Bella Cucina!

By Fred Plotkin

Published on September 6, 2009

Opera and gastronomy share an illustrious history, from the elaborate post-performance suppers that have given many opera stars their famous girth to the classic dishes, like chicken Tetrazzini and peach Melba, inspired by great musicians. Many composers and performers have been known for their appetites, but the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi may have been the greatest food lover of them all.

Verdi was born in 1813 in the tiny town of Roncole, in the province of Parma, where his parents ran an osteria that was a popular overnight stop. There, in Italy's agricultural heartland, he was nourished by the regional dishes his mother served, like chicche (pronounced KEE-kay), tiny spinach gnocchi sprinkled with the local Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, as well as by the stories he heard from travelers about the great theaters of northern Italy. By the 1850s, Verdi had become not only a well-known composer but also a successful farmer and a renowned cook. "If only they knew how well he composes risotto alla milanese," wrote his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, in a letter describing a standing ovation he received upon a visit to Turin's Teatro Regio. To his favorite singers, he would often send a pork shoulder, with a handwritten recipe attached.

When Verdi traveled, he took great delight in discovering local foods (of the town of Cremona, he wrote in a letter, "The torroni, the mostarda...good heavens!"), but he also took the foods he loved along with him. In 1862, he and Strepponi went to St. Petersburg for the premiere of La Forza del Destino and had a railway car loaded with pasta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and prosciutto di Parma sent from Italy and a carriage of French red wine and champagne sent from Paris.

Still today, Verdi's operas, from Rigoletto to Aida, bring food to mind for many Italians. Around Parma, locals say, "The music of Verdi is like a pig—nothing goes to waste." In other words, it's all good.

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