Located about an hour from Bologna by train is Parma. Home to prosciutto di Parma and Parmesan cheese, this little city has a great history and culture surrounding food. For lunch we stopped by La Duchessa for our first Italian pizza experience. We walked around for the next 7 hours until dinner, where we ate at Ristorante La Forchetta, a sit-down place located on a small side street in the city’s center.
Julian: Right when we got off the train in Parma, we found this cool little local meat shop. The smell…oh the smell! So good. To see all the hams hanging from the ceiling, all the massive wheels of parm piled high on the ground, homemade pastas…it got to me.
Jesse: Mmm…cheese, hundreds of pounds of cheese. Yes, the smell of cheese and curing meat was intoxicating (also the smell happened to be much better than the smell of Iberico ham curing) . Experiencing terroir is the whole point of this trip. We’ve done the Iberico ham in Spain, wine in the Priorat region, bagels in NY, but parmesan cheese and prosciutto di Parma in Parma–I don’t think we could get a more direct, or well-known, experience of terroir. And wandering the streets of Parma for 7 hours… I’m pretty sure we walked into every cheese shop, meat shop, cool looking cafe, and restaurant that was open. We poked our heads in churches that were gilded with gold on the inside, stumbled upon the local citadel park with a giant trampoline area for kids (what the hell! How come I didn’t grow up with this?), watched turtles, ducks, geese, and huge fish circle their pond in search of the magical gift of bread crumbs, and even pretended to read Italian cookbooks for an hour to rest our legs in a local bookstore.
Julian: Ha! Yeah, it was a long day of exploring. Parma is the first European town we’ve visited whose primary industry is not tourism. Walking the streets for those 7 hours, I literally heard only one other person speaking English. But anyway, the pizzas we got for lunch at La Duchessa were delicious. One was a regular cheese pizza topped with prosciutto and the other was a quattro formaggi pizza with four local cheeses. Both were unique and pretty darn good. The prosciutto on the first pizza really was noticeably better than any I’ve had before–more flavorful and bold. And although the second pizza was only cheese–not my personal style–it was profoundly different than any other pizza I’ve had before. Funky, rich, intense, and a little tangy–it had enough going that I wouldn’t have really wanted any other flavors on there.
the moment before Jesse’s virginity is stolen
Jesse: So pizza is Julian’s favorite food–if you didn’t know–and apparently I haven’t reeaallly experienced a lot of top notch pizza (this is true, btw). You could call my pizza palate unrefined. Or, at least compared to Julian’s, it seems like it’d do me well to put myself out there in a world where there are so many waiting and willing, beautiful combinations of quality ingredients that I’ve yet to put in my virgin face hole. My favorite pizza is the pizza bianca from Union on Yale in Claremont for christ’s sake! I’m learning though. The sauce on this pizza, the prosciutto pizza, this is the beginning of my education–my cherry has been popped. Grown in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius (yes, the volcano that incinerated 16,000 unlucky people with a blast that had 100,000 times the energy of the nuclear bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima), the San Marzano tomato, is considered to be the best tomato for sauce in the world. That’s what they used for their sauce. And what a difference it makes.
Julian: Yes. Yes yes yes yes. You’re learning. Makes me proud. Anyway, after building up our appetites again, we stopped in at Ristorante La Forchetta, which is about as fancy as Parma restaurants get. Here, we again tried to order as many local specialties as possible. I really enjoyed the wine we got–a sparkling red called Lambrusco. They also served us the best bread we’ve had on the entire trip: a simple roll with fresh regional olive oil and syrupy balsamic of Modena (Modena is right down the road from Parma). Honestly, this was probably the highlight of the meal. Simple but perfect. Just like pizza.
Jesse: We’ve all heard it before–simplicity is the key to Italian cooking–and now I’ve experienced it. When you take the best possible ingredients, you don’t need to do anything fancy with them. There’s a reason every torelli dish on the menu only had the descriptors butter and parmesan. And as Julian said, the best part of the meal was the simplest thing: bread, olive oil, balsamic. We we weren’t even in Modena, and as I dragged my bread through olive oil and balsamic, soaking up as much of the heavenly stuff as I could, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been fed lies in a bottle labeled balsamic vinegar of Modena my entire life. If you’re like me, do yourself a favor, spend some extra cash and buy the real stuff. It’ll be thick, dark brown, aged 12+ years (or 25 for the really good stuff) and is protected under the European PDO (protected designation of origin) system.
Julian: We’re lucky to live in an era where we can get these very regional products imported wherever we are. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to come to this region 50 years ago and try all of these products for the first time, all at once!