Blame Frances Mayes. Ever since she penned Under the Tuscan Sun twenty years ago the region has seen an unstoppable influx of English and American tourists descend on the area, which has left neighbouring regions, with just as much to offer, decidedly in the shade.
Emilia-Romagna, home to an officially designated ‘Food Valley’, the majority of Italy‘s high performance auto industry and a host of charming, historic towns, is one such region that has to shout louder than its popular neighbour to attract tourist dollars.
The flipside of that, however, means fewer crowds and a better chance to grab a slice of authentic northern Italian life. Here are a few highlights of Emilia-Romagna.
Pork lovers rejoice
As with most Italian regions, Emilia-Romagna earns its place on the foodie map via certain specialties. Filled pasta is one, with anolini (little ravioli-like discs, stuffed with truffles and mushrooms) being a particular stand-out, while another attraction is the region’s wealth of pork products.
No meal here is truly complete without some choice cold cuts. Parma ham is perhaps the most famous, but that’s just the tip of the proverbial porcine iceberg. Culatello di Zibello is one of the rarer kinds. It’s produced in the lowlands of Colorno, where the thick fog wafting from the River Po creates the ideal environment for these hams to mature. They’re hung in dark, humid cellars, with expert staff regularly brushing off mould and testing their quality by simply tapping them with a hammer.
Al Vèdel is one of only fourteen Culatello producers in the world, where you may also be introduced to the strange delights of sparkling red wine. The local Lambrusco is chosen for its refreshing qualities complementing the rich pork cuts. It’s complex and takes a while to adjust your palette accordingly, but is light years away from the cheap and cheerful supermarket plonk we may associate with Lambrusco outside of Italy.
The perfect accompaniment to these cuts are some Gnocchi Fritti – great, puffy pockets of fried bread, usually stuffed at the table with whatever meats and cheeses you can lay your hands on.
Parma was an important Roman trading post – and later a major staging town for pilgrims, which explains the grandeur of the city’s architecture. Today it’s the region’s main cultural hub. You can practically hear the ghosts of Verdi and Toscanini echoing around the pedestrianised streets of the Old City.
Make time to explore the Teatro Farnese, an extraordinary complex of buildings, crowned by the Baroque masterpiece that is the Villa Farnese Theatre. This vast, wood-panelled ‘coliseum’ was built in 1611 for epic royal celebrations and is still used for classical music performances today.
Fast cars meet slow food in Modena
Modena pairs fast cars with slow food. Lamborghini, Maserati and Ferrrari all craft their automobiles here. The futuristic Enzo Ferrari Museum gives you a glimpse into the man behind the motor, and you can take a tour to zip around the region’s essential foodie pitstops.
In pole position on the province’s grid of gourmands sits Massimo Bottura, the triple Michelin starred chef behind the wheel at Osteria Francescana, which is currently ranked second in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
A visit to a traditional balsamic vinegar producer is a must. Take a tour of Villa Bianca‘s vineyards, carefully irrigated by robots, to get a glimpse of the 12-year-plus artisanal process. They mature the vinegar using strictly controlled methods, siphoning the sweet stuff between barrels of varying woods and sizes, all with a reverence usually reserved for wine.
There’s more to the city’s urbanity than food and cars though. Modena’s reputation as a hotbed of intellectualism and radical ideas is showcased by the often sold-out evening events at the Philosophy Festival on Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini. At the nearby Piazza Grande, it’s worth reflecting on the shimmering photo wall showing the faces of hundreds of Partisans who helped overthrow Fascism.
Comacchio: Emilia-Romagna’s answer to Venice
Okay, there’s only one Venice, but the sleepy estuary town of Comacchio on the Po Delta gives it a run for its money, with its maze of canals, stylised bridges and pastel-fronted buildings.
The entire town owes its livelihood to the humble eel, a history which is documented to surprisingly fascinating effect at the Eel Pickling Factory and Museum. Here you can see the ingenious nets and traps used to land eels over the centuries, who make an annual pilgrimage all the way from the Sargasso Sea to Comacchio, and the cavernous fireplaces used to roast them prior to pickling.
Sophia Loren became the slippery beast’s unlikely ambassador in the 1950s, after she starred as an eel fisherwoman in the film La Donna Del Fiume, with her face adorning the tins to this day. Drop into one of the many canal-side restaurants to sample local delicacies like “Donkey’s Beak” (eel soup served with grilled polenta).
The pleasures of Piacenza
When James Boswell came through Piacenza on his 1765 Grand Tour of Italy, he noted that the name literally translates as “pleasant abode, certainly a good omen.” Today the biggest town on the banks of the Po River is known for producing the largest amount of DOP and DOC cured meats, cheeses and wines in all of Italy.
Expect to sample a hefty portion of these at Taverna In, a modest-looking osteria in the shadow of the town theatre, designed by Lotario Tomba, the architect behind Milan’s famous La Scala opera house.
The town’s centrepiece is the Piazza dei Cavalli, dominated by bronze horse statues, the symbol of the powerful Farnese family who ruled the region during the sixteenth century, and the Gothic Palace, which has a distinctly Venetian feel.
Explore more of this region with the Rough Guides Snapshot to Emilia-Romagna. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.