"Italy's Greatest Gastronomic Treasure, Emilia Romagna" - Forbes (USA)
If you ask an Italian where the best food is in Italy, you almost always get the same answer. “Eh,” they like to say. “At my mother’s house!”…looking like “how could you be so stupid to not know that?”
But if you push it to a regional discussion…as I have hundreds of times…the most likely answer is…”Emilia-Romagna”…the wondrous north-central region that lies in the fertile Po River Valley.
Oh, you may hear a few votes from Italians for Piemonte, and a few for regions of the south. You never hear the American’s favorite answer, Tuscany, because Tuscan cuisine is not viewed as something special in Italy…and most Italians haven’t read “Under the Tuscan Sun.” Once, in New York, a great restaurateur opened a place called Amarcord, a reference to Fellini, who was one of Emilia-Romagna’s greatest sons. No one came. Finally, the restaurateur closed the place for a week, re-tooled, and re-opened as Il Toscanaccio. The joint was jammed from Night One. I simply can’t tell you how many plates of spaghetti and meatballs I’ve had in America at places with names like “Tuscan Village,” or “Taste of Tuscany.” Whatever they think that is.
Nope. Americans aside, it is Emilia-Romagna that gets most of the votes over there. When sensible people try to explain this phenomenon, they usually point to the extraordinary number of products and dishes from Emilia-Romagna that seems to lie at the heart of “Italian” cooking. Emilia-Romagna is the home of Parmigiano-Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma, tortellini, and much more. And man o mano, are these wonderful things.
But on a recent trip to this gastronomic paradise, I came away with the feeling that it’s not a specific group of products that boosts Emilia-Romagna into the realm of heaven. Every region in Italy has remarkable specialties; prosciutto di San Daniele from Friuli, for example, easily competes with prosciutto di Parma…but it has not turned Friuli into a gastronomic hotbed. I actually visited three Italian regions on this trip, adding Tuscany and Sicily to my itinerary, spending equal time in each. On the plane back home, for amusement, I listed my top half a dozen meals of the two-week journey. I wasn’t trying to prove any thesis in compiling that list–but it turned out that 5 of the 6 meals were in Emilia-Romagna.
I ask myself: “Why?” Why does my heart race every time I’m headed towards Emilia-Romagna (even before I’ve ingested the prodigious cholesterol that awaits me)? That off-hand joke may be part of the explanation: this is a region of full-bore rich food, with, I’d wager, a lower percentage of calorie-counting maniacs trying to fit into their new outfits. Eating rich food seems so natural in Emilia-Romagna. And…miracle of miracles…it doesn’t seem oppressively rich! That bowl of tortellini in cream–well, somehow in this magical context, you don’t obsess about the fact that you’re not having a salad for lunch.
Furthermore, the hands that prepare these specialties…seem so true, and sure. There is great food being made all over Italy, but I can’t think of another place where food comes to the table as proudly as it does in Emilia-Romagna. And it’s not a noisy bragadoccio…it’s simply… “this is what we do. This is what my grandmother did.” I know, I know, that’s not uncommon in Italy…but the scale of this attitude in Emilia-Romagna, and the percentage of chefs and restaurants that really do hit the sublime, traditional spot, consistently…in my mind, these things set the whole region apart.
Sure, there’s lots of creative food in Emilia-Romagna, as everywhere. They have a top-ten-list molecular palace for chrissake, Osteria Francescana, three Michelin stars and all. But even there there’s tagliatelle Bolognese on the menu. When you look behind most of the creative frou-frou in Emilia-Romagna, you find it’s the soul of the region that anchors many dishes. The supremely powerful connection of chefs to their homeland can never be abandoned or improved upon here.
How did we fail to get this memo in America? You can’t blame Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the American food writer who wrote perhaps the greatest of all Italian cookbooks in English: The Splendid Table, published in 1994, about the cuisine of…Emilia-Romagna! The book is a cult classic, of course…but failed to inspire a nation-wide mania for Emilia-Romagna cuisine, as it should have. Never mind. You can pick up a copy today, and start working those amazing traditions in your own kitchen.
Better yet…get thee to Emilia-Romagna! Push off that trip to Venice, or Florence, or Rome…and put Emilia-Romagna on your itinerary instead.
That’s what I did recently. But my trip was unusual…and all the better for it…
Visitors to Emilia-Romagna usually focus on one of the Big Five cities that lie like the jewels in a diadem along the major regional highway that runs northwest to southeast.
Starting in the northwest corner of the Emilia region, you have Piacenza…then Parma…then Reggio Emilia…then Modena…then the big town, Bologna…Bologna the Fat, with its rich restaurants, and its Communist leanings.
But, as I say, this trip was different. Apart from quick drop-ins, I did not focus on the big towns, which is what I’ve usually done in the past. This was a trip into the heart of Emilia wine country, where the perfect wine to accompany this food–dry Lambrusco, purple and foamy–thrives (more on Lambrusco below). It is one of the prettiest rustic environments in Italy, lost in time–and perhaps the best place to discover the amazing food of Emilia-Romagna.
I started in the outer environs of Modena, the city so famous for balsamic vinegar production. In the past, I’d focused on Modena itself–where my one-time favorite restaurant in Italy, Giusti, a grocery store with a few tables in the back, thrived until the death of its owner some years ago (I hear it’s still doing well, by the way, with mama at the helm).
On this trip I started in the countryside, near the town of Cantoni, about two miles south of Modena…at one of the area’s most famous restaurants. But I didn’t hold that against it, because the food was riveting.
Europa 92 was opened in 1992 as a kind of palace of regional food, as excellent for the casual diner as it is for the serious party host seeking a grand, festive venue. But its real secret is the identity of its greatest fan: Luciano Pavarotti. The Big Guy actually lived next door, and always referred to Europa 92 as his favorite restaurant. We even know exactly where he used to sit–and my dinner, arranged by a major wine producer in the area, took place at Pavarotti’s table!
The staff is smooth and ultra-friendly. The environment is celebratory, fancy but not-too-fancy. And the food is wonderful.
Almost everywhere in Emilia-Romagna (and many other Italian regions) a meal begins with an array of salumi–but this array was one of the best of the trip.
The accompaniment, of course, was Lambrusco.
And the assault included some unusual items, such as the wonderful Europa 92 specialty, stracchino con patate–the local rindless cow’s milk cheese layered with mashed potatoes, topped with olive oil and, of course, good balsamic vinegar.
“We opened this restaurant in 1992,” the manager Luca told me…”with Pavarotti and with stracchino.” It is not a classic dish of the region: it is a specialty of the house. Don’t miss it.
For primi, several rich pastas worked their Emilia-Romagna magic, including the all-time regional classic, tortellini in brodo. More on this stuffed pasta in broth later, from my observations on the day I officially declared myself addicted to it. But the star of the primi here was a perfect bowl of golden, creamy risotto, made with Santandrea rice (a semifino variety that leads to a wetter risotto than Arborio does). A few rice-topping dribs of the local star, great balsamic vinegar, didn’t hurt.
The huge, happy party that night in the main dining room was feasting on roast pork…
…and if you can talk your way into some of this ultra-porky, ultra-crisp-and-moist stuff, don’t fail to do so. But there are plenty of other mouth-watering secondi options on the menu:
I always hate to say, “leave room for dessert”–because, frankly, who wouldn’t, even without my advice? But at such a large and delicious food-fest as this, I must say, “leave room for dessert”–because there are a few things incontestably worth waiting for. Ignore most of what’s on the big-deal-restaurant chariot, which seems to have “show” in mind…but zoom like a sugar-seeking missile into the mascarpone cake…
…which is the restaurant’s most famous confection. And pair it please with the chocolate and coffee cake…
…which is the most famous of all Modenese dessert specialties. If you dare (dare! dare!), have them together on the same plate, appropriately sauced.
This is Emilia-Romagna after all, where a calorie amnesty is always in effect.
The next thrill occurred at an entirely different kind of place–the quasi-creative Il Cappero alle Mura, in the enchanted hilltop village of Castelvetro di Modena, even further south of the big city.
What am I doing in a creative restaurant? Well, I was taken there as part of an event…and…there was enough of the Emilia-Romagna spirit in the food, jacked up to a high level, so that I walked happily into the night after dinner.
Here’s the kind of menu description that usually drives me to distraction:
“Sartù di riso nero ‘Venere’ con cuore di Parmigiano Reggiano 24 mesi e crema di zucca”
You can parse it out with a little Italian…but the point is…the pretentious verbiage left me totally unprepared for the greatness of the black rice (nothing to do with squid!) that showed up on my plate.
This rice had a perfect crunchy-tender texture, a huge grain-like flavor, and found a perfect partner in the two-year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano that was woven into the dish. Oh those Emilia-Romagnans.
But where I really lost my mind was the “Cappelleto da prete di patate di Montese.” The Lambrusco winemaker next to me was able to translate, though even he didn’t know what was coming: priest’s hats. Priest’s hats? When the dish finally arrived, I realized why it could never be rabbi’s hats: triangles of pork skin, carefully and ostentatiously stitched together, containing the most outrageously fatty cured and chopped pork you can imagine!
Truth to tell, I was so smitten I more than ate my hat…I also ate the one left over by the Muslim food writer sitting next to me!
You see my point–even in the foodie stratosphere in Emilia-Romagna, you end up with the peasant food of your dreams.
But I was still ready for my huge, traditional blow-out meal, in the most traditional of environments…and it came, thankfully, as a golden-memory kind of Sunday lunch, in a humble restaurant called Zoello, down the hill from the chi-chi crest of Castelvetro di Modena.
Truth be told, I was not initially happy with Zoello. The hotel next door, Zoello Je Suis, was to be my hotel for four nights, while I was visiting the area. The hotel and restaurant are officially in Castelvetro di Modena, and before leaving New York, I checked out the location on the Internet. Wow! Who wouldn’t be impressed by Castelvetro di Modena!?
But a funny thing happened on my way to the hill. On the flat-lane road below the hill, I passed a kinda roadside-y nondescript hotel with a sign proclaiming “Zoello.” Screech. Oh man…could this be my hotel? It was, and all thoughts of staying in a medieval castle were abandoned.
Ironically, this very humble hotel…became one of my favorite hotel stops on the trip! Yes, it has something of the modern motel thing about it…but it wasn’t long before I realized that this was a small family-owned hotel, run by a mother/daughter team with infinite heart. The daughter, Isabella Giliberti, whom I got to know better…
…is an incredibly lovely soul, who tends to her flock of guests in a manner that can only be called anachronistic. For example…I arrived with some complaints about my back…and found myself in a room across from the steam bath and sauna, to which I was given unlimited access. The “Turkish Bath” was much bigger than my room…and never had anyone in it…making me feel as if my room had been converted into a suite by this simple act of kindness. At 55 Euros a night!
Moreover, coming into the circle of this family makes one feel the warm Emilia-Romagna spell more strongly than ever. I had fantasies of being a resident here…capped by my experience at Sunday lunch.
The Zoello Ristorante is next door to the Zoello Hotel; once they were co-owned, but now they merely cooperate with each other; Isabella, for example, told me that by all means I should dine there, and she told me what to eat. I listened.
What I stepped into at about noon on a drizzly Sunday was as close as I’ll ever come to joining the Emilia-Romagna community.
Within minutes, the crowds started arriving: parents with children, middle-aged couples, and multi-generational large parties. It was abundantly obvious that this is a Sunday ritual in the area: noon at Zoello for a big dose of family comfort food. Emilia-Romagna comfort food.
The feast must begin…so says Isabella!…with the local habit of gnocco frito. It is a large, puffy pillow of dough–but hollow inside–that is served throughout the region with, most typically, a thin slice of prosciutto draped over each puff. Every important city in the gnocco game (Piacenza, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna) has its own shape and size; here, in the suburbs of Modena, a rectangular gnocco is required.
Once, I felt “why would you muck up a good slice of prosciutto with fried dough?” Those days are gone. Now, people serve me prosciutto and I say “but where’s the gnocco frito?”
On to the real star of the day; the one thing I saw on this Sunday at every table (aside from bottles of foamy Lambrusco), was steaming bowls of tortellini in brodo.
And this is where I fell in love. It was partially a function of repetition; I had the dish every single day in Emilia-Romagna. It was partially gratitude; this one at Zoello was the best of my visit. But it was also culture immersion; “sharing” this soup with so many others on a Sunday made feel at one with the community.
I’d never responded before to this dish in this way; my old feeling was “why should I have these little dumplings in soup when I can have them in a proper sauce?” And Zoello serves a good sauce made with cream. But no. You come to understand that the real richness is in the center of the dumpling–a mixture typically made of minced veal, mortadella, cheese and spices (like nutmeg). One little bite is like a bomb of flavor that needs no wing-men; each dumpling explodes in your mouth, to be gently moistened by the broth that surrounds it, not to be bathed in sauce. It helps if the broth is a great one–which, again, speaks of subtlety (capon stock is the traditional base for the broth). In a perfect slurp of this thing, the resilient pasta yields gently to your teeth, whilst the filling meets the broth in a moment that can only be described as poignant. There is not much to do but sigh, and dip your large spoon in for more.
As if this was not enough already for my heart to bear, the manager informed me that yes, as I had requested the day before, zampone is available for lunch today. It was just too much joy to handle. Especially with the Lambrusco.
When we see zampone in the U.S. (which we rarely do), it is usually a whole boned shank of pork, stuffed with a cotechino-type mixture. That style of zampone may exist in Emilia-Romagna…but what I saw instead was feet…pig’s feet…stuffed with an incredibly loose and flavorful mince of cured pork, cut in half, and served with mashed potatoes.
This is exactly the kind of food people mean when they discuss the rich cuisine of Emilia-Romagna; Lambrusco is exactly the wine you need to cut through it; Zoello is exactly the place you need to enjoy it on cold autumn afternoon. If you love your pork, as I do…I’m not sure how you can live without this sticky, savory wonder at least once, or maybe a hundred times, in your life.
Fed this well in the countryside around Modena, I didn’t think it could get much better as I reached the countryside around Bologna. I’m not saying it did get better…I’m just saying that on your Emilia-Romagna trip you’d better not miss the small wine-growing town of Monteveglio, about 15 miles west of Bologna…where things remained at roughly the same level of gustatory insanity.
I was being shown around by local resident Bruno Azolini, owner-winemaker at Bonfiglio, a Monteveglio institution making clean and crisp wines in the Colli Bolognesi denominazione, good wines for the local cuisine.
Monteveglio is well known for the gorgeous 13th-century abbey that sits on a hill high above the town…
…but I’m here to tell you that gastronomes, as well as ecclesiasts, should have this little town on their radar.
For dinner, Bruno took me to his favorite local informal, a rollicking place called Trattoria dai Mugnai. It was here that I started meeting the burly, happy men of the Bolognese countryside. One of them, Stefano Parmegianni, chef-proprietor, has had this place in his family for many generations (confirmation of which is in the historic photos that cozily line the walls). Parmegianni is jolly and articulate, a great spokesperson for the Monteveglio version of locavore cuisine.
After the wonderful salumi assortment, which included a killer house-made dried sausage (on the morbido, or soft, side), Parmegianni led me to the pride of the house on this day…
…some of the fattest porcini you’ll ever see (anthropomorphically correct in this neck of the woods). All that Parmegianni could do with them was toss with perfect homemade tagliatelle, but I endured the trial.
Parmegianni lit up when I inquired about the veal cheeks braised in white wine, which he revealed as “the specialty of the house.” Special it was…
…melting and tender, deeply meaty, perfect with its accompaniment of sweet-and-sour onions. And when we asked about a little salad on the side…
…the cheeky owner brought us a sublime local frisée, garnished, of course, with fried, paper-thin slices of guanciale. The Lambrusco–and Pignoletto, a dry fizzy white that Bruno views as “the next Prosecco”–flowed copiously.
Did I have room for more? A diminished man I’d be if I hadn’t had…for just ahead lay one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time.
As if I needed it, at this point.
Ponterosso is the lair of Massimo Ratti, the Mario Batali of real Italian cuisine, a giant man known throughout Italy for his work on TV.
Bruno explained the upcoming lunch to me with a kind of trepidation: “He likes to be creative,” Bruno said, “but he’ll take care of you if what you want is more traditional.”
Imagine my surprise when we pulled up at 12:30 PM, and found the parking lot of the “creative” restaurant filled with semis, as if this were a diner. Massimo is “taking care” of lots of people, as his graceful, rather feminine dining room…
…fills up with the soiled-boot crowd every day, taking heaping bowls of traditional pasta.
But I suspect that Massino (also known as “Ippo,” which is short for “hippopotamus,” if a hippopotamus can be short) truly loves best the “fantasy” side of what he does. There is no menu. He comes to every table (though I’m not sure about the truck drivers) for a consultation.
When he came to mine, he knew what to expect (I guess Bruno had tipped him off)…
…because he jumped right in to the fantasy/traditional conversation. He made me a deal.
“I’ll make you trios of things,” he said. “One of the three will be traditional, so you can see that side. Two of the three will be my fantasia.”
It was an offer I could not refuse.
The first thing that caught me was the tortellini, of course…brodo, to be sure, with a few very un-brodo-like complements.
The traditional was great…the pumpkin/mustard on the right was great…but it was the one in the middle that really grabbed my attention. I’d heard it was coming–tortellini with strawberry sauce and ground coffee–and I became very afraid.
To my amazement, this disgusting-sounding experiment…was powerfully delicious! I won’t bore you with my disquisition on sweet and sour, and the miracle affinity of strawberries for mortadella…but this odd dish utterly captivated me. The point being: when you go to see Massimo, give him a lot of room. As you should as well for his tryptych of large-scale tortellini, known as tortelloni…
And the hits just kept coming. One of my favorites was a bizarre swim of terrific steak in a compote-like sauce…
However, I’d have to admit that of all the wonderfully cooked things I tasted at Ponterosso, nothing knocked me out like Massimo’s take on…are you ready?…veal scallopine.
It’s a coincidence that this supreme dish, in a supreme land of eating, looks like a mouth. What’s no coincidence is the technical obsession that brought Massimo to this version. When he saw my glee, he sat down and talked for at least 15 minutes about cotoletta Bolognese–how you must layer the meats and cheese, how you must avoid pushing down at all costs (so that the layers remain discrete), how you must shape each cutlet package with the insides of your palms from the sides of the cutlets.
When the cooking discussion was over, there began the New York restaurant discussion. Massimo has never been to New York, but he seemed to know almost everything, and was brimming with questions. “Why did San Domenico close? What is Mario Batali like? Is it true that in New York you can have menus that feature Italian food alongside other kinds of food?”
The conversation was a wonderful coda to a four-day song of gastronomy. If the chefs of Emilia-Romagna were looking inward only, I might fear for the gastronomic survival of this unique food “island.” But as Massimo demonstrated, these guys are looking out at the world as well. It’s like an organism, breathing. As long as they don’t let too much of that other world enter theirs, I’m confident that this local madness will last for generations.
THE UBIQUITY OF LAMBRUSCO IN EMILIA-ROMAGNA
Oh, sure…there are other wines made, and other wines drunk in Emilia-Romagna…sparkling whites, still whites, still reds, etc. But walk into a restaurant around Modena, or any of the other big Emilia cities; what you’ll hear continuously is the sound of corks popping; what you’ll see continuously is big spumes of fizzy-dizzy low-alcohol purple foamy wine being poured into glasses. You have to be really confident to drink wine like this. It’ll never get 97 points in the Wine Spectator. You will never consider buying a bottle for your brother Bob’s 50th birthday. But, if you stick at it, you will likely come to the same conclusions that the locals have:
This stuff is fun! Why does wine drinking have to be a physical ordeal and a constant challenge to one’s mental faculties? Drink it, don’t pray to it! Enjoy the crazy young fruit! Enjoy the fizz, as it abrades rich fats and oils off your palate! Marvel at its ability to harmonize perfectly with tortellini in brodo, a perfect match if there ever was one! One winemaker next to me at dinner said the cool local folks even pour a little Lambrusco into the dregs of their tortellini bowls…
…and he was right! The wine is so light and graceful; it poses no tannin-alcohol-oak problems for the dwindling broth.
And it worked that way, over and over again, as an accompaniment to the rich food of Emilia-Romagna. Drinking wine like this, at 11% alcohol, turns every meal into a light-hearted party. Just don’t expect…complexity, for god’s sake!
The labeling of Lambrusco is complex enough, unfortunately.
Let’s start with The Big American Misconception: as soon as we see “Lambrusco” on a label…we assume the wine is very sweet and very simple. That opinion was valid, in about 1975, when the Riunite company conquered the American market with an ad campaign featuring a guy named Aldo in a white suit drinking Riunite Lambrusco. “Chill-a-Cella!”…if you remember the reference. As happens sometime in wine, they succeeded all too well. Within a decade, no American could ever again think of Lambrusco as something other than soda pop. The Italians even tried to market in in pop-open cans.
But they failed, and it all went away.
In America. In Emilia-Romagna, they continued to imbibe their precious Lambrusco–but this was the traditional dry Lambrusco, so much more complex and charming than the sweet stuff. And ready for food!
Today, the circle is turning. Lots of millenials, for example, don’t even remember Aldo Cella. And plenty of old-timers, in their thirsty quest for new wine thrills, are giving Lambrusco a second look. It is one of the hot, cult-y wines for 2014, say sommeliers.
There’s only that labeling to get through…
The amazing fact about Lambrusco is that there are actually over 60 different grape varieties than can make Lambrusco, some of them with the word “Lambrusco” in the grape name!
Here are the three most important grape names in Lambrusco (which have also become the names of the sub-regions that produce wines from these grapes:
1) Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro (made all around that marvelous town of Castelvetro di Modena I told you about above). Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro is usually at the top of the dark-&-foamy scale in Lambrusco.
2) Lambrusco Salamino (which gives rise to a wine called Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, generally a touch lighter in color). The name of the variety comes from the “salami”-like look of the bunches.
3) Lambrusco di Sorbara is grown around Sorbara, about 7 miles east of Sorbara. It can have some Lambrusco Salamino in it as well as Lambrusco di Sorbara, but it is always the lightest of the major Lambruschi…so much so, that sometimes it looks like a light rosé. But it is known for its electric acidity, which enables it to a big job when the food is so fatty it’s almost sticky (like my porky priest’s hats at Il Cappero all Mura).
There are many other appellations for Lambrusco…not to mention a very big one, Lambrusco Reggiano, which is the largest DOC-producing area, but is a step down…and appears on many Lambrusco labels imported into the U.S.
Remember…if you want the real deal…look for Grasparossa, Salamino or Sorbara on the label (the latter if you really like light wines). You can’t just talk about “Lambrusco,” as in, say Burgundy; you have to get more specific about place names (though Burgundy red has only one grape variety…whereas Lambrusco has roughly sixty!)
As I said…it’s complicated. The good news is: the wine ain’t! Grab a few bottles, understand the basics, then throw yourself a Lambrusco party. In Emilia-Romagna they call it dinner!