This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Parmense, those who live in the city and region of Parma in northern Italy, seem to relish contrast in their lives.
They are currently celebrating the Verdi festival, which starts this weekend and runs to the end of the month, but are doing so immediately after their annual Parma Ham festival drew to a close. This saw food writers from Japan, Norway, Belgium, Germany and the UK working off their ham tastings by cycling through the city's cobbled streets.
While this delicious ham provides a first course in all Parma's restaurants, their equally famous Parmesan cheese provides a memorable finale, particularly the one matured for 36 months I ate at La Greppia restaurant. Its flavours are simply addictive.
And I was certainly not prepared for the contrast in style between the interior and exterior of Ai Due Platani, an excellent trattoria in Coloreto, a 20-minute drive from Parma.
The two plane trees that give this trattoria its name still stand elegantly in front of a building that must have filled the man who built it 100 years ago with pride. As we walked in, I was not expecting to be greeted warmly by two smiling young waiters, one with short, spiky hair, the other with a designer beard. A butler or a housemaid would have been far more in keeping.
This impression of stepping back in time is carried through into the interior with a series of small dining rooms now taking the place of where the family once lived, and a professional kitchen, definitely not high tech, where the servants used to cook. Many of the black-and-white pictures on the walls evoke this bygone era, too. A series of large squashes and pumpkins on the tables provided evidence that Matteo Ugolotti, the highly talented, 32-year-old chef/proprietor, is obviously obsessed with preparing the very freshest seasonal ingredients.
His kitchen's dexterity was manifest in two courses in particular. The first was the preparation of the pumpkin ravioli that had extracted the sweetness of the stuffing to such an extent that it could almost have been served as a dessert. But a main course of guinea fowl, a bird sadly neglected by too many chefs in my opinion, with an orange sauce, slices of pumpkin in a mustard sauce (the region's signature condiment) and grapes, was even more remarkable. After the meal, Ugolotti generously explained how he made this dish and used a cooking analogy that I had never heard before. 'I know when I have got the meat just right', he explained, 'because when I cut the breast and make the sauce with the juices, I often see the colours of the rainbow in the bottom of the pan.'
Ugolotti's prices are extremely reasonable, around 30 euros per person for three courses - yet another reason this trattoria is so popular. The final one must be his zabaglione served with sbrisolona, a slightly salty almond biscuit.
The contrast with La Greppia (pictured above) in the heart of Parma could not be greater. Ugolotti has been in charge of his kitchen for five years while Paola Cavazzini has been in charge of her all-female kitchen for 37. Maurizio Rossi, her husband, is impeccably dressed as he marshals the dining room, and he has a moustache many young Italians may envy. And their son, Enrico, has an unusual insight into how customers behave.
La Greppia is an old-fashioned restaurant in the classic sense of the word, its 16 tables filling a narrow room that ends with a glass window looking on to the kitchen. The walls are stacked with wine bottles, dried flowers and a collection of about 25 antique silver decrumbers and their brushes that the waiting staff once used for brushing the tables after the main course. Trolleys, once commonplace, are still put to good use here, one packed with cakes and desserts, the other holding two large wedges of Parmesan, the younger one for grating on to pasta, the larger and more mature as the unmissable cheese course and offered at just 6 euros a portion.
Cavazzini is petite and obviously highly professional. Her menu, by contrast, is extraordinarily long but includes several different cuts of the local ham, matured again for 36 months, and a long section of salads and vegetable dishes, once standard in Italian restaurants.
As well as a classic minestrone, the vegetables perfectly cooked, the pasta just al dente, two other far more unusual dishes demonstrated her skill. The first was an antipasto of warm black rice with diced chicken breast and sliced pineapple that was intensely comforting and then a main course of a round, savoury cake of eggs, short pasta and wild mushrooms, for which a side dish of slow-cooked vegetable marrow was an ideal accompaniment.
After I had told Enrico how much I had enjoyed this dish he explained how his mother had cooked this for him as a child and how he too had relished it. Only as I paid the bill did he add that, as well as working in the family restaurant, he is also a psychiatrist. There surely can be no better combination for understanding customers.
Ai Due Platini, Via Budellungo 104/A, Coloreto. Tel: 00 521 645626. Closed Monday night and Tuesday.
La Greppia, Via Garibaldi 39. Tel 00 521 289575. Closed Monday and Tuesday.