A visit to Italy shouldn't start in Palermo. Palermo is too vivid, its colors too bold, its flowers too startling. Palermo is a psychedelic Italy. Everything afterwards will seem a little gray in comparison. But Palermo shouldn't be missed, if only to find out how exotic Italian food can be, how reminiscent of the Middle East. For this food tour of Italy, Palermo is as a piquant appetizer, showing how broad a spectrum the Italian palate covers.

Sicily, Palermo's island realm, is the largest region of Italy - and the least Italian, it seems to an outsider. Your hotel staff will warn you not to take your purse to the market. I warn you to go there hungry, after a good nap. The scene is dreamlike enough when you are wide awake. The market is a maze of fantasy foods, with disorienting colors and proportions. Red radishes are the size of apples, but pea pods are not longer than a baby's thumb. Peppers - green and yellow - seem to have elephantiasis. There is shark small enough to fit in your pocket, and octopus no bigger than your hand. Shrimp may be thimble-size or large enough for a meal.

Sizes are out of kilter, unexpected. But in full color the scene is totally bizarre. Cauliflowers are pale green. Fish are red - but a red our red snapper never presumed. They are lipstick red. Tomatoes are a red that makes lipstick tame. In fact, in the Palermo market you learn a lot about what red can be - prickly pears, pomegranates, peppers, radishes, fish. Then you begin to understand green: olives against brilliant sprays of rosemary; artichokes that shimmer toward purple, limes that fade to yellow, spinach that darkens to midnight. Here are pistachios so brillant in their green that it seems the meats might stain your fingers a viridian more piercing than the red of the shells.

The clangor of colors and shapes and sizes is fleshed out by the smells of octopus stewing in big pots and slashed into serving-size pieces on a counter. Thin rectangles of chickpea flour are frying. And one's nose leads to the discovery of caponata; so unctuous is the eggplant, so boldly sweet and starkly pungent with olives and capers, it is a new dish even if you have been eating it in Washington for years.

Palermo is also the place to discover cannoli. The visitor can peek into bakery doors to watch the shells baking (try Maturano bakery, near Sta. Catarina Church). Crusts, light though not necessarily thin, are left to bake to a chocolate color. The ricotta filling is soft and creamy, not too sweet, and generous with candied fruit and chocolate bits.

The town of Mondello, a resort five miles outside of Palermo, is noted for its stunning landscape, but that is only a backdrop to the street nibbling. A solid facade of food stands lines the coast. One sells two kinds of sea urchins. Another has tiny octopus, a third one popcorn. It is a shellfish education, this stretch of pots and cash registers. Between the snails and mussels are stands selling fruits, hot chestnuts, whatever is in season. The basso continuo that threads its way through this symphony of fast food is pizza. Wood ovens open and shut and one more pizza is slashed into one-hand portions. One side of the street looks like an edible game of duck-duck-goose: pizza stand, pizza stand, pizza stand, antique tower, pizza stand. The chains of pizza stands are clasped by cafes and ice cream parlors.

In Palermo the visitor can eat as pompously and properly as in any part of Italy - or the world. But Palermo is even better an introduction to the simplicity that is the theme of Italian food, and the complexity with which simplicity can be presented.

First, the simplest. Below Villa Giulia, a half-block off the seaside road, is an eating place - one could not truthfully bestow on it a grander title - called 'Ngrasciata. It is decorated solely by a display of fish from which you choose your lunch, and a mural of a crowded restaurant. It is populated solely by ravenous workmen. It has no menu; its staff speak no English, yet somehow the waiter lets you know what you should eat, and you let the cashier know what you ate, in order to calculate the bill, which will total about $6. Start with a seafood salad, as much oregano as octopus in it, nearly floating in olive-green oil. On to pasta, perhaps just tossed with fried garlic, parsley and oil. Nearly everyone is eating a tomato-anchovy-olive salad. And absolutely everyone is drinking a peculiar looking brown punch that turns out to be muscat wine and Coke. Obviously it stultifies the taste buds, because that bright, glistening fresh fish is generally served fried or grilled to a dry overcooked state, and nobody else seems to notice the petrochemical undertone to the local fish. But strong flavors are the signature of Palermo. The celery tastes brazenly grassy. The sesame seeds on the bread are heady. The olive oil is powerful. Whatever else the food is, it is fresh; at 'Ngrasciata the fruit sits on the counter still in its cartons.

'Ngrasciata is a gruff introduction to Italy. More accesssible - not only geographically, but culturally - is Fichidindia (known in Sicilian dialect as Ficurinnia). A Sicilian horse cart in firecracker colors decorates the entrance, and inside an American feels right at home amid the red-checkered tablecloths, American music and English-speaking waiters. It is far from an Americanized restaurant, however.It is more like a Sicilian antique shop, its ceiling hung with puppets and paintings suspended on wires and strings of garlic and cheeses. Surely no Sicilian cold dish exists that is not offered on the vast antipasto bar, a self-service wonderment of olives swimming in oil with whole heads of garlic, bean and potato salads, meat salads, tuna and anchovies, all kinds of green vegetables in all kinds of marinades, all filling a wooden horse cart.

That is a start at Fichidindia. One goes on, of course, to pasta. You will have been told, probably dozens of times, that pasta con sarde - spaghetti with sardines - is the regional dish of Sicily. It is a combination startling to American tastes, and probably takes a native to fully appreciate it. Cooked with wild fennel, it is greenish and sharply herbed, tangy from fresh sardines and sweet with currants, pungent with pepper. It is - interesting.

Bread is not only a staple in Sicily, it is pervasive. Sauteed grated bread crumbs are sprinkled on pasta as cheese is elsewhere. Veal scallops are stuffed with bread, prosciutto and mozzarella and rolled in bread crumbs to be grilled as spiedini, a dish to be sought at Fichidindia. Such a meal is washed down with beer, cola or wine (Corvo is Sicily's justly famous wine, but rough, dark muscat wines are more prevalent). And such a meal costs about $8 a person, plus the required follow-up of espresso and ice cream in a cafe.

Six years ago the Italian Ministry of Health reported that Italians consume an average of 2,900 calories a day. Less than half the total spending for food in Italy went for processed foods, only five percent for canned goods. That tells the visitor what he discovers for himself as he travels through Italy. Italians eat a lot, and the food they eat - whatever else it may be - is fresh. The spaghetti may be processed, but the vegetables in the sauce are fresh. The hotel breakfast may consist of a cellophane-wrapped linzertorte, but the coffee will be redolent of the freshly ground bean. Even the processed foods are processed with restraint. By law pasta can have no additives; spaghetti can be nothing more than durum wheat and water.

The first thing the visitor learns, if he is serious about studying Italian food, is that it is a loose alliance of regional cuisines, so loose that a staunch Bolognese will not even eat pasta outside his region because it can't meet his Bolognese palate's standards. Furthermore, the staple of one region - rice, for instance - is foreign food to another.

The cuisine is expressive of the whim of the climate, the geography and the cook's personality - straightforward food that aims for simplicity on the plate (even if it requires arduous preparation in the kitchen). Sauces are straightforward, without the complex underpinnings of the French, and never is there more sauce than needed to barely coat the pasta. Little food except pasta is wrapped or rolled or intricately constructed. It is not showoff food, not chic.

But there are traditions. Each town has its own bread, star-shaped in Bologna, smooth and pale in Venice, rough and crusty in Rome. Coffee is served differently in each town. In one city people will tell you that anti-pasto is never a mixture of meats and salads, but simply one meat - prosciutto, perhaps - with nothing to distract from it. Yet in Palermo and Florence restaurants display self-service antipasto bars that are entire buffets of meats, salads, fish and cheeses.

There are some negative generalizations that one must make about Italian restaurants. First, the waiters. The best are probably among that select fraternity of the best in the world - they seem to have had 80 years' experience, yet look like and have the energy of 30-year-olds. On the other hand, never have I so often seen wine dripped on the table as it was being poured, and waiters sprinkling cheese all over the whole table, not just over the pasta. Tidiness is not a strong suit. And, while cooking is clearly a high art in Italy, the creative energy ends at the stove. Rarely is attention paid to presentation of food. Garnishes are alien; as one American observer put it, most Italian meat dishes "look like dead beast." Temperature is not an important topic, either. Food is likely to be served lukewarm; even the coffee is tepid, which is a great mystery be cause it is steamed to order. Food is often oversalted. Courses are frequently rushed. Portions are generally enormous, so you should consider ordering half-portions or sharing dishes. Wine is inexpensive, and local liquor is even cheaper, but you can get the worst of house wines in some of the best restaurants. Finally, you should carefully check your bill; mistakes are frequent, particularly in wine and cover charges.

NAPLES

The only proper follow-up to Palermo is Naples. Rome and Florence would be too delicate. In Naples, like Sicily, the flavors and opinions are strong, but they stop short of the intensity of Sicily.

Nowhere else in Italy will the simple, direct nature of food be more obvious. Neapolitan food is straightforward, but with a few important flourishes. The flourishes: a single leaf of basil centered on the plainest (and most delicious) of pizzas. At the most unpromising cafe, the crassest tourist joint next to the train station, the cannoli are always filled to order rather than left to grow soggy as they wait for a purchaser.

It is said that around Naples people first learned how to dry and store pasta. The first cookbooks are claimed by the Neapolitans, and crepes are said to have been invented there.Neapolitan food has long had as its cornerstone the union of spaghetti and tomatoes. Much of the Italian food Americans know comes from Naples: Spaghetti with tomato sauce, eggplant parmesan, lasagna, fried mozzarella, stuffed artichokes, chicken cacciatore (which in Naples is made with tomatoes as an accent rather than as main ingredient). But, like American blue jeans and Japanese transistors, the really significant Neapolitan export is pizza.

I have determined that it is impossible to get bad pizza in Naples. In fact, the primary difference in low pizza and high pizza is its oiliness.The less you pay, the more grease you get. Wherever the pizza, it is yeasty and chewy in the crust, cooked in a wood oven and probably singed in spots. Its tomato is a thin wash of sauce or a restrained spread of tomato chunks. It is well doused with olive oil and has islands of chewy, earthy buffalo milk mozzarella. In the center is a single basil leaf. The grandest pizza parlor in town is Ciro a Sta. Brigida, nearly 50 years old and elaborately gilded, flowered, painted and paneled. The pizza is served in its pure tomato and cheese state or with everything under the sun, straight up or folded and stuffed. Its crust is puffed and light, very light. On top is a film of fresh tomato and a heavy hail of garlic. It is arranged with a precise geometry of mozzarella strips, sweetly fresh shrimp, briny olives, mushrooms, and a profusion of oregano. It is very good, and I wish they delivered.

I had prepared myself for having to fix pizza in my memory until my next trip to Naples. But how was I to know I would have to yearn so long for ice cream? It is, after all, Florence that Americans credit with the best ice cream since childhood. But Naples has Scaturchio, on Piazza S. Domenico Maggiore, prissy with glazed open-face sandwiches and curlicued chocolates. It just happens to sell ice cream cones, and in the rear are a few tables where a waiter will bring spumoni and coffee. Well, I have had good ice cream in my gluttonous travels. But never before have I suffered after a pizza-full lunch over another creamy spoonful of hazelnut ice cream, another melting bit of nutcentered spumoni, another lick of frozen strawberry essence. The waiter misunderstood and brought four servings for the two of us. We suffered through them all, down to the last cream slick.

ROME

Even though Florence and Rome are full of pizza parlors, and menus are becoming more standardized throughout Italy, it is still a country where food custom is less national than regional. Each region still has its own cooking styles and eating habits. And rarely does one encounter a foreign restaurant.

The exception is Rome. Rome has Bolognese restaurants and Sardinian restaurants and Friulian restaurants. It has Japanese and Vietnamese and - alors! - even a French restaurant. In Rome one engages in abstractions such as whether a Bolognese restaurant in Rome is different from a Bolognese restaurant in Bologna. In Rome nobody agrees on which restaurants are good, much less which restaurants are best. The reason is, I came to believe, that the one consistent characteristic of Roman restaurants is their inconsistency.

Three restaurants are too Roman to ignore. They are the Sunday family reunion restaurants, the anniversary celebration restaurants, the continuing repositories of the grandeur that was Rome. Everybody seems to have his favorite of the three; in fact, it seemed as if everyone thought one of them was Rome's best and the other two dreadful.

Passetto, in the winter at least, smells of truffles. More grand than graceful, it has that Roman severity of Yellow-ocher walls beset with crystal sconces and chandeliers and little else to soften its blow. It looks a bit like a community hall, brightly lit and personalized by only a few carnations. By 1880 it was found praiseworthy by the Guide Michelin; it remains well connected. Yet on a Monday night it was full of foreigners.

Italian menus are like shopping lists. Dishes are announced rather than described, and prices are often by the kilogram. At Passetto, prices seem surprisingly low - pheasant in orange sauce is about $4.50, and pastas are less than $3. But those escalating prices by weight, plus the cover charge ( $1) and service charge (15 percent) add up faster than one might expect. Grilled scampi cost more than $1 each, and veal costs more then quail. But if you want to see how sophisticated an Italian restaurant can be, without crossing the border into Italianesque French, Passetto's is required eating. The wine list ranges through Italy's best vineyards and vintages, at reasonable prices. The greatest visual temptation is the antipasto cart; but, besides all those stuffed cold vegetables adding up to fiscal outrage, few of the items satisfied. Most were heavy, dull or unspeakably salty. Passetto does better with its pastas. A simple ravioli with butter and sage is superb, stuffed with a delicate spinach and ricotta mixture. Grilled shrimp are fat and sweet, even better than in Venice. Saltimbocca, Rome's contribution to the veal scallop repertoire, is a scintillating balance of ham with fragrant sage and veal tender but with some bite to it, in the barest touch of sauce. The cheese tray is stunning - a perfect, grainy parmesan; a full, ripe gorgonzola, half a dozen more Italian cheeses and a few French. And finally, perfect fruit, in winter, for example, a bright orange persimmon so ripe it melts onto the plate when cut.

Ranieri, 136 years old, was founded by a Frenchman and looks it. Unlike the straight, severe Passetto, Ranieri is gilded and curved, its velvet banquettes outlining the walls so that trolleys can pass freely. On the tables are tiny rosebuds.

In some central qualifications, Ranieri serves a poor second to Passetto. Its wine list is not nearly as extensive, and the wine prices are higher. The waiters rushed us to order, then neglected us as we tried to get our check. But all that and more could be borne for Ranieri's cannelloni. So thin was its pasta that it hardly seemed related to flour paste. And so airy was its green-flecked ricotta and egg filling that it seemed the inspiration for the souffle. The sauce was just a touch of rough-cut tomato. We could have hung around for days until we had done justice to Ranieri's pasta department. Main dishes were less tempting, the fritto misto overdone and the osso bucco heavily peppered and tomatoed but just a stew. Scottadito, those crisply grilled thin lamb chops so popular in Italy, were fine juicy lamb but insufficiently trimmed. So Ranieri is a good choice for pastas, if not for main dishes or for attentive service. It is also a good place to try carciofi alla romana, the long-stemmed, tender artichoke flower trimmed nearly to its base and stuffed with a piquant, garlicky, herb-green filling and afloat in a sea of green olive oil. Like Passetto, a meal will cost $15 to $25.

George's tempts me into stating rash theories such as: The more French an Italian restaurant looks, the more disappointing it will be. George's is couture dressed in curved polished woods and tucked silks. Flowers are planted along the dividers. Tables are set with fringed and braided lamps. The waiters, of course, speak English; the only Italian I heard spoken was at the next table, interspersed with English and German. Prices are high by Italian standards, with main dishes up to about $10. We knew we were in trouble when the special of the day turned out to be roast prime rib of beef. The wine list is long and expensive and heavily French. Each course had a winner and a loser. Our spaghetti was precisely cooked and sauced with a subtle blend of ham, mushrooms, cream, tomatoes and olive oil; another pasta was so al dente that it crunched between our teeth. The fritto misto - just squid and shrimp with quartered baby artichokes - was wispy and crisp, cooked perfectly to preserve the sea moistness. But the saltimbocca was nearly inedible. The veal, as thin as the prosciutto that covered it, was dry and far too salty. George's was for caviar and truffles and butter with your bread. George's was not for me.

Never have I met a tourist who didn't like Piperno. Like Ranieri, it is more than 130 years old. Like Passetto, its walls are yellow-orcher. Like George's, its waiters speak English. But unlike all of them, it is hearty in its welcome as well as its food, casual and fun. On a hillside in Trastevere, in the old Jewish quarter, Piperno serves in a courtyard in summer, and celebrates the seasons with a wide choice of vegetable dishes. In fact, the treat worth climbing the winding streets to Piperno is vegetable fritto misto, because, it allows you to sample most of the dishes that look irresistible on the table at the entrance. Carciofi alla giudia is the famed dish of Piperno, the Jewish-style artichokes fried with their leaves spread so they look like a flower. But just as deserving are zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies and fried. Even plain fried mozzarella is a rare treat, as are potato croquettes spiked with lemon peel, and rice croquettes oozing cheese. At Piperno you can find meaty Roman dishes, too. A peppery spaghetti alla carbonara, saltimbocca, codfish, and oxtail. Let the waiter railroad you into ordering and pour you a local wine. It will be a trip worth your trip, one that costs you less than $10 and requires you to walk it off afterwards.

One of your walks will take you to Piazza Navona, where the craftsmen set up stands around the fire-eaters and other inheritors of the Coloseum tradtion. On the Piazza Navona is Tre Scalini, which has very good overpriced ice cream (very good, if you haven't been to Naples). Near Piazza Navona, and more interesting if you are eating as well as you should be in Rome, is Tazza d'Oro, across from the Pantheon. Here is - and I realize this is a risky statement - the best (and perhaps the cheapest) cup of coffee in Rome. It is in an enormous coffee wholesale and retail shop, with bags of coffee beans to support you against the wall, and the beans being roasted as well as ground on the spot. A tiny cup, half-full as is the Italian custom, costs about a quarter (less than half the usual Roman price) and tastes like liquid coffee beans. It is the best way to recover from dancing a night at Jackie-O, eating your fill at Piperno, or fulfilling whatever is your version of la dolce vita.

FLORENCE

Florence is wine country. In the cities mentioned so far, one drinks the local wine because he is there. But in Florence the visitor's thoughts automatically turn to chianti. It is a city in which to indulge such thoughts, with wine bars and wine-tasting rooms and wine-tasting restaurants.

Take, for instance, the winetasting room of Pinchiorri (which is in the midst of changing its name from Enoteca Nazionale; in any case, it is at Via Ghibellina 87, telephone 263-653). The owners - Italian husband and French wife - bought out a wine society's cellar, and are cataloguing the wines. At the time of our visit, the list of more than 2,000 labels was only in the heads of the staff, who lovingly discuss and show and pour their wares. People drink five or six different wines with dinner, paying only for the portion of the bottles they drink. We started with a Pieropan Soave, went on to a Villa di Capezzana Reserva '71; with dessert we tried sweet Santuccio da San Felice 1968 and a dry vin santo, Cenunta "Le Lame." Finally, a grappa. Oh, yes, we ate, too. One starts at the antipasto buffet - a fantasy of meat and vegetable pates, celery root salad with walnuts and truffles, bean salads, quiches, mussels with lemon peel, squid salads, crostini, a great stretch of elaborately decorated dishes. It occupies one wall of the beautiful old palace that house this restaurant. Carry your plate to the balcony, to a massive carved table set with flowers, different on each table. This is the kind of restaurant that uses rosemary sprigs as toothpicks, starts your dinner with a plate of fried potato gnocchi, serves heavy, satisfying rough bread to counterbalance its delicate food. The water discusses your preferences, brings you a sampler of three pastas if you wish - extravagances such as ravioli in three colors, macaroni with smoked salmon and cream. The French touch is evident in the complexity of the sauces, the decoration of the platters. No loss. On to sweetbreads in a truffled cream, with a few carefully carved sauteed winter vegetables. Veal was roasted, cut thickly, served with artichokes in a brown sauce, alongside it very French and very wonderful creamed potatoes. Dessert, too, was a sampler for the indecisive - a chocolate and whipped cream specialty from Friuli, a couple of varieties of Bavarian cream, a poached peach with almonds. Certainly the meal was not typically Italian. Nor was it pretentious French. It looked like a happy marriage.And its average single check - with wines - was about $25.A happy find.

But that is getting ahead of myself in Florence. One starts with breakfast. Or several breakfasts. For me, that was coffee and pastry or hot chocolate with chipped cream, maybe at Enrico Rivoire on the Piazza della Signoria or, farther off the beaten tract, at Pasquini Vasco on the Piazza Independenza, which had the best custard-filled sfogliatelle, and amused with a window full of chocolates that looked like rusty old tools.

If breakfast comes late enough, it can be a progression of pizzas from the storefront snack bars along the main streets. Take, for example, Marchetti, on the corner of Via Calzaiuoli and Via de Tosinghi. Lined up in glass cases are squares of pizza with a choice of toppings: eggplant, egg, mushroom, artichoke, ham, and on and on. A slice costs about 60 cents, and is heated in a woodburning stove to order. This is no sullen fast-food pizza. Its topping is moist and fresh, its dough yeasty. and it can be followed by a parfait glass of fresh berries and whipped cream, even in winter.

Tradition has it that in Florence one pays homage to ice cream. Obsessives search for the supreme frozen distillation, and if the creaminess and smoothness can't compare with the creams of the south, the flavor is the thing in the ice cream of Florence The lazy search centers downtown, perhaps at Per Che No, at Via dell'Oche off Via de Calzaiuoli. The more energetic will walk off lunch for an hour or two on your way to Cavini. Its flavors are the legendary Florentine array or grape, rice, zabaglione and the like. But it would be heresy to miss the coffee ice cream, a frozen shot of espresso that will keep you awake for the walk back.

Once you no longer think of America as the ice cream captital of the world you are probably humble enough to learn what the Florentines have to teach you about steak. Take your lesson at Sostanza, leaving enough time to find this small restaurant that hides in a tiny street near the Excelsior Hotel. Sostanza looks like a public bath, lined in white tile and so small that its wood stoves are allocated more space than the tables. It maters not whether your waiter speaks English. With so many steaks passing by, it is easy to point. Huge, thick T-bones are charring on wood fires; heavily dusted with pepper and salt, they are speared onto plates and odorned only with wedges of lemon to be squeezed over them. They are not as marbled as America's best, nor as tender. But they have a beefy flavor nearly forgotten, and they are cooked to a crusty surface and red center that is steak perfection. They are to be washed down with rough red house wine at about 60 cents a liter.

A lesson in Florentine steaks could also be learned at Da Fagiole, but I was too busy learning other tasty lessons to get around to the steaks. The line forms down the block at lunchtime, the wait rewarded by a warm greeting - possibly accompanied by a hug - from the owner, who wedges you between busy eaters at long tables. A menu is superfluous, for the owner tells you in sign language what you are going to eat. Aside from your choice at the expansive antipasto table it may be ground veal cutlets with white beans, a soup bowl of stewed escarole, maybe thinly sliced beef rolled around artichokes and prosciutto, perhaps a veal stew with wine and rosemary. As each plate issues from the open kitchen, it gets a dose of deep green olive oil. The owner acts as master of ceremonies, shouting and encouraging and calling everyone baby doll.

Florentine trattorias are as rustic as Da Fagiole or as elegant as Mama Gina. Mama Gina's elaborate menu ranges from truffles shaved on your pasta to pigeon grilled on your polenta. But pastas and vegetables are the best dishes. This is the place to try paglia e fieno on its home ground, the fragile white and green noodes sauced with the richest, smoothest cream and bits of ham. Or seek the intrigue of penne with orange sauce. And surround youself with vegetables: tiny fresh peas with ham, airy fried zuchini in a puddle of fragrant olive oil. And float out bouyed by a chestnut meringue torte.

A visit to Florence is not complete without a trip into the Tuscan countryside. And maybe it doesn't even matter where in the countryside. But sometimes I think Restaurant Genovini can be but an invention of my imagination. It sits on the road in Casastrada, between Pisa and Siena, bounded by a gas station and an illequipped grocery. It consists of a giant high-ceilinged room that could be the community center of a large town. One wall is occupied by a modern fresco, another wall by a picture window overlooking vineyards and hills and a dismal little squirt of a fountain. There is no menu. There is no English spoken. What does the restaurant specialize in? in large portions. We wanted tagliatelle with truffles. But there were no truffles. Bring us whatever you have. After a wait, during which we consumed a week's ration of grand chewy country bread, our waitress appeared with a large bowl of noodles - with chunks of truffles, for a child had been dispatched to buy some for our lunch. If they were the first and last noodles I ever ate, I could have no complaints. Perfectly cooked noodles, tossed with butter, pepper and truffles, showered with grainy, pungent parmesan. We ate so much that we were glad there was no more, for we could not have refused a bite. Then came noodles with hare sauce, the heavy, gamy pasta specialty of the region. On we went to a mixed grill of crisped, well-peppered spareribs and toast skewered with succulent, pungent sausage and cubed veal. And delectable french fries. At the height of stomach-stuffed pain, we were presented with an omelet that used up the bits of truffles left over from our pasta. An olive oil drenched salad of lettuce, radicchio and celery leaves failed to revive us. Very strong coffee helped. A bill of about $10 a person left us weak with gratitude. Yes, I am sure I dreamed this lunch.

PARMA

Italy constantly tempts one with its delicious sights and compelling aromas. But the most wonderful taste in Italy comes after a lunch overindulged in Parma ham. It is mineral water with a slice of lemon floating in it. Buonissimo!

The manufacture of that ham and the processing of milk, both of them important industries in Parma, illustrate with splendid precision the contradictions in Italian food.

Prosciutto ham: we can't even get it in this country any more, at least not the real thing. While there are a lot of prosciutto hams in Italy, the prosciutto worth its salt is either Parma or San Daniele. Beyond that opinion there is confusion and disagreement. A Bologna shopkeeper, with Parma ham being made right up the road, says that San Daniele is the superior stuff. In Venice, with San Daniele nearby, the shopkeeper says Parma is clearly the best. Reverse chauvinism, maybe. But some will tell you it's a matter of which brings the shopkeeper greater profit.

So you taste for yourself, and make a judgment. Then youfind another Parma ham that is different from the first, and reverse your judgment. Then people tell you that not only is the quality of the pork important, but the weather and the age of the ham. And that is hardly even kindergarten knowledge when it comes to understanding prosciutto. The end is saltier than the middle, so it is crucial, if you really care about such things, where your ham comes from. It goes without saying that the ham must be hand cut.

It gets complicated. So I sought an expert. Signor Alinovi, his ski sweater and denims peeking out from his white shirt and apron, is head of the prosciutto department of the Parmalat company, where he has been making ham for 34 years. The tool of his trade is a six-inch long needle carved from the cooked tibia bone of a horse. This needle is poked into a ham, then smelled to determine the ham's quality and age.

First the needle is poked into the upper fat - the sweetest part - then the main vein, then the strongest part, under the bone at the end. The holes are immediately resealed with fat, and Alinovi directs the ham for more aging.

Distinguishing a ham by smell is a matter of talent and experience, a very serious matter. Alinovi boasts that his 15-year-old son can already smell the difference in the three parts of a ham. But he has a lot left to learn. Every year Italy holds a Golden Nose competition to smell 200 hams, the prize being a golden needle.

Even in Italy, however, traditions change. This year's competition was won by a woman. And now Parmalat is selling the Belgians hams which are boned, presliced and vacuum packed with plastic forks and knives for picnics.

The beginning of the process has not changed, however. The pork legs are refrigerated, then their fat is covered with damp salt and the surface meat left exposed. The bone end is carefully salt-covered so the marrow will absorb salt. A 10-kilogram (22-pound) ham is refrigerated for about 20 days, the salt is rubbed off, and the ham is left in a humid room for 50 days. It is washed, then dried in a drying oven for 24 hours or, if the day is warm, in a room with the windows open. After being hung for 4 to 5 months, the ham is coated with waxy pork fat kneaded with enough pepper to keep away the insects. In all, a ham is aged 14 to 15 months. A simple process, it would seem, except that it has to be hung within the hills of Parma, no farther away than Modena. And factors such as humidity, amount of fat and weather affect the final product to the extent that a ham hung in less humid air is significantly paler and redder than a ham hung in damp air.

San Daniele hams another matter. The air is different. The hams themselves are wider, more highly seasoned, and pressed so that they are denser. Then there are the Langhirano hams. And the sweeter end and saltier end. And the 34 years of experience with a horse's tibia needle.

The simplest food is not simple in Italy.

I have seen the future and it is not refrigerated. Parmalat, besides producing traditional hams hung in the open air, is the largest dairy in Europe. And 80 percent of its dairy production consists of sterilized milk products that can be stored on the shelf for months. If Parmalat has its way, it will sell sufficient technology to America that we will be able to buy our milk as infrequently as twice a year and keep it on the pantry shelf.

The milk is heated instantly under pressure to 1300 Celsius, and within two seconds cooled to -20 C, packed in aluminum-lined cardboard cartons and sealed. No preservatives are necessary. The milk, the cream, the yogurt are pure and unadulterated. They do, however, taste like boiled milk. But you can probably find that out of yourself in a couple of years, when Parmalat expects to have its technology hard at work here.

Parma is a small city, but its industries are big. Besides dairy products, ham and - of course - parmesan cheese, it is a center for production of glassware and kitchen equipment. It is also the home of the largest pasta factory in the world.

The Barilla pasta company started as a bread bakery 101 years ago, and has branched into pasta, biscuits, sauces, even pizza mixes. Its diversification is limited to what the trade calls "the cereal transformation sector." Producing 250 thousand tons of pasta a year, Barilla claims the lion's share of the Italian pasta market - 17 percent of Italy's plain pasta, with its nearest competition, Buitoni, selling 4.5 percent. In all, Barilla produces 50 different basic varieties of pasta, 150 varieties if you consider minor variations in shape and size. Since Italy allows nothing but durum wheat and water in its spaghetti, and the U.S. requires vitamin enrichment in its pasta, Barilla has some adjustment to make in order to enter the American market, but it is on its way. Already selling to 42 countries, Barilla is beginning to sell also to Japan, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

All this pasta - a thousand tons a day in the single Parma factory - starts in giant shimmying machines that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be monumental flour sifters. Mixing is directed from a control room that could have been the set for "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3." Hundreds of levers relate to electrified flow charts that draw flour from 11 production silos. Flour and water are mixed and pressed into shape. That's all. Ten minutes from flour to spaghetti. Durum wheat flour from Italy, the U.S., Canada and France, is kneaded and extruded, looking like giant hula skirts as the curtains of spaghetti pass to the cutters. The pasta is dried for 12 to 36 hours in temperature-and humidity-controlled rooms. No people are in sight. One hundred fifty packages of spaghetti a minute are made by machines, all day every day except Sunday, when the machines are cleaned and repaired - by people.

BOLOGNA

In Bologna, two train stops down the tracks, pasta is made by hand, by women who roll it out paper thin with long rolling pins until you can read a newspaper through it. In Bologna you can stop into a pasta shop and order your tagliatelli and go on to do the rest of your shopping, returning to pick up your made-to-order pasta when you are finished.

In Italy, where food is always in capital letters, the very ideal of Bologna, the true food capital, is intimidating. Bologna is the food center, the epitome, the standard by which Italian culinary sophistication is measured.A lot of fascinating food lurks along those arcaded sidewalks of Bologna, and the restaurants - many of which grow basil in their windows in winter - are most serious business. I longed to try Diana because everyone agreed it was the most Bolognese restaurant, but it was closed. I would be forever grateful to have Da Nello restaurant within driving range of my everyday life, if only for its curly gramigna bathed in cream with mushrooms and cheese, or its chocolate charlotte that is a sort of Bolognese hot fudge sundae, or even for its homey bustle and boxes of vegetables and fat mushrooms and diners with their napkins tucked in their collars. More modern, less revered Bolognese restaurants take equal care with their food. Notai, for example, may have tastelessly covered its ancient frescoes when it converted its second floor into a piano bar, but it still serves pasta rolled by hand, not by machine; five different kinds of delectable breads; and memorable fresh green beans.

Eating in Bologna, however, should not be relegated only to restaurants. The city is the ultimate picnic basket. Smell the chestnuts on the street. Count the cafes and delicatessens on a single block; it will take two hands. Note the thumb-size fruit tarts and sip the thick hot chocolate insulated with an inch-thick layer of whipped cream. A single walk teaches of cheeses wrapped in leaves, of turnovers stuffed with artichokes and ricotta, of earthcovered small hams, of stuffed turkey a mosaic of meats and eggs, re-formed with the head on and sold by the slice, of rocky chunks of torrone, of peppered rolled porchetta, of rice custard cakes, of oily shards of fried pork rind I kept in my purse and nibbled for weeks after, of dark, moist air dried beef. And most of all, of parmesan, the shops reeking of it - strong, salty, "of an age" - in craggy wedges.

In Bologna I would picnic, no matter what the weather. I would spread out a feast that stretched across the picnic blanket, the retaining wall, even the hotel dresser and desk. I would sample San Daniele and Parma prosciutto, along with mortadella and the strongly meaty stuffed pigs' trotter, zampone. I would try ricotta and buffalo mozzarella on their home ground, but would not miss torta di formaggio, a curlicued gorgonzola cheese loaf that tastes like cheese-flavored whipped cream. I would have crisp, salty black and green olives and the oily mushroom salad, funghi trifolati. From a delicatessen I would sample the salads, maybe a stark white codfish spread. I could not resist investigating Italian potato chips, and would be glad I did. Whatever shellfish I could find - maybe razor clams that jump when you touch them - I would open with the knife edge of my folding corkscrew. Breads I would certainly have, well-browned, chewy ones. With it all I would drink something dark and full and young, maybe a cabernet from Bergamo. Then I would nibble rotund pears and plump grapes. Finish with pine nut cookies, chewy and spicy. Finally, I would have hazelnut-rich chocolates in foil wrappers, and pull from the depths of my bag a miniature of pale brown old grappa to settle it all. That would fix Italy forever in my mind, fill me with food for the memory. CAPTION: The cover illustration is by Bill Burrows; Illustration 1, no caption; Map, no caption, By Richard Furno; Illustration 2, no caption