By Gabriella Mileti
NIAF Director of Special Programs
The National Italian American Foundation is pleased to announce that Emilia-Romagna is the 2023 Region of Honor. And if you’ve never been, it’s time to put it on your bucket list. The region offers a sensual blend of both natural and cultural wonders: marvelous Renaissance monuments, UNESCO heritage sites, seaside rivieras, national parks and of course superstar gastronomy of rich, mouthwatering Italian comfort food. The cuisine from this region is often said to be one of the finest in Italy. Think: stuffed egg pasta, tagliatelle, lasagna, mortadella, Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamic vinegar from Modena, piadina, gnocco fritto and the list goes on and on. So, pour yourself a glass of Lambrusco and allow me to take you through Italy’s greatest gastronomic treasure, often dubbed Italy’s “Food Valley”.
Nestled in north-central Italy, between the Alps and the Apennines, Emilia-Romagna’s winters are cold, wet and foggy, and its summers are long, hot and humid. Together with the rich soil of the Po Valley, this climate makes it one of Italy’s most prosperous farming regions, famous for its succulent hams and flavorsome Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Emilia-Romagna also has a rich cultural past. The Via Emilia, an ancient road first built by the Romans, cuts through the center of the region, linking Rimini, Bologna, Modena, Parma and Piacenza—all founded by the Romans as way stations along the road from the Adriatic Sea to the interior of Italy. The other major cities of Emilia-Romagna, Ferrara and Ravenna, are off this main artery. During the Renaissance, Ferrara was home to the Este family whose court was a center of culture and learning. Ravenna was an international center between the 4th and 8th centuries, originally as the last capital of the Western Empire and then as the seat of the Byzantine emperors.
Although institutionally one region, from a cultural and gastronomical point of view Emilia-Romagna is indeed two. Emilia, which stretches from the western tip of the region with the cities of Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, and Ferrara, is known for its solid, rich and indulgent cuisine, heavily based on pork and animal fats thanks to the Lombard (a Germanic tribe) domination of the region (think: prosciutto di Parma). It is also equally revered for being naturally effortless in its sophistication, something that the Renaissance court tradition has left as an indelible mark. The cuisine in this part of the region is so outstanding that Pellegrino Artusi, a 19th-century author of The Science of Cooking and the Art of Fine Dining, wrote, “When you come across the Cucina Emiliana, take a bow, because it deserves it.”
Whereas the eastern part of the region, from Bologna to the Adriatic coast is referred to as Romagna. Here, unlike in Emilia, the Byzantine heritage influenced many aspects of Romagna’s culture and is still evident in the stunning churches and mosaics of the city of Ravenna and in the prominence of terracotta-based cooking methods. The poet Dante described Ravenna’s mosaics as “the sweet color of Oriental sapphires.” Romagna is influenced more by its proximity to the sea than by the aristocratic tradition of the courts. Romagna’s gastronomic tradition is simpler and closer to the land, but just as varied and deep as its counterpart in Emilia.
Bologna, the capital of the region, is a city of half a million people and is famously referred to as la Dotta, la Grassa e la Rossa. La Dotta meaning, the learned one – for its famed university (it’s the oldest in the world), la Grassa, the fat one – for its mouthwatering cuisine, and la Rossa the red one – a reference to the red rooftops throughout the city and, its left-wing politics. The soft orange-red brick, old buildings are adorned with marble and brick porticos which shelter shoppers and pedestrians from inclement weather. And Pisa is not the only Italian city that has a leaning tower. Bologna has not one but two prominent ones right in its main piazza, Piazza di Porta Ravegnana – the Due Torri – are symbols of the city. During the Middle Ages, 180 of these towers were built by the city’s leading families; now only a dozen remain. Legend has it that the two richest families in Bologna – the Asinelli and the Garisenda – competed to build the tallest and most beautiful tower in the city. However, the Torre Garisenda was built on weak foundations and was never finished. For safety’s sake it was shortened between 1351 and 1360 and is now only 48 meters (157 feet) high and leans more than three meters (10 feet) to one side. The Torre degli Asinelli is still standing at its original height of 97 meters (318 feet), but it too leans more than one meter (three feet) out of the perpendicular.
But enough of the technicalities of the capital, let’s dive deep into the topic that tantalizes most people—the food!
With more than 200 traditional products and 26 ingredients flaunting the DOP status (a geographically protected status). In Italian, it stands for Denominazione d’Origine Protetta and in English, it translates to Protected Designation of Origin. The food scene in Emilia-Romagna has nothing but the incredibly lush and fertile land and low altitudes to thank for its success. Also referred to as the Pianura Padana, the cattle here are extremely well-fed and make exceptional milk and butter. Which is perfect for making Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. This world-famous nutty yet delicate cheese is intricately linked to Prosciutto di Parma thanks to the whey, which is used to feed the pigs that produce the prosciutto. Remember in Italy—nothing goes to waste! And not all prosciutto crudo is the same. If you want the real deal from the city of Parma, look for the five-pointed crown of the medieval dukes branded on the leg of the prosciutto. While we’re on the topic of Parma—the charming city is an absolute must-see when visiting the region if just for the cobblestone streets, colorful buildings and the opera house.
Aside from prosciutto crudo there are many other salumi to enjoy like Mortadella di Bologna (fun fact: mortadella is the predecessor to what we know in the States as bologna), Coppa Piacentina, Salame di Felino and Culatello di Zibello. Pair any of these salumi with gnocco fritto (deep-fried bread dough), tigelle (mini flatbreads similar to an English muffin), or in a piadina (round flatbread)—you’ve gone to gastronomy heaven.
Another specialty of the region is aceto balsamico (balsamic vinegar). Now widely popular, this delicacy is made from sweet grape juice, boiled slowly and reduced to a syrup, mixed with vinegar and then aged in wooden casks for many years. The best and only place to enjoy it is in the city of Modena.
Speaking of grape juice, there’s one wine that stands out in Emilia-Romagna—Lambrusco, which is mainly sweet and sparkling and developed around Modena. But if sparkling sweet red wine isn’t your thing, the wine region is very successful in producing red wines with the Sangiovese grape variety, for example, Sangiovese di Romagna DOC. In addition, pinot noir plays an important role in the wine scene as well.
One can never speak of Italian food without mentioning pasta and in Emilia-Romagna, the pasta here is nothing short of amazing. Who hasn’t heard of ragù alla Bolognese? If you’re in Bologna, you better grab yourself a plate of fresh tagliatelle dressed up in it. But don’t expect spaghetti paired with the iconic meat sauce though—that would be blasphemous! If you’re looking for something more indulgent, there’s the stuffed pasta. From Parma to Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna you will find tortelli (square or rectangular-shaped pasta parcels), tortellini (their smaller counterparts), ravioli (folded handkerchiefs of pasta), anolini and cappelletti (shaped like small hats), just to name a few. Typically, they are filled with a base of ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano, egg and nutmeg, but varieties exist and are just as delicious.
So, you’ve eaten and drank your way through the region. Now it’s time for some fast fun through Italy’s Motor Valley. Emilia-Romagna is home to the world’s most coveted, most sophisticated, and luxurious car and motorbike manufacturers like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ducati and Pagani. In fact, the region is one of Italy’s wealthiest regions, with the third highest gross domestic product per capita in Italy. Motor enthusiasts who visit the region must make a stop at the Ferrari Museum in Maranello, just south of Modena.
And after all of this, it’s time to hit the Riviera Romagnola—more specifically the cities of Rimini and Riccione for some rest, relaxation and nightlife! The Riviera Romagnola has it all — chic beaches, fabulous food, culture, ancient ruins, gorgeous architecture, fun-filled festivals and charming hilltop towns. One of the most famous seaside resorts in Europe, Rimini is also the birthplace of famed Italian director Federico Fellini. Film buffs will enjoy exploring the director’s birthplace with special stops celebrating his life and work.
There’s a little something for everyone in Emilia-Romagna. Look out for more about NIAF’s Region of Honor in upcoming issues of Ambassador this year, on NIAF social media, the Ambassador Peter F. Secchia Voyage of Discovery, the Board Mission to Italy Trip, and of course, at the 48th Anniversary Gala in Washington, D.C. in the fall. Arrivederci in Emilia-Romagna!