A Taste of Italy

Emilia-Romagna is a region of slow food, fast cars and beautiful small cities, yet is curiously overlooked by many visitors to Italy, writes Brian Johnston.

Albinelli covered market in central Modena is perfumed with fresh flowers and fat tomatoes still on the vine. You can sit at a bar counter and have a glass of violet-coloured Lambrusco wine and nibble on a platter of pecorino cheese as you watch locals cannily checking the glossiness of the market’s eggplants, and making sure young courgettes have their blossoms still attached as proof of their freshness. Housewives stock up on purple-striped borlotti beans, platters of candied orange peel and hanks of melt-in-your-mouth ham shaved off the bone. On some days, you might well be the only foreigner in a hubbub of everyday Italian activity.

Modena is just one of the towns of Emilia-Romagna, a region wedged between the Veneto and Tuscany, which somehow manages to avoid the tsunami of tourists that threatens to overwhelm more famous Italian destinations. If you’re after a friendlier, more everyday yet still gorgeously beautiful Italy, Emilia-Romagna effortlessly delivers. Even better, it has possibly Italy’s best food. Osteria Francescana restaurant in Modena is regularly cited as one of the world’s top restaurants and has three Michelin stars, but you can eat like a king in covered markets and gelato shops, too. One of Italy’s richest agricultural regions, Emilia-Romagna produces some of the country’s most famous foods, including balsamic vinegar, lip-smacking Parma ham and Parmesan cheese.

Bring your appetite with you. You can visit over 20 museums devoted to one food or another, such as salami, olive oil and Lambrusco wine, as well as visit cellar and factory doors. At Acetaia Leonardi, an old family producer of balsamic vinegar outside Modena, you can learn about the manufacturing process, inspect the ageing barrels and taste thick, sweet vinegar 150 years old. Outside Parma, visit Antica Corte Pallavicina, where quality culatello Parma hams hang from cellar ceiling and can be enjoyed on a tasting plate in a sunny courtyard. Then head to a Parmesan manufacturer, where you’ll see local milk transformed inside copper cauldrons and brine-floating moulds into Parmesano Reggiano. A tasting demonstrates how the cheese has different colour, texture and taste depending on its age: bland and creamy when young, dark, grainy and potent as it ages.

The food scene surely culminates in Bologna, the deli-dense capital of Italy nicknamed ‘La Grassa’ (the fat). It provided the world with tortellini (eaten here in broth) and spaghetti Bolognese — though in its original, much better local form known as tagliatelle al rag. Every cobblestone square features caf tables where you can sit under flamboyant church or palace facades while the fragrance of coffee floats and sun glints off ice-cream bowls. The city’s espressos are dark, strong and knocked back in a single gulp from tiny cups, while gelato comes in interesting contemporary flavours such as candied fennel or caramelised strawberry. Alleyways off Piazza Maggiore, in contrast, have shaded wine bars tucked in among vegetable stalls and fishmongers: the place to prowl, sniff and taste your way around the region’s produce.

It isn’t all about food. Bologna is a city of red-brick medieval towers and colonnaded squares, and home to Europe’s oldest university, founded in 1088. Its big student population provides a youthful vibe that contrasts with some of Italy’s more staid, middle-aged main tourist cities. The scruffy, graffiti-covered university district is graced with centuries of architecture and crammed with bookstores, laundrettes and bars. Don’t miss the fabulous multi-tiered 1637 university Anatomical Theatre and the university’s Museo di Palazzo Poggi, with its eclectic displays of optics and palaeontology.

Bologna’s famous Fountain of Neptune provided the inspiration for the trident logo of Emilia-Romagna company Maserati. Lamborghinis and Ducati motorcycles are also manufactured here. Enzo Ferrari Museum, built around the Ferrari founder’s Modena home, relates his life and has a notable car collection. Outside town, sleek Museo Ferrari takes a look at another notable Emilia-Romagna motorcar, with some fabulous historical Ferrari models on display and the chance to climb into a Formula One simulator. It’s a great reminder that Italy isn’t just about dead popes and ancient Romans — or even food — but provides a glimpse into the country’s dynamic present and famous design icons.

The car industry helps make Emilia-Romagna one of Italy’s wealthiest regions and bequeaths it a fine gastronomic scene and polished town centres. Both Modena and Parma were also former independent duchies with pan-European connections, whose diminutive size belies their historical importance. Each has significant architectural and artistic treasures, yet a fraction of the tourist hordes that plague Florence or Venice; Parma also has a rich musical heritage and is associated with composer Giuseppe Verdi.

Parma’s cathedral, baptistery and Farnese Theatre are all Renaissance masterpieces, while Modena favours a light, playful form of local baroque architecture centred on its Palazzo Ducale. On the coast, Ravenna served as the capital of the Western Roman Empire and is crammed with early Christian art, most notably its stunning mosaic work in green and blue and gold. There are plenty of reasons to linger longer in Emilia-Romagna, so tuck in.

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