There is no shame in travelling somewhere solely because of its food. I say this because, honestly, it’s one of the main reasons I travel. I’m one of the first to tout the benefits of sampling local cuisine to get to know the country’s culture, traditions, etc. Food can be a great acumen into a region’s cultural identity; it can give invaluable insight as to how people have been living there, how they’ve cultivated the land, how they’ve used the natural resources available to them to create a cuisine that is regionally unique, and how it has evolved and changed over time. Food and drink can help travellers understand a culture different to their own in a way that museums and history books cannot. It’s deeply personal — it’s rooted into the identity of who these people are and why they are this way. It was because of these reasons that I was especially interested in the food and wine of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.
Emilia-Romagna is all about the food. Sure, the region encompasses a vast and diverse area of the country. There are beautiful and historic cities to explore, grand cathedrals to marvel at and many museums to visit. But a large number of people travel to Emilia-Romagna for one thing and one thing only, and that’s the food.
Some of Italy’s most famous exports hail from the Emilia-Romagna region. You’re familiar with Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan cheese), right? That’s from here. Prosciutto di Parma, the salty cured ham that can be found on just about every supermarket shelf and charcuterie platter? That hails from, you guessed it, the city of Parma in Emilia-Romagna. Do you like to dress your salads with some Balsamic vinegar? The authentic stuff originates from Modena, a beautiful Emilian city.
There is a seemingly infinite list of Italian delicacies that got their start in Emilia-Romagna, and this is the reason that it’s firmly cemented itself as a food lover’s Mecca. These are some of the most traditional foods from Emilia-Romagna:
I know that pasta doesn’t seem like all that unique of an addition to an article about Italian food, but pasta is an absolute staple in the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna and it is essential to understanding the food of the region.
Pasta in Emilia-Romagna is a bit different to pasta in Southern Italy. A typical Southern Italian pasta is dried, made from a mixture of semolina flour and water. Pasta in Northern Italy is fresh, made with eggs and plain flour. Eggs are cracked into a well of flour, beaten and kneaded to form a pliable dough. It is then rolled paper-thin and cut into multiple different shapes and sizes.
Another common pasta you’ll come across in Emilia-Romagna is a spinach pasta, which is made exactly the same as fresh egg pasta, but with a spinach puree kneaded in. This gives the pasta a beautiful green colour.
It is also worth noting that you won’t find spaghetti here — that is a dried pasta and you’re more likely to eat it in the south of Italy.
Tagliatelle al Ragu
Tagliatelle al ragu is the quintessential dish of the city of Bologna. You’ve probably had bastardised versions before, masquerading under the name Spaghetti Bolognese. You will not find this dish in Emilia-Romagna, at least not in an authentic restaurant that isn’t catered toward tourists.
Like I mentioned earlier, spaghetti isn’t widely available in Emilia-Romagna and it is not a part of a traditional Emilian meal. Instead, they have tagliatelle, which is a flat, cut pasta that is a bit thinner in width than a fettuccine. Traditionally, it is combined with a ragu alla Bolognese.
Ragu is a generic term in Italian referring to a meat sauce. In Bologna and elsewhere in Emilia-Romagna, it is typically made with a combination of minced beef, pork, and veal, finely diced carrots, celery, and onions, tomatoes, and a good portion of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. It is slow cooked for a number of hours so the flavours all meld together and taste delightful. Ragu Alla Bolognese is also used in a few other Emilian dishes as well.
Lasagne Verdi alla Bolognese
Everyone knows and loves lasagne. It’s the ultimate comfort food. Generally speaking, it’s a meaty and cheesy pasta dish with layers of noodles, meat sauce, ricotta, and mozzarella cheese. Well, lasagne is also made in Emilia-Romagna, but it’s a different version entirely and it’s absolutely delicious.
The typical lasagne that you’ll encounter in Emilia-Romagna is called Lasagne Verdi, or green lasagne. It’s made with multiple thin layers of spinach pasta noodles, bechamel sauce, ragu alla bolognese, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
It’s likely that you’ve eaten tortellini before, these little stuffed pasta are famous throughout the world. They do. in fact, they hail from Emilia-Romagna and you will almost always find two or three dishes featuring them on any restaurant menu.
Tortellini actually come in a few different sizes and, as such, all have different names. Tortellini are the smallest of the three, typically around the size of the tip of your thumb. The most common use of these little tortellini is in the traditional dish Tortellini en Brodo. The pasta is stuffed with cured meats such as Prosciutto di Parma and Mortadella along with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. They are then served in a flavourful chicken or capon broth and topped with yet more Parmigiano Reggiano. You can find this dish any time of the year, but it is traditionally eaten on Christmas Day.
Tortelloni are the medium-sized version of this pasta and can be stuffed with any sort of filling. Most traditionally, they are stuffed with a spinach and ricotta filling but you can also find them with pumpkin filling (usually in the autumn or winter), cured meats, seafood, or anything else. They’re often boiled then tossed in a simple sauce of butter and sage or drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar.
Tortellacci are the largest size of the pasta and are stuffed with the same kind of fillings as the other two.
Risotto is a common dish throughout Northern Italy, but it hails in it’s most basic and delicious form from Emilia-Romagna. Risotto, for those who don’t know, is a slow-cooked rice dish with an incredibly creamy texture.
In it’s most basic form, risotto only uses five main ingredients: short-grained rice (such as carnaroli or arborio or any rice with a high starch content), onions, white wine, chicken stock, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. It get’s its signature creamy texture for two distinct reasons: first, the rice is toasted in the pan before any liquid is added, which aids in the breakdown of starches and second, the mixture is stirred constantly as small additions of hot stock are added.
In Emilia-Romagna, and especially in Modena, it is typically finished with even more shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar.
Besides it pasta, Emilia Romagna is also famed for its cured meats or salumi. The most famous of these salumi is, without a doubt, Prosciutto di Parma (or Parma Ham for those living in the UK). This salty, aged cured ham hails from the city of Parma. It is a common addition to an aperitivo plate and it’s typically served atop gnocco fritto, a type of puffed, fried bread or, in the summer time, with ripe melon.
Other common salumi in Emilia-Romagna include Mortadella di Bologna, Culatello di Zibello (which is similar to Prosciutto di Parma but it rarely exported — it’s is actually illegal in the United States), and Salame di Felino. The quality of these meats are incomparable and Emilia-Romagna is the best place in the world to sample them.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena
There is balsamic vinegar then there is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena and the two couldn’t be more different. The balsamic vinegar you find on the shelves of supermarkets the world over is generally a poor imitation of the traditional aceto and the tastes are radically different.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is made from only one ingredient: the must (the cooked juices and skins) of either Lambrusco or Trebbiano grapes which is aged in five barrels for a minimum of 12 years and up to 25+ years.
The resulting product is a complexly flavoured, oaky, and syrupy liquid that is delicious drizzled on anything from Parmigiano Reggiano cheese to spinach-ricotta tortelloni to ice cream.
If you’ve noticed a consistent addition to all of the other food that has been mentioned in this article, it’s got to be Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. This sharp, delicious cow’s milk cheese is a staple on the Emilian table and throughout the world.
Known as the “King of Cheeses,” Parmigiano Reggiano has a granular texture that absolutely melts in the mouth. Its production is highly regulated to certain provinces within Emilia-Romagna and, if it is an authentic product, it is aged for a minimum of 24 months. This results in a hard, crumbly, and nutty-flavoured cheese that is the perfect addition to any of the above dishes.
Emilia-Romagna isn’t especially renowned for its wine production, with the neighbouring regions of Tuscany and Umbria hogging the spotlight. But this doesn’t mean that there is a shortage of vineyards in this Italian region.
The most common Emilian wine travellers will come across is Lambrusco, a sweet sparkling red wine that can be extremely refreshing, especially on a warm day. It is also made from the same grapes that go into Aceto Balsamico.
Because of the high balsamic vinegar production in Emilia-Romagna, Trebbiano wine is also quite common in the region. It is a lighter bodied, fruity red wine that goes well with many pork and pasta dishes.
Sangiovese grapes also grow quite well in the region, although the wines don’t tend to end up as full-bodied as Sangiovese wines from Tuscany or Umbria as it doesn’t get hot enough for the sugars to fully form while the grape is on the vine.
All in all, there are some great Emilia-Romagna wines that are very much worth sampling while visiting this Northern Italian region.
Emilia-Romagna food and wine is unique to that found elsewhere in Italy. Around every corner of this wonderful region, you will find new culinary delicacies that will delight your taste buds.
Have you sampled any Emilia-Romagna food? Are you planning a trip? Let us know in the comments!