In my old life, when I was a freshly-minted Brandeis University grad—2 years coming up soon—I spent a year living in Boston’s fabled North End neighborhood, a cramped and bustling place where the streets were laid out as if a toddler handled the urban planning and old-school Italian immigrants spoke in dialects calcified by decades of exposure to the hard Boston accent. Consensus seemed to be that the countless trattorias, pizzerias, gelaterias, pasticcerias, and enotecas were the best this side of the Atlantic. I don’t think I’ll ever have a cannoli as stupefyingly filling as the behemoths at Mike’s (sorry, Modern aficionados, if you disagree write your own blog), and the closet-sized dining room at Pomodoro offers up some of the most robust meals I have ever had the privilege of enjoying.
But after spending four days in Parma—namesake of a certain legendary cheese and the best Prosciutto this side of the Po river valley—and another two in Bologna—spaghetti Bolognese, anyone?—you can bring Italian food to Boston, but you can’t bring the same tomatoes or cheese or pork in all their glorious freshness, and certainly not the same air or water, with you to our fair American shores. There is the damn-tasty rendition of Italian food that the North End has been serving up ever since the Big Dig transformed it from the shadowy Mafia dump hidden by highway overpasses, and then there was The Second Meal That Definitely, Most Certainly Changed Everything.
To properly reflect the chronology of events, I should probably tell you about The First Meal That Changed Everything. It happened on my second day in Italy, when I visited the family of my friend Cara near Lecco and was invited to enjoy a lunch cooked by her mom. It was the first time I ever ate homemade gnocchi, and it was a revelation. I will continue to buy the gnocchi that comes in those sad vacuum-sealed packages because like my passionate relationship with Mexican food, I have only so much willpower before I cave and find myself crying into a plate of stubby yellow dumplings that were made with not even the tiniest bit of love. Unless I can find another generous Italian family to adopt me—or perhaps, an Italian girlfriend—I will be consigned to a miserable future of eating gnocchi that make me sigh wistfully and think of the first time I had them as they were meant to be: browned from butter, shallots, garlic, slightly aromatic of fresh sage, just a little bit chewy, and with the perfect nuttiness of Parmesan to warmly embrace my mouth. But it wasn’t just about the gnocchi Cara’s mom made: my taste buds were wallowing in endorphins from a beautiful risotto made with red wine and strawberries. I can’t express how incredible it felt to be eating a risotto that was the perfect combination of savory and sweet. Topping it all off was a tray of eggplant Parmesan, the apex of Italian comfort food perfection. Oh, and of course we had a beautifully simple tart made with homemade strawberry preserves. Why bother with store-bought? Why, for that matter, should I ever come home?
Before I answer that question and freak out friends and family, let me tell you about The Second Meal That Definitely, Most Certainly Changed Everything. It was my second night in Parma and I was couchsurfing with vivacious Katrina, a German earning her doctorate in neuroscience at the university. We spent the first afternoon that I arrived sitting on the roof of her apartment building—literally, sitting on the terra cotta shingles and one stupid slip away from a forty foot plunge to the street below—drinking wine and listening to church bells toll away the afternoon. My arrival coincided with a neuroscience conference in Parma, and Katrina capitalized on the influx of visitors to her adopted city to take us all out to a cozy trattoria on a side street off the main square and sheltered from the sopping wet tourists (the only downside of Italy has been the torrential April rainshowers) looking for dinner. The meal started with a pass at a buffet lined with roasted vegetables and a big wheel of Parmesan with the top taken off so that we could scoop Parmesan out of the middle to our hearts’ desire. Out came the obligatory bottles of wine, all from regional vineyards; I don’t get the sense that Italians are as territorial about wine as the Spanish are—you’ll get death stares if you ask for a glass of Rioja while in Burgos—but eating local and drinking local keeps the meal closer to the earth in a way that is tangible.
The Second Meal That Definitely, Most Certainly Changed Everything was only just starting, even though I had heaps of roasted eggplant, cauliflower, and zucchini filling up my belly, not to mention a generous slab of Parmesan so perfectly nutty it was almost Cheddar. Thin slices of at least four different cuts of cured pork were heaped on top of a wooden platter and passed around the table; they paired well with yet more Parmesan. Because Katrina had been here many times before and the owner of the restaurant—a woman who could easily be the aunt who feeds you into a coma whenever you visit for Thanksgiving—whipped up a plate of pumpkin ravioli on the house. I can’t stress that term enough because when the bill came it was absurdly cheap; I think more or less half the food we ate and the wine that we drank was courtesy of Katrina being the darling golden child (one who is 32 years old but looks not a day older than 26) that she is. The ravioli was followed by ground horse meat with pesto, as well as small filets of horse topped with melted Parmesan. In case you’re reaching for the nearest trash receptacle, you need not: horse is pretty typical here, and it’s much richer and gamier than beef. Lest you think that we were stuffed from our feast of vegetables, cheese, pasta, prosciutto, and horse—actually, yes, we were stuffed.
But not enough to prevent us from having dessert! Our adopted aunt brought out a magnificent lemon custard tart with the yolkiest filling I have ever tasted—if those eggs didn’t come from chickens she personally owned, they came from her neighbors. By this point I had ascended to foodie Nirvana and had the clarity of mind to realize that the slight zing of the lemon, coupled with the egginess of the custard itself, would pair excellently with the boldness of Parmesan, and we carved some more cheese out of the wheel. Thus, after these two meals in Italy (and lots of encounters with street-side pizza stands and gelaterias in between) it’s safe to say that my life will never be the same.
I apologize for the lack of photographical accompaniment to this blog post; God knows how important it is to be overwhelmed not just by my descriptions of the food (I humbly posit that I did my best) but by the images as well. Luckily for you and me I have a new camera on its way, courtesy of my dad, stepmother, and stepgrandmother, who will be meeting me in Rome on May 5th and spending about 10 days with me here in Europe. So normal blog service shall resume shortly!
If you too have experienced a life-changing meal, Italian or otherwise, let me know in the comments below! Maybe this is your first time on my blog and you’re wondering if I always use so many superlatives to describe just about everything? The answer is yes, and I hope you’ll subscribe. Click “Follow!” in the upper right-hand side of this page and let’s pretend it will last forever.