Some nights, I have to eat early

Eating out for dinner in Italy translates into 9:00pm for an actual sit-down multi course dinner; unless you want to go to some touristy joint on a big street. Sure there are places you can go for a cocktail and food at 6 or 7pm, but it's not the same experience fo me to eat snacks and cocktails.  

I'd rather have dinner at the apartment. Which means using my Zone of Assessment Map and hunting for items to eat and drink. I basically walked outside and shopped for everything on this plate in 10 minutes.

It makes sense to purchase Parmigiano and Prosciutto when in Emilia Romagna.  The greens are actually cabbage rolls filled with what amounts to pork rillette. The last item on the plate is basic olive oil focaccia. The wine for this particular meal is a Lambrusco like local drinker, 8% alcohol, lightly sweet, effervescent and 5eu.

For dessert, some fried dough with powdered sugar. They're gluten-free. Just kidding.

La Gatta Matta, Parma

Roughly 3 minutes walk from my apartment and on a line back to the train station, La Gatta Matta was an easy find and recommended in the Gambero Rosso guidebook.

To start, Budino of Parmigiano with shallot confit and 30 month Parma Ham. Budino of parmigiano is all about texture and shape. I still don't know if I'm a fan of budino, I know the Italians are. It could be the warm texture that I associate with dessert. Or it could be the shape, it looks like a flan or a lava cake or maybe a angel food cake. There was nothing wrong with execution, just a personal preference. The flavor of cheese was integrated well and maybe if I slathered the budino in turkey gravy on Thanksgiving, budino would suddenly turn into fancy stuffing. Not such a bad idea.

Highlight on the plate was the confit of shallot. Powerful flavor. And I love to confit things like garlic and onion. Leeks and fennel would be solid with this combo. Yes, I'm taking for granted that there was a 30 month aged Proscuitto on the plate as well. Proscuitto is on every menu, everywhere and I have it everyday. I'm in PARMA, duh.

My pasta was a chestnut and potato gnocchi with boiled cotechino and lentils. Cotechino is a special type of regional sausage I have made back in the States before and often paired with lentil. Each item is cooked separately, combined just prior to assembly on the plate. The salami melts. The lentils still have texture and loads of flavor. The gnocchi have solid mouthfeel and offer heft to the dish. Lentils and sausage sound a bid pedestrian, but add gnocchi on a pretty plate and you've got a complete meal...although I didn't stop eating. Solid punch of black pepper on the dish. Downside on this dish, literally was the dish itself. The plates should be warm and this one was stone cold. It rushes the dining experience for the plate to be cold, as it's a race against time to eat quickly cooling pasta. Paired the pasta with a local Romagna Sangiovese. Simple, well constructed and easy to drink with most foods I gather.

My final course, Guancialino (veal cheek) braised in white wine and served with polenta and pumpkin cream. The second thing I notice, after a lovely presentation, is another cold plate, which was a bummer and increases the speed at which I eat. However, outstanding dish.  Polenta is there as decoration and to soak up sauces. The polenta is good, but background noise when compared to the veal and the braising sauce. The veal itself is fork tender, with no residual fat hanging off the edges. If you generally like short ribs, these are a step above. The dark sauce on the veal is deep rich and warm the result of roasting juices from the Guancialino and wine. The second, more decorative sauce is pumpkin. The pumpkin is smooth and flavorful, akin to a pumpkin soup but cold because of its position on the plate. All in all, a splendid dish, but a bit rushed due to a cold plate.

The wine paired with the Guancialino was named Epibios by Podere Colombaiolo 2011, from just outside Siena in Tuscany. Stunning! It is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Merlot. Simply put, an awesome glass of wine. Supertuscan and probably a 3oz pour. Bright and fresh for a 2011. 4.50 eu a pour on BTG.

Zingaro in Parma

Parma, home of Proscuitto di Parma was the perfect place to revive The Cured Ham.

For my first real meal in Italy, I chose Osteria Dello Zingaro. Within 5 minutes walking of my apartment, it was an easy choice after browsing about a half-dozen restaurants in my immediate area.

Prosciutto di Parma

Upon the entry of guests and the response from the owner, there appears to be lots of locals, lots of regulars. Taking that cue, everyone starts with some form of cured meat, culatello, Proscuitto, and or salami, with sides of various roasted vegetables and large chunks of Parmigiano. Wine is also ubiquitous, with several bottles of Lambrusco being consumed.

Not one to turn down cured meat, naturally, I had a plate. The salami was served skin-on, which automatically suggested, eat this meat with you hands and peel the skin for yourself. A fairly typical salami, nothing more than salt and pepper. The Proscuitto was the highlight of the plate. Creaminess and depth. All the meats are displayed at room temperature, with a single, dedicated hand to slice everything, repeatedly and efficiently throughout the night.


My second course was pasta. Simple, arugula and ricotta stuffing, with a sauce of butter and grated parmigiano. That's all. How can a dish these days be this simple? When all the elements are executed properly. No fancy garnish. No surprise filling. No complex sauce making. Bringing together the simplicity for some chefs and many customers is difficult, however, I find it refreshing.

Skilled Hands

My final course was a trio of Cavallo, yes, for those who are not Italian, Cavallo equals Horse. And before people freak out, it's a local delicacy and the Italians would think no differently to serve a pig as they would a horse or cute little deer for dinner. Cavallo Tartare served with a simple salt and pepper, while the second was spiced up considerably more with a hot pepper, Tabasco like flavor and then mixed with raw egg, which made it considerably more rich The third preparation was sliced whole loin, quickly seasoned and seared, then allowed to rest cold and then seasoned with olive oil. One of the staff suggested roasted potatoes with my trio.

Seared Loin

Seared Loin

My favorite tartare, upon first bites, was the spicy and enriched with egg, more classic in preparation. However, with my roasted potatoes, the seared loin stood out. The more basic salt and pepper variety of tartare was my least favorite, not because it was poorly prepared, quite the opposite, it was beautiful in color to the eye and gave me a sense for how lean and clean Cavallo can be, it was obviously the purest expression of the three, uncooked and a minimum of ingredients; it probably could have used olive oil to richen it up.

Spicy Tartare

Spicy Tartare

Salt and Pepper Tartare

Salt and Pepper Tartare

Irony. I love the pasta for its simplicity yet I choose the most heavily seasoned tartare for it's complexity. There are no absolutes. And it's not as though the tartare with Tabasco and egg were untraditional or overly complex.

I finished my evening at Zingaro, standing at the counter, talking with the owner and watching the slicing skills at the salami bar. I finished with a grappa, on the house, as a thank you from the owner.

A perfect welcome to Italy.

The Terroir of Parmigiano Reggiano

As a winemaker, I am built to talk about terroir. Terroir, is the French term used to describe the place of origin, a unique set of descriptors for a wine from a specific region, vineyard, or vineyard block. Cabernet Sauvignon from a specific vineyard in Dry Creek Valley has a unique terroir different from a vineyard in Napa.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

In the same vein as a wine tasting, I attended a cheese tasting sponsored by the Parmigiano Reggiano Academy at Cookhouse in San Francisco. I didn’t know what to expect from a cheese tasting. I’ve been to countless wine tastings for 20 years, arranged by everyone from the local wine shop to events sponsored by a particular viticultural region. I always learn something, either about my own palate or about the wine being drunk.

Photo by David Scheidt, Parma, Italy 2009

The focus of the Parmigiano tasting was to sample Parmigiano Reggiano aged 14-18 months, 24 months (Vecchio), 36 months (Stravecchio), directly from the wheel and incorporated with food. Chef Jordan Schacter of Jordan’s Kitchen in San Francisco, prepared an entire menu of Parmigiano heavy, small plates ranging from a Parmigiano crisp pizza to Parmigiano polenta topped with sugo. My personal favorite Parmigiano inspired dish of the night? Parmigiano and mushroom accented brodo.

Why would anyone consider Parmigiano Reggiano a homogenous branded cheese from Italy?

If I were to tell a fellow wine maker or sommelier that all Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 12 months from the Sonoma County AVA is basically the same product, I’d get some real funny looks.

But that's exactly what many of us do when we speak generically of Parmigiano. And here's why...

An accurate definition of Parmigiano Reggiano and a good enough answer for most would be that Parmigiano Reggiano is produced exclusively in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna, on the plains, hills and mountains enclosed between the rivers Po and Reno, made exclusively of cow’s milk, made with natural rennet and aged a minimum of 12 months.

But the answer above only describes the minimum requirements to be called Parmigiano Reggiano.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

For the Parmigiano tasting at Cookhouse, the focus of the evening was on the age of the cheese, from 14 months to 36 month. Parmigiano at 36 months is certainly drier in mouth feel, has a more crumbly texture, and greater intensity of flavor that a 14 month old wheel. A 14 month Parmigiano could easily be described as creamy. Each cheese maturity level can also have different applications in the culinary world, with younger cheeses playing a supporting role in polenta, while a stravecchio parmigiano a leading role on a cheese plate with balsamico.

Beyond the sensory and maturity characteristics we focused on that evening, I began to become even more curious about the specific origins of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

384 dairies are responsible for all of the Parmigiano production, globally distributed, of which 34% is exported to countries like the United States. Each dairy produces milk throughout the year from various cows, in various regions, independently of each other.

Each dairy will have variations in cows, harvest, feed, temperature, etc.  Similarly in the production of wine, there are variations in soil type, fertilization, sun aspect, and temperature. Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 7 grown in Alexander Valley, while genetically the same as Cabernet Clone 7 grown in Dry Creek Valley will have dramatically different flavors even if harvested on the same day each year, even if only grown 5 miles apart. Conditions vary from region to region, town to town, winery to winery, winemaker to winemaker. In the case of Parmigiano, conditions vary from dairy to dairy and cow to cow throughout the region of Emilia Romagna.

If there are 384 dairies, how many different cheese makers are there? One for each dairy? Again, the analogy to wine makers is appropriate and accurate. No matter the minimum production standard, each cheese maker has learned a technique, timing, and “feel” differently than their counterparts at other dairies, just like wine makers.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

With all the potential variables for each wheel of Parmigiano, why do so many consumers and cheese mongers generalize Parmigiano Reggiano as some homogenized product; albeit hand-made and of the utmost quality? Various conditions exist in raising cattle as they do in winemaking; yet a sommelier would never consider all Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County homogenized. That would be blasphemy! It’s actually a disservice to generalize and homogenize Parmigiano Reggiano into a monolithic hard Italian cheese.

A few basic distinctions when consuming and buying Parmigiano Reggiano: 

  • Milk comes from Red Cows, Brown Cows and Holsteins. Certain dairies will stamp their certified Parmigiano wheels with a secondary brand, indicating place of origin and the type of cow used for milk. Red and Brown cow milk is more highly prized and more rare than Parmigiano made from Holsteins.
  • Cows are milked throughout the year, causing seasonal variations in the milk, spring versus winter milks, and the diet of the cows from dairy to dairy can vary. Each wheel of Parmigiano is stamped by month, to ensure the 12 month minimum aging requirement, but nothing more.
  • There is no legal certification beyond 12 months of aging. Dairies, exporters, and your local cheese monger may or may not know and is under no obligation to disclose the various ages of the cheese. However, there is an obvious difference in flavor, texture, and visual appearance between a 14 month and a 36 month piece of cheese. 

After a couple hours eating, discussing, and analyzing Parmigiano Reggiano I have a new respect, understanding, and inquisitiveness about The King of Italian Cheeses and the vast kingdom of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Just as I never take Cabernet Sauvignon from Dry Creek Valley for granted, I will never take another purchase of Parmigiano Reggiano for granted either.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest