Emilia-Romagna is one of Italy’s least-known regions – as far as visitors are concerned, at least. And yet, for anyone determined to penetrate the heart and soul of this great nation, Emilia-Romagna perhaps holds the key. It’s a hard-working, wealthy and progressive place: cradle of the innovative film directors Fellini, Bertolucci and Antonioni; and homeland of diverse talents such as Verdi, Pavarotti, Marconi and Ferrari. The three splendid cities of Bologna, Parma and Modena alone could deliver enough top-quality eating experiences to last a lifetime, and it is indeed the gastronomy that will leave the longest-lasting and most satisfying impression on any visitor.
You’ll find delicatessens bursting at the seams with egg pasta dishes made with soft wheat flour, such as freshly stuffed tortelloni, or gramigna and tagliatelle; more localised pasta dishes like garganelli, strozzapreti, anolini (typically from Piacenza) and cappellacci (typically from Ferrara); silky, pale-pink Parma hams; highly prized and revered balsamic vinegar from Modena, and, last but certainly not least, real-deal Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from Parma.
With eating elevated to an art form in Emilia-Romagna, where do you start your gastronomic tour?
No self-respecting foodie can consider a visit here complete without taking in Casa Artusi in Forlimpopoli. This renovated church now pays homage to Pellegrino Artusi, the father of Italian cooking whose celebrated cookbook, ‘The Science of Cooking and the Art of Fine Dining’, adorns bookshelves across the country, and is devoted to all things gastronomic through its restaurant, wine cellar and cookery school, as well as its library, bookshop and museum.
Given Bologna’s famously rich food culture (one of its nicknames, La Grassa, means ‘the fat one’, and the variety of stuffed pasta here needs to be seen to be believed), it’s something of a relief that it is also an eminently walkable city. Expend a few calories with a climb up the 500 steps of the 97-metre-high medieval Torre degli Asinelli; then walk from colourful, ever-fascinating Piazza Maggiore to the hill-top Sanctuary of San Luca – via the 666 arches of one of the world’s longest porticoes – to work up an appetite for dinner. It’s certainly do-able over a long weekend, as TV chef Rick Stein found out in his series for the BBC.
Head north-west from Bologna and you soon reach Modena, for many Italians a byword for style, class and – let’s face it – money. But the ‘Mink City’ (it boasts Italy’s highest per capita income) is also one of the nation's great gastronomic centres. Here you will encounter giant tortellini (called tortelloni ), sparkling Lambrusco wine, and streets crammed with restaurants. And then there is the balsamic vinegar: distilled from Trebbiano grapes and fermented through a series of progressively smaller casks, its finest examples attain a tantalising balance between sweet and sour, and can fetch some distinctly eye-watering prices.
With a refined air of contentment and wellbeing, Parma is another city you should visit. As you find yourself sipping full-bodied Sangiovese wine in regal, Art Nouveau cafés; or listening to the lyrical strains of Verdi wafting from architecturally dramatic opera houses; or savouring Prosciutto di Parma (the city’s locally air-cured ‘Parma ham’) and aged parmigiano reggiano cheese, having marvelled at a wealth of art, antiquities and splendid churches (the octagonal, pink-marbled Baptistry is a Romanesque jewel), you will wonder what on earth kept you away.
If you head to the coast, Ravenna has delicacies of its own. Legend relates that when the Romans went to retake the city from the Goths, the commanding general said to his wife: “If I could only put my foot there!” Wanting to offer her husband encouragement, she prepared a foot-shaped dough, and proceeded to cook it as some kind of edible Byzantine-era, good luck charm. When he proved victorious (thanks, no doubt, to the lucky ‘foot’), piede in Italian morphed into “piadina”, and a popular snack – flatbreads that can be filled with a variety of cheeses, meats or vegetables – was born.
For a glass of something to accompany your tastings, head into the Predappio Hills, whose fertile landscapes have helped to nurture grapes for over six centuries. In their midst you’ll find the Condello family’s Borgo Condé, which has just about everything – particularly if you are partial to a drop or two of rich red wine. With three restaurants to choose from, all of which boast superlative views over rolling vineyards, it’s a place you will find hard to leave.
And finally, you can’t go to Italy and not eat ice cream! Those in the know in Bologna tend to head to Gelateria Galleria 49, where they use creamy milk from South Tyrol, or Il Gelatauro Cremeria Funivia – whose Contessa is a must if you like almonds. Simply divine.