Situated in Pilastro, a small rural village about 15 kilometres from the centre of Parma, is a small trattoria-osteria called Masticabrodo. The village is virtually in the shadow of the impressive Castello di Torrechiara (built in the 15th century by a local noble) and right in the heart of Parma ham country.
A family business with a warm and personal welcome from Ida, Francis and their staff, the restaurant's menu is simple and traditional. Daily specials are scribbled onto plates.
Bread is served in paper bags and local wines are very much in evidence.
To start – what else but some fantastic Parma ham, sweet and satin soft? And bowls of pickled vegetables, a nice sharp contrast.
Most of us at the table ordered the tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms. The treat was that the mushrooms were plump and fresh (not rehydrated dried ones) and lifted this simple dish to very heady heights. It was one of the best plates of pasta I've ever had.
With our meal, the wine drinkers stuck to local tipples and were particularly surprised (in a good way) by a sparkling red Lambrusco from the Marcello winery.
Out came some aged Parmesan cheese.
And somehow we still found room for dessert. A plate of local sbrisolona was suggested and duly ordered. I didn't regret my choice of thick, sweet crema di zabaglione amaretti, incredibly rich but awfully good.
This is exactly that kind of small, rural family trattoria that you dream about stumbling across and which happy food and travel memories are made of.
Gran Caffè Orientale
Located in Place Garibaldi in the heart of the city, the Gran Caffè Orientale is a Parma institution that has been serving happy customers since 1893.
In the shimmering heat of a July evening, we appreciated our outdoor table, surrounded by the buzz of fellow diners and those traversing the beautiful square itself.
To start, the ubiquitous but perfect selection of local charcuterie and cheese served on a large chopping board (15 €).
Next, pasta or risotto. I opted for a local speciality of tortelli verdi con spalla di San Secondo burro e salvia (9.5 €). Simple, fresh local ham sausage with a freshly made pasta. I didn't love the ham sausage as much as I adored Parma ham and Culatello (both in the charcuterie selection) but did enjoy the dish.
I don't recall which risotto some of my friends chose but I do recall tasting it and thinking it utterly delicious! And isn't that a gorgeous view?
For my main I was dithering between the horse tartar with salad and a fillet steak with balsamic vinegar (also made in the Emilia-Romagna region).
When two of my friends said they were ordering the horse and I could taste theirs, I went ahead and ordered the filetto di manzo "blonde Aquitane Francese" all'aceto balsamico (21 €) and I certainly wasn't sorry. It was a beautifully tender steak, cooked medium-rare as requested, and with the most fabulously rich and tasty balsamic sauce giving a wonderful sweet sour balance. Yes, it looked like the Exxon Valdez had run aground on my plate, but I can tell you, every one of us at the table agreed it was a superb dish!
The tartara di cavallo con insalatina di stagione (10 €) was also really enjoyable. It didn't have a distinctly horsey taste – not sure what I was expecting really – but was perhaps slightly gamier or just more savoury than beef.
Desserts were a bit of an after thought though we bravely persevered. I forgot to note down our choices but you can see that we had a (large) fresh fruit salad with ice cream, a rich chocolaty thing (which had decent taste but wasn't nearly moist enough for my taste) and another cakey patisserie thing which I've completely forgotten though I have a feeling it was my own dessert!
That's not necessarily a damning indictment of the desserts so much as an indication of how satiated we already were from the charcuterie, primo and secondi courses not to mention tired after our long day getting to Parma.
I often avoid places like this, located in the main tourist drags such as this magical square, convinced they will be over priced and underwhelming, relying on their location for custom.
And of course, the Gran Caffè Orientale proves me completely wrong, as both we and the many happy tables of local customers can attest.
Ristorante Cocchi is another Parma institution, having been going strong since 1925. Located in the Hotel Daniel at the intersection of Viale Antonio Gramsci and Strada Abbeveratoia, it's not quite as attractive a part of town as the Place Garibaldi but once settled inside, we focus instead on walls jam packed with paintings in a very wide range of styles and then on menu, food and friends.
Out first, once again, were plates of Parma ham and Culatello (13 €) and some parmesan cheese. This time they were served alongside torta fritta (2 €); these squares of fried bread dough are a traditional local accompaniment to charcuterie. We folded thin slips of Parma ham, thick slices of Culatello and chunks of cheese inside the naughty pockets of dough for a delicious shared starter.
Torn between the Tortelli d'erbetta (pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese, swiss chard and Parmesan cheese), the Tortelli di zucca (pasta stuffed with pumpkin and Parmesan cheese) and the Tortelli di patate ai porcini de Borgotari (pasta stuffed with potatoes and Parmesan cheese, in Porcini sauce) I was delighted to spot the Degustazione di Tortelli (10 €) which gives me a tasting of all three.
The ricotta, herb, swiss chard and Parmesan parcels were pleasant. The filling was subtle but worked nicely with the very fresh pasta and grated Parmesan.
I didn't love the parcels stuffed with potatoes and Parmesan cheese and served with a Porcini sauce. They were OK, but missing the wow factor of that simple tagliatelle with fresh porcini mushrooms at Masticabrodo.
The pumpkin and Parmesan parcels were incredible. I think there may also have been mention of Amaretti biscuits included in the filling too, though I may be mistaken. The flavour of the pumpkin was rich and sweet; the Parmesan cut through it just a little. But overall I found them awfully sweet for a savoury dish and would rather have ordered them as a dessert, for which I think they'd be perfect.
Fairly full after our shared starters and primo dishes, we discussed whether or not to have a main, keen to try more traditional dishes but worried we'd not be able to do them justice.
Luckily, a helpful member of staff came to our rescue and suggested, for the two of us thinking of ordering the stracotto di guanciale di manzo alla parmigiana (13 €) that they plate up half a portion of the dish for each of us. This Parma style pot roast was a rustic dish, the kind of dish I imagine has been cooked in homes across the region for many, many generations. Satisfying, though better suited to a cold winter's day than the July heat we were experiencing.
We had a good meal at Cocchi and service was attentive and helpful. I'd be happy to dine there again. But for me, the more formal setting didn't win me over quite as much as the family welcome at Masticabrodo and the beautiful historical setting and especially friendly service at Gran Caffè Orientale.