Every country has its food capitals, especially in Europe. France has Lyon. Spain has San Sebastián. And Italy has Emilia-Romagna, the root of all things delizioso in the country. The region’s center is its sophisticated capital at Bologna, while the surrounding landscapes include the grassy flatlands that breed pigs for the region’s prized hams, and the verdant Apennines Mountains, where prized truffles populate the valleys. The offerings in Emilia-Romagna, which sits just north of Tuscany, are so abundant, that it’s a good idea to savor it all with a food-focused tour operator, such as the highly regarded Tour de Forks, based out of the U.S., or Food Valley, located in Parma. Either way, whether going by guide or exploring on your own, let your appetite take the lead, and be sure to enjoy these 10 culinary treasures.
A serial traveler who often lets a country’s cuisine dictate her itineraries, New York City-based writer Kathleen Squires has visited all 7 continents and over 60 countries, with stints living in London, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires. Her work also appears in The Wall Street Journal, Details, Saveur, Cooking Light, and National Geographic Traveler.
One of Italy’s most ancient and popular cheeses dates back over 900 years. Today, it's still made as it was in medieval times, with milk from cows fed exclusively on local hay (with no additives in the resulting raw milk) that's aged for a minimum of 12 months (and a maximum of 3 years). The salty, aromatic, fruity, and nutty flavor makes it wonderful to eat on its own, or as an essential finish to many dishes, from pasta to soup. Parma is the cheese’s homeland, and Il Trionfo is one of the area’s leading producers, making 20 giant wheels a day (the majority of which are aged 24 months). Tours that walk visitors through the cheese-making process can be arranged by appointment.
Balsamico de Modena
The Italians claim that balsamic is the be-all and cure-all of vinegars. It's said to be an energy booster, a throat salve, a skin enhancer, and an aphrodisiac. Discover the nuances of “the dark gold of Modena,” via a tour and tasting at Leonardi, the exclusive producer of balsamic for the UK and Monaco royals. During a side-by-side tasting, straight from the barrels, of vinegar aged 35 years and up, visitors will experience the realm of flavors—from notes of cherry to honey to raisin. At the shop, grab the balsamic “pearls” with truffle, fantastic when served on Parmigiano cheese. Another prime producer in the region is Giuseppe Cremonini, whose line of quality balsamic just debuted in the U.S.
Prosciutto di Parma
So just what do the pigs primed for Parma ham eat? The whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano. This diet lends the famous Prosciutto di Parma its distinct flavor, while the Parma Ham Consortium, established over 50 years ago, makes sure that the Landrace, Duroc, and Large White pigs used are sourced solely from the region. The cured meat is hung for a minimum of 12 months in order to obtain its salty, fragrant flavor. Parma is so proud of its prosciutto, there’s even a museum dedicated to it, and the region hosts a prosciutto festival annually.
A close relative of prosciutto, culatello is the most regal ham in Parma. And the renowned king of culatello is Chef Massimo Spigaroli, who sets up shop at Antica Corte Pallavicina, a 14th-century castle outside of Cremona. Spigaroli follows the artisanal tradition of his great grandfather, a pig farmer who raised black-haired swine for the maestro Giuseppe Verdi on the very same land. Spigaroli’s brick cellar is full of the prized ham, reserved as it ages for notables like the Prince of Wales and Alain Ducasse.
The process to produce culatello is staggeringly laborious: It involves massaging the meat with salt, garlic, and Fortana wine; letting it rest for a period of 4 to 5 days; washing it in vinegar; sewing it up in a pig bladder; putting it under pressure; leaching its liquid before drying it; then maturing the salumi in the basement for a minimum of 15 months and a maximum of 3 years. Once it's removed from the bladder, the ham is soaked in white wine for 2 days before it's cut. It’s worth all the work: The result is a rich, deep, lush, intensely porky, gorgeously funky slice of meat. One of the two on-site restaurants is Michelin-starred, and Spigaroli also offers cooking classes in his famous kitchen.
Where else to enjoy the world’s best meat sauce then the city that lends it its name? In a classic Bolognese, veal, pork, and beef are slow-cooked for hours with carrot, celery, onion, a little milk, a splash of wine, and just a touch of tomato, coming together for a thick and succulent companion to pasta. The citizens of Bologna have a hard and fast rule, though: Never serve Bolognese on a meat-stuffed pasta. Locally approved pairings include tagliatelle, pappardelle, fettuccine, and (cheese-stuffed) tortellini. Find great versions of the dish at 87-year-old Trattoria Caminetto d’Oro and the rustic Trattoria Belfiore, both in the center of Bologna.
Tortellini en Brodo
Locals call it “hangover food,” but no matter what your state of being, this sumptuous pasta, floating in a powerful broth, is a sure crowd-pleaser. There’s one potential reason it’s so enticing—legend has it that tortellini takes its shape after a woman’s navel. Traditionally filled with meat (poultry, veal, or beef—or even a blend of the three) and served in a rich, piping-hot broth, this winter-friendly dish is particularly restorative. Sample great examples of it at the restaurant La Greppia in Parma, where the pasta is stuffed with beef and breadcrumbs, and swims in a chicken broth; and at the legendary restaurant Diana, in Bologna, where the tortellini is stuffed with pork and served in a rich chicken-and-beef soup.
The foothills between Bologna and Modena are rife with truffles, which is certainly reason to celebrate. And that’s exactly what the population does comes fall, when the gems are abundant. In October and November, the Tartufesta festival focuses on the white truffle, with markets, tastings, and special menus at local restaurants. In November, just outside the city of Ferrara, the annual Tuber Magnatum Pico Festival also hails the white truffle. All season long, the restaurant Amerigo 1934 in Savigno features one of the area’s most revered truffle-tasting menus, where the delicacy graces eggs, pasta, meat, butter, and more.
Yet another charm from Modena is this wine, made from red grapes; it stands out for its effervescent quality. The winemaker Chiarli, founded in 1860, is the oldest producer of Lambrusco in Emilia. A visit and tasting to the winery will expand any preconceived notions about the wine. Many don’t realize, for example, that Lambrusco can range in color from a light rose to the more familiar ruby red. Some of the premium sips include the fresh and fruity Sorbara DOC and the dry, creamy Vigneto Enrico Cialdini DOC.
One of the region’s most adored street foods, piadina is a flatbread, simply made with flour, water, sea salt, baking soda, and lard. At the kiosks where it's sold, the bread is grilled to order on a clay plate known as a teglie, before its stuffed with cheese, ham, vegetables, and sometimes even sweet fillings such as fruit preserves. Travelers can learn how to make the snack at Casa Artusi, a culinary center founded in 2007 to honor the father of Italian gastronomy, Pellegrino Artusi. Artusi was a traveling businessman whose claim to fame was the 1891 publication of La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well), credited as the “bible” of Italian cuisine. Fun fact: Piadina was eaten in space by Russian cosmonauts on the International Space Station, during the “Mediet” (Mediterranean diet) experiment.
Michelin Starred Restaurants
One of the best ways to enjoy the bounty of Emilia-Romagna is through dishes prepared by its most talented chefs. The region is home to 26 Michelin-starred restaurants, including the thee-star Osteria Francescana in Modena, helmed by world-famous Chef Massimo Bottura. It's also, according to San Pellegrino's list of the “World’s Best Restaurants,” the number three restaurant in the world. Other Michelin darlings in the area include Parizzi, in Parma, where the meal doesn’t start with a simple breadbasket, but rather waffles made from Parmigiano-Reggiano. You know Chef Marco Parizzi’s menu is notable when you spot internationally acclaimed chefs such as Cesare Casella in the house (as we did). Another gastronomic gem: Modena’s L’Erba del Re, where Chef Luca Marchini is hailed for his technique, which balances the “mind, heart, and hands” in dishes such as pappardelle cooked in a 25-hour ragù, featuring five kinds of meat—sausage, beef cheek, veal tail, pork neck, and bacon.