Family, friends and clients always ask me: which is the best region for food in Italy? I always say that is an impossible question for me to answer simply because each region in Italy has amazing dishes, products and culinary traditions that make every local cuisine irresistible.
Italian products and recipes are all about place of origin and seasonality. Nowhere where else can you go from a Sicilian Cous Cous to a South Tyrolian Knodel. Therefore my best answer to the initial question would be: “depends on the time of the year”.
In most parts of Europe this year summer has been atrocious. I was in Italy and Croatia just a few days ago and for most of the time it was either raining or cloudy. Like it or not summer is kind of over… but that is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to food and wine.
Now at this time of the year, as fall approaches, the answer for me is a no brainer. Nothing excites me gastronomically more than Emilia Romagna. If you, like me, are a foodie that loves stuffing yourself with hearty pasta dishes and intensely flavoured products, look no further as Emilia Romagna is where your wildest culinary dreams come true, a place where you will feel you have entered a “carb & fat paradise”. The region is mainly famous for its Parma Ham, Balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese but I thought I would highlight other products that are perhaps less famous but equally sublime.
I started my journey in search of some of the region’s ultimate culinary delights in the Northern part of Parma, right on the border with Lombardy. Here, more precisely in the village of Polesine Parmense just off the Po River, I have my first phenomenal gastronomic encounter. I meet a family of butchers that has turned their farm into a luxury and charming Relais where – apart from water and salt- everything is home made or home sourced, including the dishes from their one Michelin star restaurant. Upon arrival, Chef Massimo welcomes me warmly and instantly takes me for a tour of their beautiful estate. Our last stop is the one that I have been waiting for, the one that makes Massimo and this place incredibly special – The Culatello di Zibello ageing room. Prosciutto di Parma is known all over the world for being one of the finest hams and most certainly the best in Italy.
However for true connoisseurs, nothing beats a good Culatello di Zibello, a smaller cut that represents the finest result one can achieve from the leg of pork. Massimo takes this product to another level. We walk through the ageing room, surrounded by hanging hams. The smell is mystically intoxicating, I get goose bumps as I anticipate crossing the threshold into the secret room, where the chef stores his best pieces for a longer “Stagionatura”. Stepping into this room is like stepping into the wondrous world of Alice in Wonderland. All the Culatello’s here have already been reserved by some of the world’s finest chefs or royalty and each ham bears the name tag of a future owner. Massimo cuts me a small slice. It is very hard to put into words the intensity of flavour that this product has, a combination of sweetness, savoury and earthiness… you can really taste the magic of the land where it’s from. It is no surprise to see the names of Alain Ducasse and Prince Charles linked to this product.
After this unforgettable moment of joy, I head towards the southern part of Parma, driving across the countryside past some of the beautiful castles of Parma and Piacenza. This area is mainly famous for the production of premium “Prosciutto di Parma” and other various types of Salami but what takes me here is a particular wine: Malvasia di Candia.
Malvasia is a typical white wine that is harvested in different regions throughout Italy but the one that personally excites me the most is the Candia one as I find it more aromatic and intriguing. I meet the small artisan on his organic farm who is known in the area for taking a very extreme approach on this type of grape. After a brief tour of the cellar Alberto takes me where the magic happens, into the vineyard. He believes that wine is a natural product and therefore that all of the work should be done in the vineyard and not in the cellar so as to get a wine that is the reflection of the land where it is from. His take on the Malvasia, like most producers in the area, is to use the same vinification method used for red wine, namely one that involves long skin contact, which gives this white a completely different dimension. Orange in colour, this wine has an incredibly complexity of flavours ranging from mature yellow fruit to earthy and tertiary notes with a slight tannic structure given by the long skin maceration. It is a wine that perhaps most people will not like at first, but once you get “the hang of it” it becomes tantalisingly infatuating. A big wine perfect with semi hard mature cheese or rich white meat dishes. Of course the perfect match here in the land of Parma would have to be a good slice of Parmigiano. Alberto also tempts me with his extreme take on his Malvasia based sparkling wine. Amber in color with gingery and fermented apple notes, it is vinified using the Champagne method- and with 60 days of maceration makes it the only one in the world to have such a long skin contact, resulting in something unlike I have ever tried before!
My next stop is in Modena, the city of Ferrari, Balsamic Vinegar and of Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine which is at last regaining consideration as a high quality wine thanks to the hard work of some local producers. However my main reason for being here is because I am eager to try Italy’s arguably finest restaurant, and third in the world according to the San Pellegrino awards. Of course this is a very exciting moment for me as I have heard so much about the chef’s enthusiasm, his bubbly personality and his crazy interpretations on local classics.
From the moment that I walk in to the moment that I walk out everything is an experience. The artwork on the wall blends harmoniously in with the music in the background. Ok but what about the food? Well, this was not just a meal, it was a gastronomic journey where the chef holds your hand and gently takes you back in time to his childhood through the region’s finest products and culinary delights. Dishes like 5 temperatures and 5 consistencies of Parmigiano, his take on Pasta with beans or the memory of a sandwich with Mortadella are pure stroke of genius. His playful and artistic approach on local classics made with simple and poor ingredients reveal profound love and respect for his land, allowing him to take a step further to innovate but at the same time always maintaining a strong link with his origins and traditions. I could not recommend this place more, perhaps it is the best way to dig into the local culture to get an understanding of how local and historic traditions enable the chef to evolve and look at the future…a well deserved 3 Michelin star!
After this truly inspiring meal, I head towards Bologna. On the way, being a greedy Italian, I decide to stop by the village of Vignola for a healthy piece of cake. In this pastry shop, now famous all over Italy, an extraordinary chocolate-like cake was invented at the end of the 19th century. Its creator, Mr Eugenio Gollini, was always in search of dreaming up complex cakes and then perfecting the quality of their recipes day by day. At some point, when the master felt his recipe had reached perfection, he baptised it Torta Barozzi, in honour to the famous architect Jacopo Barozzi. To this date, the recipe’s secret is carefully guarded by the family; all we know is that is that the ingredients are a delicate blend of almonds, coffee, peanuts and cocoa. In all honesty I don’t really care of the exact measurements, all I know is that it is unbelievably good. Some people say that its perfect match would be a drop of aged balsamic vinegar: I can only imagine how good the pairing would be – what a great excuse to come back.
I eventually reach Bologna and after a quick change I immediately head for my next meal. Certainly, the one thing I would recommend when selecting your hotel in Emilia Romagna is to make sure it does not have a set of scales!
I head to the outskirts of Bologna which, from all accounts, will apparently be a food coma experience. Not a bad idea considering that I have actually had very little food all day… From the moment I walk in I get an instant feeling of welcome, typical of the good rustic Trattoria. Perhaps it is the warm old school wooden interiors, or perhaps also the cozy smell of melted cheese and grilled meat. I have traveled quite a lot around the country and have eaten in plenty of restaurants given that my life passion is to sell Italy as a gastronomic destination. But this, people, is something else. Dishes such as grilled onion stuffed with cheese and rabbit liver, Tortellini with Parmesan cream, potato gnocchi creamed with a local cow’s blue cheese or their special home made sausages simply steal a piece of my heart away.
Rustic and robust dishes that bring a smile to your face and more importantly make your mouth water. This is your ideal place for top quality Mamma style home cooking… well I only wish my mom cooked like this! This is one of these contexts where you are perfectly aware that you are fool but, well, being in denial means you can just keep eating. After all, your taste buds might never again know such ecstasy! In order to digest all this food and have a good night sleep I should probably walk back to Bologna but instead I choose the lazy alternative and decide to go for one of their special home made digestives which I must say does help.
The next day, still full from last night’s feast, I regretfully decide to skip breakfast and head to the area between Forli and Cesena famous for their high quality wine production. Other than the red grape Sangiovese di Romagna (the same grape used in Tuscany to make Chianti) which in this area can reach high quality peaks, I am mostly intrigued by the local Albana grape, a white grape varietal suitable to make dry whites but apparently equally great for sweet wines. I decide to visit this local artisan known in the area for making perhaps the finest expression of Albana passita (sweet). Cristina, now the owner of the winery, strikes me for her determination in maniacally seeking the highest quality for her wines. All of them are sublime and reflect the characteristic of the “terroir” but I am here to try her Albana Reserve. A product that represents the ultimate challenge for Cristina as it is an incredibly difficult wine to make, especially at the level that she delivers. A wine that has been a revelation for the region highlighting the fact that even in this humble part of the region that is not internationally recognised for their wines you can make one of the world’s finest sweet wines.
What impresses me the most about the wine, other than its intense aromas of honey and saffron, is its incredible balance between sweetness and acidity making it extraordinarily drinkable and not overly sweet. I thank Cristina for this sensational tasting and head further south to the charming village of Santarcangelo di Romagna, not too far from the Adriatic coast for my last treat. I am hungry (remember I did not have breakfast!) I need to have a quick lunch before departing. Here in this part of the region, The Romagna area, one of the “must eats” is the king of street food Piadina. It is a flatbread similar to a Pitta that is then cut in half and filled with local delicacies. I arrive in a tiny Trattoria in the middle of the village reputed for serving one of the best Piadina. I order mine like a true local would with Squacquerone, a fresh and delicate local soft cow’s cheese, Rucola salad and Prosciutto crudo. The warmth of the bread with coolness of the cheese and the saltiness of the ham make it the ideal snack. Well I eventually turn into a proper meal as I cannot not resist and obviously have to go for a second one: a meal fit for a king!
I look at the watch and unfortunately time is over, I need to head to the airport unless I want to stay one more night, close my eyes and dream of sleeping with my head on a pillow of Lasagna. Some people say a way to a man’s heart is through the stomach… well after having experienced Emilia Romagna I could not agree more!