Parma, city of Cheese!

We got off the train in Parma somewhere around 3 pm and again made our way to our “home away from home” for the night.  It was another of Heike’s picks and was close to the train station and once we figured out which direction our directions were pointing us to we found it fairly easily, not.  We had to ask about 5 people before we had a good enough consensus on which direction to start heading in.  Eventually, we arrived and rang the buzzer and it was answered by an old Italian woman that spoke little to no English.  She told us to come up and let us in and Heike navigated the conversation in her (not bad but not used enough) Italian and we were led to one of the three bedrooms in the apartment.  This woman was cleaning the rooms for the new guests and as it turns out was our host’s mother with whom he lived with along with an aunt in the apartment next door.

She put us in a room with a large balcony and french doors, 2 twin beds and a set of twin bunk beds.  It had it’s own bathroom and we were delighted since it was about $50 a night and it was clean, light and airy.  I was enamored by the British theme decor in the bathroom the curtains billowing into the room.  I used the bathroom and immediately found myself locked in.  I couldn’t get the lock to turn and couldn’t exit the bathroom.  Luckily, Heike was right on the other side of the door and together we pull and pushed and prodded and I was finally extricated from the room.  It was not an auspicious beginning.  About 5 minutes later while we were reading the maps and guide book left on the bed  our host, Francesco arrived and told us we were in the wrong room.

I guess we did think it was strange when the old lady kept asking when the others would arrive but with the language barrier it was a bit hard to decide if we were just not understanding her or she was uninformed.  Anyway Francesco  let us to the other room which was equally as nice as far as decor but only had one full sized bed that we would have to share and a bathroom in the hall that was to be shared with the third bedroom.  It did have a lovely canopy and billowing curtains with an amazing view of the street below so all was good.

If Milan was about shopping.  Parma was all about the food and especially the cheese.  Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is what the region is known for, well that and the Parma ham.  We were soon to find out the meaning of eating Italian.  It was about 5 when we left the apartment and headed to the city center to see the sights.  In many areas of Italy they have a pre dinner time called Aperitivo.  A happy hour of sorts. Though I found this description in “The Guide to Italian Aperitivo,” that says otherwise.

Note that aperitivo italiano is NOT a “Happy Hour” in the traditional sense. In fact, if I ever see an Italian bar advertising “Happy Hour,” I know it must cater to a lot of tourists. Aperitivo is best not translated while in Italy, and usually isn’t. One should practice saying, “Let’s go get an aperitivo” or “Prendiamo un aperitivo.” Happy Hour in the U.S. is a concept about getting a drink “discount” and drinks and/or appetizers are usually discounted or bundled together.

Not so in Italy. Aperitivo in Italy is plain and simply aperitivo: A pre-dinner drink, meant to “open” the palate and it gives you a chance to socialize, relax, and nibble as dinner approaches or is overlooked altogether. Aperitivo is more popular in the north of Italy, though you’ll find a form of it throughout Italy.

Anyway when you’re on a budget this is usually the best time to get dinner.  €5 which includes a glass of wine, beer or prosecco and all the little tapas you can eat.  So they have a buffet spread of little crusty bread topped with parma ham, cheese and other stuff, sometimes they have fresh pizza, fruit salads, roast, hot pasta, cold cuts like prosciutto and bresaola, fresh savoury pastries and even fresh mozzarella.  In Parma there are many items with Parmesan cheese.  This usually happens daily from about 7-9pm.  People eat dinner at about 9pm.  But being from the US we do tend to eat earlier and all that pre dinner dinner can be very filling.  Many times when I’m in Italy this is dinner and at €5 you can’t go wrong.  This night however we were hungry and wanted to experience the local cuisine.  We went to dinner early and ordered appetizers and had aperitivo after.

I ordered some ravioli stuffed with cheese and covered in Parmesan Cheese.  It’s the best I have ever had.  Heike ordered a salad and some pizza.  Then we went to the bar across the road to finish it up with Prosecco and Parma ham and whatever other goodies were on the aperitivo buffet.  We loaded up a plate with crusty bread and ham and sat down to eat.  The only available place to sit was at a bar counter right next to the hostess stand for the restaurant.  We started our drinks and sandwiches and after a while I decided I wanted the mean but no more bread.  So I started to dismantle my sandwiches occasionally having a bite of the bread but mostly just leaving it with it’s greasy spot where the meat had been in a basket.  So picture a basket of bread some greasy, some with a bite missing piling up in front of us while we ate thin slices of ham and cheese and drank our wine, then imagine our shock when the hostess picked up some menus and took the basket with our discarded bread and led a couple to a table out on the sidewalk.  She placed the basket of bread, plus some olive oil and napkins, onto the table and left them with the menus to decide on their meal.

parmaAt first we were too shocked to speak.  Then Heike got up and actually followed the hostess out the door to see what she was doing.  She came back in and told me that she had served the bread to the couple.  I couldn’t believe it and got up to investigate myself.  She actually had and they were eating it.  Nobody seemed to notice the greasy spot or the missing chunks of bread from the slice.  They were reading their menus, laughing, and having bread from our discarded basket.  The waitress brought them wine and they continued on, placed their order and had a lovely meal.  Heike and I hurried to get out of there before someone caught on the whole thing blew up.  We laughed for hours over that.

On the way back to the apartment we caught a fire-eater performing in the street.  Saw a bit of magic and really enjoyed the mile or so walk back to the apartment in the warm October evening air all the while laughing about the bread basket.