Halfway between Bologna (107 km to the east) and Milan (129 km to the west), Parma is a town devoid of suburbs and industrial estates, like a precious stone surrounded by lush green hills. Rich and opulent (life is more expensive here than in Rome), always haloed in brilliant light, it is today almost as famous as Milan for its fashion and other designers.
The women here are always elegant and the students don’t hesitate to sunbathe nude right in the town centre, on the lawn of the Farnese family’s immense Palazzo della Pilotta (so named because pelota was played here during the Renaissance)…
Tip number 1: stay in the town centre
For a dream holiday, I recommend taking up residence in the town centre (forbidden to cars, as in many Italian towns) and leaving your bags in the finest hotel in town, the Palazzo Dalla Rosa Prati, whose old-style rooms look onto the Baptistery. This octagonal masterpiece of Romanesque architecture (begun in 1196) is sculpted out of pink marble from Verona, which changes colour as the day progresses, going from pink to grey and orange-coloured.
To get a feel for the city and observe its inhabitants, make a beeline for one of the cafés on Piazza Garibaldi. This is the number one meeting place for Parma’s locals. In front of you stand the town hall, governor’s palace and San Pietro Church and it is where the town’s major thoroughfares (Strada Mazzini which becomes della Repubblica and Strada Cavour) converge.
Tip number 2: be hungry at all times!
Besides its architectural beauty and relaxed way of life, Parma remains, above all, the gastronomic capital of Italy. Its strength is, in fact, in being located at the heart of a remarkable region, Emilia-Romagna, which is made up of two different lands: Emilia, situated between the plain of the river Po and the north of Tuscany, and Romagna, a mountainous region bordering the Adriatic Sea.
The former provides (among other things) countless kinds of pasta, dairy products, excellent beef and the incomparable Balsamic vinegar of Modena – whilst Romagna, which is more austere and hard to get to, provides aromatic herbs, game and fish from the coast…
In the midst of this vast pantry, which also encompasses Bologna (famous for its mortadella) and Ferrara (sausage territory), Parma has stood out since the Middle Ages, thanks to two exceptional products that have become symbols of Italy: prosciutto and parmigiano reggiano!
The realm of pasta
Just like all of Emilia-Romagna, Parma and the surrounding area are a pasta paradise, whether it be semolina-based pasta secca or pasta fresca made with wheat flour and eggs… It is said that nowhere is pasta fresca smoother, finer or more elastic than in this region, where it is worked into strips or diamond shapes, stuffed with meat or cheese, in the form of ravioli, tortellini, tortelli, terrific lasagna, anolini in brodo (with meat stock), agnolotti, cappelletti or cappellacci…
Parma is above all renowned for its tortelli di primavera, stuffed with ricotta and mixed herbs, but also for its tortelli stuffed with pumpkin marinaded in fruit mustard (a recipe dating back to the Renaissance!). Of course, each rasdora (old dialect name for a housewife) has her own technique and gives a special texture to the pasta. Some of the most exquisite tortelli I have ever tasted are those by I Tri Siochètt, a trattoria and grocery store just outside town. For traditional food and regional cured meats, you couldn’t do better than the Trattoria Ai Due Platani. True it is on the outskirts of town, but it boasts a Bib Gourmand, proof its excellent value for money and is well worth the effort.
For a trendy, hip ambience and live music in inner-city Parma, try the Shakespeare Café, which offers a vast array of cottage industry traditional pasta, together with a few of the chef’s more contemporary inventions. Also in the city centre, you could try the traditional regional cuisine of the Il Trovatore.
Parmigiano reggiano – an exceptional product
As early as the Middle Ages, the huge wheels of parmesan maturing in Parma (protected by Saint Lucio, patron saint of master cheesemakers) were already a sort of tourist attraction! In the 16C, pilgrims and travellers were offered mouthfuls of parmesan to give them strength.
It was in 1612 that one Bartolomeo Riva, treasurer of the Farnese under Duke Ranuccio 1st, created the first parmigiano reggiano label. Nearly five centuries later, the production methods have not changed and are even subject to law! Only cheese manufactured in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua and Bologna can be called parmigiano reggiano.
The manufacture of this exceptional cheese cannot be industrial, in the sense that, even if the quantities produced are astronomical (3 million wheels weighing 38kg/84lbs each are produced each year!), the process is entirely manual. Whether the producers be small private dairies or large cooperatives, the process is identical: the evening and morning milkings are mixed and heated. After addition of natural whey, the curd (cagliata) is then separated with a fork until granules are formed. It is then heated again to make a young cheese, after which a cloth is placed around the cheese to collect the first whey. At this point it requires two strong men to lift the cheese out of the vat as it weighs over 60kg/132lbs. It is now pressed into a mould and left to rest for a day for the whey to continue to drip and is then immersed in brine for 3 to 4 weeks.
Over the course of the first six months, it must be turned every 4-5 days and then every 10 days over the following six months. The cheese must be at least one year old to have the right to the parmigiano reggiano label. I recommend paying a visit to the maturing cellars which are genuine temples over 30m/98ft high, in which 50,000 to 100,000 wheels are piled high on wooden shelves.
Have you ever tested a truly great parmigiano reggiano? At Cittanova, very close to Modena, Lino Balzarini makes one of the most exceptional parmesans in all Emilia-Romagna. A masterpiece of taste and delicacy, be it fresco (less than 18 months old), vecchio (between 18 and 24 months old) or even stravecchio (over 24 months old).
The other jewel of Parma gastronomy: prosciutto
With the “pata negra” fed on acorns in the forests of Andalusia, the Spanish claim (perhaps rightly so) to have the best ham in the world. However, one should not disregard the authentic prosciutto di Parma, a tradition that dates back to ancient times!
This world-famous ham is produced under the supervision of a professional consortium that ensures the strict application of a rigorous set of requirements. Experts feel and inspect the hams, piercing them in specific places with the aid of a hollow horse bone: this, in fact, makes it possible to verify the degree of maturing of the ham and reveals, thanks to the smell that it brings out, the presence of potential defects. If the ham is deemed a success, its rind is then branded with a five-point ducal crown.
Besides the quality of the pigs fed on Parmesan whey, maize, barley and fruit, the prosciutto di Parma owes its fine texture, aroma and flavour to the mastery of salting (the rind is treated with damp salt and the flesh rubbed with dry salt), drying, oiling and, of course, maturing. Parma and its region have always benefited from a microclimate and land favourable for maturing ham.
Half of the Parma hams are intended for export. Since foreign enthusiasts prefer ham off the bone, it is carefully boned and wrapped in cling film. But the real ham that the Italians love is sold whole, on the bone. It is savoured in very thin slices with white bread or grisini, and is also delicious with melon or fresh figs, buttered asparagus, or grilled peppers. Like Parmesan, Parma ham is succulent with a brut champagne!
But the Rolls Royce of Italian ham is Culatello di Zibello of which hardly 15,000 pieces are made a year by just over a dozen producers. That by the Spigaroli brothers, whose ancestors supplied Giuseppe Verdi, is worth a special visit… To do so, go to Polesine Parmense, 46km/28mi to the northwest of Parma.
Watch our videos about the wonderful food of Emilia-Romagna.
Discover the restaurants of the MICHELIN Italy Guide in Parma.
Ufficio Informaziona e Accoglienza Turistica
Via Melloni, 1/a
43 100 Parma
Tél. : 0039 521 218 889