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Want to serve authentic Italian food at home? Then don’t bother turning on the stove.


IT LOOKS VERY MUCH LIKE PASTA. It is made with eggs, flour, olive oil and sometimes salt; it is stuffed with ricotta and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses and chopped Swiss chard; it is cut into squares with serrated edges; and it is finished with a drizzle of warm butter. But this is not pasta. Not really. This is tortelli di erbetta from Ai Due Platani, a rustic restaurant that sits on a lonely stretch of road in the pastoral outskirts of Parma, Italy. And here, the tortelli di erbetta has firm, al dente edges and a soft — almost gooey — center. It is akin to an over-easy egg. But it’s not really like that, either. No, this is something else. This is magic. Food magic.

And as such, it is completely, frustratingly unreplicable. Even if you know the magician’s secret — down to the smallest details, like when to add salt and when not to — you cannot pull off this trick. You can try. But you will fail. You will fail because you are not cooking tortelli di erbetta in a rustic trattoria on a lonely road in the pastoral outskirts of Parma, Italy. And that’s where the food magic is.

I was warned about this. In another restaurant in Parma, the Michelin-star-rated Al Tramezzo, where chef Alberto Rossetti makes his tortelli by mixing 30 eggs (30!) into every kilo of flour — about three times the norm for fresh pasta — a chef’s apprentice cautioned me about trying to take Emilia-Romagna’s cuisine back home. “You can’t really re-create Italian food in the U.S.,” she said. “The flavors are just much more vibrant here in Italy.”

To be sure, vibrant flavors abounded on my recent gastronomic tour of Emilia-Romagna, Italy’s best food region. With Parma to the west and Bologna to the east, Emilia-Romagna is the birthplace of fresh pasta and home to Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma and the famed balsamic vinegar of Modena, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. Emilia-Romagna is also home to countless restaurants where they make magic in the form of tortelli in brodo (broth) and tagliolini con tartufo, which you will also never, ever be able to replicate, because American chickens don’t lay eggs like Italian chickens and because American Swiss chard doesn’t taste like Italian Swiss chard and because only in Italy does Italian food really taste like, well, Italy.

But don’t despair. Emilia-Romagna isn’t keeping all the magic to itself — there is a little bit that is made available on the U.S. side of the Atlantic, too. And, by magic, I mean ham and cheese.

  • Image about Parma
IN LANGHIRANO, a small town in the southern part of the Parma province, concrete-block buildings dot the hillsides. Each one has tall, narrow, rectangular windows that are covered with vertical blinds. The buildings look like prisons. But inside, they contain legs of ham. Thousands of legs of ham. At the Leporati facility, for instance, hams hang 10 high, 12 across, in dozens of rows. And that’s just on one floor. There are 100,000 hams hanging here. And everything in Leporati’s facility, which is about the size of an auto plant, is perfumed with sweet, slightly salty, cured ham. Even the 11-foot-high stainless steel elevators smell delicious. I came to Emilia-Romagna, at the invitation of the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma — a trade group representing the 167 makers of Italy’s most famous ham — to see and smell this. And, though it is an awesome sight, it smells much better than it looks.

That’s because Prosciutto di Parma is, initially, just raw meat. Prosciutto means “ham” in Italian, and there are two kinds: cooked (cotto) and raw (crudo). Prosciutto di Parma is crudo.