Along this north-south road powerful Renaissance families ruled individual towns, from the Bentivoglios in Bologna to the Malatesta family in Rimini and the Este family in Ferrara. These aristocrats enjoyed premium wine and 10-course meals designed to delight the taste buds and impress the guests. And no wonder. Rich soil in the Po River Valley still yields exceptional wheat, and great butter, cheese, veal, pork and ham still come from animals that graze in the verdant area. Emilia Romagna is the only region in Italy where Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is produced since it has the exclusive legal title to the name.
The birthplace of Verdi and Toscanini, Modena has a reputation for wonderful cherries, pears and peaches and, most importantly, incomparable balsamic vinegar. For more than 1,000 years the vinegar has called Modena its true home. Here, it is aged for 12-50 years in wood casks made from acacia, ash, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, and oak. Good wine also comes from crops of Lambrusco, Sangiovese, Trebbiano, and Albana grapes that grow here.
Pigs have been raised in the region since at least 1000 B.C., with more than 2 million swine raised annually, in the present day. Prosciutto ham has reigned supreme in the town of Parma for hundreds of years. And modern-day Bologna, also known for its university, historic center, and food markets and shops, is the site of the ‘original’ bologna, Mortadella.
The richness and complexity of first and second courses served in this region balance each other out, with one being richer and having more complex flavors than the other, by design. Emilia-Romagna meals layer flavors, with pastas that range from tagliatelle (golden egg pasta) and tortelli (stuffed pasta), to tortelloni (larger) and spinach pasta. Antipasto is optional before the first course of a traditional meal and may feature anything from greens with prosciutto and balsamic vinegar, or pears with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and balsamic.
Pasta is often the first course, including the popular lasagna and cannelloni. Women from Modena to Rimini make tortellini and cappelletti pasta dishes for Christmas Eve. Risotto dishes or soups – such as tomato & cauliflower, or fresh spinach, Parmiggiano-Reggiano and prosciutto – may substitute for a pasta dish. Sauces based on tomatoes, radicchio, prosciutto or fresh mushrooms may dress tagliatelle, although tomato sauces are perhaps the favorite pasta topper in this region. The famous meat sauce typical of the Bologna area known in Italy as RAGU, is known to most as Bolognese Sauce. Often on restaurant menus one can find: Spaghetti (or Linguine or Fettucine) Bolognese; which contains only some tomato, and is primarily based on ground meat.
Seafood, poultry and meats comprise the second course. Chicken is the most popular meat. Preparation runs the gamut from pan–crisped chicken with rosemary, to chicken cacciatore over polenta or w/potatoes, and capon is everywhere at Christmas. Residents throughout the region eat rabbit, and serve more pork than beef – from porcini veal chops, to pork chops, or pork tenderloin with marsala sauce. Along the Adriatic coast, in Romagna, seafood appears frequently in dishes such as clams with balsamic vinegar.
From grilled asparagus and Parma ham salad to basil/onion mashed potatoes, or roasted beets and onions, vegetables play a major role in Emilia-Romagna side dishes. Residents boil, sauté, braise, bake or grill radicchio and other tart greens. They also serve a cornucopia of other vegetables, including sweet fennel, wild mushrooms, zucchini, cauliflower, beets, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, onions, chard, sweet squashes, cabbage, eggplant, green beans and asparagus.
Sweet pastas may be a dessert or a side dish. Rich, decadent tortes, almond and apple cream tarts, sweet ravioli with winter fruit, and strawberries & red wine often find their way to the table. More contemporary offerings include semi-freddos, with a texture somewhere between soft serve ice cream and frozen mousse; and sorbet made w/Muscat. Fresh chestnuts also appear in many desserts, at Christmastime.
Some differences do exist in the cuisines of Emilia and Romagna. Located between Florence and Venice, and south of Milan, Emilia has verdant plains, gentle hills and cuisine that demonstrates more Northern Italian influences and capitalizes on the region’s supply of incomparable butter, cream and meat coupled with plenty of poaching and braising. The Romagna area includes the Adriatic coast, part of Ferrara province and rugged mountain ranges. Food preferences follow those found in central Italy more closely, with olive oil used as a base for many dishes, plenty of herbs, and a preference for spit roasting and griddle baking.
Whether you create and serve dishes inspired by the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna at home, or enjoy them in your favorite Italian restaurant, you’ll savor some of the most beloved ingredients Italian cuisine offers.
Featured recipes inspired by Emilia-Romagna, Italy:
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