Bologna, Modena, Florence, Ferrara and now Parma – we have successfully made the circuit of our last group of wonderful cities in the Emilia-Romagna region, and explored a raft of cathedrals and palazzi.
Once again, it was a beautiful day for a train ride, and we made it to Parma in time to see a gourmet market right outside the train station. That was after we navigated the hordes of bicycles and motor bikes that took the place of cars in front of the station. This is definitely a biking town. The market had more than Italian specialties, which was unusual. There were French, German and Spanish vendors plying their wares, and it all looked delicious.
The cathedral in Parma was begun in 1059 and is considered a very important Romanesque church. The overall impact is stunning, and the interior painting of the dome is spectacular. There is also a wonderful little sculpture done in 1178 of Christ being taken down from the cross that is just extraordinary.
And then there’s the bell tower and the striking baptistery next door, also 12th century. This town had money to spend, and they did it with style. The Baptistery is larger than some churches, and certainly more ornate. (Guess Parma was inspired by Florence – whose baptistery was begun a few decades earlier. Bit of competition there, perhaps.)
Of course we had to see the local palazzo, which in this case was built for the Farnese family in the 16th century. It now houses several museums and the Teatro Farnesese. The theatre was built in 1618, but almost destroyed in 1944 in an Allied air raid. It was painstakingly rebuilt and reopened in 1962. They did quite a nice job. It seems to have some claim to being the first permanent proscenium theatre, but we won’t debate that. It was just a lovely space to see.
The National Gallery is also housed in the Palazzo, and contains a wonderful collection of Italian art and ancient artifacts. It was hard to take even half of it in properly.
Don’s Food Corner
We made it to the epicenter of Emlia-Romagna cuisine. Hometown of both prosciutto and parmigiano reggiano cheese. After passing through the open market and several incredible shops featuring myriad examples of both these delights and in many, many versions, we were ready see them put to action in some regional dishes.
I selected the restaurant for our one meal in Parma very carefully — several days of comparing different descriptions in different guides and trying to read between the lines for nuance differentials. Then, I made sure all would be open. Thankfully, it is Friday when NOTHING is closed. We found our way down the narrow street for our selection. And. It. Was. Closed. No explanation. The sign on the front gave all the opening hours. Still, nada.
Because of past disappointments like this, I had a back-up picked out that was just a few blocks away. It was opened. I was thrilled because one of the guidebooks recommending this place said: ” . . . an excellent selection of Parma’s famous cheeses and pork products, including culatello and fiocchetto.”
Then, we were seated and handed the menus. Nothing on the menu matched anything that we had expected. Where was something like a platter of cured meats and cheeses (like we had in Bologna a few days ago)? In fact, where was any dish featuring local cheeses? Nowhere.
Still, we didn’t move on. We stayed.
We went for a first course special of tagliolini (ribbon-like pasta somewhat narrower tagliatelle) with ragu. That turned out fine. Just the right texture that we now associate with ragu from the region — and which now will change our standard for meat sauce — over very nice fresh pasta.
My hope was renewed for the next course. I ordered a platter simply described as prosciutto crudo di Parma. I was expecting that THIS dish featured in the list of Piatti Secondi was the sampling platter I was looking for. Alas, it was not. It was just a pile of shavings of one type of prosciutto. To be fair, I didn’t ask if what I was ordering was a selection. Nonetheless, it was a significant disappointment.
Jo’s choice was even more disappointing. Lacking a very long list of possibilities (there was no scallopine!), she settled on something that looked like it would be chicken pieces in a curry sauce with zucchini. What arrived was a pretty nasty affair. Cubes of chicken pan-fried and then folded into a “curry” sauce of a type and flavor I have never encountered before. I think the “curry” was almost all tumeric, which on its own is off-tasting. As promised, there were a few slices of zucchini thrown in there. But, on the whole, this was almost inedible. Indian-cooking legend Madhur Jaffrey need not worry that Parma’s interpretation of “curry” will be putting her out of business.
In short, our one long-anticipated meal in Parma was a bust.
On the walk back to the train station, I picked up some slices from that huge roasted pig and some bread to have for dinner. Since we are traveling, I couldn’t fit a wheel of cheese or a leg of prosciutto in Jo’s purse.