I am a bad Italian.
Despite growing up with a Sicilian great grandmother, a family who scream-spoke every sentence, and a T-zone more oily than a slab of cooked bacon, I didn’t do much to embrace my heritage. Sure, I abbreviated words like mozzarella, consumed lethal amounts of garlic, and sported an oversized cross on a long gold chain, but never went out of my way to fully realize what it meant to be from the country that gave us pizza, opera, and Leonardo da Vinci.
Flash forward to present day, post-weekend trip to Parma, and you’d think I’m ready to legally change my first name to Giuseppe.
My exploration of the region was not only the spiritual awakening I hoped for, but one of self-realization. It was a strange, albeit welcomed sensation to feel so attached to a place that I’ve never traveled to before. Aside from looking like everyone (dark hair and well-trimmed beards are apparently nothing special there), a familiarity was deeply rooted in all of the food that we consumed—gentle reminders of the simple flavors and techniques bestowed by my dear great grandmother.
In America, we have developed and encouraged a skewed perception of Italian cuisine, with Chef Boyardee and Olive Garden at the helm. And while I’m a firm believer that there’s a spot for every type of food at the dinner table, I’m not a fan when culture *completely* falls by the wayside. That being said, most of my childhood memories around taste are unsurprisingly rooted in sugary cereals, jarred sauces, and preservative-laden cold cuts, though there’s one particular, pure ingredient that stands out among all the palate diluters, Italian-wannabes, and empty calories: the salty bite of parmigiano reggiano.
Like my connection to Italy and its culture, this cheese touched upon aspects of my life briefly and without second thought—grated over pastas, crumbled atop a Christmas cheese board, and shaved into an arugula salad. Though its presence has always been a constant, I have absolutely taken it for granted, dismissing the fact that it has played a tasty role during many, if not most significant family gatherings.
Mangia! Italian Food at Its Finest
It would make sense that a trip to its birthplace, dedicated entirely to the cheese’s production and use, would simultaneously force me to gain a true appreciation for my ancestry and how my great grandmother incorporated this regional delicacy into her dishes. What were mere threads of memories were quickly becoming strong ties to “my people” as I explored the intricacies and versatility of the product and how it was presented, like paired with aged balsamic from Acetaia San Giacomo, a beautiful sparkling sauvignon at Monte delle Vigne, or in dessert form as a soufflé at Inkiostro Ristorante. We even got our hands dirty at famed Ca’ Matilde, rolling and cutting our own tagliatelle meal in the same, uncomplicated style that’s been passed down from generation after generation.
Perhaps the most impressive display and celebration of the cheese’s influence was at Osteria Francescana to sample Michelin-starred chef Massimo Botturra’s parmigiano reggiano five ways: demi-souffle, foam, sauve, galette, and “breath of air,” all aged at different months, each layer purposeful and harmonious in its intent.
Of course, the cheese also stands alone, which we discovered at restaurants Al Vèdel, Ai Due Platani, Bistro Il Cerchio, Croce di Malta, and Podere Cristina, where its beloved crystals and pleasant mouthfeel were highlighted next to Culatello, seasonal pastas, glasses of Lambrusco, and fresh-baked bread.
As someone who writes about food frequently, I sometimes forget to take a step back and appreciate the labor of love that goes into a meal. This time, it was deeply personal, allowing me to envision how my great grandmother may have learned the techniques and precisions that lent itself to the delicious and memorable moments of my youth. It only takes one ingredient to conjure nostalgia and change one’s perception of not only the food in which it’s accompanying, but the people—related to you or not—who have carried on the quality and tradition maintained since its invention. I went to Italy to find a decent meal, but in actuality, I left finding a part of myself.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.