by Gina Mussio
In a country beloved for its food, Emilia Romagna still stands out as a gastronomic wheelhouse. In fact, its cuisine is one of the best in Italy and has been exported throughout the entire world. The best cured meats, like prosciutto, all hail from Emilia Romagna and favorites like lasagna and a classic bolognese sauce are staples on tables and in restaurants throughout the world.
Emilia Romagna is a region in central Italy that has produced opera stars such as Pavarotti, educational experts like Montessori, filmmakers like Fellini and fashion designers like Armani. Its citizens are known as being hardworking and extremely productive, but the region also enjoys some of the highest standards of living in all of Italy. The great quality of life can be seen in Emilia Romagna’s charming and compact cities, which are clean, safe and generally quite wealthy.
Today, Emilia Romagna is one region composed of two identities: Emilia and Romagna.
From Bologna to the north and west is Emilia, and from Bologna to the southeast is Romagna territory. The northern European influence can be seen in Emilian cuisine, with a heavy emphasis on pork, lard and butter, whereas Romagnola cuisine is much more Mediterranean, with more beef, lamb and olive oil. Since nearly every town was once its own city-state, each town in the region has its own local specialty.
There’s no better way to explore Emilia Romagna than through its rich and delicious food. Want to eat your way through the region? Here’s where to start:
The capital city of Emilia Romagna, this university city is ground zero for food lovers. With a perfect mix of influence from both Emilia and Romagna, it has such a strong gastronomic history that it’s long been nicknamed “The Fat One” for its excess of signature dishes and hearty food products.
Other countries simply call mortadella “bologna”, but the real deal is a far cry from that industrialized, nearly inedible baloney. Mortadella is a combination of pork, spices, a bit of fat and sometimes a pistachio slice for flavor. It’s delicate but tasty and a soft alternative to Emilia Romagna’s strongly-flavored cold cuts.
This is a meat sauce completely different from what most are used to in the United States. A combination of a good soffritto, with sausage and just a tiny bit of tomato sauce, it’s simmered for hours until the flavor is perfect. Today, ragù “alla bolognese” is synonymous with a richly flavored and hearty condiment. You can find it in the classic lasagna or over freshly made tagliatelle.
Cotoletta alla Bolognese
A cotoletta is always a breaded slice of meat, usually veal. Here, it’s a breaded veal cutlet with prosciutto, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, sometimes mozzarella and a thin slice of pungent truffle. Remember, Emilia Romagna isn’t known for its light dishes.
Parma is nearly on par with Bologna in cultural significance and especially with gastronomic importance. Home to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, prosciutto and Italy’s largest pasta producing company, Barilla, it’s nearly impossible to have a bad meal in Parma.
Prosciutto di Parma
Prosciutto di Parma is incredibly famous throughout Italy. It’s considered one of the highest-quality cured meats, largely because of its strict production process. The best Parma ham comes from pigs raised in the town of Langhirano, just north of Parma in the Apennine Mountains where the air and humidity are ideal for curing ham.
Though Parma’s prosciutto is best known worldwide, the local favorite is actually the culatello. A cured meat made from the leanest part of the pig’s hind leg and aged 15 to 18 months, the process is nearly just as stringent as prosciutto: Culatello is made strictly with the right leg, which has less muscle because the pig lays on it, and usually from pigs raised in the flat, humid area between Parma and the Po River. This cold cut is perhaps the clearest example of the the parmigiani’s food purism.
In English this is often called Parmesan, but the real deal is far from the imitation cans often sold internationally. Parmigiano Reggiano borders on the religious for many Italians, and in fact it does have a religious origin story.
The origins of Parmigiano Reggiano and its sister cheese, Grana Padana, was born from the Padani monasteries in the first half of the 12th century. After extensive land reclaiming of the swampy area around the Po River, the monks were able to expand production but quickly found themselves with an excess of of milk. From that surplus comes our beloved Parmigiano Reggiano, “The King of Cheeses,” which only gets better with time. The taste is strong and slightly nutty and it’s principally used for grating over, well, just about everything. You’ll find a sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano on just about any pasta dish, but it can be used to add flavor to sauces or grilled vegetables, in breading for meats or served in chunks with cold cuts.
Aceto Balsamico di Modena
Though aceto does mean vinegar, thinking of balsamico as a vinegar denies the product’s true worth. A dark, jeweled liquid, balsamic vinegar from Modena elevates whatever food it is paired with: whether vegetables, meat, cheese or even strawberries. Made strictly from Trebbiano grapes, it ages 12 years, fining its flavor in different barrels made of various wood. As a result, real aceto balsamico tradizionale is extremely costly but packed with flavor – a little bit goes a long way.
Cotechino di Modena
In Italian they say, “From the pig you don’t throw anything away” and that philosophy is definitely true for the cotechino. Made of a mix of pork parts, salted and spiced and steeped in wine, this sausage-like dish is traditionally served with lentils and considered good luck to eat on New Year’s Day (or a similar sausage called zampone). Though it surely wasn’t invented in Emilia Romagna, it was there that this preparation grew on an industrial scale, bringing the hearty cotechino to the masses from the industries of Modena.
Salama da sugo
The number one specialty in Ferrara, the salama da sugo is a crumbly sausage with an intense flavor usually served with mashed potatoes. It’s made with cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices as well as wine, usually Marsala, and a splash of brandy, all of which gives it an intense flavor and strong smell. Most either love it or hate it. Nevertheless, the dish is extremely traditional: the first mention of the salama da sugo is in the 15th-century in a letter from Lorenzo de Medici of Florence to Ferrara’s ruling Duke, Ercole d’Este.
Called “peppered bread”, this sweet is actually made with almonds, walnuts, candied fruits, sometimes wine or chocolate and a rich array of spices. A Renaissance invention, it was usually made during Christmas or other holidays and clearly showed to the rest of the world the wealth and refinement of Ferrara.
Throughout the region:
A decidedly emiliano dish, the gnocco fritto is cooked in shortening (strutto in Italian) and usually paired with salumi and served as an appetizer. Each city in the area has its own shape and size of gnocco fritto, for example in Modena it’s usually rectangular, but all are delicious fried puffs of dough that perfectly exalt the region’s world-class salumi.
The piadina can be found in any part of Italy, but it’s from the Romagnola area that this flat, round bread was born. Originally baked on a terracotta plate, the piadina today is largely industrialized but still filled with high-quality ingredients and perfect for a quick lunch. Go classic with a piadina filled with squacquerone (a super soft cheese) and herbs, though a slice or two of Prosciutto never hurts!
Tortellini in brodo
Much of central Italy prefers egg pasta over dry pastas, but nowhere does stuffed pastas like Emilia Romagna. Always made fresh, there are dozens of different shapes and stuffings to choose from. In Piacenza and Parma you’ll find anolini, in Reggio Emilio cappelletti and multiple cities compete among themselves to be crowned the hometown of tortellini. Traditionally these meat-filled pastas are served in a beef or, even better, capon broth and served on Christmas day, but you can find them with tomato sauce or a bolognese meat sauce as well.
The number one wine of Emilia Romagna is without a doubt the classic and ubiquitous Lambrusco. Predominately made in the hills surrounding Modena and Reggio Emilia, Lambrusco varieties range from sweet (more popular in the US) to amabile to dry. A fruity bouquet and a red-violet color, you can’t go wrong with Lambrusco – it pairs well with all of Emilia Romagna’s most traditional dishes!
This is just a glimpse into the region’s rich cuisine. While traveling, touring markets or perusing menus, keep in mind the excellent Vignola cherries from near Modena and pears from Ferrara or the peaches, nectarines or scallions from Romagna. Along the coast the heavy meat dishes are interspersed with many types of fish and seafood and even eels from the lagoons lining the coast.
There are plenty of desserts to indulge in beyond Ferrara’s panpepato. Try rich, homemade mascarpone cheese (though its more like a cream), a torta di riso rice cake from Bologna or torta di tagliatelle, because there’s nothing more representative of this pasta-loving region! Buon appetito!