By Holly V. Kapherr –
Why Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region should be your next culinary pilgrimage.
You might think Rome and Naples have the market cornered when it comes to cradling Italian cuisine. But northeast Italy, especially the region of Emilia-Romagna, is home to some of the most essential staples. Pasta, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano all have their origins there, and traveling through the area is easier than ever either by car or train. On a trip to the region, you’ll taste iterations of favorite classics you may not have seen before and find the birthplace of many now-commonplace ingredients, still in their original state, steeped in centuries of tradition. Here’s a week-long itinerary for a gustatory gallop through Emilia-Romagna, where you’ll leave with a full spirit and a full stomach.
›› DAYS 1-3: Bologna
Bologna is not only home to the world’s oldest university, founded in 1088, but it is also where pasta first debuted. The capital of Emilia-Romagna and seventh-largest city in Italy has long been home to the Slow Food movement, and is now where you’ll find the world’s first food “theme park,” the brand-new FICO Eataly World. Bologna has two nicknames:
“The Learned One,” due to its high culture and love of learning (the college-age demo lends the otherwise ancient city some serious verve) and “The Fat One,” for its rich culinary traditions dating back centuries.
Here’s what you’ll love most about Bologna: It’s largely skipped by the majority of international tourists, so you won’t be ducking hawkers or sifting through tourist menus to find the authentic bites in town. They’re everywhere. Ground Zero for Bolognese cuisine is the Mercato di Mezzo, where winding streets are full of merchants selling produce, fish, meats and cheeses alongside hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants jammed to the brim with locals vying for tortellini in brodo, tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce (yes, the meat-and-tomato ragu is from here, too) and fat-studded slivers of mortadella. Head to favorite Zerocinquantello, just outside the main square, and try to score a table outside for the city’s best people-watching with a carafe of local Lambrusco, a fizzy semi-sweet red wine, in hand.
Allow at least a full day to tour FICO Eataly World, about 20 minutes outside the city by car or by shuttle bus, which leaves every half-hour from the Bologna Centrale train station. If you’re continuing to Modena from here, rent a car and go at your own pace. FICO Eataly World opened in November 2017, and covers over a million square feet of space. The place is so big, they off er complimentary bikes for guests to cover ground, complete with baskets for hauling purchases from the more than 2,000 partner companies from all over Italy. Take a truffle-huntingor gelato-making class, learn about the cows, chickens, pigs and bees kept on the grounds, or tour the on-site vineyards and taste wines and beers from all over Italy. There’s plenty to keep you busy here, including 25 restaurants, three of them with Michelin stars. Looking for an authentic survey of Emilia-Romagna’s culinary cast of dishes? Try the Michelin-starred darling of the Slow Food movement, family-run La Pasta di Amerigo.
There’s plenty to do in Bologna when you’re not stuffing your gullet with the city’s most famous dishes. Work off some of that starch with a walk to the Due Torri, Bologna’s two signature medieval towers, built in the 12th century as a safe house for the city’s richest families in case of invasion. And it’s not your imagination: the shorter tower, Garisenda, is leaning, which is why construction had to be abandoned. Its sister tower, the Asinelli, is a perfect opportunity for foodies to burn some calories and walk the 498 steps to the top on its steep wooden staircases. Don’t worry if you’re not sure you’ll make it in one jaunt—there are platforms every few floors for a little rest. On a clear day the view of the city from 97.2 meters is spectacular.
The Piazza Maggiore is where you’ll fi nd the imposing San Petronio Basilica, named for Bologna’s patron saint from the fifth century. The structure is stunning, and as the Bolognese like to joke, typically Italian, as it was left unfinished. The façade was to be completed in the Romanesque style, which gazers can see on the building’s lower portion, but by the time the masons were halfway to the top, Bologna’s power had fallen and money ran out. Still, it makes a great story. The inside is as captivating as it is enormous (it’s the tenth-largest church in the world) and includes a sundial calendar by astronomer Cassini and the only depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in Christendom.
If you’re arriving by train, the Starhotels Excelsior is just across the street from Bologna Centrale, so there’s no need to schlep your stuff on those cobblestone streets. The hotel is modern and rooms are spacious. The palacial five-star Hotel Majestic is as elegant as its moniker would suggest and stands as the oldest hotel in the city, originally built in 1738. In 1911, the palace was converted into a hotel draped in velvet and tapestries and rich with marble furnishings.
›› DAY 3-5: Modena
Less than an hour from Bologna’s winding streets and medieval porticoes is Modena’s charm and gustatory brilliance. Both balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano-Reggiano have their roots here, and you’ll want to visit their birthplaces first thing. Modena is both beautiful and walkable, with most points of interest just within a few blocks. It’s particularly enchanting at night, when the 12th century cathedral dedicated to Saint Geminanus in the Corso Duomo lights up like a fairytale castle. Parking is relatively easy here, as well, and some of the best sights require wheels as they’re just outside the city. Whatever you do, tour company Modenatur should be your first point of contact. Their guides and resources will help you make the most of this charming città.
Modena might already be on your gastronomic radar, as 3-Michelin-starred chef Massimo Bottura was featured in the very first episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table. His dining temple, Osteria Francescana, is currently rated the second best restaurant in the world, according to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and Aziz Ansari centered an entire episode around the restaurant in Master of None. If you have deep pockets and have made reservations at least three months in advance, by all means, mangia! If not, there are still fabulous spots to taste the area’s classic cuisine. Your first stop should be Acetaia Giusti, the oldest continuously running balsamic vinegar producer in the world, in operation since 1605. Balsamico is so precious to the area, a barrel is considered an inheritance for sons and a dowry for daughters of Modenese families, and many still produce their own barrels at home. Take the tour of the operation, settled in the charming hills and rolling vineyards outside Modena, where Acetaia Giusti sources the grapes used to make the vinegar. Take home a bottle of the real thing—it’s not easy to find in the States, where caramel coloring or other vinegar blends are often added. The truffle-infused variety is particularly triumphant.
Modena is the southernmost part of the region of Italy designated to produce Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and 4 Madonne is where you’ll see it made from the raw milk in vast copper vats to aromatic wheels in the aging room. The factory was originally built in 1967 and produces 75,000 wheels per year, 400 of which are made from the milk of the area’s rare red cows. Take a slice home with you; no need for refrigeration. After you bust it open, you’ll have 10 days to eat it, but we bet it won’t take nearly that long. In Castelnuovo, just outside Modena, you’ll also want to pickup several bottles of Lambrusco wine from the Setticani winery, which opened in 1923. Bottles run about $3 each and come in sweet, semi-dry and dry. Lambrusco isn’t popular in the U.S., so popping open a bottle at your next dinner party will spark some conversations among oenophiles. Just around the corner from the winery is the Villani Charcuterie Museum, just next door to the factory where the area’s most beloved cured meats are made. For a few euro, you’ll be treated to a private tour and tasting, which will take you through the history and tradition of charcuterie making in Italy.
The area occupied by Bologna, Modena and Parma is called the Motor Valley for good reason: it’s the home of Maserati, Ferrari, Lamborghini and superbike company Ducati. Stay in town and visit the Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena, where you can ogle around 20 different models from Ferrari’s beginnings through present day, plus see films about Enzo Ferrari’s life and tour the workshop that now houses Formula 1 Ferraris. Opt for the combination ticket and hop on the bus to neighboring Maranello, where the sister museum houses even more supercars. Another famous master called Modena home: Luciano Pavarotti. Since his death in 2007, his home, the Casa Museo Luciano Pavarotti, is now open to the public as a tribute to the maestro. The audioguide gives a rollicking overview of the rooms and how Pavarotti lived and loved in them. It’s clear from the sunny, yellow, spacious kitchen why Pavarotti considered food his third love (after music and art). Costumes from his career, beloved musical instruments, and paintings he worked on during his life are also on display.
Right in the middle of town, the Best Western Milano Palace Hotel manages to be both opulent and approachable. Guest rooms are quite large by European standards, and the front desk staff have all the best recommendations on restaurants, wineries and directions on how to visit the many UNESCO-designated sites in the city, including the stunning Baroque architecture of the former ducal palace from 1634, now a hub for the Italian military.
›› DAYS 6-7: Parma
The drive from Modena to Parma will only take about 50 minutes, but once you’re there, the landscape changes from medieval and Gothic to the modern side of Romanesque. Parma’s blush-pink octagonal baptistry serves as its centerpiece, and the cathedral that sits alongside it is striking. Parma is home to world-class art, remnants of history from the Roman Empire and Middle Ages through World War II and modern day, as well as delights for the palate like prosciutto di Parma and culatello. On foot is the best way to get a taste—both literally and figuratively—of Parma’s wonders. A good pair of walking shoes will be worth all the calories.
A walk around the old city will net you plenty of stopping points for a bite. For a sweet treat, visit Parma’s oldest pastry shop (the Parmigiani are particularly proud of their breads and confections), the Pasticceria Torino. The pastry shop recalls that once-upon-a-time era when great care was taken in the making of every handmade pastry. Take your time marveling over multicolored meringues, candied orange dipped in dark chocolate, and a dozen varieties of filled linzer cookies. Be sure to take home sugared violets—you’ll see the color purple all over town in foods, perfumes and décor, as a tribute to the Bourbon family that ruled Parma in the 16th century.
Lunch is always bustling at Degusteria Romani, where any local will tell you to sit near the deli counter where the patanegra, pancetta, mortadella, coppa, prosciutto, culatello and spalla are cut. These cured meats comprise several of the region’s distinctive quality-regulated products. For dinner, Ristorante La Greppia is a turn back to a genteel time, where dour career waiters in white coats know better than you do what you want to
eat, and where ladies receive a special white menu without prices.
For a more convivial dining experience, head to La Filoma, continuously operated as a restaurant since 1915. Chef Alessandro takes special care of each guest in the vast restaurant, which can feel like you’re dining at the home of your richest uncle: lavish, but homey nonetheless. Don’t leave without ordering one of the chef ’s fantastically structural dessert showstoppers.
Parma owes most of its history to its ruling families. The area has changed hands many times over the centuries, and each namesake was sure to leave its unique mark on the city’s culture and architecture. The massive Palazzo della Pilotta was originally built in 1583 and now houses one of the world’s best collections of Italian art in the Galleria Nazionale di Parma, including works by Coreggio, El Greco and da Vinci. As Parma was the birthplace of composer Giuseppe Verdi and the town is more than proud of its most successful son, try to time your visit with the Verdi Festival, a monthlong celebration of opera in October with performances all over town. If the fall doesn’t fit your travel plans, there’s always opera at the storied Teatro Regio, where Verdi made himself known to the world.
The four-star Maria Luigia hotel in Parma’s downtown was recently purchased by Sina Hotels, and renovations and modernization is underway. Still, it’s a central location within walking distance of the old city and the rooms are comfortable and were the first areas of the hotel to be renovated. Breakfast is included, and the front desk staff know where to find all the hottest new restaurants and can wheedle reservations at even the hardest-to-score restaurants.