Charm of Parma: Dining around the Italian city, one bite of Parmigiano Reggiano at a time

From traditional osterias to Michelin-starred fine dining, incredible cuisine is easy to find here

Powered by automated translation

Much has been written, and said, about Italy and Italian food. But it’s impossible to visit the European country without framing at least part of the stay around its cuisine.

Whether it's pizza in Naples, osso buco in Milan or cacio e pepe in Rome, different parts of Italy have very distinct tastes to be explored. Arguably none more so than Parma.

The northern Italian city is a cultural hotbed, with architectural, musical and artistic attractions. But it is probably best known for its famous culinary offerings, Parmigiano Reggiano, or Parmesan cheese, and Parma ham.

Parma is a small enough town to be tackled on foot — in fact, that’s the ideal way to explore its sights and sounds. My perfect Parmigiano afternoon was spent aimlessly meandering, stopping for the odd coffee (the Italian propensity to sip on a double espresso no matter the time of day, or night, leaves me in awe every time I visit), taking in the stunning Romanesque architecture of the 900-year-old cathedral and its surrounding buildings, and getting lost in the maze of shopping streets around Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi. The piazza is at the heart of the city, so you can’t go too far wrong and, after a couple of left turns in a row, you’ll find yourself back where you started, with or without Google Maps.

A stroll across to the Palazzo della Pilotta is also well advised, whether it’s to visit the national galleries within or simply to enjoy the atmosphere outside in the always bustling square. Inside, a visit to the Teatro Farnese (Farnese Theatre) is a must. On the first floor of the palace is a spacious atrium that houses a wooden theatre court, which almost pops up out of nowhere. It’s easy to feel like you've been transported back to the 17th century as you stand in the middle of the room, soaking in every detail.

Eat your way around Parma

After a day of sightseeing, sustenance is essential and there is no shortage of places to dine in Parma, many of which proudly use regional and seasonal ingredients on their malleable menus.

On the first night, I dined in Croce di Malta, a small restaurant with courtyard tables, where you can sit and watch the world go by. In a classic case of my eyes being bigger than my belly — but that’s to be expected on your first night in Italy, right? — I grossly over-ordered. It soon became apparent that perhaps I didn’t need the focaccia with Cantabrian burrata and anchovies, the restaurant's take on Parmigiana, an oven-baked aubergine with mozzarella and a Parmigiano Reggiano crust without the typical tomato sauce, as well as a cappelletti mushroom stuffed pasta, topped with a Parmigiano Reggiano cream and toasted hazelnuts. But I didn’t regret a single bite.

For a more traditional experience, make your way to Osteria Dei Servi, a classic tavern-style restaurant that has been open since 1928. I dined with a group of friends, and our starters consisted of a selection of cured meats paired with Parmigiano Reggiano of varying ages, with rich, syrupy balsamic vinegar to dunk it into. This restaurant is best enjoyed in a group, with pasta dishes shared family-style, because you’ll want to try a bit of everything — the pumpkin tortelli alla Parmigiana and tortelli d'erbetta with clarified butter and Parmigiano Reggiano (a herb-studded pasta served with shavings of cheese) were my highlights.

For a higher-end culinary experience, there is Ristorante Inkiostro, a one-Michelin-star restaurant. Minimalist and modern, it’s the polar opposite of the osterias in the heart of Parma. It is an almost abruptly stark dining room, with a monochrome colour palette that allows the food to do the talking.

Our menu was crafted around Parmigiano Reggiano from starter to dessert, with a herb and 24-month aged cheese risotto setting the tone, followed by cabbage and cheese-stuffed lanterns, a carbonara of pumpkin and 36-month aged cheese and a dessert of pear, honey and young 18-month-aged Parmesan.

The meal was creative and visually exciting, and demonstrated the many creative ways Parmigiano Reggiano can be used.

For a more hands-on meal, we tried a pasta-making lesson with the chef patrons at Soj, a refreshingly unstuffy and modern restaurant in the centre of town. We helped prepare seasonal pumpkin tortellini, which was then taken off our hands by the chef and transformed into a hearty dish with a squash broth and sage butter. I've tried to recreate the dish at home with limited success.

When it comes to something sweet, Gelateria Ciacco in Piazza della Steccata is a popular stop for gelato, as the queue out the door will quickly demonstrate. Wait it out, the interiors have all the charm of the converted hat shop it once was, and the tiramisu gelato was a culinary highlight of my trip.

If you want to get out of the hotel and venture for a cafe breakfast, make your way to Bombe. There are two outlets of the patisserie in Parma, one central and one on the outskirts. I went to the latter, Bombe Emilia, and enjoyed a breakfast of a double espresso with an open cured meat sandwich and a trio of picture-perfect lemon and raspberry pastries. I couldn't resist packing some colourful macarons and a sugar-coated, vanilla-filled bomboloni doughnut for later.

But first, Parmigiano Reggiano

Out of the city, if you get a chance to visit a Parmigiano Reggiano dairy, jump at it.

We visited the Caseificio San Bernardino dairy as a group and explored the process that goes into making the king of cheeses. While UAE residents may be used to seeing the wheels cut open and used to create the cheesiest of sauces when hot pasta is poured directly into them — oft topped with truffle at one of the country’s many opulent brunches — there was something breathtaking about seeing hundreds of the maturing wheels of cheese piled ceiling high.

Caseificio San Bernardino dairy is one of 340 cheese factories in the Parmigiano Reggiano producing region. It has been in the Caramaschi family for four generations and produces an average 15,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano per year. As well as the factory, onsite there is a small shop — the perfect place to stock up on cheese and cured meats, as well as locally sourced nuts and desserts.

In the courtyard, we took part in a cheese-tasting session, sampling 12, 24 and 36-month-aged Parmigiano Reggiano. Realising I had a taste for the more mature, crystallised, and almost brittle, produce, I went back inside the shop and bought a kilogram block of 84-month aged cheese to pack and relish at home. A perfect Parma souvenir.

Make your way to Modena

The nearby city of Modena is a perfect destination for a twin city break. A 30-minute train or 50-minute drive away from Parma, it is best known for its production of balsamic vinegar. A poetically perfect accompaniment for Parma’s cheese.

We visited Acetaia di Giorgio, a small balsamic vinegar business, where the produce is made in the house where part of the Barbieri family still resides.

A family business through and through, our tour was led by Marcello, the husband of Carlotta, daughter of the eponymous Giorgio and his wife Giovanna. He explained the 100 per cent natural process that goes into making authentic balsamic vinegar. A single ingredient, local Modena grape juice from lambrusco and trebbiano grapes, is aged over a period of 12 or 24 years, in a series of barrels, which are never changed.

The barrels are crafted from local woods, namely sherry, ash, mulberry, oak, chestnut and juniper, which lend distinct flavours to the different varieties of vinegars. For example, balsamic that has been aged for 25 years in cherry barrels, the sweetest wood, has a gentle flavour and a notably syrupy consistency.

Marcello delivered the tour with humour and a characteristic passionate Italian defence of ingredients and dishes. When someone asked about white balsamic vinegar, and how it is made, his reaction was almost visceral. He patiently explained that it’s not possible to make white balsamic vinegar in the authentic, preservative-free way they produce their single-ingredient vinegar, as the identifiable brown hue of balsamic is down to the natural oxidation that takes place with age.

The only thing he’d use white balsamic vinegar for, he joked, is cleaning the windows.

Acetaia di Giorgio’s vinegar doesn’t come cheap, but it’s difficult to walk away without a Modena memento in the shape of the addictively sweet and sour ingredient. The 12-year mixed wood vinegar costs €50 ($55) for 100ml, going up to €150 ($164) for 25-year oak barrel aged vinegar, or €300 ($328) for the vinegar aged in centenarian oak and chestnut barrels.

Where to stay in Parma

I checked into the Grand Hotel De La Ville, in the south-east of the city and a 15-minute walk from the cathedral.

The hotel is perfectly located for exploring Parma on foot. The rooms are spacious but no-frills — my view overlooked a car park, but it suited me down to the ground. I was there to eat my way around Parma, not take in a view from a hotel window.

Come breakfast, the spread is an extensive selection of continental cheeses and meats, including Parmigiano Reggiano and mozzarella, with pastries, bread, fresh fruit, eggs and brilliant coffee. Everything you need to set you up for the day.

If you’re looking for culinary souvenirs, behind the hotel is La Galleria, an open-air mall with a sizeable supermarket and wine shop, ideal for buying any last-minute items. I filled the gaps in my suitcase with Rummo pasta and jars of Nduja, neither of which are easy (or cheap) to source in UAE supermarkets.

Double rooms at Grand Hotel De La Ville start from Dh760 per night.

How to get to Parma from the UAE

From Dubai, Emirates flies to both Milan Malpensa Airport and Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport. Milan is just under a two-hour drive from Parma by taxi, and Bologna is an hour away. Taxis cost upward of €200 ($218) for a return trip to each city.

It is easy to navigate by train, via city-centre stations. Malpensa to Parma stops at Milan Central, takes about two hours and costs €23 ($25) with ItaliaRail; Bologna airport to Parma takes 90 minutes and costs €18 ($20) with Trenitalia.

Updated: January 26, 2023, 7:37 AM