The rain that fell upon our arrival could not deter me from finding a fabulous hole in the wall pizza joint I had heard about. Only problem was that my directions included things like like turn at the pharmacy on a small umarked alley, and make sure you're not being followed. Not sure if it was going to be pizza that we would find at the end, but alas, it was closed, or not there, or we were on the wrong alley, or followed, so we found another good spot for tortellini and some vino, closely followed by our daily gelato. This one had a side hat that served as a nice scooper.
We wandered the wet streets that luckily had many covered passageways to enjoy the shops and cafes. Then we found food mecca with a labyrinth of wonderful stores selling the freshest of ham, cheese and other local delicacies.
We found ourselves on one particularly inviting passageway and decided it was time for our daily Sprtiz, that yup, we still don't like, but dang it's festive and in Italy, it often comes with free appetizers like meat, cheese, bruschetta, and that we do like. They also usually put potato chips on the table with any drink, which doesn't seem right for Italy, but you can bet not one chip is left after we leave.
Dinner was at a local spot I had heard about called Teresina where I had to get the specialty of tagliatelle bolognese, and it was divine.
The next day we were off to Modena, home of the true blue Balsamic Vinegar, and I booked us a tour to see how the product is made at Villa San Donnino. Davide is the vinegar maker extraordinire, as was his father as well. Davide hasn't had a day off in 30 years, which seems cruel, but we were there on a Sunday and he happily took us around and even showed us his house after. He doesn't charge anything for the tour, but after tasting his wonderful creations, we left with shopping bags, and a down payment for his next trip.
Davide took us through the vinegar making process and to be the best of the best and get the DOP and "tradizionale" stamp, you have to follow certain rules, which he does. You must only use Trebbiano grapes from the area with no artificial colorings or flavors added. The cheap grocery store brands do that.
The grapes are pressed, heated, put in a barrels and aged a minimum of 12 years to get the tradizionale stamp. Extra Vecchio is aged a minimum of 25 years and can set you back 4 to 10 times that dollar amount, but like fine wine, the longer you age, the more developed the flavors become.
We did some sampling of all the vinegars, including some different ones he developed for some special requests from Japan and Europe and I liked each one better than the next, including vinegar drizzled over ice cream. Superb!
Davide then graciously offered to take us on a tour of his beautiful house which we had been eyeing since we pulled in. There's unbelievable frescoes in the foyer and stunning artwork and collectibles.
It's a museum in its own right, and actually was in Bertolucci's film, "1900" with a very young Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu. He even showed us a clip of the movie where the house and some of the art was featured. Villa San Donnino is a must stop if you're ever in the area.
We then meandered through sleepy Modena with a few churches and squares.
We stopped in another cute town called Reggio Emilia because it had been nearly 24 hours since our last gelato and the alarm was sounding. Given it was Sunday, these towns were especially quiet, but you'd still see many families and friends out for a stroll and sitting in the plazas.
We hit our final stop for the night at Parma. Another cute town, but this one a little bigger with some churches and many people out for a wander and some gelato.
We stayed in the very inexpensive, but nice Parrizzi apartments, which also had a very good restaurant below. We had an Italian take on fish and chips, stuffed squid, goat cheese and apples, rabbit ravioli (don't judge) and shrimp risotto. We slept well after.
We started the next day with a behind the scenes food tour of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham. We met out Italian guide in the pouring rain at Caseificio San Pier Damiani, just outside of town. Here we were able to watch the family run business in action. The father was teaching the son, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, as well as grandson. These people don't take vacations (quel dommage) and like to keep the business in the family. Let's just hope the teenagers find fun in playing with milk products.
Like wine and vinegar, Parmigiano-Reggiano must adhere to strict rules to get their stamp of approval. The juice (from the cow this time) needs to come from the local area, and the cows have a very specific diet that's all natural. No steak or corn for these guys. They're milked twice a day and the milk is rushed to the cheese house within 2 hours. It separates overnight and is poured into copper vats, and whey is added, then rennet, an enzyme from the stomach of cows, and eventually it curdles as your own stomach may have just done if you didn't know this process.
They break up the curds with the biggest whisk I've ever seen and are constantly monitoring the consistency, and not just playing in the warm milk.
It's heated, shut off and then eventually a big hunk o' cheese forms at the bottom. They cut it, lift it and then let it rest in containers. It does look a bit like they've just given birth to a baby - a beautiful block of baby cheese.
Each cheese is branded with Parmigiano-Reggiano, along with the month and year of production, and then it's immersed in a salt brine for nearly 3 weeks.
The cheese is then aged for a minimum of 24 months to receive the Parigiano-Reggiano branding, along with "Consorzio Tutela" when it passes all of its inspections.
Parmigiano-Reggiano Mezzano is aged up to 12 months and is meant to be eaten younger. You can detect this cheese by the parallel grooves that encircle the cheese.
In their marketing materials, they mention how doctors and nutritionists recommend eating this cheese for all the great health benefits. It's easily digestible, full of calcium and vitamins and therefore good for everyone from children to athletes. This is all I need, a doctor's order to eat more cheese.
What comes after cheese, but ham. I think it's for the best we weren't there when the "shipments" were arriving. I do think it's important to know where your food comes from, but not sure I need to see the play by play. Here are the basics. Parma ham comes from the back legs of pigs from the Parma region, and man, they got some big hind quarters. Again, it's all natural, no additives, spices, nitrites, no nada is added, except a lot of salt for the curing. We saw several steps of the aging process.
Again set standards needs to be followed to get the stamp of approval, which in this case is a crown with Parma stamped in the middle. These have been aged a minimum of 12 months.
After looking, smelling and talking about ham, it was time to taste. We stopped at a great little spot down the road called Casale Del Droppone, and I'd highly recommend a lunch or tasting here. You drive through vineyards and they have a spot that sits up on the hill with a lovely terrace to enjoy all the local specialties.
We were also treated to red and white sparkling wines or frizzantes that were so good and so cute in their small bottles, that we had to get a few for the road, to drink off the road of course.
Next up was a few days in Cinque Terre, which I will create a separate post on once you've had time to digest all the ham and cheese tales, but I'm going to slip in a quick note on my overnight in Milan which was my final stop before flying back to Paris. Milan is a big city and I'm not exactly sure what I expected (given my 24 hours of planning for this trip), but what I saw, wasn't it. Yes, it has a lovely Duomo in the center of town with stunning artwork and sweeping Gothic columns.
There's a beautiful covered glass domed shopping area with designer names and colorful tiled floors.
There were people hanging out everywhere, and I was there on a Thursday afternoon, but it looked to be locals grabbing curb space and enjoying their gelato, which of course I joined in on.
I just couldn't quite find the soul of the city, but I think this could also be the same reaction I here from people about LA. It takes a while to find your spot, your people, and yes, it requires a car, so I can hardly judge this city with the 24 hours and 2 feet I came with.
I was happy to wander down to the canal area of Navigli, which I heard could be a fun spot with cafes and bars along the water.
And of course I had the name of a place that was supposed to serve outstanding pizza, but this time I had a real address with a street name and everything.
I waited patiently for Premiata Pizzeria to open, and I was rewarded with a perfectly cooked pizza with ham, artichokes, olives and mushrooms. At first I wondered if it would be too many ingredients, but they give each item a place to shine in their own quadrant. A perfect ending to a perfect trip.
But wait, there's more. Cinque Terre is up next!