Commissioned by the tourism board of Emilia Romagna to photograph key cities for a major ad campaign, we left Bologna in early morning. Our first guide, Helga wasn’t hiding her excitement with bringing us to a rural area some forty minutes by car from Parma. Once back in the city she would hand us off to Sara, our new guide and Parma historian. Ready to capture the essence of another city of Emilia, we discovered that the road to Parma was not as direct as we hoped.
“Why can’t we just shoot this ham in the city somewhere? There is really nothing out here.” It was my pleasure to incite Helga, as she pointed out the less than impressive birthplace of Verdi. “This is the only area where it is produced, it is very special…and Chef Massimo is waiting.” Greeted by peacocks and a few cats in the courtyard of a large Palazzo in the countryside, we rushed to set up for a portrait of chef Massimo Spigaroli. He is a man with a vision. The Michelin starred chef converted the palace of landowners in whose fields Spigaroli’s great-grandparents once worked. The Antica Corte Pallavicina now houses his renowned restaurant, an osteria and the production of culatello; including a museum dedicated to it. Even the great black pigs once indigenous to the Po river delta are raised on the grounds. The story of culatello is far too expansive for my account. Here is my summary: the pigs look like hippos, the best cut of their hindquarters is used (culatello means little ass), the unique fog from the river creates an essential mold in aging; it is a protected DOP product, mentions of it date back to the 15th century, and you won’t find it in North America. Its texture is like silk and tastes like the fog from which it is born. More than the iconic Prosciutto di Parma, culatello is history woven into a piece of meat.
Culatello is served with a cold sparkling Lambrusco (Spigaroli bottles his own called Fortana)…yes Lambrusco! Surprised? Drinking out of a ceramic bowl with your thumb dipped in for luck, this isn’t your grandparents’ Lambrusco. It is low in alcohol, so we made sure that the bottles kept coming. No longer complaining about taking the long way to Parma, the ideas for yet one more photo were suddenly as abundant as the wine, culatello and bread. We met Sara Dellacasagrande under the arches of Palazzo della Pilotta, which was built by the powerful Roman Farnese family whose rule marked one of the many periods of Parma. “You will see that there are really two Parmas. The agricultural Parma is much the base, and the sophisticated…we can say Parisian Parma, is the other.” Sara walked as quickly as she spoke. While loading clothes, camera equipment and bicycles for another shot, even the delicate Viennese style pastries eaten on the fly led back to Duchess Maria Luigia of Habsburg. The Duchess, who was sent to govern the Duchy of Parma, is responsible for having commissioned a theatre, which rivals more well-known theatres in Venice or Milano. Permission to shoot in Teatro Regio is not a given. Sara was excited about her Parma, especially about having secured access to the theatre.
Originally called the New Ducal Theatre, the Teatro Regio opened in 1829. With a gallery and ceiling painted by Giovanni Battista Borghesi, one of the rare surviving theatre curtains also by the painter, depicts Maria Luigia Hapsburgo as Minerva surrounded by nymphs and muses. Possessed by the decadent gift of this Helmut Newtonesque location, we wandered in and out of ornate booths of gilded stucco and red velvet. Our Prosecco refill trips to the neoclassical café open to the public, led us well astray to discover more and create our own chef d’oeuvre. Heavy rain swelled the Parma River which was no more than a stream when we rolled into town. We would have a few days off while we waited out a deluge that was flooding most of northern Italy. With our work slowed to a halt, we took to exploring the city. Our hotel backed onto the vast Parco Ducale, offering a pleasant short cut to centro. The symmetrical pathways, lamplight and the crunch of pebble stones felt like Tuileries Gardens or Versailles.
Spoiled by our client, we had carte blanche at three different restaurants. The one that we returned to the most was Borgo 20, appropriately hidden on pedestrian-only Borgo XX Marzo (borgo20.it). This contemporary bistro is small, cozy and modern, with a few tables right in the street. Somehow, despite the daily rainfall, we grabbed blankets and ate outside. Their simple creative dishes with fresh local ingredients, regional wine list, and good beers kept us coming back. We never hesitate when someone recommends a local watering hole and we soon had a short list of ‘must do’ bars. The rain and our new favourite Lambrusco washed away the memory of our Parma shot list. At least we got the theatre done! In the meantime, we were welcomed and absorbed by the locals. Pietro, who we started to call “the mayor”, was a regular in every bar. Looking like a Judas Priest roadie, he had a distinctly laborious walk, long straight hair, rings on all fingers, and one black leather outfit. “Ciao Chris.” His baritone echoed off the damp alleyway as we walked home late one night. We shook our heads and looked at each other, amazed by how he always appeared so randomly. “And he remembers your name…” added Paul. Sara reappeared in the morning with the sunshine on our last day in Parma. Some of the most important exterior shots would be crammed into this final day. A pair of vintage city bikes waited for us in the Piazza Duomo, adjacent to which, we set up to shoot what is perhaps Parma’s most symbolic monument, the Parma Baptistery. It is a dazzling site on a sunny day.
The rather stumpy octagonal tower clad in pink marble was the idea of architectural genius, Benedetto Antelami. Built in 1196, it is permeated by the number eight in its symmetry and covered in decorative panels of theological allusions and mediaeval symbols. It was actually distracting to ride one’s bike back and forth in order to realize the shot without gazing up at the many arches and bas reliefs. Since it was a little early for more Lambrusco, we managed to ride in a straight line. We hit our stride into the afternoon, hanging out at iconic Cocconi café which seemed to find us as we shot in the middle of the busy Strada della Republica. The sign alone, unchanged for many decades, draws you in if you have the eye. With the coffee and artisanal chocolate shot in the bag, the tall beer and pastry shot followed. Our constant fascination with stylish signs led us back up the road to the Borsalino shop opposite Teatro Regio. We had passed the famous hat shop many times in the rain. Its mid-century sign and quirky interior spoke our language. “It will open in thirty minutes. Maybe we can wait in the bar next doors”, suggested Sara. Glancing sideways at each other we knew that our mojo was working almost too well. “Yes! Isn’t it time for a spritz? You know, if you get one of those hats you can wear it to the next city.” “Where are we going after Parma, Sara?… I tested her. “Don’t you know? I tell you only that it is the home of Enzo Ferrari.” “Ok ! Cheers…. Salute !”