Having lived in and around Bologna for 3 years of my life, there is probably no region in all of Italy as close to my heart as Emilia Romagna. From the magnificent Byzantine frescoes in Ravenna to the two towers in the city of Bologna to the riches of a magnificent small town like Modena, where Ferrari has its headquarters, there is plenty to do besides eat, but Emilia Romagna is considered by many Italians to be the culinary apex of the entire peninsula. Traditional dishes like piadina, lasagne alla bolgnese, tortellini in brodo, tortelloni, tagliatelle al ragu
rule the world of breads and pastas. Prosciutto di Parma
, it's savvy cousin culatello
rock the porky front and what else can I say about Parmigiano Reggiano, the undisputed king of cheese? I have spent 10 years in NYC preaching the stuff here and not to deaf ears.
The city of Bologna is the true center, its poetic market streets in and around Via dei Orefici groaning every morning with every single thing in season and a couple primizie (the first sign of the new season) and a couple from out of season for the super rich. One of my all time heroes is Giovanni Tamburini, whose eponymous store on Via Caprarie says everything there is to say about a gastronomic temple in the heart of a vibrant and food obsessed town. If you are lucky he may break out a guitar, he is also obsessed about music and has met everyone from Dylan to Bowie at his store.
For a classic lunch I love Diana (via indipendenza, tel 051228162 ). I order the classics here, culatello, tagliatelle al ragu, lasagne garnished with hard boiled egg; the cart of bollito misto alone can bring me to tears. Which ever mushrooms are in season will be served here as well as truffles, particularly the whites, often tossed with ovoli mushrooms, tiny arugula and shaved Parmigiano and good oil from Brisighella.
A little trendier looking and also serving seafood is Battibecco (via battibecco, tel 051223298), on a tiny back street off of Piazza Nettuno. Just outside of town in Trebbo di Reno is an old inn with a great restaurant called Antica Locanda del Sole (via lame, tel 051700102) operated by Guido Paolato, a master of wine, tradition and innovation. The tasting menus are matched with wines and sing the local and national wines hymns of joy. There are also rooms to sleep off the extra grappa and start fresh the next day.
During my three year stint in bologna I worked at Trattoria La Volta in Borgo Capanne, a tiny little village up the mountain from Porretta Terme, the closest "big" town outside of Bologna. It was at La Volta, under the tutelage of Betta and Mara Valdiserri, where I really learned about the simplicity and purity of Italian dishes. La Volta is no longer there, but taking its place, in the center of Porretta Terme is "Trattoria delle Tele"
(Piazza Massarenti 0039 0 534 24575) opened by the same Valdiserri family. Just as good, if not better than La Volta, Trattoria delle Tele
focuses mostly on traditional Tuscan – Emilian Apennine dishes but also has expanded their repertoire to include "revised traditional" where they have taken more risks expanding their traditional menu.
Northwest to Modena, home of aceto tradizionale, the real balsamic vinegar, and as importantly a tiny little shop called Hosteria Giusti (vicolo squallore, tel 059222533) run by Nano Morandi and his wife Laura. If there is one stop on your trip to Italy, wherever in Italy, it must be here. You enter a jewel box of a salami shop with a traditional banco replete with prosciutti, salame, lardo, cheeses, and then your eyes focus on baskets of great wines from around the world? I mean Yquem, DRC, 1st growth Bordeaux and the like, along with the Sassicaia, the Grattamacco, the Gaja and all of the regal wines of Italy. Well what a funny little shop, I thought to myself on my first visit. Well, you walk back to the end of the shop and there is a door, behind which there is the 5 table trattoria of my dreams. Everything I have ever eaten here, from the simple gnocco fritto served topped with the most fragrant of lardo, hand made tortelloni with sage and butter, green tagliatelle al porcini and perhaps the most decadent of all, crispy slices of Zampone with savoury zabaglione. There are enough wines in the restaurant alone to serve until the year 2050, but there is a shop across the alley in the back where the real collection lives, probably 5000 bottles of various and exquisite producers and vintages.
Further up the via Emilia is Parma, yet another jewel in this tasty tour. Verdi was born just outside of Parma in Roncole and there is an excellent museum in his house there, well worth the trip. For dining in Parma, I love Cocchi (via gramsci, tel 0521 995147) where the produce arrives all day during lunch and the customers strive to see it roll in and then immediately order some. This is a truffle and porcini place when in season in the fall and it fells like it. At La Greppia (strada garibaldi, tel 0521 233686) the food is a little more modern, but the style reflects this tasteful town. The place is usually filled with a good combo of hipsters and old guard eating new takes on classics and a lot of creative tasty food like insalata dei nervetti with chestnuts and currant vinegar or baccala with capers and citrus. The wine list is killer here too and the desserts are all tasty as they are new.
Perhaps one of the craziest places to eat in all of Italy is al Cavallino Bianco in Polesine Parmense. Here only the most traditional salumi and incredible dishes are served in an stunning and elegant room all presided over by the Spigaroli family. Last visit was a menu of 9 house made pork variations, including the most ethereal culatello, followed by crisp frogs legs and then followed by the thinnest of tagliolini with cinnamon cap mushrooms and then sturgeon with melting potatoes. Each of the courses was poetry and place, the weighty air of this lower ground evident in every bite, every breath, the entire experience, like all of Emilia Romagna, a poet’s dream.