On our first evening in Parma I needed find a restaurant for our group quickly not far from the main Piazza Garibaldi, as some had been quite hungry well before the restaurants reopened for dinner service, and one nearby, since my mom was having difficulty walking due to a painful episode of stenosis. My initial suggestion for a Michelin-recommended seafood restaurant around the corner didn’t gain any traction. But, thankfully, not far was restaurant signage with the subtitle, “cucina pontremolino” or the like, the cuisine of Potremoli.
Potremoli is a town in the gloomy northwest area of Tuscany called Lunigiana near the border of Liguria where I had my very first meal in Italy a couple of decades earlier. It was memorable in that was both delicious and unusual. The first course, well, the primo, was the very unique pasta served with pesto, testaroli al pesto, which was the reason why my friend’s father stopped in Petremoli in the first place, which happened to be en route from picking us up at the Milan’s Malpensa airport to points further south in Tuscany.
Looking somewhat like small pockmarked brown and beige rags slathered with the green pesto, this dish might not have been the most attractively served pasta, but it proved to be absolutely delectable, and different. Not only did it look different, but the pasta itself was soft, with its texture reminding me of the Ethiopian injera. That softness was perfect for absorbing the flavor and oil of the bright pesto, providing a wonderful melding of freshly made pasta and the vibrant and nutty basil-laden sauce. It provided for a notable first meal in Italy – a very pleasant preparation of sautéed tender veal followed the testaroli – and an experience with dish I was not to see again until this serendipitous stop in Parma.
Testaroli is unusual not only in its texture and appearance but also how it is made and its lineage. It might be the most ancient of the pasta dishes, possibly originating with the Etruscans before Roman times. It takes its name from the cooking apparatus, a testo, originally a stone disk that was kept in the embers of the fireplace, which has come to mean a two-piece cast-iron griddle. To make testaroli both pieces of the testo are placed on a wood-burning fire until they become very hot. When the bottom piece is sufficiently heated, the batter for the testaroli – just all-purpose flour, warm water and a little salt – is poured on it and it is closed with the top. After cooking in the testo, the pasta is traditionally cut into diamond shapes and cooked in a pot of boiling water that has been taken off the heat for a few minutes. It is then typically dressed with pesto.
Testatroli is also unusual in that it is rarely found outside of its home area, unlike many Italian dishes that have traveled far from their place of origins. So, I was surprised to find it at a restaurant in Parma. But, as it turns out, Potremoli is just 50 miles distant, a shade over an hour drive. Lucky for me. And, the restaurant, Oenopolium – actually, with a much more pretentious full name: Oenopolium, vino, cucina, scienza – did an excellent job with the testaroli. It was delicious and tasted exactly what I had remembered it did many years earlier and what had made such an impression. In fact, my entire meal was excellent, from the fried polenta topped with thin slices of lardo to start to the stewed rabbit with capers and innumerable and varied olives for the secondo. Even our brusque, rude and painfully slow waiter, providing the very worst service of my two weeks in Italy, and who also snuck an extra bottle of wine onto our bill, could not come close to ruining the meal.
Via Nazario Sauro 13 B 43121 (a few blocks south of Piazza Garibaldi) Parma, Italy, +39 0521 571288