“An Italian Education” is a series I created to reflect on my recent trip to the food regions of Emilia Romagna and Lombardia in Italy with True Italian Taste as an ambassador of Toronto and the Italian Chamber of Commerce of Ontario. Along with a representative from each of Italy’s Chambers of Commerce throughout North America (New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, Vancouver, Montreal and Mexico City), we ate our way through incredible factories, restaurants, shops and schools on a once-in-a-lifetime educational tour. Here are my stories.
After spending an incredible day eating and cooking at the prestigious ALMA – the International School of Italian Cuisine, all of us were alive with chatter and hardly noticed when our driver Lorenzo skillfully (and haphazardly) pulled our bus onto the small cobblestoned side street of Via Geremia Bonomelli. We had arrived outside our hotel and final destination in Cremona, Italy. With a population of a shy 70,000 inhabitants, Cremona is a quiet city located in Northern Italy’s Lombardy (or Lombardia) Region. Without the architecture, wealth, or wine-producing terroir of other cities, the Cremonese have a humble yet endearing history. [Pictured: Arturo of Mexico at the ready; A lovely side-street near the city centre]
Perhaps one of the proudest Cremonese you’ll ever meet is Patrizia Signorini Reggi, the co-owner of the wine and speciality foods shop, Enoteca Cremona. After freshening up, we were escorted around the corner from our hotel and into Patrizia’s tiny shop, which had been converted into a cozy dining room, just for us. Although her father originally moved their family from the glorious Tuscany region, Patrtizia is fiercely committed to sharing the history of her adopted city, and does so through hosting regular educational dinners and workshops.
On this particular evening, she had prepared several historical dishes inspired by the region’s early farming days. While Italy is often associated with opulence and bountiful countryside living, there are also times and places in Italy filled with extreme poverty. Over several centuries, much of this region was organized into walled-in farming communities. There was so little to go around in fact, that once a year, the whole community would get together to celebrate the slaughter of one single pig. Another example of this scarcity can be seen in the treatment of anchovies. The little fish were so precious that some families would hang them off of the rafters in their home, and would then press (or hilariously throw, as Patrizia demonstrated) their polenta onto the fish in order to extract a little bit of flavour to compliment an otherwise tasteless starch. In between her stories, Patrizia also served us a take on lard toast, polenta with anchovies, stewed black eyes peas, fresh goat cheese with mostarda (a sweet and spicy mustard-seed fruit preserve), and of course, the famous Cremonese salami (much softer than most others, and in her opinion, way better than Parma salami).
In contrast to all of the poverty of the farming communities, Cremona has a unique pocket of richness as a result of the city’s claim to fame as the birthplace of the violin. It follows then, that the Museo del Violino is the most important thing to visit in Cremona. Our guide walked us through five centuries of violinmaking in Cremona through the great master violinmakers (Amati, Guarneri and above all others, Stradivari) and their instruments, from the late Renaissance to modern day. We were also treated to an incredible musical performance in the Giovanni Arvedi Auditorium, where violinist Aurelia Macovei performed a few classical numbers on the extremely rare Antonio Stradivari violin Clisbee, 1669. The acoustics in that auditorium were so pure and sharp, I literally heard a sheet of paper dropping on the other side of the room.
Following our museum visit, we also visited the studio of Cremonese violin maker Stefano Conia. With all the different advances in technology over the years, these instruments can still only be made by hand in the most traditional way possible. It’s a meditative and fun process to watch.
Unlike their North American counterparts, many of Italy’s museums have incredible food. I thought the restaurant at the Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari in Modena was nice, but the design and quality of food at the unassuming Chiave di Bacco Restaurant in the Museo del Violino was truly impressive. Even Nico (Nicolas Rodriguez, chef de cuisine of the esteemed Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles) gave the grissini, bread and olive oil a giant thumbs up (we had to order another portion of breadsticks to share between Nico, Arturo and I before the dishes even arrived). They were by far the best breadsticks we had ever had. A simple caprese salad with a chilled roasted tomato was followed by a creamy pumpkin risotto (it was Autumn after all) layered with carefully broken amaretto cookies. It was delightful. A few bottles of Gravet prosecco paired especially well with this lunch.
Cremona is also famous for its nougat, or in Italian, torrone. Naturally, we had to make a visit to the torrone factory ourselves! For Italians, the Sperlari name is synonymous with high quality and nostalgic candy. Although they have ventured into sugar free and novelty products over the years, their torrone is still arguably the most important thing that they make. Much like the children in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, we were led (all done up in red hairnets and booties) through vats of sugar, egg whites, almonds, chocolate and honey. The smells were intoxicating. Not only were our hosts kind enough to allow us to photograph the operations, but more importantly, they allowed us to sample many of the products directly off the conveyor belts. A major childhood dream was fulfilled that day.
Back in the city, we spent hours and hours getting lost in side streets, and doing quintessential Italian activities, including stopping for gelato and enjoying a few drinks during Aperitivo (Italian Happy Hour). If there’s one thing I will miss the most about Italy, it’s this. Buy yourself a refreshing afternoon cocktail, and complimentary snacks galore will usually follow. [Pictured below: Ashley of Chicago modelling her gelato cone and Valeria (in true PR rep duty) holding melting gelato for us while Jared of New York and I tested out different gelato photography angles against an antique door]
There are twelve streets that converge at the Piazza del Comune (also known as the Piazza del Duomo), marked by a majestic 14th-century, 367-foot-tall bell tower, called simply, the Torrazzo (for which Cremona’s famed torrone nougat is named). If you find yourself here, make sure to visit the Cremona Cathedral, and, if your legs are up for it, climb the Torrazzo itself. Then, reward yourself with some Spritz (Leeta of Vancouver fell in love with this drink many times over), a Northern Italian cocktail made of equal parts bitter liqueur (usually Aperol or Campari), sparkling water, and prosecco (or Champagne). It’s the perfect afternoon beverage.
On our second evening, we were treated to a wonderful meal at Locanda Torriani, where one of our program directors Patrizia Cacciari had hand-picked some of the most traditional Cremonese food for us to try. The first course was a crisp green salad with Italian pears. The second course was the famous Marubini, a stuffed pasta (similar in shape to tortellini) filled with an equal mixture of ground pork, beef and chicken, suspended in a broth made from the same meats. This warm and satisfying soup is best served with a generous sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano.
Then, came the Cotechino di Cremona, a regional speciality sausage. Cotechino is made through a very ancient and elaborate process by mixing and mincing lean pork meat, cheek lard, bacon rind, other parts of the pig’s head, salt, sugar, Babera wine, pepper, and spices. The meats are then put into sausage skins for around 20 days (a very short maturing period). It must be served and eaten hot, as the cold fatty solidified bits do not create the best mouth feel. Our chef had paired the Cotechino with some stewed lentils and the aforementioned mostarda. To be honest, none of us loved the unique taste of mostarda, but we appreciated it for that very same uniqueness, regardless. The evening ended with a pure and unadulterated dessert of mousse with chocolate, gelato and strawberries, and of course, an espresso.
On our last evening, dinner was served at the magnificent Hosteria 700. In a word, it was regal. With the great friendships we had formed over the week (including with our dedicated camera crew), our luxurious meal was made all the more enjoyable.
It’s not often we get the chance to simply stop and stare, especially on a press trip. That’s why climbing to the top of the Torrazzo with Ashely and Jared was the most incredible experience of my time in Cremona. Not only is it the highest point in the entire city, but it’s also one of the oldest brick structures still standing in the world today. I’m going to let the view speak for itself.
A great thing about visiting lesser-known cities is that they haven’t been ruined by tourism and clichés. Every experience I had in Cremona was completely refreshing. From beautiful violins and cobblestoned paths to richly cured pork and creamy nougat, this city is a true delight for all the senses.
Where to Eat
Hosteria 700: Piazza Gallina 1, 261000, Cremona, Italy https://www.hosteria700.com/en/
This is a majestic restaurant with bright red walls and opulent gold-leafed framed mirrors. The food highlights some of Cremona’s most traditional classics in a fancy ambiance. The white truffle tagliatelle with cream was one of the best things on the menu. Perfect for: a celebratory dinner.
Locanda Torriani Restaurant: Via Janello Torriani, 7, 26100 Cremona, Italy http://www.locandatorriani.it/
This is such an intimate and special restaurant. The most traditional Cremonese food is elevated and presented in a playful and creative way. Perfect for: an anniversary or corporate dinner.
Enoteca Cremona: Via Giovanni Maria Platina, 18, 26100 Cremona, Italy http://www.enotecacremona.it/
If you don’t get the opportunity to attend one of Patrizia’s educational dinners, stop in and pick up a few bottles of wine or treats to take home to the family or to enjoy outdoors while you soak in the sunshine. Perfect for: history buffs.
Emilia Cremeria: Piazza Roma, 7, 26100, Cremona, Italy http://www.cremeriaemilia.com/en/
A whimsical gelato shop (with various locations throughout Italy) featuring traditional flavours prepared in innovate ways. The gelato is softer and creamier than most places. Tip: ask for a little chocolate or pistachio sauce at the bottom of your cone. Perfect for: an afternoon treat.
Chiave di Bacco Restaurant: Piazza Guglielmo Marconi, 5, 26100 Cremona, Italy http://www.chiavedibacco.it/
This is the restaurant of the Museo del Violino, and is a seriously classy establishment. Contemporary Italian dishes are served in their dining room, and the restaurant is also a lounge and al fresco dining space (seasonally). Perfect for: a post-museum lunch.
Negozio Sperlari: Via Solferino, 25, 26100 Cremona, Italy http://www.sperlari1836.com/
If you’re looking for a magical candy shop with a lot of history, look no further. After our amazing experience of exploring the Sperlari factory itself, I was delighted to spend some time shopping for nougat and chocolate at one of the oldest candy shops in Italy (est. 1836). Perfect for: anytime (other than the early afternoon “break” when most shops are closed).
Where to Stay
Dellearti Design Hotel: Via Geremia Bonomelli, 8, Cremona, Italy http://www.dellearti.com/en/
We were delighted to stay at this modern yet historically respectful hotel right in the heart of the city. They don’t have a fancy restaurant, but the rooms (and spacious bathtubs in particular) are very comfortable, and the location can’t be beat.