The Foodyssey.

February 3, 2010 · Posted in Travel · 9 Comments 
Sing in me, O Muse,
Of the man of many hungers,
Who wandered full many days
After he had sacked
The sacred citadels of Parma, Bologna & Modena.
Many were the foods
In whose cities he saw
and whose stomachs he learned,
aye, and many the woes he suffered
in his heart upon the return to America…

It is almost impossible to begin this post because the events that transpired cannot adequately be put into words.  No amount of language, hyperbole, or linguistic trick can describe how you feel as you sample delicacies prepared in restaurants older than your country.  To taste gourmets foods in the lands of their origin.  And so I will attempt, with the help of my muse, to describe the bounty one encounters on a trip through Emilia-Romagna.

Our travelers start the journey in Parma, home to parmigiano-reggiano and prosciutto.  Almost immediately upon exiting the train station you can smell a salumeria.  You have to love a city that smells of cured meats.  On your way into the city center, you will encounter two gastronomias that resemble dueling vendors trying to outdo one another with the beauty and deliciousness of their wares.

Here is Gastronomia Garibaldi.  Note the legs of prosciutto hung lovingly on the walls, better alone than any Christmas stocking could ever hope to be.  This is what pigs in the USA long to be.

Across the street we have Salumi & Formaggi (meat and cheese).  What a great name.  Those are in fact gigantic wheels of parmigiano-reggiano.  You know in Duck Tales how Scrooge McDuck dives into piles of money?  If I could I would dive into piles of cheese and cured meats.

After finding our hotel, we ventured out in search of the perfect dinner.  We got sidetracked, as you do here, by the cutest wine and cheese bar I’ve ever seen.  It was about a foot wider than the bar itself, so we shuffled past and upstairs, where they kept books about wine making and terroir and how to properly butcher pigs and meats and…you get the idea.

Do you see that cheese on the plate?  Take a good look because you can’t get it anywhere else.  They make it somewhere (I suspect it’s a secret, magic cave of deliciosity) nearby and it tastes almost like a brie.  With honey.  Don’t let me forget that.  See, I adore honey and so now I’ve got cheese and meat and honey and red wine and my tastebuds feel like Odysseys strapped to the ship’s mast as he passes the Sirens…wanting just a little more of the temptation…just a little bit more.

So do we indulge in this temptation?  In Italy, the correct answer is and always has been yes.

Trattoria del Tribunale.

Why not start with cheese?  Because if you call this just cheese you deserved to be shackled to a donkey and mocked.  This is somewhere between cheese and ambrosia.  By itself it is a meal, and the perfect blend of saltiness and nuttiness in the cheeses in Parma is unrivaled.  It’s change your life, walk out in traffic because it can’t get any better than this good.

And we hadn’t even had dinner yet!  So I’m skipping on the picture of risotto because I can’t figure out how to take a picture that doesn’t look like oatmeal.  You know, just porcini mushroom risotto with fresh grated…what do you think we grated on it?  Right then.  As you do.

This beautiful creation was a braised beef stew that fell apart before you ever touched it with your fork.  I think there was polenta but frankly I’m not sure.

The next day we did some…stuff?  And then ate again.  There’s a few churches and whatnot.  But come on, we’re here to eat.  So we did.

It’s a good thing Italy wasn’t on the way back from Troy, or Odysseys never would have made it home.  Homemade torteloni stuffed with fresh herbs and ricotta cheese in a sage butter sauce.  Jenni had to restrain me at this point.

I’ve been around the world eating delicious food.  I’ve eaten at Alinea, twice.  Il Mulino, twice.  Been to restaurants owned by Batali, Emeril, Wolfgang (the good ones, not the crap ones), lived in Rome for six months, had duck at an incredible restaurant in Paris, eaten amazing pastas all over southern Italy and had breakfast so good I almost cried at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.  I know what good food is.

And then.

And then I went to Bologna.

Bologna, the capital of Emilia Romagna, therefore the food capital of Italy, and therefore you probably won’t find a city more responsible for such an incredible array of excellent food products in the world.  Dinner was in the student district where a very surly hostess tried to sit us right next to two people in an EMPTY restaurant.  She literally pulled the other half of their table away and wanted us to sit next to them.  In an empty room.  When we asked to move it was like we punched her cat or something.  It was all okay when these dishes arrived:

Tagliatelle con ragu on top, and rigatoni al forno on the bottom.  The tagliatelle was excellent, but just a warm up to the rigatoni.  Mushrooms, sausage, and a slightly sweet, acidic cream sauce that blended so smoothly with the spice in the dish.  Of course, fresh grated Parm cheese on top.

THAT dinner proved to be nothing but a teaser for tomorrow’s lunch.

Osteria dei Poeti.  An old wine cellar beneath a palazzo serving pasta “fatto a mano” – made by hand.  This tagliatelle con ragu…it’s not an exaggeration to say it changed my life.  The meat has actually been braising since the late 1600’s.  The pasta itself is delicate and at the same time perfectly hearty.  But it’s the sauce that works its magic on you as soon as you smell it.  On a cold day, when you’re freezing, it warms you all over with the power of a fire, warm blanket, hot chocolate, chicken noodle soup AND pasta all in one.  Then it tucks you in, serves you warm milk and cookies, and reads you a bedtime story.

The picture doesn’t do it justice and neither do my words.  I have found my last meal.  That’s all there is too it.

For dinner we tried a more modern restaurant in Bologna.  (In Italy modern is like 1700 and beyond but this was really modern)  Expecting to be disappointed somewhat we were just wowed again.  Jenni ordered stuffed pasta with pumpkin and bacon, smothered in a balsamic reduction that had hints of chocolate.  I ordered papardelle “fatto a mano” with porcini mushrooms and bacon (of course).

Our traveler’s last stop was Modena, home to Ferrari and aceto-balsamico, commonly called balsamic vinegar in the US.  Like Champagne, it can ONLY come from Modena or it’s not real aceto-balsamico.  The goal:  find real balsamic and bring back spoils for the uninitiated to try.  The result: lunch like you’ve never eaten.

My friend Francesca Amadei recommended this restaurant to us which, for security purposes, shall remain nameless.  She told me it was “familiar” and that Ada the owner/chef/waitress/everything would tell stories and poke fun at us and whatnot.  What actually occurred was beyond all expectation.

It really is this woman’s house, and there are maybe 15 spots.  If you’re late, get out.  Vegetarian?  Sorry, get out.  Don’t eat pork?  Um, you’re in Emilia Romagna.  GET OUT!  Lunch was 4 primi piatti, 1 secondo, 2 dolci, caffe, vino, and three or four sides, I can’t remember.  All through lunch Ada herself was serving, clearing, cooking, and regaling us with stories of her lewd past.  She is truly a one-woman show in and of herself, and is more than reason to go.  If you can find it.  I’m not telling where it is.

1.1 Orecchiette con pomodori – the roasted tomatoes bursted with a sweetness that could make Willy Wonka himself blush.

1.2 Sage and Rosemary Tortoloni stuffed with ricotta.  The pasta was dark green and tasted of sage and rosemary.  The best pasta itself I’ve ever had.

1.3 Lasagna Bolognese

1.4 Tortellini in brodo

2 Braised pork shank with roasted vegetables – do I really have to explain again that braising is the best way to cook anything, and pork is the best thing to cook, so when you braise pork…well…if Michelangelo sculpted food he would have sculpted braised pork, that’s for sure.

At the end….

At the end of the meal she asked us and one other table where we were from.  Chicago and Boston.  The entire restaurant erupts – everyone had family, friends, or worked or lived in one of those two cities.  Instantly we were all friends.  As you bask in the warmth of the kitchen, the warmth of the food, and the warmth of new friends, you realize you’re living la dolce vita, just like they say you should.

As you stumble back out onto the street, eyes adjusting to the light because it took you three hours to eat lunch, you can’t help but want to stay, to throw everything else out the window and just LIVE, here, now, delicious, full, amazing life the way it was intended to be.

As Homer had two stories so too will we – our next trip goes to Mantova for a home cooked meal that redefines lunch yet again.

A dopo tutti…