I wore my black pinstripe suit on the plane flying home from IFEC last Thursday, because that evening I was going to the Opera as a guest of the marketers of Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Both the ham and the cheese come from the Italian city of Parma, which was also the adopted home of Giuseppe Verdi, whose opera La Traviata was being performed at The Metropolitan Opera House that evening.
Fred Plotkin, who has the unusual quality of being an expert on both opera and Italian food, says this is the best performance of the Verdi masterpiece he has ever seen, and so he was commissioned to talk to us over dinner about both of them as well as the history of The Met, where he was the performance manager for a number of years. Actually, he spoke specifically about the food of Emilia-Romagna, the region where Parma is located, and about the life of Verdi, as well as how food should be consumed before watching opera.
I’d met Fred awhile back at San Domenico restaurant. I don’t remember why. He thinks we might have met when he was there to talk about the wines of Friuli, but I don’t recall.
At any rate, Fred is a very gracious man, but a particular one. He insists that Parmesan cheese be served not on his food, but near it, so he can add it as he likes. His prosciutto, when served uncooked, must not touch anything else on the plate until he is ready to combine them.
He approaches opera at The Met sort of the way I was taught to approach the silent Jewish meditative prayer known as the Amidah. For that prayer, it is common to take three steps back (small ones, as you are likely standing at a pew), symbolically removing yourself from mundane life, and then three steps forward to enter the world of prayer.
Fred says that at The Met, the custom, as the 12 chandeliers rise and dim to announce the beginning of the performance, is to take a moment to adjust your mindset to put it completely in the world the opera that is about to unfold before you.
So he’s a dramatic guy, but really in a low-key way, and he’s a very engaging speaker.
In a moment I’ll list the menu that was served at The Met’s Grand Tier restaurant, which Fred said was a typical pre-opera meal in Emilia-Romagna, and the visitors from the two hosting consorzi, both from Parma, didn’t disagree.
But first I’ll comment, as I did during Fred’s lecture — from which he paused as each course arrived so we could eat it, another sign of his gentility — that the wines served were not from Emilia-Romagna, but from farther north, in Friuli and Piedmont. From my limited experience in the region, that did, in fact, seem typical for a (fancy) pre-opera meal in Emilia-Romagna because, I said, although the people of that region are extremely proud of their food, they willingly say that their wine isn’t that great.
I really loved that about my visit to the region: That the people were proud enough to admit their shortcomings.
Both Fred and the Italians kind of protested. They all insisted that the region’s wine was getting better. But that wasn’t my point. Local Lambrusco — a sparkling red wine that is widely dismissed as “unimportant” — is delicious with the rich food of Emilia-Romagna. There’s no need to go defending it.
I restated my point: What I liked was that people in the region had the dignity and confidence to admit that they weren’t perfect.
No really, they said, there’s some much better wine coming from there now.
Whatever. Great ham and cheese, “unimportant” wine, mediocre listening comprehension skills.
Or possibly jet lag.
What we ate, drank, watched and listened to (notice that we didn’t have dessert until after the first act — the idea being that you eat relatively lightly so you will be energized and ready for opera, and then get an added pick-me-up midway through):
Pinot Grigio 2007, Livio Felluga, Friuli
Prosciutto di Parma with sliced seasonal fruit (fresh figs in this case, but I liked that they kept it vague on the menu to allow for optimal seasonality)
Risotto Violetta with a mélange of mushrooms (Violetta is the title character’s name in La Traviata)
Barbaresco 2004, Produttori del Barbaresco, Piedmonti
Salad of field Greens with piquant lemon dressing
Parmigiano-Reggiano morsels with Aceto Balsamico (which is to say balsamic vinegar, although if you want the real stuff, the vinegar that people really fork over the cash for, that’s been aged for 15 years or more, you have to get Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, with this was not)
La Traviata— Act 1
with Anja Harteros and Massimo Giordano
A trio of desserts — including a little rum-heavy custard that I really liked
with Coffee or Tea
La Traviata — Acts 2 & 3
And after that Fred took us backstage where we sat in the green room and briefly met the exhausted performers, who greeted us graciously and then, I presume, went out for dinner.