Mamma Mia, now that’s Italian!
The enchanting region of Emilia-Romagna, just north of Tuscany in north-central Italy, remains an under-the-radar destination for its ivy-draped castles, ancient villages, Lambrusco vineyards, and centuries-old university hub of Bologna. What most people don’t know is that many of our favorite Italian foods originated in this unassuming gastronomic region, where they’ve been celebrated for centuries. Spaghetti Bolognese? That’s just for starters—though it’s not necessarily what you think it is. Read on.
Spaghetti alla Bolognese
Perhaps one of Italy’s greatest exports, this most famous Italian dish, with its tangy, tomatoey meat sauce and long, spindly noodles, comes from the ancient city of Bologna, right? Actually, no. If you ordered spaghetti alla Bolognese in Bologna, you’d get a funny stare. What most of the world considers to be spaghetti Bolognese derives from what is more properly known as tagliatelle al ragu. That is, long-simmered, minced-beef sauce (“ragu”) served over tagliatelle pasta—with very little tomato. As all Italians will tell you, one would never think of serving meat sauce with skinny noodles—all the good stuff will slip right off.
Where to try it in Emilia-Romagna: Every restaurant, trattoria, and osteria in Bologna worth its Parmesan cheese sells a delicious version of tagliatelle al ragu, and Bolognese argue about which is the best (other than their mother’s, of course). A treat is Trattoria Anna Maria, where Anna Maria Monari has been preparing her version since the ’80s—the ragu simmers for eight hours, though the fresh tagliatelle is so fresh it needs just eight seconds in boiling water.
Parmigiano Reggiano DOP
Benedictine monks produced the first batch of Parmigiano Reggiano—aka Parmesan cheese—nine centuries ago, and the cheese world hasn’t looked back. Produced in the realm of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and part of Bologna and Mantova, this delectable, tangy-hard cheese’s secret comes in the happy balance of super local ingredients—pure cow’s milk from two milkings the same day (one of which is skimmed), salt, and rennet (cured milk)—that are naturally aged for up to three years, according to stringent, government-approved rules. Hereabouts, Parmesan is oftentimes served as an appetizer, in little chunks, and dotted with age-old balsamic vinegar.
Where to try it in Emilia-Romagna: Stop by Società Agriocla Montorsi, a dairy located just outside Modena, for tours and tastings.
Prosciutto di Parma
Prosciutto—aka Parma ham—is ubiquitous throughout Italy: the impossibly thin slices of salty cured pork filling platters of antipasti everywhere. But the “King of Hams” derives from the region of Parma, where the prosciutto is produced from the hind legs of special heritage breed pigs that have been raised according to specific regulations. The meat is rubbed and massaged with an amount of salt proportionate to its weight, then slowly aged in the region’s sweet, dry air infused with the region’s essence of olive, pine, and chestnut. The prosciutto’s distinctive sweet Parma taste can never be replicated anywhere else.
Where to try it in Emilia-Romagna: Antica Salumeria Giorgio Pancaldi in Reggio Emilia has been celebrated for its Parma ham for centuries.
No one knows for sure who first produced the first tortellini—semicircles of fresh egg dough wrapped around a meat and cheese filling. But medieval legend gives that honor to an innkeeper in the town of Castelfranco Emilia, who hosted the goddess Venus and, seeing her naked, created a pasta in the shape of her navel. The first known recipe dates from the 1300s (with cinnamon-flavored broth being added in the 1500s), and traditionally was served only at Christmas and Easter and weddings, due to the cost of the prosciutto and parm cheese fillings. In these parts, they’re solely served in broth, though other Emilia-Romagna towns have adapted the recipe to create anolini in Parma, cappelletti in Reggio Emilia and Romagna, and cappellacci in Ferrara.
Where to try it in Emilia-Romagna: At the tortellini festival in Castelfranco Emilia, which takes place every September and features Renaissance costumes. Other times of year, try Tortellino Bologna, a tortellini-to-go joint in Bologna.
Lasagne alla Bolognese
It makes sense that the Greeks and Romans enjoyed their lasagna, since the wide, flat noodles are easy enough to dry out in the sun and bake in simple ovens. Many give Naples the honor of creating the first official lasagna, served up at special events such as the birth of a girl. That said, only in Bologna will you find the deliciously green-spinach-pasta-layered dish that has become the standard-bearer of what we serve up for Tuesday night dinner, though with a twist. The real-deal Bolognese comprises just the right amount of meaty ragu, besciamella creamy white sauce, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (not piles of hamburger meat, mozzarella, cottage cheese, and tomatoes—plu-eez!).
Where to try it in Emilia-Romagna: Again, virtually any restaurant in Bologna serves up extraordinary lasagna, the next best thing to everyone’s mother’s recipe. That said, the plein-air Trattoria dal Biassanot makes a divine lasagna verdi, featuring five layers of perfectly balanced creaminess.
True, it’s a little odd that “English soup” derives largely from Emilia-Romagna. Even stranger that it’s not a savory soup, but dessert. Its specific origins are uncertain, though many believe we have the 16th-century Dukes of Este, rulers of Ferrara, to thank. After falling in love with English trifle during frequent visits to the Elizabethan court, they asked their cooks to replicate it. Voilà—this delectable dessert that alternates layers of liqueur-soaked sponge cake with thick egg custard.
Where to try it in Emilia-Romagna: Caffè Arti e Mestieri in Reggio Emilia, headed by acclaimed chef Gianni d’Amato, serves up a killer Zuppa Inglese.
Mortadella (aka Baloney)
This is the tall tale of how the delectable mortadella di Bologna ended up becoming known as Oscar Meyer’s primo lunch meat. Baloney’s predecessor derives from the city of Bologna, where for millennia (and to this day) it enjoyed a favorable reputation as a sausage made from lean pork and/or beef speckled with large lardons (and sometimes flavored with pistachios and garlic). Somehow, probably with the Germans, this charcuterie delicacy made its way to North America, where it morphed during the Great Depression and World War II as a popular poor man’s sausage made out of the cheapest meat parts and trimmings. After Oscar Meyer came up with vacuum-sealed packaging (and its famous baloney jingle), mortadella didn’t stand a chance. Now that’s baloney!
Where to try it in Emilia-Romagna: Wander the back streets of Bologna’s medieval-era Quadrilatero district to discover some of the best mortadella in tucked-away salumeries. Or try a panino martazza (short for mortadella) at Bologna’s Pigro Mortadelleria, on Piazza Maggiore.
If you know your salami, you know that’s a pretty generic term describing cured sausage that has been fermented and air-dried. And different regions throughout Italy have their different takes on the same. In Emilia Romagna, it’s all about the salame Felino, created in the hill town of Felino, where pigs have been raised since the Bronze Age. Beloved for its sweet, gentle flavor accented with salt, pepper, garlic, and white wine that have been cured for at least a month, salame Felino is considered one of Italy’s best. It was served, after all, in Parma’s royal courts for centuries.
Where to try it in Emilia Romagna: Visit the Museo del Salame di Felino between mid-March and mid-December for a primer on salame (and other cured meats), ending with a glorious tasting.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena
If you think you know balsamic vinegar, think again. Modena’s celebrated balsamic vinegar is not used for salad dressings. Instead, only a few precious drops of the rich, intense, sweet-sour liquid are dribbled on fresh strawberries, Parmiagiano-Reggiano cheese, or vanilla ice cream, or perhaps drizzled over grilled meats or a rich risotto. The thing about Modena’s balsamic vinegar is that it’s a serious artisanal endeavor that takes decades to produce the best—which is also why it can cost upwards of $200 an ounce. Ever since Roman times, it’s been meticulously created from whole pressed grapes—nothing else. The pressings are boiled down into a dark syrup, which then is placed into oak kegs and stored in the attic. Over time, the liquid is moved to progressively smaller aging barrels made from different types of wood—ash, mulberry, juniper, chestnut, cherry—adding a complex character bit by bit. Once you taste the real stuff, you’ll never go back.
Where to try it in Emilia-Romagna: While Medici Ermete e Figli in Montecchio Emilia is celebrated for its wines, it also produces exquisite balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia grape must. Call ahead for a guided tour of its artisanal vinegar works, including its barrels aging in the attic; tastings can be arranged.
Culatello di Zibello
Culatello di Zibello may not quite be a household name, at least in America—yet. This singular Italian salumi from Parma, often called the Emperor of Ham, involves the slow curing of the most precious part of a pig’s haunch in a tradition dating back to the 15th century (and not just any old pig, but the black near di Parma pig). The local fog and winter’s stinging cold combine to create its sweet, silky taste, though the ancient recipe is known only by local craftsmen. The good news? Just last year, Negroni, an Italian cold cuts company, finally nabbed the proper approvals to export it. Though, as with anything, it’s best at the source.
Where to try it in Emilia-Romagna: Drive the Strada del Culatello di Zibello (Road of Culatello), which ambles along the Po River through little villages famed for their culatello production (along with other local specialties).