Following the steps of Napoleon Bonaparte in Parma

Parma, 22.09.2009 - Camera di San Paolo. L'affresco del Correggio.

The cuisine of Parma has become perfected over the centuries, as we dine at Angiol d’Or, an Art Deco restaurant tucked away in the shadow of the Duoma.

Maria Luisa, daughter of the King of Austria, married Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803 and became the Duchessa di Parma. Among other delightful qualities attributed to her, was her good nature and her joy in feasting and socializing, a tradition that still prevails in this pretty, dignified town. Parmagianni revere her memory, and so it was no surprise to find an homage to her on the menu at Angel d’Or.

From the cookbook of Chef Vincenzo Agnolotti to the Duchessa, compiled in 1832: Beef tongue and jelly; soup of fresh green peas with cream; rabbit crisply fried and served alla Milanese. But there are other enticements here. The areas specialties, parmigiano reggiano, proscuitto, balsamico from nearby Modena, have made a permanent imprint on the global culinary consciousness. As important to our well-being, I’d say, as the gifts to civilization a famous Parmigianis: Verdi, Paganini, Toscanini and Correggio.

Angiol d’Or
Angiol d’Or, angioldor.it

We’ve come early to this lovely Art Deco restaurant, tucked away in the shadow of the Duomo. It takes its name from the golden angel that gleams on the cathedral dome. This gives us a chance to carefully scan the menu and relax in momentary serenity with flutes of Spumante, small chunks of Parmesan and a basket of warm rolls. Silver candle holders and orchids grace each table. Local wine aficionados enjoy the attentions of a sommelier as he goes through the exercise of decanting and tasting with a flourish.

Though we’ve eaten exceptional Italian food at home in Canada, much of it pales in comparison. Ethereal Parmesan flan with deep red radicchio sauce; sliced breast of duck with black truffle sauce; the exquisite simplicity of paper thin prosciutto with homemade mustard pickles: plums, tiny pears and cherries. Traditional tortelli, bright yellow egg pasta squares filled with potato, chives and porcini mushrooms in porcini sauce is a dish to dream about. Alistracci are squares of pasta made with basilico and potato and bathed in a lush herbal essence; agnolotti is filled with mushrooms and tossed with fresh green asparagus sauce. Light hands have worked this delicate dough.

Waiters, proud of their profession, wear gray flannels, button down collars and striped ties that make them look like private-school boys. But they know their food and make each dish sound like a must-taste. Personal discipline is difficult to maintain. Gourmania takes over, as each taste thrill surpasses the previous dish. Fillet of San Pietro fish based in extra virgin olive oil and green olives is a delicious indulgence.

Angiol d’Or
Angiol d’Or, angioldor.it

One of the restaurants owners stands at the kitchen door seeing each plate as it goes out–and as the plate returns. His eye confirms the expertise of the young chef, a partner as well. They are not attempting to reinvent the wheel here. There is no need to enhance the extraordinary traditional dishes with curlicues of California cuisine, or for details from closer cousins of Bologna and Rome. Fierce loyalty and reverence of the products and traditions of the region have led to this perfection.

After dinner, strolling on the ancient cobblestones of the Piazza Del Duoma, we’re surrounded by history. The palaces of the Bishop, the Cathedral with its exuberant fresco. Assumption of the Virgin by Antonio Correggio, the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista, and the pharmacy where Benedictine monks mixed herbal potions. At one time or another, almost every major European power passed through Parma, feudal lords, the Dukes of Parma, Spain, France and Austria. Every summer vacationing hordes with guidebooks in hand, tread the same stones as the armies of Caesar, Napoleon and WW11 allies. They come to admire the beauty and placidity, thrilled to the link with history–and to eat.

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Sara Waxman
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Publisher/Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.