I spend the entire train ride from Rome to Parma researching restaurants and pasticcerie. The train ride is not long enough to cover them all, and I am convinced that there is one food-related business for every Parmigiani. When we arrive in Parma, it seems this might be true.
We are staying at a small bed & breakfast ten minutes from the center, but it is lunch time and we want to mangia. We decide to drag our bags to one of the restaurants that we researched, but there are simply too many temptations along the way. Five minutes from the train station, Salumeria Garibaldi is clearly one of the best gastronomie in town. The case is filled with prepared dishes; all of which I want to try. The options far surpass any I have seen at Dean & Deluca, mi scusi my favorite NYC delicatessen, and I would be completely satisfied if we had all of our lunches and dinners here. I try a few tortelli stuffed with a mix of fresh seafood and made in a light tomato sauce with mussels, clams, and octopus. I cannot help but get a piece of salmon simply prepared, because unless one is looking at the Adriatic or Tyrhennian sea, it is shamefully challenging to find good fish. Finally, I take a side of bieta, a relative of spinach. I am in heaven. We sit at a small high-top table surrounded by even more carts of prepared foods; apples baked with a little bit of wine and cinnamon, torts, cakes, and Parmigiani specialties about which we will learn more in the next 24 hours. The seafood tortelli alone is one of the most memorable foods in my culinary history. Just 15 minutes off of the train, I am in love with Parma.
We longingly say goodbye to Salumeria Garibaldi and continue walking southwards through the center, dragging our bags but not wanting to miss a moment. The city is gorgeous. Elegant palazzi are painted in pastels: light pink, yellow, baby blue, and light green; colors you might find in a baby’s room. The gently curving streets remind me of Brera, the most photographic neighborhood in Milan, or perhaps there is something of Burano here, with the happy-go-lucky colors. To be sure, there is a French aesthetic in the architecture and storefronts. In the taxi to Villino di Porporano, we chat with the driver and immediately notice long r’s in his speech; ‘par-r-rma.’ We wonder if he is French, but when we ask him about his origins, he confirms that he is a Parmigiani born and bred. The people here have a completely different accent than the Romans, the Florentines, and the Milanese. In fact, Parma is often called Piccola Parigi.
We arrive at the gate to Villino di Porporano, our bed and breakfast for the evening, and are immediately innamorato di the seemingly effortless charm curated by Elena, the loveliest, always laughing, dynamic owner. She clearly has an eye for interiors, materials, and architecture, and we dream of moving in. The entryway, with its double height ceilings, has one wall of glass looking out to the patio and the pool beyond. The patio, covered with double-height wood beams, is home to a cozy outdoor fireplace and seating arrangement where I imagine guests sit in the warmer weather with a glass of wine, a plate of reggiano, and just-picked crudite from the garden. Inside, the décor is Tuscan rustic chic; white linens, light woods, beamed ceilings, and beautiful silk fabrics. Our bedroom and bathroom floor are both heated, and we have a small terrace overlooking the patio and fireplace below. I adore her choices of art, our beautiful armoire, and the drinking glasses left on a tray with a bottle of naturale. In the bathroom, we find Ortigia products and soft towels with elegant details. Parma is an absolute gem, but we can imagine spending the entire day, or an entire weekend no less, fully enjoying Villino di Porporano.
Elena gives us the lowdown on Piccola Parigi. Marie Louise, the second wife of Napoleon, reined as Duchess of Parma from 1814 until her death in 1847. She brought to Parma a great deal of French style and influence, and the Parmigiani carried on the aesthetic after her death. After a brief period of Bourbon rule, Parma was included in the new territory of Emilia under Luigi Carlo Farini, and not until 1860 did Parma become a part of the unified Kingdom of Italy. Today it is regarded as one of the most affluent, chic, and elegant small cities in the country. For those who think it is a speck on the map, there are almost 200,000 Parmigiani living in this completely walkable city.
Exploring Parma doubtless means stopping in every boutique; shoes, watches, handmade hats, or art, this city has everything you need. If you can’t find it, Milan, Bologna, and Firenze are all a hop and a skip away. There are an unusually large amount of chic men’s clothing stores, many of which are historic and entice with their awning’s typography as much as their window display.
Every gastronomia and delicatessen sells the most beautiful fresh pasta, displayed like a national delicacy. Envision one of the finest chocolatiers in Paris or Versailles; that is how the handmade pasta is displayed in Parma. We ogle over the anolini, tortelli, and cappelletti in the same way that Carrie Bradshaw swoons over Manolos or Audrey Hepburn eyes the window displays at Tiffany. At I du Rezdor, we watch a customer order fresh pasta, after which the shopkeeper takes a slab of pasta dough and cuts it into long strips of fettuccine with his knife before gently tossing it with his hands to loosen the strands. He places it in a container and hands it to the customer. Dinner sorted. Ilari is a pastamaker and pasticceria where the profume is as sensational as the simple display. We so badly want to buy all of the fresh pasta- all of it– and take it home to sample.
At the actual chocolate shops and pasticcerie, we ogle some more. We cannot go 30 minutes without eating. Si mangia bene in Parma. At Pasticceria Torino, an elegant, historic pastry shop, chocolates are made with sugared violet and cornetti are made with a scraping of preserves. Their infamous ‘Duchess of Parma’ cake, a thin pastry creation with a layer of chocolate, another layer of very thin pastry, and a delicate zabaione in the center, is a favorite among locals.
Surely there are other ottomi pasticcerie, including Le Delizie, where we spy a tantalizing millefeuille, bombolini (donuts), and cannoncini (little ‘guns’ with different flavors of pastries inside). Sbrisolona is another Parma specialty made in various sizes and often sold as cakes. The torta actually comes from nearby Mantua, another chicissimi city, and is now widely eaten in Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, and in the Veronese. It is not at all what you think of when you hear the word cake or torta; it is crumbly, uneven, and falls to pieces once you break in to it (it is meant to be broken apart with your hands; it is completely pointless to try to cut it with a knife). Made with flour, sugar, and almonds, it reminds me of many of my amateur attempts at baking cookies which are somewhat ‘healthy’ but come out of the oven in crumbles. At the many forno, we taste ‘torta fritto,’ puffs of lightly fried bread which are also served at every restaurant, and savory puff pastry cakes filled with swiss chard, potatoes, or carciofi.
Profumo di Pane is almost impossible to leave. We try the simplest of them all: a beautifully twisted piece of foccaccia, croccante on the outside but soft on the inside made outstanding due to the ever-apparent taste of excellent olive oil and salt. At Formaggeria Rastelli, the owner of the shop cuts into a whole round of Parmigiano aged 24 months so that we can taste just a few shards. Its bite is divine, and we wonder how much Parmigiano we can fit into our suitcase. We literally cannot stop eating. It’s a very big, and getting bigger, ‘Parma Problem.’
Before dinner, we have a glass of wine from the Emilia-Romagna region at one of those narrow, warm, atmospheric wine bars that you dream about when traveling. Tabarro is a neighborhood spot (one woman even brought her 200 pound dog) with excellent grain bread and olive oil made by gods. We stand at a corner high-top covered in a red and white check cloth and watch the gregarious Parmigiani begin their evening.
Pt 2 will see our Parma pancia grow with more fabulous food, a visit to the Sunday morning organic farmers market, more about the lovely Villino di Porporano, a visit to the astounding cathedral and baptistry, and more photos of the beautiful, multi-hued streets of this elegant city in Emilia-Romagna.
Above: Salumeria Garibaldi
Above photos: Villino di Porporano