The moment you walk through the doors of Parma’s Salumeria Verdi, one of the world’s great delis, the aromas of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma and other local delicacies arrest the senses. You want to place your order and string up a hammock so you can luxuriate in the sweet, smoky smell of the room.
You can find packets or little jars of the stuff in the humblest pizzerias and Italian restaurant all over the planet. That Parmesan cheese is practically flavorless, but if you visit the impeccably preserved Italian city of Parma, and other towns in the surrounding region of Emilia Romagna, you’ll discover that the cheese named after Parma and the nearby city of Reggiano-Emilia is an awful lot better than you realized.
Inside the Salumeria Verdi, my eyes are drawn to a collection of colossal wheels of the stuff sitting on shelves in the corner. “NOV 09″ is engraved on the wheels on my right, meaning they’ve been aging for nearly 30 months. There is no chance I can fit one of these hulking goliaths of dairy goodness in my suitcase, but I want to own one. Not to eat, but to place on my mantle like a fine work of art. They look that good.
But the manager of the salumeria quickly disabuses my fantasy informing me that one of the 30-month aged wheels goes for about 800 euros, or $1,040. And these wheels aren’t even the most expensive ones – if the word “export” or “extra” is engraved on the cheese, it’s even pricier. For a moment, I ponder how my wife would react if I turned up back at the hotel with a $1,000 wheel of cheese the size of our suitcases. Someday, maybe.%Gallery-153199%
I settle for a panini with prosciutto crudo and Parmesano-Reggiano on fresh focaccia bread. The sandwich is wrapped elaborately, like a present, but I unwrap it immediately and conclude it’s the best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life before I even make it to the cash register.
Travelers can eat well anywhere in Italy, but the Emilia-Romagna region is to gastronomy what Lambeau Field is to football – sacred ground. Parma, Modena and Bologna are all well worth a visit, and if you can’t find something good to eat in these places, you aren’t trying very hard. They’re also great cities for pedestrians and cyclists, so you can burn the calories off while joining the stylish multitudes.
So why is the real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese so much better than the stuff that comes in those little packets you find inside your pizza box? For starters, the milk that’s used is from cows fed according to strict regulations and it has to be brought into the cheese making process within two hours of being milked. Then the cheese is allowed to age for at least 12 months and then every wheel is inspected and those that don’t pass mustard aren’t certified and branded with the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consorzio Tutela seal. They’ve been making this stuff in the region since at least 1200, so it’s not something they take lightly.
Serious foodies can visit a host of food museums in the vicinity of Parma – including ones devoted to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, tomatoes, prosciutto and salami. I didn’t visit any of them, though, because I’d rather spend my time eating than studying. But the thing about food in Italy is that, often times, your most recent meal/snack/sandwich/cappuccino/gelato is the best one you’ve ever had. It gets very difficult to differentiate between one outstanding treat and another.
For example, on Thursday night, I had some nocciola gelato at a place called K2 Gelateria in Parma that seemed just about perfect. At the moment I was eating it, I deemed it the best gelato in the world. But then on Friday, in Lucca, I had one that seemed even better at a place called Le Bonta, a few minutes walk outside the city gates. Was it better or just more recent? In Italy, you’re always waiting for the next dish.
[Photos by Dave Seminara]