ParmaWords Georgia Levy
Photography James Bedford
Parma’s two superstar offspring, prosciutto di Parma and parmigiano-reggiano, have travelled the globe, riding beside pasta and pizza as they conquer the world’s diet, yet few people outside Italy know much about the city they sprang from. They don’t know that Parma is busy with palaces, castles and churches, or that it has one of the world’s oldest universities and a world-famous opera house, and they may not even know that it’s the birthplace of the composer Verdi, the conductor Toscanini and the perfume brand Acqua di Parma. Parma may receive less recognition than Rome, Florence and Milan, yet for a city so small that you can cross it by foot in just 30 minutes, it is impressively rich in culture.
But it’s the colours that strike you first. The warm yellows, pinks and reds are a legacy of Frenchman Alexandre Ennemond Petitot, who was appointed architect to the Bourbon court in 1753, at the age of just 26. Petitot brought youthful energy and ostentatious French taste to Parma; the first thing he did was decorate the interior of the Ducal Palace in the grandiose style of Versailles, the next was to start a fashion for painting the buildings an ochre-yellow colour, to replicate the gilded splendour of the French palace. Parma is still bathed in a golden light now, as if the day is permanently paused at sunset.
Despite Petitot’s tastes leaning towards the Baroque, it is the Renaissance buildings that govern the streets, looming over pedestrians and giving the city a sense of nobility. The vast porticos of the Palazzo della Pilotta are a perfect example of this, and are beautiful at night when lit from below. The Palazzo was built around 1583, although much of it was destroyed during World War Two and rebuilt afterwards. The building also houses the Galleria Nazionale and Teatro Farnese, which was originally built by architect Giovanni Battista Aleotti in 1618, and is said to be the first theatre designed to accommodate moving scenery.
In a country full of picturesque piazzas and imposing cathedrals, Parma’s Piazza del Duomo manages to distinguish itself by the visual double-whammy of its cathedral and soft-pink octagonal baptistry. Both were designed by architect and sculptor Benedetto Antelami during the 12th century, and share pastel-hued exteriors that give little hint of the vivid tableaux painted within. The walls and ceiling of the cathedral are hugged by frescoes depicting scenes of war, mythology and the Gospels, with added drama coming from the flamboyant gold altars and pulpits. The star of the show, however, is local celebrity painter Correggio’s ‘The Assumption of the Virgin Mary’, which depicts Mary floating through a chaotic sea of limbs and faces. Charles Dickens, in his travelogue Pictures from Italy, described the fresco as a sight “no operative surgeon, gone mad, could imagine in his wildest delirium.”
Parma was founded by the Etruscans in 183BC, but was then conquered, destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly, with each new ruler contributing something significant to its architecture or culture. The powerful Farnese family, rulers from 1513 to 1727, left one of the largest legacies by encouraging foreign artists, scholars and architects to settle in the city, while the Bourbons brought a certain je ne sais quoi, evident in the grand palaces and gardens, the hint of French in the local accent and, it seems, an enduring love for horse meat. Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, who became Duchess of Parma in 1814, also had a great and lasting influence over the city’s cuisine. There is an esteemed prize for food writing named after her; and her famous sweet tooth may explain Parma’s continuing love of cake, especially her namesake cake, the Duchessa Maria Luigia, which you can find in every pasticceria’s window.
You can’t miss Parma’s pasticcerias. They tend to be lavishly decorated with gold, ornate mirrors, polished glass and marble, and their windows filled with extravagantly constructed gâteaux and dazzling fruit-topped creations that wouldn’t look out of place in an expensive pâtisserie in Paris.
The oldest and most popular of Parma’s pastry shops is the Pasticceria Torino. Relics and old books line its close-set walls, making it feel much like the intimate sitting room of a glamorous grandmother. Head baker and owner Gianluca Paini explained the history of the shop while sharing tortelli brusco, crescent pastries filled with cherry jam, and sbrisolona, rough, chewy biscuits made with polenta and almonds. “This was first opened in the 19th century and my papa bought it in the 1950s,” he said. “I worked here when I was young and now I’m here again.”
When we visit, Pasticceria Torino’s already charming atmosphere is further enriched by a vocal middle-aged woman who’s energetically working the coffee machine, calling out orders as she plonks the drinks down before the crowd of customers surrounding her. Female baristas are not entirely typical in Parma. While most restaurants in the city are a family affair, they have firmly entrenched labour regimes: the wife is in the kitchen and the husband is out front. We discovered this at another Parma institution, La Greppia. As we strolled past the restaurant the morning after eating dinner there, we caught sight of the mustachioed headwaiter and owner, Maurizio, emerging from the kitchen sprinkled in icing sugar and tugging off a chef’s hat. “You’re a chef as well?” I asked him. “No, no,” he said. “You did not see me. The kitchen is for women only.”
With its doilies and lace, La Greppia’s decor is a bit kitsch, and its habits defiantly old-fashioned (women are presented with menus without the prices), but then you wouldn’t want them going modern if it meant losing their rolling trolleys, one piled with desserts, the other ferrying large chunks of parmesan and other local cheeses around.
The leatherbound wine list is the size of an encyclopaedia, so most people rely instead on Maurizio’s extensive knowledge. His expertise is matched by that of his wife, Paola, who has been in charge of her all-female kitchen for 37 years. Paola’s menu is an ode to Parma’s two key players: prosciutto and different cuts of local hams populate the antipasto section; while parmesan flavours the sauces and stuffings of the silky pastas in the primo course. Paola is famed for her pasta-making skills, so this is the place to order Parma’s typical dish of tortelli di erbette – pasta stuffed with ricotta, chard and parmesan. The secondo course is entirely meat; heavily dominated by kidneys and liver, but with enough of the more conventional beef and veal dishes for those who are not offal-inclined.
If you’re after a snack or quick meal after all that sightseeing, Enoteca Fontana is your place. Its rustic charm and low prices make it a popular destination among Parmesans, who sit at outside tables chatting with friends over a glass of wine throughout the day. It is a good place to try the local wines, such as lambrusco frizzante, as it has a few dozen by the glass, and more than 50 by the bottle, most of which come in at under €12. It also serves many different types of sandwiches, although most involve prosciutto. Or, try a simple plate of the stuff beside the local speciality of torta fritta (deep-fried bread). These soft pillows of fried dough are, gratifyingly, on every menu you see.
The locals balance their rich diet by taking to their bikes. Most people ride elegant old-fashioned uprights, calmly and discreetly weaving in and out of pedestrians and traffic without any bell-pinging or fist-shaking. It gives the city the feel of Amsterdam, though cyclists here are far better dressed. Two further pleasures of Parma are that it’s easy to navigate and it’s compact. The best way to explore the cobbled side streets is on foot – you’ll want to dedicate some time to observing the characterful locals as they go about their business, and this way you can stop regularly for a glass of wine and a plate of prosciutto. After all, like its wonderful food, Parma is best consumed at a leisurely pace.
EAT & DRINK
Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto Trattoria Sorelle Picchi Strada Farini 27; +39 0521 233528. Wonderful restaurant twinned with a great salumeria so you can take home a taste of Parma favourites.
Enoteca Fontana Strada Luigi Carlo Farini 24; +39 0521 286037. Popular wine bar with a huge choice by the glass and bottle, all of which are modestly priced. The paninis are generous and delicious too, especially when they’re grilled.
La Greppia Strada Giuseppe Garibaldi 39; +39 0521 233686. This charming, family-owned restaurant honours the Parma classics, with old-school style. The wine list is vast, and the desserts, cheese and salads are all served at your table from charming rolling carts.
Pasticerria Torino Strada Giuseppe Garibaldi 61; +39 0521 235689. There are only a couple of chairs in this elegant pastry shop, but the fun is mingling with the locals, who come for the small pastries and Parma specialities such as Duchessa Maria Luigia cake, named after Napoleon’s second wife.
Trattoria del Tribunale Vicolo Politi 5; +39 0521 285527. Dine among film stars – whose photos line the walls – on stuffed pastas and plates of ham; make sure you try the degustazione (tasting plates) for a bit of everything.
SEE & VISIT
Teatro Regio Strada Giuseppe Garibaldi 16a; +39 0521 039393. Housed in a beautiful 19th-century building, and with an ever-busy programme, the Teatro Regio will delight opera and architecture fans alike.
Profumeria Maria Luigia Strada Cavour 5; +39 0521 282762. An especially glamorous perfumerie at which to buy Acqua di Parma, one of Parma’s most famous exports, and said to be among Audrey Hepburn’s favourite fragrances.
Cappelleria Cavalieri Giovanni & Figli Strada Giuseppe Garibaldi 7; +39 0521 238808. A wonderfully elegant and old-fashioned hat shop, founded in 1947. Pick up a panama or bowler, or a scarf for the lady.
Palazzo della Pilotta Piazza della Pilotta 5; +39 0521 233309. For some hardcore culture, you can take in the National Gallery, Farnese Theatre and National Archaeological Museum in one fell swoop, as they’re all housed in the historic Palazzo della Pilotta. The gallery is especially marvellous, with works by heavyweights such as Da Vinci and Correggio.
Parmigiano-Reggiano producer tours, +39 0521 293441. It’s fascinating to see this famous cheese being produced and you can buy it afterwards. To arrange a visit in the Parma region, you need to contact the consortium that regulates the cheese. Call the number above, 20–25 days before your visit, or send an email to email@example.com.
Battistero Piazzo Duomo 7a; +39 0521 235886. You can’t miss this pink octagonal ‘skyscraper of marble’, as its website describes the baptistry. Built alongside the Duomo for, as the name suggests, baptisms to take place. Also, don’t miss seeing Correggio’s stunning fresco inside the cathedral dome.
Parco Ducale Ponte Verdi; +39 0521 218889. This park was commissioned by the Duke of Parma in the 16th century but was later opened to the public. It’s home to the Palazzo Ducal, temples, statues and beautifully laid-out gardens.
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Steccata Strada Giuseppe Garibaldi; +39 0521 234937. This church is worth visiting as a fine example of Renaissance architecture.
Osteria delle Vigne Via Roma 4; +39 0525 404328. This family-run tavern in a village just outside Parma serves simple yet wonderful food.
Antica Cereria Borgo Rodolfo Tanzi 5; +39 0521 207387. Great pasta and rice dishes, or splash out on veal stuffed with truffles.
Al Tramezzo Via Alberto Del Bono 5b; +39 0521 487906. Don’t be fooled by the homespun decor – the menu shows a lot of finesse in fish, seafood and other dishes.
Parizzi Strada della Repubblica 71; +39 0521 285952. Each plate here is a work of art.
Gallo d’Oro Borgo della Salina 3; +39 0521 208846. Unpretentious regional food, in a central location.
Salumeria Pasini Strada della Repubblica 83b; +39 0521 289276. Pick up prosciutto and parmigiano-reggiano souvenirs to take home with you.
Salumeria Verdi Strada Giuseppe Garibaldi 69a; +39 0521 506633. Another of Parma’s great delis.