Parma, Italy -- There are as many reasons to visit Italy as there are travelers: art, architecture, antiquities, opera, spas, ceramics, leather goods. I go for the food.
Gastronomic visitors are keen to embrace Italian life as well as ingest its bounty. Delicious food is widely available throughout the country. But after spending a month in Italy every year for a dozen summers, I've concluded that the finest Italian cuisine can be found in Parma, a city of 170,000 in the Emilia-Romagna region.
Parma's reputation as the epicenter of Italian cuisine is based on its well-known foodstuffs --- Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, prosciutto di Parma (ham) and balsamic vinegar. The largest pasta manufacturer in Italy, Barilla, is based in Parma, as is the giant global dairy Parmalat. Food production has brought prosperity to Parma --- its residents enjoy the highest per capita income in Italy.
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My guide to the stellar dishes of Parma is gourmand Luigi Prati, a local business consultant. Prati is almost ecstatic about local specialties: "Prosciutto e melone [ham with cantaloupe] is a well-known appetizer, and the porcini mushrooms from Borgotaro with olive oil are delicious. Cappelletti [cheese balls in soup] used to be a Christmas holiday treat but now is served year-round. Melanzane alla parmigiana [breaded eggplant] is still a classic, as is tripe cooked about six hours and served with Parmesan cheese on top." A local favorite for lunch or dinner is torta fritta, fried bread squares served with salami, culatello and other cuts of pork.
Prati eagerly shares his list of favorite eating places: Sorella Pecchi for melt-in-your-mouth tortelli, Trattoria del Grillo for torta fritta, Pasticerria Torino for exquisite sweets, K2 for gelato and Bar Monaca for a breakfast cappuccino and brioche.
For most Italians, life is a conversation and the most common topic is food.
"Both food and fashion are important in Italy, " observed Elena Feboli, a young Parma educator. "They compete --- sometimes fashion wins when people diet and sometimes food does."
When asked if low-carbohydrate dieting had come to Italy, Vincenzo Salvadori, owner of La Specialita di Parma, a deli in the city center, winced and shook his index finger, "Pasta and bread --- we cannot live without them at least once a day. Can you imagine eating salami without bread?"
Italians are eating less, in general, Salvadori said, "but we eat better --- less butter and cream and fat. We only eat one large meal a day, not two. If we eat pasta at lunch, we eat meat at dinner. We also eat more olive oil and vegetables. We are definitely part of the 'Slow Food' movement. We eat local and seasonal foods. The only McDonald's around here is on the autostrada. Having torta fritta at a wine bar is our idea of a fast meal.
"In my gastronomia, we cook traditional foods for people who don't have time to cook. We make fresh pastas every day and get fresh fish from the coast every day. All the salami is freshly made by local artisans for our shop."
Paola Cavazzini, chef at La Greppia, a highly rated restaurant serving traditional dishes in downtown Parma, agrees. "A Mediterranean diet is still best, " she said. "Parmesan cheese and Parma ham are basics here, with pasta handmade daily and fresh local herbs and vegetables."
Cavazzini says her menu changes with the seasons and what's available in the market. "I cook in a delicate way, a light way of doing things so that you don't feel heavy after eating. It's not a modern way of cooking, but it works. Simple techniques, complex results."
In addition to working long days in her kitchen, usually 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Cavazzini finds time to study and research recipes, old and new. One example on her menu is a veal liver dish that's from a Farnese family recipe that's 1,400 years old.
To learn about Parma's renowned food products and cuisine, start at the Tourist Office at Via Melloni, 1/a. They issue a bilingual handout with details on how to arrange tours.
Culinary travelers have to make arrangements on their own because the tourist office is simply too busy handling a steady flow of requests, everything from where to buy a tank of propane gas for a camper to the location of the weekly street market. It's always seemed paradoxical to me that Italy is a top tourism destination, yet Italians cater little to tourists.
Gastronomes have to take the initiative and be relentless (and patient) in pursuit of their goals. It's important to know that Italians have complicated systems that work perfectly well for them but may drive others to distraction. And while nothing is ever easy in Italy, almost anything is possible.
Setting up food-industry tours is likely to be tedious, but the tours are worth the effort. To arrange a visit to a cheese factory, I called the number of the Consorzio del Parmigiano Reggiano. From experience, I knew that phone calls to offices are usually more successful before lunch than after.
For several mornings, I tried calling the cheese consortium's guide, Christiana Cappelli (who speaks English), only to learn that she wasn't available simply because she leads tours from 8 to 10:30 a.m. daily.
Cheese factories (called caseificio) prefer visitors to come in groups, so if you're not a group, you have to wait to see if one forms for the day you can go. One Thursday afternoon, I was invited to a Friday morning tour of the Caseificio di Baganzolino. After a 10-minute taxi ride to the outskirts of the city, I joined a busload of Finns to witness Parmesan cheese being made.
Cheese making is morning work because that's when fresh milk can best be mixed with fermented rennin. The first thing one notices at the caseificio is the strong smell of pigs, which are there, it is explained, to eat the whey left over once the new cheeses are formed. Each stage of the production process is explained and shown.
In a huge storage room where several thousand wheels of cheese were aging, one Finnish man observed reverently, "It's like gold in the bank."
Cappelli said that there are nearly 500 family-run cheese factories in the province of Parma, and that old records show that this cheese has been made in this area since 1254, an astounding 750 years. Most of the exports go to France, with only 2 percent reaching the United States.
Visiting a Parma ham factory is more problematic. Paolo Tramelli of the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma told me that most of the 189 ham producers in the nearby hill community of Langhirano are not open to public tours because of safety concerns and sanitary requirements in dealing with raw meat.
"A few companies do it, " he said. "It's a matter of organization." Tramelli hands out a list of three firms that permit factory tours. He said these businesses are in Langhirano because the air there is less humid and is perfect for curing hams. The tourist office advises making reservations on the consortium's Web site, www.prosciuttodiparma.com, but that it's still a "difficult" process and unpredictable. I couldn't make it happen in the five days I was there.
On to pasta
Commercial pasta-making is so automated these days, a Barilla spokesman said, there is little of the process for visitors to see except huge machines run by computers.
But Barilla is well aware of the global interest in its expanding line of consumer products. This summer it opened a glittering new training center called Academia Barilla, which offers intensive short courses for enthusiasts of Italian cuisine. Its 16 demonstration kitchens are high-tech facilities with simultaneous translations for foreigners and plasma-screen monitors to show the recipes.
"Trainees have to dress professionally for classes, " says Lucien Ducrey, its communications director. "Our tasting rooms have separate booths for each trainee so they can concentrate on the smell and taste of the dishes prepared. We also teach kitchen organization as part of food safety. For example, there are separate color-coded cutting boards and sets of knives for vegetables, fish, red meat, white meat and cold dishes. We have a pizza lab and pastry classes, and our largest demonstration auditorium has 86 seats."
Courses offered for enthusiasts and professional chefs are listed on the training center's Web site at www.academia barilla.com.
Another new cooking school for professional chefs, called La Scuola Internazionale di Cucina Italiana (known as ALMA) has just opened in Colorno, a small town close to Parma.
"I'm planning to take courses at ALMA, " says Roberto Ronzoni, owner and chef of the homey yet elegant Santa Croce restaurant in Parma, just outside the Parco Ducale.
"Its distinguished teachers are the best chefs in Italy. I always try to innovate and seasonally change a third of the dishes on my menu, plus I hope to expand my catering business . . . there is definitely more interest in Parma's food now --- its products and its cooking style."
Parma's reputation for food quality garnered official recognition last summer when the European Union in Brussels, Belgium, announced the permanent relocation of its European Food Safety Authority branch to Parma. EFSA's administrative quarters opened in new city offices in January, and its reception facilities are in a restored palazzo in the Parco Ducale.
Parma's bid for this agency bested two other competitors --- Barcelona, Spain, and Helsinki, Finland --- but the news got buried last spring when the billion-dollar accounting scandal at Parmalat made headlines all over the world.
Parma has much to be proud of. Its university is the second oldest in Italy, founded in 1050. Its hometown hero is Giuseppe Verdi, the 19th-century opera composer. The birth house of renowned 20th-century conductor Arturo Toscanini is a museum.
The city appears pleasantly out of step with much of Italy. It still votes Communist, despite the country's political shift to the right in recent years.
Parma almost appears to be in slow motion --- strollers compared with the bustlers of Milan an hour's train ride to the north. Parma's well-dressed and -coiffed populace still cruises around the city on bicycles. A local shoe manufacturer produces styles so traditional they could be 1950s models. And just off the main piazza is an old-fashioned hat shop. Yes, hats.
Like many Italian cities, Parma is a coffee-shop society. This pastime is ideally practiced in an outdoor venue in either the Piazza Garibaldi or Parco Ducale, sipping, reading and casually watching the parade of passers-by. Italians love to see and be seen, so manners and current fashions are on display. It's also fun to stroll around town to window-shop, gaze at the tantalizing food trays in the deli windows and browse through supermarkets.
It's easy for a visitor to figure out what attractions, activities and events are going on in the community. The tourist office assembles a weekly listing of arts events --- exhibits and performances. In the culture section of the local newspaper called Spettacolo, previews and reviews give a sense of the relative value of offerings. Posters plastered on city kiosks also give pertinent details.
In addition to such traditional landmarks as the duomo and its pink-marble baptistery, Parma has recently opened two attractions. A puppet museum displays the extensive collection of the late puppeteer Giordano Ferrari, and the Casa della Musica, a music library and multimedia museum, traces musical theater in the city from the 17th century to the present.
Parma's appeal is enduring. At the risk of sounding like a campanilista (booster), I would list among the attributes a relaxed pace, a refined standard of living, reserved yet friendly residents, a comfortable cityscape, reverence for the arts and an exquisite cuisine that's nonpareil throughout Italy. Parma honestly earns its local nickname, "isola felice" (the happy island).