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Emilia-Romagna Part I
We made an impromptu trip to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy- one of the least visited but where many of the traditional Italian specialties hail from, including Parmesan cheese, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil.
We had not heard much about either city, only that they were lesser versions of Rome and Florence. But to be honest, we were pleasantly surprised by both destinations. Bologna is home to the oldest university in Italy (and one of the oldest in Europe) and the city is big enough to keep you occupied for an entire day or two but still small enough to trek entirely by foot. The man Piazza Maggiore is flanked by the Palazzo d’Accursio and Basilica of San Petronio. The area had tourists, but not nearly so overwhelming as the other major cities. There are also several large shopping streets along the piazza which have it a metropolitan feel. It was lively but local, and once you got past the shopping areas and towards the university campus, it became quite charming, with local stores and ancient buildings lining the neighborhoods. There were a lot of students around, creating a college-town feel to the city. I also saw my first version of the Italian version of Starbucks, with students studying around a trendy cafe with American – like drinks.
We had lunch at a recommended restaurant called All’Osteria Bottega, located on a residential street. The restaurant was one of the first in Italy that almost had a problem with letting JoJo in (they didn’t realize how large he was when we made the reservation!). They still tried to accommodate us, however, and put us in a corner and ensured JoJo was under the table away from site. The food we ordered was typical of the region – from a prosciutto, salami and cheese plate, followed by a lasagna and tagliatelle with ragu. The ragu, in Ryans opinion, was sweeter than what he was used to but this may have been more characteristic of the area. We did not make it to any museums, but were nonetheless impressed by try city’s architecture.
We spent one night out in the Emilia countryside, which was truly one of our favorite parts of the is weekend trips. We chose a B&B outside Modena called La Vedetta Bed and Breakfast. It was only 80 euros a night so we were expecting simple accommodations. It was anything but that. The house looked like a French country home, surrounded by acres of perfectly manicured gardens, a lovely pool, and a view of the countryside. The couple running the bed and breakfast were some of the nicest people we met in Italy. They started the B&B to meet people around the world and were passionate about their job. They had converted the top floor of their home into the B&B, which consisted of a gorgeous, newly renovated common area for guests and four beautiful large rooms. It trumped many of the nicer hotels we had stayed with in major cities, plus our hosts made it that much more personal. The next morning we were greeted with a breakfast buffet- just for the two of us prepared by the owner’s wife. All of the breads and patties were homemade. We loved one of the breads so much the wife packed up the rest of the bread for us! Before we left, we went on a tour of the family ‘s balsamic vinegar production, a process that takes 36 years! The room was filled with barrels of aging balsamic, something I had never seen before, especially because so much of tourists’ attention is on wine or olive oil production. Apparently we had never tasted real balsamic vinegar because what you buy in the U.S. is made in one day, and thus not aged appropriately. The taste you get from real balsamic vinegar is sweet and pungent, and only a drop or two is enough for your taste buds. We bought a small bottle of it for ourselves, which will likely take a couple of years to finish. We loved this place so much that we told the owners we would tell all of our family and friends to stay here because it was truly a hidden gem!
The following day we visited Parma, a city that had a distinctly different architecturally feel than Bologna. The city was serene and beautiful, even more so than Bologna and boasted even less tourists. There was a French market in the middle of the piazza selling crepes, macaroons, and French specialty items. It was a rainy day, so we didn’t get to walk around too much, but I would certainly return, especially to take one of their renowned food tours.
Our lunch was at a renowned Parma institution close to the city center called La Greppia. It had a traditional Italian feel , but the menu exhibited contemporary twist. In addition to the must- have salami and prosciutto platter, Ryan and I had excellent pastas. Ryan had a ravioli tasting , a colorful representation of the flavor a of the region. My pasta had a creamy sauce a with some sort of meat mixed in- a combination that was to die for. The pictures do not even do this meal justice! We ended with an unusual cheesecakes that was almond flavored. And during this whole meal JoJo sat quietly behind our table in the corner, amusing an Italian man dining by himself
Overall- I was happy we visited both cities. If you are looking for an authentic Italian city experience, Parma and Bologna should be your next stop. Next time we will be sure to check out Modena, also home to the newly acclaimed second best restaurant in the world, Via Francescana.
Emilia-Romagna Part II
Our second trip to the Emilia-Romanga region took place with our friends, Dave and Karen, that were visiting for the week. We had raved about our first trip, which was enough to convince them that they wanted to make this an overnight journey.
This time around we stopped in Parma first, stopping for lunch at Trattoria del Tribunale, a so-called Parma institution. We were ushered into a cozy restaurant which looked small from the main entrance. However, it was sectioned off into six or seven rooms so every corner you took you were confronted with more and more tables filled with locals. We were seated on the second floor in a room without windows with one other table. The atmosphere was low-key and unpretentious. The food was classic, no-frills cuisine from the region. I opted for a minestrone, Ryan had his typical bolognese, Karen tried the region specialty of tortellini in brodo, and Dave had the trio of three raviolis. I tried Karen’s tortellini in brodo and was pleasantly surprised at how light it was, a collection of small meat-filled shell in a tasty light broth.Dave’s was much heavier, with the pumpkin ravioli being too sweet for his liking (he preferred the other 2 cheese varieties!). Ryan and I were also both happy with our traditional choices. We also had a cheese and meat platter. The meat was excellent, but the cheese was only average. Overall, we though the food was good, but much preferred our experience at La Greppia!
Afterwards, I picked up a tourist map and we did a more thorough tour of the city. We went inside the Parma Cathedral, and awed at the Baptistry of Parma in the same piazza. Walking around the city again verified my love for Parma’s architecture and authenticity.
Our last stop was the Galleria Nazionale di Parma in the Palazzo della Pilotta at the entrance of the city. It was a small museum but demonstrated the famous classic works from the region’s artists. We were one of few people in the museum and its smaller size made it more enjoyable than the overwhelming Uffizi in Florence that is over-run with tourists. After viewing the gallery, we had the opportunity to walk through the walls of the old Parma theater-a spectacular sight that enables you to envision listening to an opera centuries ago.
That evening we booked a hotel in the countryside village of Levizzano Rangone. Driving up to the village center we were awed by the magnificent castle lit up in the stark darkness. Our hotel was called Ca D’ai Sogni B&B and the manager a jovial man who could not stop talking to us about his experience living in America and working at Disney World. It is always refreshing to see how excited local Italians are to meet Americans- it does make you thankful for the opportunities that exist in the U.S. We learned that the building was the oldest in the village, but was recently remodeled in a modern style. Interestingly, the building did not require heat or air conditioning. The walls were thick enough to contain heat in the winter and to keep the rooms cool in the summer.
For dinner, we were recommended to Il Cappero alle Muro, merely 100 steps from the B&B. This restaurant enabled us to experience some of the most unique cuisine in the region. The dinner was a set menu of antipasti, pasta, and a feast of grilled meats and bread. The waiter’s family ran the restaurant and said the cuisine was traditional in the area, although we had never tasted anything like it before. In addition to the usual cheese and meat platters, we had delicious fried bread (which I could easily eat a basket of!) and a trio of pastas that used the spiral, elbow pasta that I had never seen in Italy to that date. Then, as if there wasn’t enough food, we got a giant platter of grilled meats and a overflowing basket of bread that looked like pita, served alongside a variety of spreads. The idea was to stuff your bread with the meats and top it with a cheese-like sauce. I have to say the food was very good but there was way too much! We felt bad about leaving food on the table but I think 4 hungry men could not even have finished off these portion sizes!
That night we slept comfortably except for the fact that the manager and a friend came into the middle of the night. They did not realize how loud they were being because we could hear every word in Italian! I was somewhat disappointed because it lasted for what seemed like an hour and it dampened my initial high reviews of the place. Next time we will definitely return to our La Vedetta B&B!
We arrived in Bologna the next morning on a clear winter day. The city was infinitely more crowded than Parma and was brimming with vivacity despite it being the off-season. Similar to our experience in Parma, we picked up a tourist map to conduct a more thorough tour of the city’s sights. In the Piazza Maggiore, we went into a government building and unexpectedly viewed a mostra of Flavio Bertelli, a famous artist from Bologna. We then went into the Biblioteca Salaborsa, where you can view the remains of the old city underneath the glass of the building’s floors. The rest of the day we viewed the other key sights on the tourist map including Towers of Asinelli and Garisenda, Basilica di San Domenica, and Fontana del Nettuno.
We ended the day with an excellent lunch at a restaurant we randomly found on the street. I had a chickpea soup while everyone dined on a memorable tagliatelle bolognese. This dish was one of the favorites of Dave and Karen’s entire trip and put Bologna at the top of their rankings during their trip. Unfortunately for us, I did not get a picture of this famous dish, or the name of the restaurant for our next visit!
Emilia-Romagna Part III
Our third trip to Emilia-Romagna was quite spontaneous. We were watching television on a quiet Saturday in January when we received an improptu call from Osteria Francescana, asking if we wanted the 8 PM table for tonight. We literally looked at each other and said “let’s do it,” considering we did not know when we would get another opportunity. That being said, it was already 5 PM and it takes over two hours to get to Modena. We immediately jumped in the shower, frantically packed for one night, and sped away in our car without hesitation. JoJo was with us too, wondering where the next adventure was taking him! Luckily, we found a hotel less than 1 km from the restaurant that allowed dogs. We cut it close on time and arrived at the hotel at 7:50, quickly checking in, dropping our bags, and wishing JoJo farewell (and praying he would not do anything naughty!)
Osteria Franscescana was hidden in the old city center with a pinkish-hued, modern doorfront and a modest sign. You had to ring a doorbell to get in, where we were immediately greeted by a staff of five in a formal, yet minimal-looking room. The restaurant only has twelve tables sectioned off into 4 rooms. We were the first to arrive in our corner table and handed their usual menu as well as the special tasting menu of the night, which was a combination of the modern and traditional cuisine. For the two hour drive here, we knew we had to put our full heart into the experience and thus chose the special tasting. Below is a breakdown of the reactions to our courses:
Amuse-bouche– A series of bites including “fish and chips,” codfish, and a rabbit souffle truffle. I thoroughly enjoyed the “fish and chips” bite, but Ryan thought the amuse-bouche was his least favorite part of the meal.
Oyster and lemon verbena– a unique dish consisting of a lemon ice over a delectable oyster. Unusually paired, but undoubtedly refreshing and delicious.
Sustainable and Salvaged– a mixture of pork and fish under a gelatinous film. This was my least favorite dish as I thought it lacked in flavor but was one of Ryan’s favorites.
Guitar String Pasta with Charred Amberjack and Charred Green Tomato– Perfectly cooked pasta with two tender bites of amberjack. An enjoyable dish with a combination of new and classic flavors.
Fish Soup– a variety of fresh seafood served with a side of sea-tasting broth. The seafood was as fresh as it gets, and the broth that you sipped (versus being poured over the seafood) was a warm compliment to the array of fish and enabled all the flavors to shine through independently.
Polenta and rice in praise of pizza– This was one of the winners of the night. Al dente rice with an explosion of spices in the spirit of pizza surrounding it. I love how the chef, Mossima Bottura, provides us traditional flavors in innovative forms.
Autumn in New York– a surprise mixture of berries and vegetables in an apple shape under a tasty broth. Definitely was one of the more avant garde dishes that both of us enjoyed.
Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different temperatures and textures– Now I wasn’t expecting to like this course because I do not eat plain cheese, but this was surprisingly delicious. The parmigiano was melted, foamed, and creamed into different flavors. The ages went back back as far as 50 years! I souped up some of the parm with bread but still had to leave some behind. Well-done!
The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna– My favorite course, no questions asked. The chip on the top represents the corner bites of the lasagna, the middle foam was the cheese, and the bottom was a delectable meat sauce. The epitome of traditional flavors being reinvented.
Mallard from the Tuscan-Emilian Appenines– This was unexpectedly delicious. The center was a duck-like mixture surrounded by a foie-grois “crust” accompanied in a French-like creamy, brown sauce. It somewhat reminded me of the best meatloaf I ever had, but elevated to a gourmet level.It was served with an unusual vegetable in broth and a mouth-watering toast with butter & truffles.
Foie Grois Ice Cream Bar– Heavenly, not-too strong foie grois wrapped in nuts and drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
Caesar Salad in Bloom– One of the other most innovative dishes of the night. This flower was tastier than it looks, with a juice of flavor planted in the stem center of the dish.
Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart– A beautiful ending to our meal. One of Botturo’s signature dishes that consisted of a delicious buttery cookie-like tort and a burst of lemon.
Osteria Francescana certaintly lived up to its expectations. The food was innovative, yet flavorful and paid tribute to the culinary traditions of the region. The service was of course perfect in its execution, but perhaps lacking in personality. I assume they were trained to be apart of the background and to only speak to present the food and take orders. Bottura did make an appearance at the tables that night, where we had the pleasure of thanking him for our experience.
Before leaving the next morning, we took a brief walk around the city of Modena. It was truly an authentic example of how people lived in Emilia-Romagna. There was antique market in one of the main piazzas that morning, flanked by beautiful, centuries-old churches and landmarks. The old city was also immaculate and did have its share of upscale boutiques. I was enamored with its preservation whose city centers were still untainted by mass visitors. If we end up in the region in the warmer weather, I would envy the opportunity to have a cafe or lunch in one of its beautiful piazzas.