10 Hotspots in Italy’s Parma That Will Have You Planning a Trip
Since Ancient Roman times, the city of Parma has been considered Italy’s gastronomic capital. Nestled in the Po Valley in the heart of Emilia-Romagna province, it is the wellspring for a bewildering number of Italian delicacies: prosciutto di Parma, Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, and tortelli to name but a few. In a city where food is culture and culture is food, Parma is not only home to the Barilla Pasta Company and the famed Alma Cooking School but an array of food museums dedicated to everything from salumi (cured meats) to tomatoes. While its charming streets teem with traditional restaurants, pop inside one of the abundant specialty shops and you will find ceilings festooned with hams and stacks of Parmesan wheels. Two years ago, in recognition of the city’s rich cucina heritage, UNESCO named Parma, “Creative City for Gastronomy,” the first city in Italy to receive the honor. But the city lays claim to a bounty of other riches too: it the birthplace of Renaissance painter Correggio, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, one of the country’s oldest universities – and is a center of engineering and design: Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini are all headquartered in the region.
For Valentina Bertazzoni, 36, the sixth-generation scion of the 135-year-old family firm that bears her name, Parma is home. The company, which began as a precision toolmaker and later pioneered the domestic wood-burning stove, today is a manufacturer of sleek, high-end kitchen appliances favored by gourmands around the world (the Bertazzoni’s are a bit like the Agnelli’s of industrial kitchen design). We have a culture of family, food, and an engineering,” she says explaining that her family’s company is deeply tied to the land and its traditions. “When we are designing products, we always do so with this culture and cooking in mind, being from this region makes a difference.”
For me, says Bertazzoni, “Parma is the city of good food, bicycles, boutiques, small houses painted in light colors, and of course, magnificent palazzos. Parma is in love with the arts, whether it’s architecture, opera, theater, music, painting, or sculpture, and it encourages you to learn how to enjoy life and appreciate beauty.” She shared her favorite places with T+L to create an itinerary for a perfect culinary tour.
Favorite Prosciutto di Parma Shop: Salumeria Silvano Romani
Via Farini, 9/c
Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of Parma than its ham, better known as prosciutto di Parma. Famed for it delicate and sweet flavor, sliced paper thin, and aged a minimum of 400 days, it is produced from the hind legs of specially bred pigs in the countryside just outside of the city. “Prosciutto di Parma is something I can talk about for hours,” says Bertazzoni, who says she prefers hers aged for 30 months. “Even if you’re born here, there’s always something new to learn about prosciutto — for example: a new type or age to try, a friendly recommendation to check out a small local producer, or a story shared around a table of ancient traditions. The real gem, though, is that there are still some households that produce their own salumi during the month of November and distribute to friends and family as a gift. This is such a pleasure to receive, not only is the quality outstanding, but the declaration of friendship that comes with this gift is really special.”
Parma takes its cheese seriously. Aged for a minimum of two years, the cheese is produced from the milk of cows that graze among sprawling caseificio (dairy farms) in the hills of the Po Valley. “My favorite is Parmigiano-Reggiano, aged 30 months,” says Bertazzoni, “and certified with a golden sticker by the Consorzio (inspectors). It is drier than those aged for less time, and very tasty and richer in nutrients. I like to eat it with chips and balsamic vinegar or with pears and honey as an aperitif.” Bertazzoni says that the first Bertazzoni factory was built in 1909 thanks to the marriage between her great-grandfather Napoleone to his wife Angela, the daughter of a wealthy cheese-maker, whose family financed the venture.
Favorite Restaurant: Ristorante Cocchi
Via Gramsci 16
This simple restaurant, opened in 1925 remains one of the city’s best, famous for its hand-made pastas and rice dishes like savarin (a risotto topped with layers of prosciutto di Parma and filled with veal meatballs, and a porcini ragù). “What I love about Cocchi,” says Bertazzoni, “is that here you find traditional Parma cuisine. It reminds me of the food that my grandmother made, it’s so authentic and tied to the land. A lot of places experiment with fusion but I think this is the best place to really understand Parma cuisine.” Favorite dish: Cappelletti in brodo (broth), little hat-shaped meat filled pasta served in rich capon or chicken broth.
Favorite Casual Restaurant: Restaurant Gallo di Oro
Borgo della Salina, 3
This small, laid back trattoria just off the Piazza Garibaldi is a great place to sample Parma’s famous tortelli. “Local favorites are stuffed with ricotta and herbs and spinach,” says Bertazzoni. “I usually get the ravioli alla zucca (pumpkin). There’s a nice relaxed atmosphere, a great wine selection, a tasting menu and the camerieri (waiters) slice the salumi (cured meats) right at the table.”
Favorite Street Food: Pepèn
Borgo Sant'ambrogio, 2
This popular Panini (sandwich) shop, located in a hole-in-the-wall and tucked into a small alleyway draws locals who queue around the street weekdays between 12 and 3 P.M. Here the regulars eat their Spaccaballe (prosciutto and Parmigiano) or roasted pork with spicy sauce, fresh tomatoes and salad -- Italian-style, standing up. “This is not a ‘cool’ or fancy place at all,” says Bertazzoni. “But I love it. My friends and I come here on Saturdays. If the weather is nice we eat in the nearby Piazza Girabaldi. I really love their Carciofa, a hot pie filled with artichokes, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.”
Favorite Pastry Shop: Pasticceria Cocconi
Strada della Repubblica, 22
“We don’t usually eat a big breakfast since lunch and dinner are big meals here,” says Bertazzoni. “I like to come here for a small bite on the weekends. I usually have an espresso and pasticcini, they have something like 80 different types of pastries.” Famous for its cannoncini (chocolate, cream-filled donuts), Cocconi also has a large selection of cookies and tarts as well as rare teas, coffee and aperitifs.
Parma’s drink of choice is this fizzy, low-alcohol wine. Made from grapes grown in the vineyards on the outskirts of the city (as well as Modena and Reggio Emilia), Lambrusco is a dry and sparkling wine that ranges from light pink and foamy to dark ruby and foamy. “Lambrusco is low in alcohol and easy to drink, especially with a rich meal,” says Bertazzoni, who says the locals usually buy theirs at one of the many nearby wineries. “I like Otello produced by Cantine Ceci S.P.A in Torrile. They have a small shop where you can buy directly. I like this specific quality because it’s not too dark or acidic and it goes really well with prosciutto and Torta fritta (fried bread) — one of my favorite dishes.”
Food Markets: Piazza Ghiaia
Piazzale della Pace (7:00 am to 2:00 PM)
Parma’s morning markets, held on Wednesdays and Saturdays are a wonder of gastronomical delights where one can find stalls piled high with local produce, wines, 25-year-old balsamic vinegar, ham hocks and slabs of cheese-- as well as clothing and a variety of kitchen tools and bric-a-brac, from across Emilia-Romagna and farther afield. Nearby the sottopassaggio (underpass) with its Roman arches provides a sense of history. “I go to the market on Saturdays,” says Bertazzoni. “It’s packed like a souk and I can find things from all over. I like to go there to buy cheeses from the south like mozzarella di buffalo.”
Also known as the Garden, this grand public park, extending along the west bank of the Parma River, was originally built in the 16th century as the formal gardens surrounding Duke Ottavio Farnese’s palace. Thick with fruit trees, gravel paths, wide lawns, splashing fountains, sculptures, and an oval lake where ducks and swans glide by, Bertazzoni says, “This is the perfect place to come for a stroll, especially after eating a big meal.” In addition to the Palazzo Ducale, the more modest Palazzetto Eucherio Sanvitale, located on the park’s south side is filled with original frescoes of the Madonna and Child. The park, blanketed in violets in February and March also has children’s play area and sports trails.
Favorite Place to Visit: Piazza del Duomo
While the 12th century Romanesque cathedral and Benedetto Antelami’s octagonal Baptistery made from pink Verona marble are popular tourist attractions, Bertazzoni says she likes to come and sit in one of the courtyards of the San Giovanni Convent. “It is so peaceful,” she says. “Especially in the summer, it offers cool shade to relax. Step inside and see the frescoes, you will feel like you stepped into another era. Also most people don’t know that there is a small wooden door to the left where the monks live. It is usually closed to the public, but if you knock on the door, sometimes a monk will agree to take you on a tour of the rooms.”
Getting outside the city, Bertazzoni, like most Parmesans like to bike around among the various vineyards, farms and castles. A favorite trip is the baroque 18th century Reggia di Colorno, 15 km north of the city, built by Francesco Farnese, Duke of Parma.
“Almost any time of year you will find some festival going on,” says Bertazzoni. “We have festivals for prosciutto, for olive oil, for cheese – for everything.” One of the biggest, the Gola Gola festival, is held during first week of June, celebrates Parma cuisine; there are cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, a food market with all of the region represented, and concerts. Every fall, Parma celebrates Giuseppe Verdi with a month long Verdi festival of operas and concerts at the Teatro Regio, first built in the 17th century. “We are passionate about our local specialties and traditions,” offers Bertazzoni.