Why are there a dozen people crammed into Sorelle Picchi, one of many little salumerie (delis) along Parma’s Via Farini?

More to the point, why are none of them ordering three etti of prosciutto, a kilo of pecorino, and a box of homemade pasta from old Claudio, who stands behind the counter carefully bundling up giant wedges of aged parmigiano in waxed paper, using the back of his long scissors to -thwiiip!- curl the trailing ends of the red ribbon wrapped around each?

They’re waiting. All of them are waiting to squeeze through the little gap between the wall and the wooden counter on which rests the cash register and enter the back room, a chaos of white tablecloths, packed with wooden chairs and bustling women serving simple dishes.

Turns out, this is Parma’s favorite hidden trattoria, open only for lunch and only to those who know which deli to line up in (plus random travel writers curious as to why a salumeria would be packed at lunchtime).

Occasionally joining Claudio behind the counter was one of the second generation Picchi sisters, fat in that comfortable manner of many Italian women in late middle age–double chinned over a chest of truly prodigious proportions–but sprouting oddly thin arms muscular from a lifetime of slicing salumi.

“It’ll be a while yet.” She announced to the waiting crowd upon returning from one of her trips to the back room. “No one wants to detach themselves from the table. We tried to convince the president of the Bank of Rome to go back to work, but he won’t budge!”

(I figured that this was some kind of joke phrase–the “bank president” a stock illustrious figure to conjure up for an Italian metaphor I’d never heard before–but when I left, I realized the Banca di Roma was, in fact, right across the street–presidentless, apparently, for the moment.)

I spent a patient half-hour watching this Picchi sister alternately work the automatic slicer and a giant butcher knife to create mixed platters of cured meats destined for diners in the back. So when it was finally my turn to squeeze past the cash register and thread back to a tiny table against the wall, I couldn’t help but order a plate of affetatti misti myself.

The simple white plate came heaped with delicate tissues of prosciutto, thick leather sheets of culatello, marbled roundels of copa, a thick, fragrant disc of salame di felino (which, I was relieved to learn, comes from a nearby valley called Felino, not from cats), and a hearty slice of strullaghiello, a pink salami made from copa and so soft it falls apart as I try to slice a bite.

The affetatti arrived with a companion plate containing only two jagged nuggets of parmigiano, each the size of a small child’s fist, and creamier and more flavorful than any parmesan I’ve ever tasted.

Normally, I don’t care much for Parma’s famous aged cheese. Oh, it’s fine to grate over pasta or whatever, but not for eating straight. The problem is, cheese platters are designed to be worked clockwise, starting with the softest and mildest sample on the cutting board and then tasting your way around increasingly more pungent, aged, and veiny varieties.

There’s always a crooked gem or two of parmigiano waiting at the end of the cheesy clock face, which I always dread arriving at but always eat because I somehow get the feeling it wouldn’t be very macho to leave it there–as if I couldn’t handle the intensity and was forced to give up–and I hate to be emasculated in the eyes of my waiter.

(This personal failing is also what drives me to accept a grappa duro after a meal when what I really want is a prissy, sweet limoncello, and what has led me over the years to eat deep fried whole frogs soaked in vinegar, braised ass meat, camel stew, snails, and sheep testicles, amongst other delicacies.)

But this parmigiano at Sorelle Picchi was different. Strongly flavored without being tongue-cuttingly sharp, and best of all it had virtually none of that awful grittiness I’ve come to associate with such foods as aged parmigiano and sandwiches eaten at the beach. I said as much to my waitress, and she agreed. “Most people serve it aged too much.” She said. “Here, we serve it young, only about 27 months old, so it’s still good for eating.”

I was pretty confident that going with the “piatto tradizionale” today wasn’t going to turn out as it did last night, when I needed generous lubrications of Lambrusco to help gag down the pesto di cavallo, which turned out to be hamburger patties of horsemeat–served raw and cold.

Today it’s the far more promising sounding tortelli alle erbette, homemade pasta pillows stuffed with ricotta, parmigiano, and a local wild green simply called “little herb” (long like a beet leaf, but sweet like spinach). The rectangular tortelli came in a grid of nine, dressed in grated parmigiano and a pool of melted butter.

Ah, this is more like it! This time, I didn’t need the Lambrusco to help wash it down. Not that I didn’t have a rapidly emptying bottle of Lambrusco in front of me. Just that I didn’t need it as a swallowing aid.

As I waited for the pasta to come out of the open kitchen across the room, where more Picchi women were hard at work alongside mamma–one of the original Sisters Picchi (auntie retired a few years ago) who’ve been running this trattoria/salumeria for 40 years–I glanced around the dining room. As I did, something started tickling at the back of my mind, so I gave it a few moments to wander about in search of the thought to which it belonged. When it finally did find a home in my memory cells, I almost choked on my prosciutto.

Sitting at the head of the table for ten next to me was an older gentleman in a squashed, pale beige fisherman’s canvas hat and affecting a white wool scarf wrapped once around his neck and tucked under the collar of his dark shirt.

He was eating mortadella like it’s going out of style, and putting away his tortelli alle erbette fast and furious, all the while grinning genially and paying close attention to the conversation swirling around his table.

His name was Dario Fo, Italy’s greatest living playwright and, as of 1997, a Nobel laurate.

He’s in town for a few days, co-presenting a three-night series on “Theater in Italy” at the Teatro Farnese. I know this because I saw posters advertising this fact outside the Teatro’s doors, and I seriously considered attending before realizing that I know so very little about Italian theater it would be lost on me, and besides I promised myself that tonight I’d get a good chunk of writing done.

I had no idea I’d be lunching with the guy in the same trattoria hidden in the back room of the Sorelle Picchi deli.

In fact, the only reason someone so poorly versed in Italian theater can confirm that it was, indeed, the maestro is that I overheard one of the Picchi (the meat slicer) whispering to a regular client as she squeezed though the gap by the cash register.

“Hey, did you see who is here today? Dario Fo!” She smiled and shook her head. “That boy sure does love his mortadella.”

I wonder if I should have gone over and told him about the parmigiano?