I was talking about food with Carmela, a native Italian woman who sat down next to me on a plane ride to Italy. She spoke only in Italian, having committed herself to the responsibility of warming up my rusty knowledge of the same before I reached my final destination. “Food is so important to us. Culturally, it represents family and celebration,” she explained. She pointed out that to understand Italy and its people, we must be willing to break bread and raise a glass together, with our only concern being for those with whom we are spending time.
To experience a bit more of what this means, I visited the city of Parma, a short two and a half hour drive North from Tuscany and another two hours South of Lake Como. Parma, a city based on rich gastronomical traditions, is the home of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham).
You’d be hard pressed to find a large tourist scene here, especially as you walk farther away from the city’s center and towards the Parma River and Ducal Park.
On any given day, during a leisurely afternoon walk, you can easily find yourself in the middle of an open air market or surrounded by family restaurants filled with hanging ham, fresh cheese, and bottled red peppers.
As a foodie traveler, Parma is one of those destinations I never hear enough about. It was in Parma where I fulfilled my dream to cook alongside the celebrated chefs at Academia Barilla culinary center and ventured into the factory of a Parmagiano-Reggiano maker, who couldn’t speak English, barely understood my Italian, but was ever so generous with his wine and cheese.
It was in Parma where I got so caught up admiring the beautiful historic architecture and monuments that I lost my way–only to find my sense of being over an espresso in a small café on a quiet plaza during the long hours of siesta.
It was here, while dining at a local trattoria one night, where I found my Italian nona, who showered me with food and sweets and ignored my resistance for more food and wine at all cost.
It was in Parma where I most felt a sense of family while traveling. In my house – my chaotic bliss as I call it – mealtime is a noisy occasion, full of laughter and storytelling. It’s messy at times, our small kitchen crowded and busy. Parma brought this feeling of home to the table and in every conversation I felt like I was surrounded by my famiglia.
I learned a lot from the beautiful people of Parma and about the Italian traditions that can still be found deeply rooted in the outskirts of the tourist meccas. Worth the stop for the traveling foodie wanting to connect on a deeper level with Italy’s people and culture or for those who long for a little taste of home while on road.