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Updated: 28th December 2020
Italy’s food scene is (deservedly) celebrated the world over, and the best Italian experiences often start and end at the table. No matter if it’s provincial pasta shapes and southern seafood platters or wood-fired pizzas and hearty northern mountain, the results are always mouthwatering. Here, in Emilia Romagna — arguably the country’s culinary cradle — it’s particularly true, and combining magnificent architecture and laid-back countryside with an epicurean adventure is effortless.
Surprisingly, however, many international visitors to Italy don’t know the importance of this gastronomic region — a startiling situation given that many regional products and recipes are globally exported or household names.
So, if you’ve already chowed down on Naples’s fantastic pizzas, hopped between the best street food places in Rome, and sunk your teeth into Sicily’s delicious dishes, it’s time to dive into the best of Emilia Romagna’s food experiences. Here are some fastice dishes, interesting food tours, and famed local products to hunt out as you explore Emilia Romagna, or as I like to call it: the home of food.
1. Always Ragù, never Bolognese
While Bolognese sauce is a go-to in the Anglicised world, we are very much getting it wrong – and I don’t mean just the name!
Bolognese may share a moniker with Emilia Romagna’s capital city, Bologna, but around these parts, it’s always Ragù – so don’t utter the dreaded B word here.
Ragù is a richer and thicker sauce, which has more meat and additional carrots and celery. Dating back to the 18th century, this staple is most often served on Tagliatelle. It’s a far cry from the ‘spag bol’ that is something of a British dinner-time staple.
Tortellini, a stuffed and almost circular pasta, is also from the Emilia Romagna region, but I suggest these with different ingredients than ragù — stick with Tagliatelle, or even a lasagne, to let the sauce truly shine.
2. Olive oil tasting is the new wine tasting
Italian Olive Oil is a staple in kitchens around the world and with good reason. I actually learnt during my food tour of Spain, though, that some of the Olives are grown in Spain as Italy simply can’t keep up with the demand.
Take yourself on an Olive Oil tasting tour while you are in Emilia Romagna, one of the dreamiest and best places to do so is in the adorable medieval town of Brisighella. Famed for its flavour due to the unique variety of olive fruit produced locally (helped by the low climate‚, the small stores in the village will happily fill you in on the facts and let you sample its unique flavours.
In various greens and golds and a mix of spices and bitter flavours, tasting olive oil turned out to be quite an art. Many swear by sampling it straight from your hands and then sniffing your skin as the PH levels act as a neutraliser. While bread is one way to do it, those in the know told me the bread ruins the tasting of the flavours of the oil.
3. Tour the cheese factories of Parmigiana Reggiano
If you are a cheese lover, then this might be the best foodie activity you’ll ever do.
Parmigiana Reggiano is a protected name, only able to be given to this type of cheese produced here in Emilia Romagna, mainly around the Modena and Parma regions.
Here you can see how the cheese is soaked, produced, set and stored, and in the storerooms, you’ll be amazed at the racks and rows of cheese wheels, perfect for a cheeky Instagram. The process usually starts quite early in the morning, so to see the full way of traditionally producing Parmigiana Reggiano, book an early morning tour.
4. Taste the country at FICO Eataly World
Some call it heaven, others call it hell, but whatever your views, this new foodie theme park in Emilia Romagna is a big deal.
Located a short bus ride or drive outside the city of Bologna, here you’ll find a sprawling mix of buildings, farmland, factories and classrooms.
At FICO, you can literally eat your way around the country, with the various stands at the giant food market supplying all the Italian goodness you could dream of. You can dip into one of the small production rooms to see how items are made, which is ideal if you are on a Bologna city break and can’t venture out for a full tour. Classes, wine-tasting, gelato workshops; whatever Italy foodie fantasy you can think of, it can be played out here.
To give you an idea of FICO’s size, you can actually hire little bikes to get around it!
5. Eat “Parma Ham” in its home
If you are a fan of charcuterie boards, then Prosciutto is likely something you’ve had on your palate before. But Prosciutto di Parma (Parma Ham) is, of course, from right here in the Emilia Romagna region.
If you want to sample this delicate, sliced and cured meat at its source, then head to Emila Romagna’s second city, where you’ll find plenty of windows packed with this premium cut.
While there are some tours you can join in the city, which will take you on tastings or perhaps out to meet the makers, you can also just choose to explore the gorgeous Old Town and stop for samplings (or takeaways for picnics) from one of the city’s prosciutteria.
6. Pour yourself some Lambrusco
The Lambrusco grape is, of course, the main ingredient of Lambrusco wine, a lightly sparkling, usually ruby red wine that hails from the Emilia Romagna region, although it is also grown in Lombardy.
The primary sources of Lambrusco wine are around the cities of Parma, Reggio-Emilia and Modena, so visiting the vineyards here is the best place to sample it at its root.
7. Learn about Modena Balsamic Vinegar
The true Balsamic vinegar also hails from here, and the Modena PDO (protected designation of origin) will always hold the trademark on the label.
Balsamic vinegar tasting is quite a thing here, with some traditional vinegar having been aged up to 50 years.
I visited the oldest producer of Modena Balsamic Vinegar, Giusti, and took a tour of the estate which was fascinating. The family have owned and operated here since the 17th century. If you take a tour, you’ll learn the various stages of production and ageing, stored in a similar way to wines.
Older vinegar is thicker and sweeter and makes a surprisingly good topping to an ice-cream dessert. If you enjoy lunch at the restaurant on site after the tour, you’ll be able to sample the various types of Modena Balsamic Vinegar paired with local foods.
8. Enjoy some raw ‘crudo’ fish
Not to be confused with Sushi from Tokyo, the crudo, or in this case, Pesce Crudo (raw fish), is perhaps best enjoyed in the seaside city of Rimini.
Fishermen have been consuming raw fish here for years, enjoying their catch with lemon or another marinade, and the tradition still lives on to enjoy this treat al fresco with the ocean breeze as a company. If you venture to Emilia Romagna, do sample the Crudo, something somewhat different from a Ceviche or Sashimi.
9. Sip and snack at Aperitivo Hour
Across northern Italy, as the day winds to an end, there is no better way to relax than enjoying Aperitivo hour(s). Thankfully, this is also true in Emilia Romagna, even though the tradition likely hails from Piedmont and is now most associated with Milan.
Somewhere from 6 pm onwards, friends, lovers, families and strangers come together to enjoy a delicious cocktail, whether it’s an Aperol Spritz, Negroni or other.
Included in the Aperitivo price is food, which may range from some finger bites to a full-blown buffet. In Emilia Romagna, my favourite place to indulge in this must-be-tested tradition was Piazza Maggiore, and I highly recommend you do the same.
9. Enjoy a bottle of Barbarossa wine
The Barbarossa grape hails originally from France and the Liguria region of Italy but has also been grown in Emilia Romagna for some years.
This fruity red, or often rosé wine, is, therefore, a great one to sample in the region and pairs well with the gastronomic treats you’ll find on every corner here.
10. Get on a Gelato Tour
Now, this is my idea of heaven, and although I wasn’t able to join an official Gelato tour, I had fun doing my own.
The official Gelato Tours of Bologna was raved about by my friend Rachelle, who told me the guided city walk took in multiple flavours, plenty of history and gelato-based facts, and of course, lots of gelato gorging.
Ranging from modern stores with new-fangled flavours to the oldest Gelato store in Bologna, this is the perfect way to tantalise your taste buds in the beautiful old city centre.
11. Hunt out the little gems and embrace €1 pizza slices
The streets of Bologna make for a world of food discoveries, some in plain sight and many well hidden. What you’ll struggle to find here, though, is, thankfully, a bad meal.
Some of my favourite pizza ever was eaten on the streets of Bologna, and costs are much more favourable from a window vendor here than a fancy restaurant in Rome. Pizzeria Due Torri is a staple recommendation for me, where huge slabs of pizza can be enjoyed cheaply with the best view of the city, located just alongside the two leaning towers.
Down side streets, even in residential areas, you’ll find plenty of small, family-run restaurants that may not look like much from the outside, but down little staircases or behind closed doors, a treat awaits.
Menus are often seasonal and sometimes just verbal. If you find somewhere without an English list and a handful of options presented by the server, you are likely in for a tasty treat; Osteria dei Grifoni was one of my favourite finds.
12. Sample the Sammarinese cuisine
But of course, inside the Emilia Romagna region is another country; San Marino. Completely surrounded by Italy, this republic is also home to its own flavours and productions, and a little side trip is a must when you are here.
Read more: Best places to visit in Emila Romagna