Postcard from Parma, Italy: City’s cuisine living up to its namesake ingredients

Chef Roberto Pongolini is among the growing number of chefs who walk away from the pressure-cooker kitchens of a Michelin-starred restaurant. The chef closed his La Cantinetta in favor of an intimate contemporary bistro, Borgo 20. The informal setting is extremely comfortable and affordable.

The riso al parmigiana di collina at Borgo 20 is without a doubt one of the most memorable dishes ever to enter my mouth. Similar to a risotto but made with parmesan aged 29 months (yes, it does only get more incredibly flavorful with age) spiked with smoky bits of crispy pancetta counterbalanced by the sweetness of a prune or two on top. A dish that certainly bore repeating on another visit.

And the chef also bravely has tinkered with the traditional pizza, although the menu refers to its altered state by another name, pandiro, as a warning to purists. Using multiple grains and flours, the dough for pandiro lowers the speed limit of slow cooking. It is left to rise for five days with a wonderful result – a crust that somehow is rendered both thick and airy light, yet crispy on the outside. And, again, we had to have this more than once. We sampled one blanketed with Parma prosciutto and one with salad-like seasonal vegetables.

But wait, we also had our favorite dessert so far at Borgo 20. We have failed to become huge fans of Emilia Romagna’s Lambrusco, but Borgo 20 turns it into a refreshing, not-too-sweet sorbet topped with extremely drunken cherries. And, yes, it was just as good melting on our tongues on a subsequent visit.

Another neighborhood spot offering casual comfort at lunch time was Kimera. The squid ink pasta was studded with the contrasting paleness of tender calamari; fresh ricotta was smoothed into a rich tomato sauce in another pasta dish; and fresh asparagus brightened a creamy riso. A basil panna cotta was a perfect springtime dessert.

Normally, I wouldn’t include a first-stop restaurant selected only because it was nearby and we were starving, but Tiffany Wine Bar offers a surprisingly nice selection of salads. Thinly sliced bresaola, cured beef, served with fresh fruit and radicchio presents an ideal counter to so many regional heavy dishes. Tiffany also sits at a great corner for watching locals walk and pedal by on the narrow streets.

Trattoria Corrieri is one of the Parma classics that everyone says you must try. The massive gathering spot for huge tables of locals on weekends made for great people-watching, but we blew our ordering. We needed to order what they all did, but we placed ours before having time to spy on neighboring tables. This is the place to order heaping platters of thinly sliced meats and the traditional accompanying fried bread. Locals follow that course with a bowl of shared pasta. Mal-ordering aside, the convivial crowd made it worthwhile.

Our only stumble was our most expensive meal. In the kitchen’s defense, the owner (?) seemed to be having a bad day created by the police outside threatening to tow his car. The pretty salad was a great starter, but… amazingly for Italy, our pasta at the touted Gatta Matta was way overcooked. The pair of scallops in pureed cannellini was perfectly cooked, but even the pasta was overwhelmed by the quantity of the sparingly seasoned puree.

The photos above include shots of the huge wheels of parmesan cheese found at shops everywhere. Specialized stores offer primarily a combination of fine meats and regional cheeses.

And one thing we have yet to consume, at least not to our knowledge, is as prevalent as pork – horse meat. Parma does not shy away from its consumption. Not only is horse meat commonly found in butcher shops, but carne di cavallo in some format is on the menu of almost every restaurant in Parma, from the lowliest to toniest. The regional favorite is served tartar. Maybe next time?

For now, I’m dreaming of that Borgo 20 riso.



Postcard from Parma, Italy: Festivals fill the streets with art and regional flavors

Beginning in early April, for 45 days contemporary art popped up in public spaces and unexpected places throughout the city as part of Parma 360. Although the event map listed 40 venues, we tended to stumble upon them rather randomly.

Man cannot live on art alone. In the midst of the art events, Parma hosted its three-day Street Food Festival with approximately two dozen food trucks and portable booths in Piazzale della Pilotta in the shadow of the Farnese Palace. Street food in Parma covers a broad sweep of flavors. In addition to burgers and brews, vendors offered some of the region’s finest hams, cheeses and wines.

Am still unsure whether the clever plays on the “do not enter” signs we encountered in our immediate neighborhood were part of Parma 360 or vigilante street art, but hope they remain past yesterday’s closing of the festival.

Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: First tastes of Emilia Romagna

This smiling whole hog symbolically welcomed us to the wealth of the traditional foods of Emilia Romagna. He seemed comfortably perched atop the counter of a booth set up for Il Cibo e Chi lo Fa Mercato del Gusto Italiano set up for the weekend on a plaza adjacent to the Cathedral. Although he continued to shrink as slices of him sold throughout the day.

This region of Italy produces some of its best-known cheeses, meats and vinegar. Think of parmiggiano and numerous goat cheeses, cured thinly-sliced Parma ham and aged balsamic vinegar from Modena. Ferrara was an ideal place to dive into some of the regional classics.

Virtually no menu is without cappellacci di zucca, a plump pasta filled with spiced pumpkin puree. It is served primarily two ways, either al ragu, with meat, or in a butter and sage sauce. The best, and most artfully presented, version we encountered was al ragu at Cibo. The meat sauce was flavorful without overpowering the comforting pumpkin. Lebanese were lurking in the kitchen, though, and I broke from the traditional for a chance to order kibbeh, a meat dish I’d wanted to revisit ever since a nephew’s mother-in-law generously contributed it to a Thanksgiving dinner several years ago.

Our go-to pizzeria proved to be Pizzeria Ristorante Este Bar, but the kitchen at the always bustling restaurant is capable of more than a great pie. We had two incredibly good octopus dishes there. One was a rich regional version in which the extremely tender chunks of pulpo topped a bowl filled with pureed cannellini beans and crisped guanciale. Guanciale is cured pork cheek or jowl that is regarded as a much more tender and flavorful ingredient than the pancetta commonly used in dishes at home. Our favorite preparation of octopus here, though, was Sicilian in style, with chunks of potatoes.

Spaghetti here bears little resemblance to the American version of the pasta. Freshly made, it emerges from the kitchen in a thicker, squiggly, more satisfying form. The best we sampled was in a casual, off-the-beaten-path, neighborhood spot, diCibo, that a tourist probably only would find if trying to locate a self-service laundry mat. The perfectly cooked pasta was topped with a bountiful array of fresh seafood.

Both the lasagna and the risotto – aged parmesan makes everything taste better – were great at Trattoria da Noemi. We tried a pasta new for us, passatelli, at Osteria del Babbuino, where a nice blend of jazz is on the soundtrack. With a texture midway between regular pasta and gnocchi, passatelli is formed from bread crumbs, egg and parmesan and cooked in broth. Babbuino’s was offered alle cozze vivaci in crema di cannellini, with mussels in a sauce made from cannellini beans.

Salads in Ferrara tend to be generous but rather basic, so we drifted often to the healthiest other option, grilled vegetables. Sides of grilled eggplant, peppers and zucchini are found on menus almost everywhere, and we were happy to quickly throw salads together at our apartment from prewashed arugula and watercress readily available. I keep longing for watercress to be offered this way in grocery stores at home.

Many of the restaurants in Ferrara still follow the hospitable tradition of providing diners with a complimentary glass of house-made limoncello at the end of the meal. DiCibo instead gave us a refreshing orange version, arancello, and Babbuino offered a choice of limoncello and liquore di liquirizia, my downfall. The bottles were placed on the table with rather large glasses for us to self-administer our servings. A licorice-lover, I poured myself a conservative helping, leaving my glass at least one-quarter empty. Every sip of the deep black liqueur was luscious, but then bedtime came. I was totally wired for most of the sleepless night.

Think the Mister has placed liquore di liquirizia on my off-limits list.