Travel Stories: Discovering Barolo with Parma Ham and Parmesean Cheese in Venice

Venice is memorable for a long list of reasons. It’s one of only three places in Europe that we’ve gone back to for a repeat visit, and we hope to return. In addition to all the usual attractions, landmarks, architecture, gastronomy, and overall splendor that every traveler experiences in Venice, we will always remember Venice as the place we discovered one of the World’s most perfect combinations: Prosciutto de Parma, Parma cheese, and Barolo wine.

It was our second full day in Venice, and at the time we had yet not become the wine snobs we are today. We decided it was time to fulfill a friend’s request for us to seek out a bottle of Barolo while in Italy. While it seems bizarre looking back now, after consuming so many subsequent bottles of Barolo and seeing the popularity of “The King of Wine” soar in the US in recent years, but at the time we truly had no idea what we were about to discover when we stumbled into that quaint deli market in the heart of Venice. I say “stumbled”, because we literally tripped as a pigeon fought its way through the entrance with us, immediately frustrating the store owner as it precariously flew around and over the racks of wine located just to the right of the meat and cheese display. Despite this inauspicious first impression, this perfectly stereotypical Italian character who was, of course, both the employee and proprietor of the establishment, was about to completely rearrange our current understanding of how three staple items: meat, cheese, and wine, were supposed to smell, taste, and be experienced.

Our journey to enlightenment began as I brought a bottle of Barolo to the counter, and I was pleasantly surprised when the owner perked up and became very excited at my selection. In all honesty, my decision was purely a financial one, as I looked carefully at each bottle not to identify the right vintage or to find a well-known producer, but simply for something under 40 Euro’s. Being a complete wine novice at the time, this felt like a splurge to me, but anyone that’s tried to find a quality Barolo in the states knows what a bargain I had found. The owner’s next question surprised me. “When will you drink this?”, he asked in a thick Italian accent. If I looked confused it was because I was confused, and I kind of just pointed out the door and said, “now…soon”, in English but with notes of an Italian accent which for some reason I feel helps foreigners understand me.

With visible disbelief, the owner rolled his eyes and said, “No! No!” It took a while in his broken English, but he proceeded to explain to us that he “can’t” sell us this wine unless we promise to wait two hours after we open it before we even tried it. While I was aware of the concept of decanting, my novice status typically mocked this practice, and I had no intention of honoring this request. However, my stupid honest nature conflicted with my instinct to lie and I stared at him dumbfounded as I tried to gather my thoughts. I eventually decided to appease him and I nodded and smiled while trying to communicate in broken Italian/English that I accepted his terms. To my surprise, he then opened the bottle right then, in front of me, without saying a word. I hadn’t even paid for it yet, but it was opened, and then came the next set of instructions: “Do you have wine glasses? Big ones?”, he said using overly animated hand gestures to indicate the acceptable glass size for his wine. I wasn’t about to tell this guy I planned on using the water glasses above our mini-bar, but I think he could tell in my face I wasn’t confident about our glass situation. He asked where we were staying, and after I told him he seemed relieved and explained that we needed to ask the bar for two large wine glasses to use for the wine. I loved the fact that he seemed convinced that if we simply showed our hotel bar the bottle of wine we purchased, they would know what to do from there. It was like they were already prepared as a community for us unenlightened Americans.

Now that we were past the wine hurdle, I was excited to move on to the part I was really looking forward to experiencing. I love variety, and when traveling I try to taste as much as possible. With this philosophy in mind, my strategy was to buy a small amount of lots of cheeses and meats and set-up my own charcuterie board back at our hotel. However, the owner wasn’t having anything to do with that plan. Before I even made my first selection, he simply waved me off, grabbed a huge wheel of Parmigiana Romano and started slicing. He kept slicing and slicing. It soon became evident to me that this was the only cheese I’d be sampling with this wine, and perhaps on the rest of our trip given the portion he provided. I was never consulted on amount, type, or anything at all, I was simply going to get what he wanted to prepare for us. To my dismay, the meat selection went the same way. Before I could read through the multiple types of delicious looking salami, my new friend was feeding a giant ham leg into his trusty slicer and we soon had a pile of ham that seemed like enough for us and the next few customers. This was going to be his experience, we were just along for the ride.

I stood there for a moment staring at the cheese I didn’t want because, as I thought to myself, we can get Parmesan cheese at home and I want to try new things! My glance then shifted over to the pile of ham which, while I love ham, lost me my chance at the sampler plate I had coveted. Then I remembered both of these items were setting next to my already opened bottle of wine. Was there a way out of this? I racked my brain for an excuse I could use or whether or not I had it in me to simply walk out and endure the understandable wrath of this passionate Italian character. No, there was no way out at this point, this was happening.

If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve hugged that man and thanked him for creating what would end up being my wife and my Valentines meal for the next 8 years and counting.

We followed his orders, perfectly, and after almost 3 hours we were back in our room, in the living room of our suite, with a stunning white Murano glass chandelier perched above us and a breathtaking view of the Venetian canal out our balcony, and we got started.

It only took one bite and one sip for us to know that no combination of meat, cheese or wine in that store, or possibly in that city would’ve been a better a choice. We have “prosciutto ham” in the states, and we even call some of it “Prosciutto de Parma”, but it’s not like this, not even close. It’s a different food group entirely. There is no peeling the white, fatty parts away or picking it out of your mouth, the entire slice simply melts into your mouth. It’s oily, it’s nutty, the texture is different, and it is divine. Then, when you wrap a slice around a piece of salty, textured, flavorful Parmesan cheese, you enter foodie heaven.

Oh yes, there is a third leg of this gastronomy triangle of happiness…the Barolo. From my first sip, I suddenly regretted all the mocking comments I had made through the years in regard to wine snobs. I got it. In fact, I can probably trace my current wine obsession to this moment. Even though it was the same three ingredients each time, it seemed as though the flavors evolved, changed, ascended, and continued to play off of each other. Somehow we ate and drank the entire lot, and we could’ve kept going if we had more.

In reflection, I realized that no matter how much I want to research when I travel, and to control my experiences to ensure I get the most out of each location, sometimes you just have to trust a local and see what happens. For us, the stubborn shopkeeper, the food, and the setting combined for that perfect travel moment, and memory.

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