This is my favorite regional cuisine of Italy. The sheer volume and depth of artisanal food products and that so many “classic” recipes originated or are perfected here is simply staggering. Parmigiano Reggiano, Aceto Balsamico, Prosciutto di Parma, lasagna Bolognese, tortellini, cotechino, zampone, rich, luscious egg pastas . . . need I go on? It is a cuisine unto itself.
Just about any introduction to this region in Italian cookbooks points out everything I noted above, mentions that Italians from all over the peninsula regularly hold it in the highest regard--second only to their mothers’ cooking of course--and then the author themselves adds a testament to the greatness of this cuisine. Waverly Root devotes 103 pages of Foods of Italy just to Emilia-Romagna, most of it just listing the unique dishes in each province and capital or twists on the traditional dishes (frankly, it gets tedious). Only Fred Plotkin, who, while acknowledging it is one of the best cuisines of Italy, offers a complaint: that what keeps it from truly rising above the rest is having great wine to match the food (a fair point, but not enough to hold it back in my opinion, especially when you have Tuscany just to the south, the Veneto just to the north).
Then there’s the fact that Marcella Hazan, and, to a lesser extent, Mario Batali, really carved out my understanding of Italian cooking during my formative period of learning, and both are extensively influenced by Emilia-Romagna. As if I need any greater authority than Marcella Hazan for reference for this month, but really, we can’t talk about this region without mentioning the very best Italian regional cookbook out there, Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table: The Cooking of Emilia Romagna. This has it all: regional histories, folklore, stories about dishes, profiles of notable restaurants and chefs in the region, personal anecdotes, and a bewildering volume of recipes. There’s a whole chapter just on variations of ragu, and many recipes of the Renaissance, which profited Emilia-Romagna greatly and lay the foundation for its elaborate cooking traditions. And yet, for as good as I say this book is, it’s that much better. Every time I read it I find all sorts of things I’d forgotten. I’d need one month just to make my way through all the standards of the cuisine and then another to do more unknown, interesting-sounding dishes. Nobody who likes Italian cooking should be without this book.
This, then, was the region I first chose when we decided to go to Italy for our honeymoon. Though, after our planning, we had the Veneto and Tuscany in there as well, so I didn’t get to spend as much time as I’d have liked there. Our stay was pretty much restricted to Bologna, the epicenter of Emilia-Romagna cuisine. Here’s what I wrote about Bologna when we came back from the trip:
One of the side benefits, of course, to visiting Italy is that you eat very well. But if you go to Bologna, that side benefit now takes center stage: if you come to Bologna, you are coming to eat . . . Witness the “Via Grassa”, my (hopefully not too offensive) nickname for the blocks in and around the intersection of Via Caprarie and Drapperie Calzolerie. There’s not just Tamburini, the foodie mecca at its center, featuring everything great about Bolognese cuisine (cured meats, cheeses, homemade pastas, succulent roasts), but literally every store here sells food. By my count, I saw three bakeries, two pasta shops, at least seven produce stalls (some hawking truffles!), three butchers, four salumerias, a latteria (all cheese), two stalls selling dried goods like mushrooms, beans, tomatoes, and pastas, two pastry shops, two seafood stalls . . . and Gilberto’s, which to my mind should be every bit the foodie destination as Tamburini. Gilberto’s has not just a whole wall of liquors you’ve never heard of, and another wall of every sauce and condiment you can imagine, and a basement cantina that I didn’t even dare go into full of wines, but every spare inch in between is stacked with little boxes of candies and chocolates.
The first night there we played “restaurant lottery” and just wandered into the first place that looked good (and it was a tough choice!). Just some anonymous trattoria-style place with the hostess/waitress/owner sitting in a corner peeling chestnuts and popping them in her mouth (we compared chestnut peeling scars!). Every table had “riservado” on it, but we were eating at the Americano hour of 8 and when we left at 10, the first few Italians had just come in. How do you guys do it? Food was great, simple, honest, straightforward, right out of any Bolognese cookbook. Ate lunch at Tamburini, ate crepes with nutella for a snack, went to a piadineria, ate another lunch at Diana (we weren’t dressed for it and the service responded accordingly), and out last dinner there was at Montegrappa DaNello, fantastic. Our one foray outside of Bologna was to Villa Gaidello, a farmstead halfway between Bologna and Modena, for a night’s stay and a seven-course meal of E-R standards that still makes me misty-eyed just thinking about it.
Emilia-Romagna is a cooking and feasting with a passion for the very best way to do a dish, no matter what the cost, wallet or waistline.