Stepping off the train to Bologna, little did I know that taking that two-hour train ride would transport me to a new area of Italian cuisine. Gone were the dishes of Pici Pasta with Wild Boar, Papa Pomodoro, Bistecca Fiorentina and glasses of Chianti Classico of Tuscany. What replaced them was Tortellini in Brodo, bottles of aged Balsamic Vinegar, Prosciutto di Parma, Bolognese ragu, and lasagnas layered with creamy béchamel and paired with glasses of sparkling Lambrusco. In addition to Lambrusco, the region’s wine offerings include Pignoletto from Bologna and Sangiovese from Romagna. So many choices!
Located in northeast Italy, the region of Emilia Romagna is sandwiched between Tuscany (Florence) to the south and Veneto (Venice) to the north. From the region’s capital Bologna to cities Parma and Modena and the small villages in between, there is much to discover in this region. As a relatively young country (150 years old), Italy’s twenty regions each have a unique cuisine of their own. One dish may be called by one name in an area, and a different name entirely in another. These dishes were only the tip of the iceberg of what I ate during my trip, as I had tried many dishes I had never heard of before. Here are five foods I ate in the region that you should absolutely check out.
My first night in the Emilia Romagna, I traveled to the village of Castelvetro di Modena, which is thirty minutes from the city of Modena. Surrounded by rolling hills and grape vines galore, I stayed at Podere Diamante, an agrotourismo (think: working farm meets tourist destination) which grows grapes that are intended for Lambrusco and balsamic vinegar. Since I was out in the countryside, I decided to eat at the restaurant on site. I opted for the tasting menu, and my first course that arrived was the Sformato di Parmigiano, a savory flan-like custard drizzled with local balsamic vinegar. This dish had an egg-like density and had a creamy consistency with a rich Parmesan bite to it. The word sformato translates to “formed.” While sformato can be found in traditional preparations across Italy, the local touches of aged balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano from a nearby farmer made this dish a standout.
Gramigna Alla Salsiccia
The second course at the Podere Diamante came out, and while I was missing pici pasta with wild boar ragu (a dish typical of Florence and Tuscany), I was pleasantly surprised by my plate of tri-colored Gramigna pasta with a salsiccia (sausage) sauce. This pasta shape I was not familiar with: hollow and curled on one side, gramigna resembles a shepherd’s staff. While this dish may not be the first to come to mind when discussing cuisine of the region, this pasta shape and the meal are typical of Bologna and is eaten in many restaurants and homes. Part of what makes this dish a standout is sauce’s simplicity. The simple but excellent components of sausage, tomato, and onions showcase what can be done with a few choice ingredients, making it a memorable addition to my tasting menu.
Crescentine (or Tigelle)
My first evening in the city of Modena concluded with a casual dinner off of the Piazza Grande. After traveling by car and bus on a hot August day, I was looking for something easy to eat. Once I found Sosta Emiliana, I ordered and was presented with a basket that contained five small sandwiches, each as big as the palm of my hand. These crescentines, a circularly shaped flatbread, contained mortadella, honey, and other cured meats and fresh cheeses topped with aged balsamic vinegar, sandwiched between two pieces of round thin bread.
The shape of crescentine look very similar to English muffins, and while they are both round, that’s where the similarities end. Crescentines are made placing dough in a mold that is then grilled on a stovetop to obtain that perfect consistency. These disc-like breads are slightly browned so that are crispy on the outside and warm soft on the inside. If you were to have this dish in a family’s home, you might see the traditional method of cooking the dough in iron molds (called tigelle) that are heated coals over a fire. In some restaurants, you may also see the sandwiches listed as tigelle, as in some areas the words are used interchangeably.
My last pasta dish while in Modena has an unusual shape, and the name comes from curious origins. Strozzapreti is best described as a short flat noodle rolled in the shape of the letter S. A typical pasta shape of central Italy including Emilia-Romagna, there are many rumors of where this pasta shape came from. The name Strozzapreti translates to “priest stranglers,” some say the pasta was made specifically for the gluttonous priests who invited themselves to eat at the houses of the poor. Legend has it that this shape was served in with the hopes that the priest would choke on the dish. Regardless of myths, I enjoyed this pasta when I had it at La Bicicletta Caffe & Salumi served with a simple tomato sauce.
If you read gnocco fritto and think gnocchi, I understand your confusion, but can confirm that they are not related! Gnocco fritto is pastry-like bread that is good for both sweet and savory consumption. It is prepared with flour, water, and lard, cut into a diamond shape and then fried until it puffs up. I first encountered this Modenese specialty at Podere Diamante. The gnocco fritto came with an assortment of cured meats, soft cheeses, and spreadable lard in a build-your-own sandwich platter. This is sandwich making on a whole new level!
In Modena, my goal was to eat a gnocco fritto with a cappuccino for breakfast. Well, I loved it so much that I went to not one but two places to experience this morning ritual: first at Bar Schiavoni by the Mercato Albinelli (Bar Schiavoni is also known for their sandwiches) and then at the famous Bar Tiffany who make gnocco fritto hot to order. Who could resist something made with and fried in lard, with the crispiness of a beignet, dunked into your morning beverage?
Stephanie Gravalese is a food and travel writer based in The Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where she’s improving her pasta making skills. Keep with her on Instagram at @stephanitaeats.