It was a postcard perfect, breathtakingly pastoral setting: an ancient stone and terra cotta roofed village clustered on a hill amid rolling green fields, its narrow, sun-washed cobblestone streets splattered with late sunflowers and Michelmas daisies. The first of the season’s porcini were in, and already, wide, shallow baskets and trays of sliced mushrooms were drying in the sun of tiny forecourts and walled yards.
This was no day to be indoors, but we had not come to the village to bask in the glories of the Italian countryside. We were there to learn about the rich cuisine of Parma from a master cook, Rosa Musi, known to friends and family alike as Mama Rosa. We were an hour late, but that didn’t seem to matter: here, domani mattina (tomorrow morning) a common workman’s promise, is meaningless. Mama Rosa and her two handsome daughters, Lucia and Simona, greeted us with the open affection of old friends. With unhurried grace, Mama Rosa, helped by Lucia, got down to business. She spoke no English, yet we had no trouble understanding her rapid-fire Italian as she taught us to make one the signature dishes of her region—stuffed homemade egg pasta.
Parma is the gastronomical center of Italy, and its cuisine is characterized by the liberal use of three regional specialties: homemade pasta, dairy products (especially Parmigiano cheese), and a host of rich, cured pork products like prosciutto. After showing us three classic pasta fillings, rich with Parmigiano, ricotta, butter and cured pork, she deftly broke eight eggs into a great mound of flour and worked them together, splashing in water until she was satisfied with its consistency.
When it was time to knead, she showed us what to do and let us have at it. While I make respectable pasta and have even taught it in classes, my kneading technique on the huge, unwieldy lump fell short of Mama Rosa’s standards: after giving Relish editor Jill Melton top marks, she pointed at me and muttered, “ma . . . LUI . . .” (but HIM). Ah, well. I redeemed myself by keeping pace with her while stamping out anolini and by turning out crisp, perfect Parmigiano cheese baskets. It also didn’t hurt when Matteo, her nine-month-old grandson, decided I was the greatest thing since, well, Parmigiano. The way to a grandma’s heart knows no language barriers.
—By Damon Lee Fowler