When we were young and down on life, my mama had this strange saying: When life gives you a pig, you make Culatello! Black pigs preferred, raised in Emilia Romagna or Lombardia she proceeded to explain. You take the muscular side of the back legs, aka the “heart” of the prosciutto, cure it, put it inside a pig’s bladder and let it age in the moldy caves and cellars somewhere near Zibello, north of Parma. As close as possible to the foggy Po river. “Its all about the Terroir” she proclaimed. And only then, it can be designated Culatello di Zibello DOP, essentially Prosciutto on crack. Prosciutto so prized, it has a different name. Just don’t tell anyone that Culatello means “Little Ass” as it may take away some of that power from the name, she warned. Or maybe she was talking beets and borscht, I may be confusing things.
Last month we spent a magical day and night at Antica Corte Pallavicina, the most famous producer of Culatello di Zibello out there. In fact, “You can use the bikes to bike all the way to Zibello on the bike path” our trusted host told us. Done, and doner, assuming spotting Zibello inland from a distance was close enough for our own aching “little asses”. But if I would have to pick 5 memorable moments on this trip, riding those bikes along the Po on that day, with those views, passing farms, and with the sun Arrivederciing in front of us, was one of those moments. Minutes earlier, we visited their famous black pigs, snacked on their own Strolghino (salami), Parmigiano-Reggiano (also aged in their cellars) and drank their own bubblies while sitting on the antique couch in the antiques filled room, watching their antique dog and antique cat very closely (Mrs Ziggy isn’t fond of animals and some humans. Ok, most humans)
For Massimo Spigaroli the journey started over 20 years ago, when he bought the 14th century castle with his brother. A castle and farm that saw Massimo’s great grandfather as a tenant (after he worked for Verdi who lives nearby). At the time it was more like ruins, after years of heavy beatings from Po flooding. Nowadays, its a farm, 6 room hotel, a Michelin star restaurant, and a major Culatello producer. Tourists from all over the world flock to the Corte to see one of Emilia Romagna’s greatest attractions, the cellar of dreams. Dreams as in if you want them to cure one of those Culatello’s for you, you are dreaming my friend. And you will keep dreaming for the next 3 years (waiting period). But meanwhile you can check out the tags of the black pig Culatello hanging in the front. Armani, Rene Redzepi (Noma), Alain Ducasse, Francescana (“my friend” Massimo Spigaroli tells me if I understood correctly), Prince Albert, Prince Charles, Prince Ziggy, Prince. We all have our dreams as you can see!
As for the meal, other than a few minor hiccups, it was exceptional. The restaurant has a fancy feel, but at the same time its unpretentious and comfortable. You feel like a guest of the estate rather than at a dining establishment. The combination of antique, modern, floor to ceiling glass windows, and the overall spaciousness felt unique. This is not Farm-to-Table. This is 50 yards-look-outside-your-window-what-do-you-see-to-Table
Once you settle down you are greeted with the homemade butter, Grissini, and a Cuban cigar box filled with delicious bread. I love a good bread and butter, especially when the butter is of perfect spreadable temperature. “When in Rome…” you go for the “Podium”, three Culatello aged 18, 27, and a black pig aged 37 months sitting at the top of the podium lip syncing the Italian national anthem. The 18 month was silky smooth, sweet, and in a bizarre way reminded me of delicious small dried fish. While the 37 was brinier, and packed in a lot more flavor. The 27 was somewhere in between.
Basic but fantastic Tortelli with ricotta and spinach. And an even better al dente Risotto crowned by green beans and surrounded by three gentle sauces that somehow worked nicely together. Very high degree of raw material throughout, though it didn’t quite work with the rabbit. Great ingredients, looks fantastic but the rabbit “cubes” a bit dry and uneventful. For the white Ox they add another large table to yours and carve the beast right in front of you. It was expertly cooked, on the rare side with great flavor, if not a tad too cool. The Ox plate included an exceptional supporting cast of mushrooms, various garden veggies and a fine tasting zucchini topped with Parma cheese and breadcrumbs.
For dessert we were lucky to be joined by our new friend who lives not too far away. And as expected, marvelous desserts here, especially the “Baba” rum cake which was just about the best rum cake I ever had. The top notch Mousse, was a great finish to a magical evening
Massimo Spigaroli is very proud of his place, a celebrated one Michelin star. While in NYC Michelin stars are distributed like candy (I got one!) in Italy there are standards that must be met. I normally dont pay as much attention to service as others do, but it was hard to overlook this kind of hospitality. Since we had to leave early to a dairy producer and couldnt stay for breakfast, the staff prepared a box filled with more Culatello, and various homemade goodies. In a food oriented trip such as this, Antica Corte Pallavicina fit the itinerary like a glove