He deftly took a small slice of brown bread, dipped it in olive oil, then layered it with a slice of prosciutto and a shaving of parmigiano. When it was perfect, he handed it to Rick and said, "A little sandwich." Rick took it in one large bite, then closed his eyes and savored the moment. For someone who still enjoyed McDonald's, the tastes were astounding. The flavors coated every taste bud in his mouth and made him chew as slowly as possible. Sam was slicing more for himself, and Nino was pouring wine. "Is good?" Nino asked Rick. "Oh yes." Nino thrust another bite at his quarterback, then continued, pointing, "And then we have culatello, from the pig's leg, pulled off the bone, only the best parts, then covered in salt, white wine, garlic, lots of herbs, and rubbed by hand for many hours before stuffed into a pig's bladder and cured for fourteen months. The summer air dries it, the wet winters keep it tender." As he spoke, both hands were in constant motion--pointing, drinking, slicing more cheese, carefully mixing the balsamic vinegar into the bowl of olive oil. "These are the best pigs, for the culatello," he said, with another frown. "Small black pigs with a few red patches, carefully selected and fed only natural foods. Never locked up, no. These pigs roam free and eat acorns and chestnuts." He referred to the creatures with such deference it was difficult to believe they were about to eat one.
Rick was craving a bite of culatello, a meat he'd never before encountered. Finally, with a pause in the narrative, Nino handed over another small slice of bread, layered with a thick round of culatello and topped with parmigiano. "Is good?" he asked, as Rick chomped away and held his hand out for more. The wineglasses were refilled. "The olive oil is from a farm just down the road," Nino was saying. "And the balsamic vinegar is from Modena, forty kilometers to the east. Home of Pavarotti, you know. The best balsamic vinegar comes from Modena. But we have better food in Parma." The final loop, at the edge of the platter, was Felino salami, made practically on the premises, aged for twelve months, and without a doubt the best salami in all of Italy. After serving it to Sam and Rick, Nino suddenly dashed to the front, where others were arriving. Finally alone, Rick took a knife and began carving off huge chunks of the parmigiano. He covered his plate with the meats, cheese, and breads, and ate like a refugee. "Might want to pace yourself," Sam cautioned. "This is just the antipasto, the warm-up."
"Are you in shape?"
"More or less. I'm at 225, about 10 over. I'll burn it off."
"Not tonight, you won't."
Two large young men, Paolo and Giorgio, joined them. Nino presented them to their quarterback while insulting them in Italian, and when all the embracing and greetings were out of the way, they plunked down and stared at the antipasto. Sam explained that they were linemen who could play both sides of the ball if necessary. Rick was encouraged because they were in their mid-twenties, well over six feet tall, thick-chested, and seemingly capable of throwing people around.
Glasses were filled, cheese sliced, prosciutto attacked with a vengeance. "When did you arrive?" Paolo asked with only a trace of an accent. "This afternoon," Rick said. "Are you excited?" Rick managed to say, "Sure," with some conviction. Excited about the next course, excited about meeting Italian cheerleaders. Sam explained that Paolo had a degree from Texas A&M and worked for his family's company, one that made small tractors and farm implements. "So you're an Aggie," Rick said. "Yes," Paolo said proudly. "I love Texas. That's where I found football." Giorgio just smiled as he ate and listened to the conversation. Sam said that he was studying English, then whispered that looks were deceiving because Giorgio couldn't block a doorway. Great. Carlo was back, directing waiters and rearranging the table. Nino produced another bottle, which, surprisingly, came from just around the corner. It was a Lambrusco, a sparkling red, and Nino knew the winemaker. There are many fine Lambruscos throughout Emilia-Romagna, he explained, but this was the best. And the perfect complement to the tortellini in brodo that his brother was serving at the moment. Nino took a step back, and Carlo began a rapid recitation in Italian.
Sam translated softly, but quickly. "This is tortellini in meat stock, a famous dish here. The little round pasta balls are stuffed with braised beef, prosciutto, and parmigiano; the filling varies from town to town, but of course Parma has the best recipe. The pasta was handmade this afternoon by Carlo himself. Legend has it that the guy who created tortellini modeled it after the belly button of a beautiful naked woman. All sorts of such legends here involving food, wine, and sex. The broth is beef, garlic, butter, and a few other things." Rick's nose was a few inches above his bowl, inhaling the rich aromas. Carlo took a bow, then added something with caution. Sam said, "He says these are small servings because more of the first course is on the way." Rick's first ever tortellini almost made him cry. Swimming in broth, the pasta and its filling jolted his senses and caused him to blurt, "This is die best thing I've ever tasted." Carlo smiled and began his retreat to the kitchen. Rick washed the first tortellini down with Lambrusco, and attacked the others swimming in the deep bowl. Small servings? Paolo and Giorgio had gone silent and were deeply involved with their tortellini. Only Sam showed some restraint. Nino seated a young couple nearby, then rushed forth with the next bottle, a fabulous dry red Sangiovese from a vineyard near Bologna that he personally visited once a month to monitor the progress of the grapes. "The next course is a little more heavy," he said. "So the wine needs to be more strong." He uncorked it with a flair, sniffed the bottle, rolled his eyes in approval, then began pouring. "We are in for a treat," he said as he filled five glasses, giv ing himself a slightly more generous serving. Another toast, more of a curse directed at the Bergamo Lions, and they tasted the wine. Rick had always been a beer man. This headlong dive into the world of Italian wines was bewildering, but also very tasty. One waiter was gathering the remains of the tortellini while another whisked down fresh plates. Carlo marched from the kitchen with two waiters in tow and directed traffic. "This is my favorite," Carlo began in English, then switched to a friendlier tongue. "It's a stuffed pasta roll," Sam was saying as they gawked at the delicacy before them. "It is stuffed with veal, pork, chicken livers, sausage, ricotta cheese, and spinach, and layered with fresh pasta."
Everyone but Rick said, "Grazie," and Carlo took another bow and disappeared. The restaurant was almost full and becoming noisy. Rick, while never missing a bite, was curious about the people around him. They seemed to be locals, enjoying a typical meal at the neighborhood cafe. Back home, food like this would cause a stampede. Here, they took it for granted. "You get a lot of tourists here?" he asked. "Not many," Sam said. "All the Americans go to Florence, Venice, and Rome. A few in the summer. More Europeans
than anyone else." "What's to see in Parma?" Rick asked. The Parma section of his guidebook had been rather scant. "The Panthers!" Paolo said with a laugh. Sam laughed, too, then sipped his wine and thought for a moment. "It's a lovely little town of a hundred and fifty thousand. Great food and wine, great people who work hard and live well. But it doesn't attract a lot of attention. And that's good. You agree, Paolo?"