Carnevale in Busseto

Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnevale – no matter what you call it, people all over the world who observe the Catholic faith want one last fling before they behave themselves for 40 days until Easter. In this part of the world they call the party Carnevale. Many Italian cities and towns celebrate Carnevale in a big way (notably Venice), but few have done so as long as Busetto, which held its 129th Carnevale this year. The Busseto Carnevale dates back to 1879, reached a heyday in the 1930’s but was suspended during the War years. It resumed in 1950 and is still going strong.

Busseto is a rural farming community surrounded by the vast, fertile farm fields of the Po valley. Its biggest claim to fame is as the home of Giusseppe Verdi, who moved there in 1824 at age 11. (However, it seems all of Italy claims Verdi as their native son. Everyone, from Milan to Bologna speaks of him like family and refers to him as “Peppino”)

Busseto has a population of about 7,000. The townspeople make all the floats and form the parade. Its a good thing we showed up to watch, because it seemed like they were all in it.

We arrived early and strolled the charming streets of the town. The main drag is the Via Roma, and ancient road leading to Roma. The small business center has lots of shops and eateries, several churches and a grand building housing the community’s Opera House. A grand statue of Verdi stands before it.

Leaning house

Leaning house in Busseto

Verdi monument

Verdi Monument

The Via Roma

Via Roma, Busseto

The festivities began at 2 PM. The church was holding a flea market, the Fire Department had an inflatable giraffe slide for the bambino. Local groups set up concession stands with espresso, sliced prosciutto, fried dough and vino. The ladies were selling home made torino candy and other trinkets.

Win a Salami

Win a Salami

Sally got into the fray early, elbowing aside children and old men to take a turn at the Win a Salami ring toss. After 10 tries she walked away with a consolation salami earring.

Salami Consolation Prize

Salami Consolation Prize

Maureen also made friends quickly. A dapper gentleman in cape and fancy dress with red nose took a serious interest and a firm grip. It took several minutes of persuasion to get him to let go. After we saw him prominently seated in the reviewing stand we came to refer to him as The Mayor.

Mayor of Busseto

The Mayor of Busseto

The crowd grew as the music approached from the distance. Marching bands, majorettes, flag formations were all in line. Soon the floats began to approach, all with their own sound system. No language issues here, as Michael Jackson seemed the performer of the hour.

Bad Luck

Bad Luck

Good Luck

Good Luck

Joker

Joker

After a while, couldn’t find Sally. This is the land, after all, that gave us confetti. They must have cleaned out the confetti factory for this one. We still find it in our shoes, pockets, books, everywhere…

Mysterious Figure

Mysterious Figure

Explosion of Confetti

An Explosion of Confetti

After the Deluge

After the Deluge

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa

Coat of Many Colors

Coat of Many Colors

Tropical Dancer

Tropical Dancer

King Kong

King Kong

Out of this World

Out of This World

Dog in Fur

Dog in Fur

Wine from Out of this World

Wine from Out of this World

Airplane

Airplane

Ladies in Waiting

Ladies in Waiting

At about the time we had had enough, we noticed some familiar faces and music. It seems they had formed a big loop and were coming around again!

That’s when we went down the street to get a bite at the Salsamentaria Storica Verdia Barrata, a local establishment dedicated to wine and salume and all things Verdi. This little eatery was established in the 1800’s, and while Verdi didn’t eat there, they swear some of his buddies did. Following a long tradition, the wine there is served in bowls. We bellied up with the locals and had the local vino with a plate of Emilia Romagna local meats and cheeses. They came with a selection of condiments to spread on the local bread. We chowed down with gusto.

This is a bust

This is a bust

Salsamentaria

Salsamentaria Wine

Salsamentaria Storica

Salsamentaria Storica Verdiana Barrata

The Carnevale had been a hoot and an epic photo session. Note that many of the photos in Busseto and Zibello were taken by Lisa, and the editing has been brutal to reduce them to so few.

Time was getting short. We had to get Spin to the train station in Parma so she could catch a plane in Milan the next morning. Sally and Lisa and I would be staying on in Parma, having booked a few days at a Palace.

Soon we were back in the car and on our way. We never suspected that the seeds had been sown for several days of misery for some members of our party…

Saturday Night on the Po River

Few maps of Italy show the village of Zibello in the province of Parma. Its a small town with only 800 families living there. But to those who know salumi (the Italian term for all cured meats) Zibello is a mecca.

The Province of Parma makes some of the best ham in the world, Prosciutto di Parma. But in Parma’s region around Zibello they use the hind leg of a specially selected porker that would normally become a prosciutto and remove the largest, most tender muscle. This they salt and massage while the weather is cold, pack it into a natural pork casing, tie it into a pear shape with a stout cord and hang it in a dark cellar exposed to the legendary cold, wet fog that comes off the Po River. There it ages and dries for 11 to 22 months. Before its use, the meat is wrapped in linen and soaked in white wine for several days. To serve it, the meat is sliced so thin you can see through it. The people of Zibello have been doing this for over 500 years.

The meat’s flavor is slightly salty, yet sweet, and it exudes a rich, porky aroma usually described as its “perfume”. It is the most prized and most expensive of Italy’s cured meats.

This jewel of the world of charcuterie is called Culatello di Zibello , and it cannot be imported to the United States. To try the real deal, you must travel to Italy.

Culatello

Culatello di Zibello

Sliced culatello

Sliced culatello

And travel to Zibello we did.

Zibello is a farming community situated among the flat, green fields of the Po Valley that stretch from horizon to horizon. We had booked rooms there and a table for dinner at Trattoria e Locanda la Buca , a small inn that has served travelers home cooked food and its own culatello for five generations. La Buca is run by Miriam Leonardi and her daughter Laura Lanfredi, who prepare all the meals in the ways passed down to them from Miriam’s great-grandmother who established the inn in the late 1800’s. Their dedication to quality and tradition has brought fame to this modest establishment. (See the “Press” section on their web site.)

New Yorker

Miriam in the New Yorker

When we arrived, we were greeted by Miriam personally. She is a smiling, kindly, ample woman who evokes everyone’s grandmother.

Trattoria la Buca

Trattoria la Buca

Miriam had her helper Mina show us to our rooms and told us we could show up for dinner any time we wished.

La Buca has three guest bedrooms, and we were prepared for the humble lodgings, like your first apartment in college. We were more than happy to find ourselves in an old farm building that had been renovated by architect design and beautifully restored with an elevator, designer light fixtures, comfortable beds, exposed beams, new bathrooms, sattelite TV and other creature comforts.

We ambled over to the dining rooms about 8 PM. Mina was our waitress, but Miriam seemed to be everywhere and visited us between each course to discuss what we would like. Little matter that she spoke no English and we no Italian. She sent plate after plate, served family style, and all was good.

Primi course

Primi

We started with Culatello di Zibello, of course, also a sampling of local salami and Spalla cotta (cooked and cured pork shoulder). For the Primi course we shared plates of Tortelli di ricotta, tortelli di zucca (large pasta filled with a pumpkin and almond paste), Anolini pasticciati “La Buca” (small pasta filled with meat and cheese in ragu) and Tagliatelle (ribbon pasta) with culatello and parmeggiano. Secondi course was Chicken Cacciatore, Roast veal breast, and Mariola (boiled pork sausage) served with an apple, pear and horseradish relish called mostarde. We spent 4 hours over dinner, enjoying each other’s company and chatting with our neighbors.

An even bigger treat for us was to be invited into Miriam’s private cave after dinner. Huge wine casks filled one end of the room, installed by her great grandmother. The walls and ceilings were hung with aging culatello and salami. Wheels of parmeggiano served as makeshift tables.

With Mina

Someone's in the kitchen with Mina

Cellar at La Buca

The Cellar at La Buca

Lisa says Cheese

Lisa says Cheese

Miriam pulled out a tool made from a shaved horse bone. It is used to pierce the meat and test by smell the progress of the aging. She tested a salami and several culatello with us. She took the time to show me the difference in the aroma of a good culatello compared to a great culatello.

Testing the Parfumo

The Parfumo of Culatello

In the morning we enjoyed breakfast while Miriam and her husband Guido conducted business and filled mail orders for culatello. After loading the car, as we drove off, I took one last look back at the restaurant to find Miriam in the front window waving farewell. A charming and generous woman.

Guido and a ham

Guido packs a culatello

Miriam and Guido at work

Miriam & Guido at work

Breakfast at la Buca

Breakfast at la Buca

Our destination today…Carnevale Parade in Busetto.

Milano to Piacenza

That night in Milan we slept the sleep of the dead.

Next morning we showered and headed back to the Piazza del Duomo to find some coffee and pastry. Had a couple of espressos at Zucca in the Galleria and then found a lovely pasticceria on the Via Dante. You can see here that when I asked for orange juice to go with my coffee and croissant my waiter grabbed some blood oranges, cut and squeezed them to order. The pastries were beautiful and everyone seems to be tripping over themselves to give us good food and friendly service.

Got back to the hotel to check out by and headed to the Central Train Station, a massive building built by Mussolini in 1931. There we were to pick up a rental car and meet Lisa Nori, Sally’s college roommate and one of our closest friends. She flew in from Connecticut and was waiting for us at the rental office. Tonight we have a room and dinner booked in Zibello, a little town on the Po River and the producer of Italy’s finest culatello. More on that later

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The four of us piled into the car and headed out of town, traveling south on the Autostrada A1. The highway follows the course of the Via Emilia, one of the oldest of Roman roads, dating from the 2nd century AD. Before leaving the States I bought maps of Europe on a tiny chip that slips into my Garmin GPS. Pricey, but they paid for themselves before the day was out. Saved many bad turns and wrong ways on a one way. More importantly it allowed us to venture into cities and find places that would be too much trouble and research otherwise.

Case in point was the city of Piacenza, once an independent city-state strategically situated on the Po River where the ApennineMountains and the river plain meet. It was lunch time and we heard of a legendary restaurant in the heart of the city. Their specialty was horse, pony and ass meat but we hoped they had other local delicacies, too. The GPS got us there, despite roadblocks and bridges that were no longer there. But the place was closed. We asked the GPS what else might be around and it suggested a place by the center of town.

Parking was at a premium in the medieval streets of the city. We found a lot and asked the man in our pigeon Italian if he knew of a good restaurant or wine bar. He looked at his watch (most places close at that time of day) and raised a finger to tell us to wait. He ran down the street and returned in a few minutes and gestured to leave the car and follow him. He led us to a tiny shop full of wine bottles and cured meats and cheeses. The old man behind the counter crooked his finger to say “follow” and led us to a back room with a few tables. There we sat in silence until, within a few minutes, a woman burst in the back door, a bit out of breath. This was our hostess, Francesca, who had been called from home to serve us lunch. Her father, who led us in, had started this enoteca (wine bar) many years before. We asked for local specialties and were served a nice sparkling rose wine from the Alto Adige, a variety of cheese including parmegiano, assiago, a fresh, creamy gorgonzola and a stinky one whose name I don’t recall. Also prosciutto, culatello, coppa, pancetta, the local salami known as Piacentina, and the local bread. It was a special meal and a special time and beautiful Francesca made us feel at home.

We took a stroll around the town after to digest things a bit. Much of the city center was ancient, many shown here dating to the 13th century, and some structures even earlier.

By then it was passegiatta. Passegiatta is a tradition you will hear me mention many times in many places throughout Italy. It is an old custom that takes place as afternoon turns to early evening. Whole towns seem to turn out, often formally dressed, husbands and wives arm in arm and children in tow. Neighbor greets neighbor, men argue politics and sports, women talk about children and shop, hands are shook, kids run around, and cities and villages become community. We saw this in Piacenza as we walked from ancient piazza to piazza.

As the sun sank low, we retrieved our car and set sights for the tiny farming village of Zibello where a very special evening awaited us.

Arrival in Milan

Travel can be brutish, and this journey was. Just outside Boston on the way to the airport we got a call from Lufthansa saying our flight had been cancelled. They feared a blizzard coming from the south that, in the end, never arrived. To her great credit our travel agent, Janet Flanders, called us within minutes of the cancellation with an alternative route – Boston to Toronto to Frankfurt to Milan – leaving the next afternoon. We took it.

Left Logan airport the next day, but not before Sally lost her iPod. Must have dropped it in boarding. The flights were jammed and the airports were chaotic but after 18 sleepless hours we arrived at the modest Hotel London Milano in the center of the city. We were only about 24 hours behind schedule from the cancelled flight.

Our friend Maureen (aka “Spin”) Sheldon, in Europe on business, was supposed to catch up with us there but with the change in plans she was there first. We dropped our bags in the room, being careful not to sit on the bed. If we stopped moving we would soon nod off from jet lag, and we had decided to adjust our rhythms to the sun in short order. We headed out to wander the streets.

Hotel London Milano

Sally and Spin hit the town

Reduced to just one day in Milan, we tossed our plans out the window and headed for the Piazza del Duomo, the heart of the city and site of one of Europe’s most magnificent cathedrals. The History of the Duomo dates from its commission in 1386. It was completed in time for Napoleon’s coronation as King of Italy in 1805. We toured the interior and then took an elevator to the roof for a view of the city and the square.
Duomo from the Piazza


Duomo door detail

Detail - Duomo doors

Duomo of Milan


Angel on high

Angel on high


PiazzaDuomo

The Piazza from above


Piano steps at Duomo

Playing the Piano Key steps at the Duomo metro


Also on the Piazza del Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a striking covered shopping mall dating from the 1860’s. We found ourselves here more than once, and visited Zucca, a coffee bar that has been there since the opening 150 years ago.
Galleriia Vittorio Emauele

Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle


The north exit of the Galleria leads to a Piazza and La Scala, probably the world’s most famous Opera House. There snails were on display and we took advantage of the backdrop.
Snails at the Opera

Slugs on Parade


When dark came, we wandered north into the neighborhoods, admiring the architecture and window shopping. We stopped in a small cafe for the local custom of ” ‘Appy Hour” – an assortment of appetizers which you are free to enjoy in any number of pubs for the cost of a drink. We found ourselves next to a bunch of American GI’s on leave from Germany.

Sally and Spin headed for a grocery to pick up some wine. I hopped into a cab and headed for the Hotel London. After I paid the cabby and he sped off I realized I left my bag and camera in the car. I chased him a couple blocks, but he never checked his rearview mirror.

He eventually found the bag and returned to the hotel. I gave him a tip. Now that I know the currency better, I understand his look of disapointment. I thought I gave him a stack of 2 euro coins, but I shorted him pretty bad.

Dinner at the restaurant across from the Hotel was fine. We crashed about midnight Milan time after about 36 hours without sleep.

That’s a lot for my first post. Learned a lot and I hope it gets easier. Apologies to all of you who got an email every time I fiddled with it. I think I can cut back on that and make sure you only get an email when I have real news.

The story gets better from here. Watch for the next post…