the 13th century, and today, the hams go for up to $750 each. In 2000 the Po River overflowed its banks and flooded the cellar. “We said: ‘First, save the ham!’ ” Lucci laughed. “ ’Then the women and children!’ ”
Only the next day did I realize that I had forgotten to visit the actual museum. I wandered through the exhibits, but found myself being drawn outside into the morning sunshine, strolling along a shady canal to a paddock where black pigs wallowed in the mud. (“They have very good lives,” Lucci had told me. “Well, for two years. Then...” He made a slicing motion across his throat. “Not so good.”)
I sat in the sun-soaked courtyard, watching bees buzz around the flowers, devouring culatello and Parmigiano drizzled in aged balsamic — the full Emilia-Romagna experience. It was almost sensory overload. I felt a little guilty for not paying closer attention to the museum. But then again, if not for its existence, I never would have been lured to this remote Italian paradise in the first place.
A version of this story first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure magazine under the headline A Cultural Feast.