stupidly i never liked italian food. sure, i have always loved pizza (who doesn't?) and enjoyed the frozen lasagne my mom left for my brother and i to eat when she was working late. but whenever someone suggested to go out to an italian restaurant, i would quickly try to change the venue to a vietnamese, mexican, korean, or japanese restaurant. growing up, italian food to me was olive garden or (later on) buca di beppo. i came to associate eating italian food with enormous portions of pasta accompanied by garlic bread, followed by the feeling of being sickly full of empty carbs and cream.
so when my friend said we should go to parma, my expectations were pretty low. not that i thought i would starve, but i thought if i could figure out anything about italian cuisine then this would be the place. pictured above is the first thing we ate in parma; a spaccaballe and a 'ham and cheese sandwich.' i put it in quotes because it is nowhere near the bland ham and cheese single sandwiches that i've been subjected to in the past. i'd previously read some positive reviews about pepen, and we wandered in by chance. despite being 3pm, it was full of locals where other restaurants were closed for a break between lunch and dinner. and if there is anything i've learned from my travels, it's to get whatever the chef at a good restaurant recommends. these two were the result, and the PARMA ham and PARMesan cheese sandwich blew my mind. the bread isn't stellar but it fits well with the moreish prosciutto and the salty, intense parmesan cheese. we polished it off with a glass of white wine and left as happy tourists.
for me, parmesan used to be that powder in a shaker on tables in pizza places. eventually i learned to buy it in wedges or blocks and grate it freshly over pasta. but even the blocks you get in upscale grocery stores here usually can't compare to what you can get at a discount supermarket in parma for a fraction of the price. yes, of course i bought some and took it back with me. this plate was served to us at ombre rosse with a couple of glasses of decent red. the two cheeses on top are two types of parmesan, and the other three are obviously blues. with honey and walnuts, it was the perfect dish to whet the appetite.
in fact most of the meals i was pleasantly surprised by were the appetizers. parma ham, mortadella, and especially culatello. we had the privilege of tasting a batch from november 2012 at la greppia and were floored by the flavour. how can a paper-thin slice of meat have so many facets? again, the bread was not great but maybe it was intentional as to not overshadow the meat. not pictured is an amazing plate of bottarga tagliolini that i regrettably couldn't finish due to our excessive snacking. i still have nightmares about leaving that pasta behind!
speaking of pasta, we did make our way out to bologna, where we of course had some pasta bolognese. or, as it is known in bologna; ragu. there it is served with tagliatelle instead of spagetti as the rest of the world does. all the food we had in parma and bologna was delicious, but i was particularly surprised by the pasta dishes. though they were sparsely dressed, they were certainly not light on flavour. it made me realize that the pasta itself is the star of the dish when made properly. so i do love italian food now! my feelings for olive garden are the same as before; you won't catch me there.