From the time I became obsessed with art history in high school, Italy was on my radar as one of the first “must-visit” places when I would start traveling years later. Sadly, my first experience with the country was a bit of a let down — from no luggage thanks to the airline stealing it (yes, stealing it) to mass tourism in the big cities, I left feeling underwhelmed. And the food that everyone talked about being the best in the world?
Yeah, apparently I missed that too.
Before you lash out at me, I am not saying places like Rome don’t have good food, I obviously just never hit the right spots. This was before the heyday of blogging, Foodspotting, and the benefit of specialized food tours. I never had my Julia Roberts, “Eat, Pray, Love” life-changing event while in any of the popular tourist spots in Italy. However, I will admit pizza in Naples with tomatoes grown in Pompeii ash was one of my biggest foodie moments to date. Ruined me from ever eating pizza anywhere else.
I didn’t pay my food experiences in Italy too much mind, as anyone who knows me knows, Italian always landed as one of my least favorite types of food growing up. Mexican reigned supreme while pasta was easily one of the foods I could live without.
When I had the opportunity to come to Emilia Romagna last year with the #BlogVille project, I arrived with a completely open mind. I was excited to see a completely different side of Italy and give Italian food another shot. Purposely, I refrained from researching anything on the region, and now I embarrassingly admit how little I knew about what a culturally important food center this region is.
The first night we arrived, we had a group dinner at a local trattoria, a pretty casual dining option in Bologna. It was wall to wall people, loud, and there were platters of food being whisked in every direction. Our host Nick did all the ordering and within minutes we were sampling local meats, cheeses and breads.
Wait…You eat Parmesan cheese by itself? It’s not just good for grating on pasta? And it’s not that awful grainy stuff in the green Kraft container (sorry Mom!)?
Before I had time to really ponder that, the plates of pasta began arriving. A local specialty, Tagliatelle a ragu. The verdict?
From that moment on, I was on the hunt to devour everything Emilia Romagna had to offer. I fell so deeply in love with this region that I came back to BlogVille two more times and even brought my parents to Bologna in December — my Mom’s first trip out of the United States! We visited a number of places in ten different countries and she rated Bologna as one of her favorite stops.
After leaving, I began missing the food in this region immensely. I headed back down to Belize and eventually, it became too much. I tried my hand at making several specialties from Emilia Romagna. Not an easy feat on a small island! Obviously not as good as what you find in Emilia Romagna, but it satiated the craving until I could visit again.
Earlier this month, I returned to Bologna, Italy for the kick-off week of the second #BlogVille project and I couldn’t be happier. It’s funny how Italian went from being a type of cuisine I could live without to now being one I can’t stop obsessing about.
And with that, here are five of the many culinary reasons to fall in love with Emilia Romagna, Italy.
1. Traditional Foods from Emilia Romagna
Obviously, this could be reason to love Emilia Romagna on its own. Some of the most traditional Italian foods either come from or were developed in the Emilia Romagna region.
What we call bologna in the United States (oh, the irony) is nothing like the real mortadella you get here in the city of Bologna. Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma both come from the city of Parma. And let’s talk about balsamic vinegar. Not the stuff we use make salad dressing back in the United States, but real balsamic — a very specialized product that comes from Modena, Italy. A good 25 year aged bottle will set you back around 100 euros. And of course, fresh egg pastas like tagliatelle that come from Bologna. Fresh egg pasta is truly an art form and watching some of the pasta masters at work is impressive. After trying my hand at making them last year, I have a much deeper respect for pasta now.
Many of the products that come from Emilia Romagna are DOP protected, meaning Denominazione di Origine Protetta. This protects the local producers and ensures consumers are getting the real product, not some imitation. Food items like Parmigiano Reggiano and Modena’s balsamic vinegar are two classic examples. The example people are most familiar with is the DOC French Champagne. Technically, only wines produced in the Champagne region under the traditional rules can be labeled a Champagne whereas others are simply sparkling wine.
Trivia: Do you know how many D.O.P. and I.G.P. products Emilia Romagna has? At least 30 — ranging from cheese, meat, fruits and vegetables, olive oil, vinegar and even baked goods.
I would be remiss in not mentioning Pellegrino Artusi, a gastronomic icon and writer who is considered the father of Italian cuisine. He was from Forlimpopili in Emilia Romagna, and his book, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene), is regarded as the textbook on Italian cuisine. It’s been printed in various languages and is up to its 14th edition I believe. We visited Casa Artusi, termed the “first living cookery museum,” in his hometown. Here you can take cooking lessons, enjoy local dishes, attend culinary festivals, and learn more about the history of Italian cuisine.
There is no way I can adequately convey the importance of this region’s traditional foods in several paragraphs, but suffice it to say that this is one of the most influential culinary regions I’ve traveled to.
2. Emilia Romagna is Less Expensive
You might argue there are lots of spots in Italy that are cheap so why does that make Emilia Romagna special. Here, you can sample all the locally produced products for much less than if you bought them in other countries, or in parts of Italy in some cases. Especially in cities like Bologna, with its vibrant university region, you can find quality eats for cheap. Restaurants and trattorias line the streets of Bologna and you can find everything from local cuisine to Indian and Chinese. My biggest surprise of this latest trip — finding a Naples style pizza for 6 euros. We were all completely blown away by not only the size, but the quality. And, if you think the pizza was huge, the calzone must have weighed 10 lbs on its own.
Venture out of the larger cities to some of the smaller villages and you can find local farms and restaurants serving fantastic cuisine for cheap. Also, many offer local specialties that are available onsite for half of what you may pay in larger markets and stores elsewhere.
3. Emilia Romagna is Home to One of the Top Restaurants in the World
Going the other direction on the dining scale, Emilia Romagna is home to a number of award-winning, fine-dining establishments as well. And that stronghold was reaffirmed with this month’s announcement of the 2013 S. Pelligrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The prestigious honor of the 3rd best restaurant in the world went to Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. It was the only restaurant in Italy to make the top 20. Emilia Romagna is also home to nine Michelin-starred restaurants for 2013, with Osteria Francescana retaining its three star rating.
4. Agriturismo and Food Festivals
The Emilia Romagna region is packed with food festivals year round. It seems as though there is literally something going on every week. I could easily spend a year just visiting the various festivals held in this region. Emilia Romagna is proud of its heritage and its importance as a food center for Italian culture. That shines through in the markets, festivals, and also the agriturismo farms that are popping up in the smaller towns and villages. Everything from the sheep cheese farm we visited in the hills of Rimini last year to the locally produced marmalade at Agriturismo La Piane in Vergato I sampled this year.
Branching out from the main cities and visiting some of these smaller villages has been one of the most memorable experiences of my time in Emilia Romagna. Most of these products you will never find in markets or stores as they are produced for their families or to serve guests in the farm’s restaurant. They produce everything — pastas, wine, beer, honey, jams, cured meats, and of course, cheese. And what they don’t produce themselves, they support other local farmers by buying only hyper-local products.
While you can make arrangements to visit some of these spots without a car, my recommendation is to rent a car and travel the countryside — something I definitely plan to do when I return to Emilia Romagna again.
5. Carpigiani Gelato University and Museum
If only I had known growing up that someday something called a “Gelato University” would exist! I would’ve much preferred this to majoring in Criminal Justice! Gelato is synonymous with Italian cuisine and the prestigious Carpigiani Gelato University is located just on the outskirts of Bologna. Carpigiani manufacturers the world’s best gelato making machines and now they teach people how to make the best gelato with their machines.
I had the luck to sit in on an advanced class where the students were learning about unique types of gelato — alcohol and savory. Post to follow on our afternoon there, but as you can imagine, it was quite a unique experience. Surprisingly, the quality of the gelato from the students was far better than a number of the established gelateria’s I’ve visited both in Italy and other parts of the world.
Carpigiani has what they call the “Gelato Lab” open to the public where you walk in off the street and buy gelato, and you might wonder if people would really drive out of their way to come there just for gelato. There was a steady stream of people coming in and out just during the 20 minutes we sat waiting for our cab to arrive.
Reflecting back on my five trips to Emilia Romagna in the last year, there are so many reasons why this region has captured my heart, and the food is definitely one of the main highlights, but there are many other reasons to visit the region as well. I’ve fallen in love with the architecture, the region’s history, its people, and most of all, the overall culture here. Apart from Belize and Taiwan, this is definitely somewhere I could see myself calling home one day.
While the bulk of my trips to Emilia Romagna have been hosted during the #BlogVille project, all views, opinions and lbs. gained after eating my way through Emilia Romagna, are entirely my own.