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Emilia-Romagna - Eating and sleeping
Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s ‘Food Valley’, the queen of culinary delights, home of the nation’s favourite ham, cured meats, cheese and balsamic vinegar, not to mention a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables, seafood, wild mushrooms and truffles. Every province, every village even, has its own specialities, which often appear on menus in Emilio-Romagnolo dialect to complete the bewilderment of the innocent diner. In general, dishes tend to be meaty but vegetarians need not despair; there will nearly always be options or that old standby, pizza. Vegans, however, may find it tough going.
Salumi means cured pork products – cold cuts, if you will – and no place in Italy does them as well and as abundantly as Emilia-Romagna, where the most typical antipasto is a selection of salumi, called an affettati or tagliere (literally,‘cutting board’).
Salami is one of a plethora of cured meats that falls under the umbrella term of salumi © Francesco de Marco, Shutterstock
Piadine and other obsessions
What goes with your plate of salumi? A foaming glass of dry Lambrusco and a something else, depending where you are. In Romagna it’s sure to be a hot and savoury piadina, a soft round flatbread traditionally made with flour and lard. Each province on the Emilia side also has its own flatbread or focaccia or paste fritte or gnocco fritto – deep-fried little golden pillows.
Throughout Emilia you’ll find tigelle, made with yeast and lard baked in a round waffle-iron, and borlenghi, enormous crepes usually cooked out of doors and traditionally topped with cunza – a mix of chopped rosemary, garlic and lardo – folded and served, although some heretics replace the lardo with Parmesan. In Reggio and elsewhere, look for erbazzone, a very thin rustic pie filled with spinach or chard, onions and sometimes pancetta or cheese.
Pasta is the classic primo, or first course. Many of Italy’s favourite forms originated here, and taste better here than anywhere else. Several come from the word torta, or twist, which describes how they’re made: the pasta is rolled and cut, the filling is spooned on, and sealed in a ring with a twist. The classic tortellini are part of the region’s mythology, and ideally served in capon broth. In Bologna they are filled with pork, ham, mortadella and Parmesan. Bigger ones are tortelloni. Tortelli, usually stuffed with herbs and ricotta, or pumpkin or other fillings, can be twisted but are usually square or shaped like half-moons and served with melted butter and Parmesan, or a sauce. Another classic, tagliatelle should be ideally served with a ragù– the mother of ‘spag bol’, a dish as bastardised in the UK as mortadella has been baloneyed in America.
Main courses (secondi) tend to be on the hearty side as well. One heraldic dish is stracotto, topside of beef, cooked for hours (or days, by some extremists) in wine with herbs and vegetables until it becomes incredibly tender; sometimes it has sausage and a garnish of mushrooms. You may also find rosa di Parma: a fillet of beef tenderloin, stuffed with Parmesan and prosciutto, rolled up, roasted and sliced. Another classic, bollito misto, is several boiled meats served with sauces, which oft en comes on a cart (carrello dei bolliti), allowing diners to pick and choose. Coppa arrosto, a speciality of Piacenza, is pork cooked in butter, oil, garlic and rosemary, then doused with wine and roasted in the oven. Rabbit is popular: coniglio alla cacciatora, sweet and sour, or coniglio saporito, rabbit stew with chicken livers, anchovies and capers, or even the elaborate coniglio in porchetta, a speciality around Cesena, made with deboned rabbit, flavoured with fennel, garlic and rosemary, bacon and rabbit liver then stuffed with minced beef and pork, rolled up and baked.
Besides Parmesan and its Grana Padano cousins, Emilia’s cheeses include stracchino (delicious soft cow’s cheese, often eaten on an antipasti plate with salumi, in a piadina or even mixed in mashed potatoes) and fresh semi-soft ribiòla made in Piacenza. In the Apennines, try soft white raviggiolo, one of the country’s oldest cheeses; unlike most, the curd isn’t cut, but is simply left to drain on fern or fig leaves. It’s usually eaten fresh with olive oil and pepper, or stuffed in pasta. In Romagna, look for formaggio di fossa, or ‘pit cheese’.
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is aged for 12 months, during which it is turned and cleaned weekly © Emilia-Romagna Tourist Board
Unlike some regions in Italy, desserts are serious business in Emilia- Romagna, and often there are special dessert menus. Among the most traditional are sbrisolona, a crumbly, cookie-like cake, often flavoured with lemon zest or almonds; torta di riso, a delicate cake of rice, sugar, almonds and milk; zuppa inglese, the Italian version of trifle (the name seems to derive from the trifle that members of the Este family enjoyed while visiting the court at London); buslàn, hard ring-shaped biscuits flavoured with lemon zest, for dunking in dessert wine at the end of a meal; spongata, a dense cake filled with honey, nuts and candied fruit; and a dense chocolate-and-coffee cake from Modena. For sheer decadence, it’s hard to beat a torta di Duchessa di Parma, a hazelnut cake laden with pastry cream, zabaglione, and chocolate ganache.
Wine and liqueurs
Stretching from north of Genoa to the Adriatic, Emilia- Romagna is Italy’s fourth biggest wine producer. Much of the wine ends up as cardboard boxes of supermarket plonk, but the region also produces some gems among its 77 DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wines. Two of the region’s finest, Pignoletto from the Colli Bolognesi and Romagna Albana, get Italy’s strictest rating: DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). Best known of the DOC wines are Lambrusco in Emilia and the rubyred, fuller-bodied Sangiovese (the ‘blood of Jove’) of Romagna, made from one of the main grapes of Tuscany’s Chianti, although the results are usually lighter and fresher; the finest bottles, however, can hold their own with the noble Tuscans. The third by volume is straw-coloured Trebbiano, a refreshing single-grape wine, best drunk young.
With its huge student population and thirsty summer tourists, beer has always been a serious tipple, though not a distinguished one. Now, however, Emilia-Romagna is playing a big role in Italy’s momentous beer revolution, with more than a hundred craft breweries (microbirrifici) and brew pubs, nearly all founded in the last decade or so. The best known, so far, is the Birrificio del Ducato, which since its foundation in 2007 has won awards and exports all over the world.
At the top end of the market, Emilia-Romagna has a number of sybaritic resorts and smart hotels, often in historic buildings, furnished and decorated with real panache. Good-value, interesting accommodation in cities can be difficult to find; in the listings, we’ve put in the ones we know. In Bologna, Parma and Ravenna, guests over the age of 14 will be charged a tourist tax from €5 (luxury hotels) to €0.50 (hostels and campsites) per person per night.
Italian alberghi are rated from one to five stars, depending on the facilities they offer. The ratings are some indication of price, but for tax reasons not all hotels choose to advertise themselves at the rating to which they are entitled, so you may find a modestly rated hotel just as comfortable as a higher rated one. Tourist offices can help find one, and if they’re not open ask a police officer (a local officer, not a carabiniere; the national force is recruited from all over Italy, and carabinieri tend to know little of local affairs). Price lists, by law, must be posted on the door of every room, along with meal prices and any extra charges. Most display two or more rates, depending on the season; with most people booking online these days, prices often change by the day of the week. If you have paid a deposit, your booking is valid under Italian law, but don’t expect it to be refunded if you have to cancel. You will be asked for your passport for registration; they should give it back as soon as they fill out the form for the police. Extra beds are usually charged at a third more of the room rate, although most offer discounts for children sharing their parents’ rooms. For a double bed, specify a camera matrimoniale. If breakfast is not included, you can usually get better value by eating breakfast in a bar. In high season you might be expected to take halfboard in resorts, and one-night stays may be refused.
Emilia-Romagna has nearly 1,200 agriturismi, offering rooms or apartments. Italy pioneered this concept in the 1970s. Originally it meant simply accommodation and/or meals on a working farm; today the definition is a lot broader – the only thing you can be sure of with an agriturismois that it will be in the countryside. They can be basic or luxurious. Some offer home cooking, often with their own produce; others offer riding, swimming pools, cookery courses, tours and more. Complete listings by province are at agriturismo.emilia-romagna.it.
Besides w airbnb.com, there are more than a thousand self-catering holiday homes and apartments in the region listed with Rentalia. Increasingly, hotels offer apartments as well as rooms.
Bed and breakfast
The majority of Emilia-Romagna’s campsites are on the coast (oft en as part of family-oriented holiday villages), but you can also find them scattered around the rest of the region, in the Apennines and near major towns. Most offer bungalows, mobile homes or other accommodation, as well as pitches. Check the listings at Eurocampings.
The region’s six youth hostels (two in Bologna, and one each in Parma, Modena, Reggio Emilia and Ferrara) welcome all ages. Some offer small discounts if you have a youth hostel card.
Emilia-Romagna has 30 rifugi (singular: rifugio) in the Apennines. These vary from simple mountain huts, offering dormitory accommodation and basic meals, to purpose-built places with mod cons – and higher-than-expected prices that reflect the high costs of access. For a complete list with contact details, see rifugiappennino.it.