There’s no region more noted and celebrated for its food than Emilia Romagna. Emilia Romagna is Italy’s gastronomic powerhouse. No small feat in a country known for its food culture.
The region itself is well-off, happy, filled with cities with the highest quality of life in Italy. Modena, Bologna, Parma – each famed for its food and world-class ingredients (balsamico, bolognese and ham, to be precise) and each relaxed, well-running and a misura d’uomo, just the right size. It’s worth a visit for the beautiful città d’arte, the countryside vistas and the people alone, but then, there’s the food.
Each town in the region has developed its own specialty, so each new stop in the region offers something new. Let’s get into it, shall we?
It’s when you start studying the different cold cuts of Italy, in particular Emilia Romagna, that you realize what purists the Italians are on their food. Emilia Romagna is the land of Parma ham, culatello, mortadella (also known as Bologna, a city in the region), and salame all’aglio, each with a stringent production method and curing process. Take cultatello, for example, a slice that comes from the leanest part of a pig’s hind leg. Not just its hind leg, but its right hind leg, which is the one the pig tends to sit on. The left is used for standing up and so is more muscular and less lean. You see what I’m saying? Not only that, but the pigs have to be raised in the flat plains between Parma and the Po River. You get the idea.
“Pig is like the music of Verdi: it’s all good, you don’t throw away anything.” – expression from Parma
Each of these different salumi should be tried – even mortadella. This isn’t anything like the baloney you’ve been raised with. It’s large and flavorful and often has slivers of pistachio inside. The most famous salumi from the area is prosciutto crudo di Parma, prized throughout Italy.
Fresh pasta and bolognese ragù
In Emilia Romagna, the pasta is made fresh, with flour and egg. The soft, yellow pasta shines in this region’s classic pasta dishes: lasagne, tagliatelle al ragù, tortelloni, fresh tomato sauce. Though there are a ton of options, including all of the not, yet mentioned filled pastas such as tortellini, with fillings that vary from meat to cheese to vegetables and even fish, but by far the most internationally famous is the classic Bolognese ragù. What we in America call a simple “meat sauce” is actually a divine topping completely unlike what we know as meat sauce. Made with a simple soffritto, pork and very little tomato, it’s cooked for hours into something paradisiacal. The bolognese ragù is most typically used in a classic lasagna recipe (which doesn’t contain ricotta cheese, Americans) or atop freshly-made tagliatelle.
It’s not uncommon to be offered a tris as your primo in Emilia Romagna. That is, instead of one pasta dish for your first course (primo) they’ll give you a little bit of three different pasta dishes, so you can enjoy them all.
Cotechino or zampone
Both Cotechino and Zampone are similar. Cotechino is a ground and flavored pork sausage and its relative, Zampone, is pig foot filled with minced pork and spices. Zampone is a classic New Year’s Eve meal, but I find many Italians replace it with cotechino for the end-of-the-year meal. Both are native of Emilia Romagna. Warm and hearty, they’re usually served with lentils which serve as a natural symbol for abundance, and have come to represent money and good fortune.
Read more about Cotechino and lenticchie and its New Year’s Eve tradition
A piadina can be found throughout Italy and though it actually refers to the type of bread used to make it, nowadays it’s used to mean a type of sandwich made with this large-flat wrap. Made with flour, salt and water, the piadine in Emilia Romagna are made with strutto, a type of lard or shortening that adds a special kind of flavor. The quintessential lunch break or fast food, get a piadina filled with the region’s best salumi and squacquerone cheese, used especially in Emilia Romagna.
What most call Parmesan cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano is nothing like pre-grated Parmesan you’ll find in America. (Are you noticing a theme here?) Actually, most of the Parmigiano eaten in America is fake. Real Parmigiano-Reggiano is a Denominazione d’origine Protetta (DOP) product and highly regulated by the Italian government. Look for the Parmigiano with a Parmigiano-Reggiano seal stamped on it to be sure it comes from a regulated producer and that it’s the real deal. Aged 12 months up to 36 months, they call it the King of the Cheese.
Another famous cheese of the region is the soft and sweet Mascarpone. Completely different from Parmigiano-Reggiano in nearly every way, Mascarpone is sweet, buttery and typically served as a dessert. It’s the cheese used to make the cream in tiramisù but in Emilia Romagna, it’s often served alone to truly enjoy the flavor.
Aceto Balsamico is not your run of the mill vinegar. It’s a deep, brown liquid made fresh each time from Trebbiano grapes and aged for up to twelve years, tuning the flavor by moving the balsamico to different barrels made of different woods. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale can only come from Modena and is judged by a special consortium that, according to Fred Plotkin in his incredible book Italy for The Gourmet Traveler, rejects nearly 80 percent of the aceto balsamico made.
For more, read blogger Gigi Griffis’ experience searching for and tasting authentic Aceto Balsamico in Modena
Authentic Aceto Balsamico is as costly as liquid gold but packed with flavor – add just a few drops atop vegetables, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, potatoes, meat, even eggs to completely enhance the dish.