In Emilia-Romagna, Music and Food in Concert

(Originally published in the Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2000)

Once you've fed the body, the Romans like to say, you're ready to feed the soul.

Perhaps that's why a four-day trip that began as a quest for the perfect Parmesan and the most aromatic prosciutto turned into a veritable cultural feast of virtuosos and Verdi and violins.

Our fertile hunting ground for these pursuits was the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy. South of Lombardy and north of Tuscany, it occupies the valley formed by the Po River between the Apennines and the Adriatic Sea.

We traveled north from Rome, where my husband, Franco, and I were living temporarily, joined by my sister and brother-in-law, Ellen and Jack, visiting from Philadelphia. We set our sights on Parma, from which the cheese takes its name.

It was sunny and warm when we arrived on that February day, and it also was, as luck would have it, lunchtime. At an outdoor cafe on Piazza Garibaldi, a popular meeting place, we sampled prosciutto, a thin-sliced cured ham, in various forms: in a sandwich made with focaccia; on a warm pizza; and in a salad with mozzarella. Every version was outstanding, as only the true Parma prosciutto can be: moist and a deep pink, not red. (Real Parma prosciutto is air-cured for as long as nine to 12 months.) This was the first of several successes in our gastronomic pursuits.

It was hard to rouse ourselves from the warmth and the quiet (the Parmigiani like to ride bikes, so the dull roar of vehicular traffic you hear in Rome is blessedly absent), but as 3 p.m. approached, we decided to visit the duomo, or main cathedral. Most churches and cathedrals in Italy are closed from noon to 3 p.m. in winter (12:30 to 3:30 p.m. in summer), so our timing was excellent.

The facade of the Romanesque cathedral, which dates to the 11th century, has a porch supported by two large lions, a style developed in Lombardy. We had seen countless magnificent churches in Italy, but the sight on entering the enormous church took our breath away. The dome, ceiling and walls are covered with frescoes. Antonio Allegri da Correggio, Parma's most noted artist, painted the dome between 1522 and 1530; the rest is attributed to his pupils. His largest and most remarkable fresco is the Assumption of the Virgin, surrounded by a swirling group of cherubim. It seemed to us a feat as grand as that of Michelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel.

The adjacent Romanesque baptistery is an octagonal building in rose-colored Verona marble, designed by sculptor Benedetto Antelami and considered by many art historians as the most harmonious and best preserved medieval monument in Italy. Its interior, which has 16 sides, is covered with a jumble of sculptures, frescoes and bas-reliefs dating to the 13th century.

For a 500-lire coin (about 25 cents), you can rent a helpful taped message and machine that give a detailed description in English of the art in the baptistery, most notable of which is a series of frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Christ.

It was here that our quest began to grow, piqued by the musical aspects of the area. We learned that conductor Arturo Toscanini was born in Parma--his birthplace is now a museum--and that violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini is buried in Parma. The Teatro Regio, the lovely, ocher-colored opera house, famous for its offerings of operas, plays and concerts, was, unfortunately, closed when we were there (its season is short).

My sister was a violinist when she was young, so she wanted to visit Cremona, home of legendary violin makers Antonio Stradivari and the Amati and Guarneri families. Cremona is only about 30 miles from Parma, so we decided to head north that very day, altering our focus slightly from gastronomy to music.

Taking country roads through villages and miles of the Po Valley's flat farmland, we saw the most fertile region of all Italy and, some say, the wealthiest of all Europe. We shared the road with a few horse carts and farm machinery but few other cars, enjoying a welcome, peaceful ride.

On the way, we happened on the town of Busseto, population 7,000, once home to composer Giuseppe Verdi and very near his putative birthplace in Le Roncole. We had heard about an inn with an excellent restaurant owned by tenor Carlo Bergonzi and his son Marco, so we swung off the road and decided to stop for the night.

I Due Foscari, named for a little-performed Verdi opera (but significant for the owners because it is about a father and son called "the two Foscari"), may fool you: The medieval-style building is just 30 years old.

The walls of the lobby are covered with huge posters announcing Bergonzi's appearance at La Scala in the 1950s in "Tosca," at the opera house in Parma in "Aida" and in several other European concert halls. The poster of his 25th-anniversary appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York was prominently displayed at the entrance to the lobby.

As we entered, the voices of a soprano and a tenor, singing "Di quell'amore ch'e palpito" from "La Traviata," drifted up from the basement. Bergonzi, now well into his 70s and retired, holds master classes for promising young opera singers from all over the world at his inn, and we (opera lovers all) were the beneficiaries of one such free concert.

A walk around Busseto takes no more than 10 minutes and reveals a town unsparingly devoted to Verdi. In nearly every shop we peered into, we saw giant photographs of the composer at all ages and stages of his life. Having coffee at Bar del Portico, we even discovered Verdi's bearded image on our sugar packets.

On our return to the inn, we passed the Teatro Verdi, recently renovated after being closed for 25 years. It is to be used extensively next year for celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Verdi's death. A performance of "Falstaff" planned at the theater is to be conducted by Riccardo Muti using the same sets that Toscanini used in 1913, the centenary of Verdi's birth.

A large bronze statue of the master, seated in a big armchair, stands in front of the theater and has a commanding view of the town's principal square.

The restaurant at I Due Foscari is known for its cuisine and elegant ambience, so it was a logical choice for dinner. Both lived up to their reputation. The prosciutto and cheese products took center stage, of course. Franco had an enormous plate filled with several varieties of cured ham from the region: prosciutto, culatello, mortadella and speck (smoked prosciutto). The spinach gnocchi and agnolotti con funghi (pasta with mushrooms) were superb and generously sprinkled with freshly grated and still-moist Parmesan.

After dinner we retired to our room, which was decorated in pseudo-medieval style with dark wood paneling and Renaissance-style furniture, including a brass bed, an old-fashioned desk and two armchairs. It also had a modern bathroom with a big bathtub. Best of all, the bill for both room and dinner was $60 per person.

The next morning we headed to Cremona, a 15-minute drive north, again on roads cutting through fields of wheat, corn and dairy pastureland.

Our first stop took us to the Piazza del Comune, the center of life in Cremona. It is also the home of the 367-foot Romanesque Torrazzo, said to be the tallest medieval tower in Italy. Adjacent to the tower is the town's duomo, started in the Romanesque style in 1107 but completed in Gothic style in 1332. It also is decorated with frescoes by painters of the Cremona school, but it lacks the spectacular look of Parma's duomo.

Just across the piazza is the Palazzo del Comune, or city hall. Posted on its doorway was a sign that said: "Violin Museum, second floor." We couldn't pass this up.

There we found six violins, each in its own glass case. The Stradivarius, dating to 1715 and made of one piece of fine-grained fir, is worth about $3.5 million, the guard said. One Guarneri dates to 1689 and the other to 1734, the latter having been played by the American violinist Pinchas Zukerman from 1972 to 1977 in concert and for recordings. Three Amatis, dating to 1566, 1615 and 1658, completed the collection.

As we examined the instruments, the guard took us aside and told us we could attend a playing of the Stradivarius in the adjacent hall.

To keep their tone, violins must be played. The Stradivarius is played at 11:30 a.m. several times a week for 10 minutes by a professor from the local music academy. (The others are played on different days at different times.) You usually need a reservation to attend the recital (they can be made at the ticket booth downstairs), but we happened to be in the right place and were allowed to slip in. The teacher coaxed the rich notes of several baroque pieces from the instrument, and the audience was enthralled. The tone was so lush, my sister said, that it would fill a huge modern concert hall.

Cremona is the birthplace of the greatest violin and cello makers in history, and the International School of Violin Making continues to build highly sought-after instruments. On crossing the Piazza della Pace, with its bronze statue of Stradivari giving a violin lesson to a young boy, we found a small shop where two artisans carry on the tradition, carving out violins and cellos.

We took no violins back to Rome, but we did take home some prosciutto and Parmesan, rich reminders of the magic on the menu in Emilia-Romagna.