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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca De Franco

Exploring the Culinary Delights of Emilia-Romagna: A Foodie's Dream Trip

Updated: Apr 22


Emilia-Romagna


Emilia-Romagna - Northern Italy


Every region in Italy (and town and village for that matter) thinks their dishes and products are the best. However, if Italians HAD to name another area of Italy that had superlative cuisine, they'd probably grudgingly say Emilia-Romagna. This northern Italian region, which borders Lombardy, Veneto, Piedmont, Liguria, Tuscany, Marche and the Republic of San Marino, has long been regarded as Italy's gastronomic epicentre. That's some accolade!


We stayed in Bologna for a week with our three children and made excursions to other cities in Emilia-Romagna including Parma and Ferrara. We did a lot of food sampling. Here's just some if it.


Bologna


Emilia-Romagna

The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region goes by a number of sobriquets including la dotta meaning the learned one, which refers to its revered university (the oldest in the world), la rossa - the red one - in reference to its historical red brick buildings (and also its left-leaning politics) and la grassa (the fat one) in recognition of its rich cuisine. In 2022, Condé Nast Traveller's readers voted Bologna as having the best food in the world and here are some reasons why...





Tortellini


These small filled pasta, which legend has it were inspired by goddess Venus' navel, hail from Emilia-Romagna, and are particularly associated with Bologna. Forget the packet varieties found in supermarkets, these are a completely different beast.



Emilia-Romagna
Tortellini in brodo

My first sampling was at Trattoria "Della Santa". This rustic, unassuming restaurant just two minutes from Bologna's main square Piazza Maggiore was packed with locals: always a good sign. I had the classic tortellini 'in brodo' (in capon broth). This is a culinary symbol of Bologna, so much so that there's an officially registered recipe.


This dish doesn't rely on bells and whistles for its presentation, the flavours do the talking and they were sublime. The filling, consisting of pork loin, prosciutto, mortadella, Parmigiano Reggiano and egg, works in perfect harmony with the broth, which further enhances the overall taste of the dish. I really couldn't fathom how these little parcels of wonder could be both al dente and melt-in-the mouth at the same time. Perfection!


Potato soufflé with fondue, mortadella mousse and balsamic vinegar



Emilia-Romagna
Potato soufflé with Parmigiano Reggiano fondue, mortadella mousse and balsamic vinegar

Whilst I believe this was a unique antipasto (starter) at Trattoria "Della Santa", it showcased three of Emilia-Romagna‘s star ingredients in the shape of Parmigiano Reggiano - as both a crisp and a fondue -, mortadella in mousse-form and Modena's black gold: balsamic vinegar. This was a wonderful marriage of flavours, which was light yet powerful with the balsamic cutting through the creaminess of the cheese beautifully.


Tagliatelle al ragù



Emilia-Romagna
Tagliatelle al ragù

You won't find spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna! People in this city simply call this luscious meaty sauce ragù, and it's only ever served with flat ribbons of tagliatelle, which hold the sauce much better than their skinny, round cousin.

The updated recipe for this classic was enshrined at the Bologna Chamber of Commerce in 1982 (see it here). I've always prided myself on making a good, and pretty authentic, version courtesy of the bible of Italian cooking: The Silver Spoon. However, I'm happy to admit that it isn't a patch on what we sampled in Bologna. My daughters, who are Bolognese aficionados, commented on how the examples they tasted on the trip were rich, luxurious and velvety with the perfect balance of meat and tomato flavours. I was struck by the sheer depth of flavour. The pasta was of course always cooked perfectly al dente.

Gramigna panna e salsiccia (Gramigna with cream and sausage)


Emilia-Romagna


We visited Va Mo La, a high-quality yet casual and quirky restaurant housed in a former library where you dine amongst the books.


I had the gramigna panna e salsiccia, which can appear on menus as gramigna con salsiccia where it can be 'red' - tomato-based sauce - or 'white' with a cream-based sauce. It is a dish found particularly in Modena and Bologna. The short, curly gramigna pasta is specific to the Emilia-Romagna region at large.

I'm not generally a massive fan of creamy dishes, but had a real hankering to try this. I'm really glad that I did. The sausage meat is crumbled and therefore delicate; the cream very lightly coats the pasta as opposed to smothering it, and is rich but not heavy at all. I really loved this dish.


My husband had their classic lasagne; a five-layered version, which incorporated the traditional Bolognese green lasagne sheets.


Roast guinea fowl with ricotta and white truffle



Emilia-Romagna
Roast guinea fowl with ricotta and white truffle

One of my favourite food moments happened at the wonderful Da Cesari. This is a family-run restaurant with huge character, outstanding food and fantastic staff, which we loved so much we visited twice during our stay. Alongside exquisite dishes such as scaloppina with cheese and Parma ham; Culatello di Zibello DOP, tagliatelle al ragù and pork cheek with balsamic vinegar and cabbage flan, which we all sampled, I had guinea fowl - another Emilia-Romagna favourite. This was stuffed with ricotta and had plenty of white truffle aka tartufi bianchi shavings. I can't explain just how tasty and satisfying this dish was. The flavours complemented each other perfectly as did the textures. It was an umami dream!





The girls loved their dessert tasting plate, which included homemade ice-cream with almond, panna cotta and chocolate flan. My pumpkin sorbet with balsamic vinegar was wonderful, sweet yet palate-cleansing. On one occasion, my husband and I just asked for some Parmigiano Reggiano as we were too full for a full-blown dessert. This too was a perfect way to round of a meal (that and a dessert wine 😉).


Piadini and crescentine fritte



Emilia-Romagna


It's definitely worth mentioning some of the more casual eating experiences we had. At Bella Vita we had two more Emilia-Romagna staples to takeaway: piadine and crescentine fritte.


Everyone else - apart from me - had piadine, which are flatbreads that are filled and folded. I opted for a crescentina fritta, a traditional fried bread of the region. We had them filled with a variety of ingredients including mortadella, prosciutto crudo, prosciutto cotto and squacquerone cheese (another tasty emblem of Emilia-Romagna). We ate them on the steps of the Basilica of San Petronio in the sunshine whilst waiting for the San Luca Express. Wonderful!



Emilia-Romagna
Crescentine fritte

We also had some delicious crescentine fritte as an antipasto in the much more formal surrounds of Caminetto d'Oro.



Ferrara




Ferrara is 45 kilometres north-east of Bologna. It was ruled by the Este family for over 350 years (1240 to 1597) who elevated it from a small medieval town to a prominent intellectual and artistic hub known as 'the City of the Renaissance.' Its rich cultural heritage is very much in evidence today. On the trip, completely coincidentally, I began reading Maggie O'Farrell's The Marriage Portrait (bought for me by a friend), which is all about Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, and his marriage to Lucrezia of the Medici dynasty.


Cappellacci di zucca



Emilia-Romagna
Cappellacci di zucca

Being closer to the sea, Ferrara has noticeably more seafood options. We headed to fish restaurant Banchina 52 right next to the cathedral to get our fill.


Before the fishy mains, I had to try the cappellacci di zucca. Ferrara is renowned for pumpkins and, along with cheese, breadcrumbs and nutmeg, they comprise the filling of this uniquely Ferrarese dish. The pasta itself is in the shape of a large 'peasant's' hat. So culturally important is this dish that in 2016, the European Union awarded it Protected Geographical Indication status. This means authentic cappellacci di zucca can only be prepared within the province of Ferrara. I had mine in a butter and sage sauce but they're often accompanied by a ragù. This was a delightful prelude to our scallops, fried calamari, prawns, crab 'meatballs' and breaded anchovies.





Parma


No visit to Parma - Emilia-Romagna's second city - would be complete without trying Parmigiano Reggiano and its prized ham.



We tried the hallowed Parmigiano Reggiano DOP as part of a mixed cheese plate (alongside Blu Ramandolo Pezzetta, Pecorino Toscano, Stagionato, Zoncolan di Capra and Robiola Fresca). Parallel to this we had a salumi plate, which as well as Prosciutto di Parma DOP included Culatello di Zibello DOP, a ham which is also from the province of Parma and made using nothing but the thigh muscles; Coppa Piacentina DOP from the Emilia-Romagna province of Piacenza and Salame di Felino Culare IGP aka the 'king of salamis', which takes its name from the small village where it's produced. It was all delicious!




It was a wonderful culinary and cultural trip. We just needed much longer than a week to fully explore this region and its cuisine. We'll be back!



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2 Comments


Stephen Collom
Stephen Collom
Apr 16

Great post Fran… making me feel like a trip to Italy and Bologna is needed😉🙌😊

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Francesca De Franco Collom
Francesca De Franco Collom
Apr 16
Replying to

Do it! Would have loved to take a cooking course but only so much you can see, do and eat in a week (and with kids!).

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