September 15 2010
As a youngster, The Gannet was rather fond of Parma violets: aged nine, my first love was always wreathed in a bouquet of her favourite sweets, and the aroma always struck me as deeply exotic. That they were manufactured near Stockport did nothing to shatter my fledgling illusions.
The lure of Parma remains as strong as ever for me, but is now focused on the ethereal scent of cheese and the more visceral charms of ham — specifically, Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto di Parma, which, thanks to the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin scheme (PDO), are quality assured.
The PDO status of two of the town’s most celebrated products only underlines the pride locals feel for their food. The region’s other gastronomic attractions include culatello (a pear-shaped ham from Zibello); anolini in brodo (filled pasta in clear broth); and, in winter, cotechino (pork sausage) and zampone (pork-stuffed pig’s trotter) from Modena, perfect with a glass of local lambrusco. Gran Caffè Orientale, on Parma’s main square, is the place to sample hams and cheeses, and the wine list is extensive: try Callas Malvasia from the excellent Monte delle Vigne winery.
The smartest joint in Parma is Michelin-starred Ristorante Parizzi (pictured), a temple of cool modernism among the Gothic and the Romanesque. Chef Marco Parizzi has a sure touch with local ingredients: tortelli loosely filled with herbs and ricotta; a lovely dish of quail with foie gras and little St George’s mushrooms; roast sucking pig (this is The Gannet’s new campaign: sows suckle, their offspring suck) with meltingly tender flesh, but a slightly obstinate, uncrackled skin; and a fine piece of aged Parmigiano Reggiano to finish. Service was leisurely, but there is much to enjoy on Parizzi’s menu, and even more to enjoy in the astonishing pan-Italian wine list.
La Greppia is Parma’s old warhorse of a restaurant and, as befits an institution so retro they don’t even know what the term means, I ordered Parma ham with melon. It was superb: sweet and aromatic, 33 months old (the ham, not the melon) and smooth as silk. The beefy anolini in brodo were excellent — all the cooks at La Greppia are women, and they make superb pasta in their open kitchen — as was a sizeable chunk of a 110kg swordfish that a friend of the owner had lugged up from the Strait of Messina that morning.
Parma is a delightful city to visit, but avoid the height of summer, when the heat and humidity in the Po Valley can be unbearable, and go in spring or autumn. There is enough culture to feed a moderately hungry vulture, while its bars and restaurants are excellent at relieving cultural indigestion. Be warned, however, that a ham and cheese sandwich will never taste quite the same again.