Croce di Malta: the real taste of Parma
A delightful dinner outside on a hot night in this beautiful food city is a special experience
A man I’ve never met has written me a 3,000 word email. It’s a love letter to what he feels has been lost from the “Food Valley” around the northern Italian town of Parma. Why? Days earlier I had sent a text to Seamus Sheridan to find out if he knew anyone in Parma. “You want contacts? Ex-Sheridans and owner of the best little bar in Italy! And loves rugby,” Seamus texts back exuberantly with Diego Sorba’s number.
My king of contacts worked in Sheridan’s Kirwans Lane shop in Galway in 2001. But he is out of town, leaving his lovely wine bar, Tabarro, in the hands of his barmen, Luca and Andrea. So Diego sends me his treatise on food in Parma. I picture lots of hand gesturing as he typed. In answer to the questions he has questions of his own. Why are there are hardly any cows grazing in the fields in the land of the “king of cheeses”, he asks. The answer is they’re housed indoors. Very few pig farms either. “And this is the land of the king of hams, isn’t it?” Parma has lost its food market, he says, but for a few stalls. And unlike neighbouring Modena where Massimo Bottura runs the world’s third-best restaurant, Parma doesn’t have a charismatic chef to act as the fulcrum for its food culture.
It should be no surprise that industrial food is cheek by jowl with small producers in this beautiful part of the food world as it is elsewhere. In the last couple of days we’ve seen both up close. And Diego’s favourite restaurants? “These are my tips to eat out in town. Do not expect to ‘eat light’ as we do not know how to do it. This side of the Appennines we use butter, not extra-virgin oil.”
Thanks to Diego’s list we are in a tiny square off a side street in the old centre of Parma. The heat of the day is beating off the stones and swallows screech above our heads. Inside Restaurant Croce di Malta it’s a high, beamed ceiling with a floor tiled in old chequerboard tiles and simple wooden tables and chairs. However we are outside on this bone-warming night.
The menu is a one-pager of typical Italian pace: antipasti followed by first and second courses. It’s translated by the friendly waitress. Ask any Italian what great Italian food is and they will use the word “simple”. But there is a complicated logic to simplicity. Spaghetti Bolognaise doesn’t exist in Italy because Italians would never use a pasta as thin and slippery as spaghetti to hold on to something as precious as a meat sauce.