Apart from the fact that most visitors to this part of Italy make the mistake of overlooking the historic streets of Novara, even those who are more curious of places with names that aren’t familiar would still probably never set foot in the Albergo Ristorante Parmigiano even though it’s located only a couple of hundred metres from the Basilica San Gaudenzio.
The entrance is so unassuming that Harry Potter couldn’t have done a better job of making it more invisible to muggles’ eyes. We only knew about it thanks to Roberto Maggioni, otherwise we would never have stumbled across it.
But there is one clue that might just give away what lies behind the humble façade. The enticing aroma dancing through the air in the narrow alley outside.
Albergo Ristorante Parmigiano
Walk through the doors and unassuming gives way to an unexpected and rather grandiose vestibule and dining room, with chandeliers and scarlet tablecloths, that has echoes of an Italy of days gone by. There’s something quietly stately about it.
Beside the entrance is a wooden cabinet with bags of rice for sale, all local. Even though my Italian is as poor as Aldo the Apache’s I can identify truffle, saffron and radicchio flavoured arborio rice (okay the radicchio didn’t take much figuring out as it’s the same in English). This part of Piedmont is famous for its rice. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Novara, eat risotto.
There’s something wonderfully down to earth about Albergo Ristorante Parmigiano; something homely. There’s an interesting juxtaposition going on. Our waiter sported a red waistcoat and black bow-tie, the formality of which was diluted by an amused twinkle in his eyes and a quietly dry sense of humour.
From another room adjoining the dining room I could hear a TV. I’m ashamed to say I recognised the music. Someone was watching Murder She Wrote, in Italian.
The Food at Albergo Ristorante Parmigiano
We started with a plate of lardo (Italian cured ham), prosciutto crudo, a wedge of formaggio, salami, olives and sweet and sour pickled onions. To ease the food’s journey down our throat we had a carafe of Ghemme, a red local wine.
As we slipped slices of prosciutto into our mouths and picked at olives, other diners entered. They looked like office workers, possibly from nearby government buildings. Nobody is going to wander in by chance. It’s one of those places you have to know about to know about.
We finished the starter and Tiziana, one of the owners, brought us the second course. It may have been the simplest looking dish ever placed in front of me. Three little different coloured risotto mountains. There was nothing mixed in with the rice. It was just a plate of rice.
Andy is a big risotto fan, but even just a few years ago my mind would have been thinking ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ at being faced with a dish that consisted solely of rice. However, that plate was a game changer for me. Since Novara, risotto makes it onto our dining table once a week.
The tricoloured rice consisted of a classic white risotto; a yellow Milanese risotto and a red cabbage risotto. All were creamy, buttery and packed with different flavours, the red especially. We asked Tiziana if it was a local speciality.
“No, I got it from the internet,” She laughed.
As we ate, Tiziana popped in and out of the kitchen, each time throwing us an anecdote about the hotel and restaurant, local politics, food and life in general. She was feisty, fun and full of information.
The tricolour rice was so substantial that we couldn’t manage the meat or fish second course. But we were talked into finishing with a coffee and a small piece of chocolate cake. That ‘small piece of chocolate cake’ came with some friends – strawberries, a vanilla pastry and a syrupy tart.
By the time we walk back out onto to Novara’s charming streets we were stuffed to bursting point, but we were fat and happy. It was a great experience and as a bonus Tiziana told us how to make simple but super risottos.
People talk all the time about finding authentic local places… that everyone knows about. On this occasion we felt we had been told about a restaurant that really was a secret to outsiders.
Albergo Ristorante Parmigiano; Via Cattaneo 4, Novara; +39 0321 623321
Buzz Trips enjoyed being introduced to the wonderful world of Novara risottos as guests of Albergo Ristorante Parmigiano.
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+