Virtuoso Life March 2018 A Culinary Tour Through Italy’s Emilia-Romagna Region

A Culinary Tour Through Italy’s Emilia-Romagna Region

Italy’s beloved old-school foods get a modern twist.

Emilia-Romagna’s weathered hills and medieval buildings share the golden-brown hue of a beauty that develops only with age. Everything here, it seems, gets better as it gets older, even the food: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dries on shelves the same way it has for centuries, balsamic vinegar soaks in barrels that date as far back as Machiavelli’s time, and cured hams hang in a cellar built hundreds of years ago. Each is one of 44 products governed by the Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP), meaning that their production locations and methods are codified by law. So when a restaurateur or producer finds a way to show off luxury and modernity while making something that’s been unchanged for eons, it’s worth checking out. Travelers based in Bologna can explore all aspects of the area’s culinary heritage, including its new direction. Head out with a guide, or a map and a car (perhaps a Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Maserati – which are also made in the region), to sample three of Emilia-Romagna’s most beloved specialties. 

Culatello di Zibello at Antica Corte Pallavicina.
Culatello di Zibello at Antica Corte Pallavicina.
Photo by Susan Wright 

Italy’s Prized Ham: Culatello di Zibello

“Modern” is hardly the word that comes to mind when you’re surrounded by the funk of 5,000 aging hams in a fourteenth-century cellar. At least, until you climb the stairs out of the basement and enter a grand glass room that greets diners with brilliant sunshine and tablet-toting servers. Here, less than two hours northwest of Bologna in the medieval village of Polesine Parmense, is Antica Corte Pallavicina, the embodiment of contemporary Emilia-Romagna, where food is king, but tradition is queen. 

Some diners who sit at chef Massimo Spigaroli’s crisp-white-clothed tables are oblivious to the culinary magic happening below: The cellar walls harbor molds that inoculate the hunks of meat, just as they have since the Pallavicino marquesses cured the same Culatello di Zibello here 700 years ago. There’s no climate control, just windows that open to let in the Po River valley’s lowland fog. (The humidity is one of many factors that differentiate Culatello di Zibello from its famous sibling, Prosciutto di Parma.)

The restaurant incorporates the salumeria’s premier product into its otherwise thoroughly modern menu. Nearly everyone starts their meal with a trio of Culatelli di Zibello, before moving on, say, to dumplings stuffed with tomatoes and burrata cheese in an anchovy sauce, courses of frog legs or poplar-smoked black pork, and, for dessert, domes of white chocolate with lemon centers. But the culatello, more tender and intense than prosciutto, remains the star. The taste of the fog comes out as a gentle smokiness, a flavor that can be produced in only eight local towns, so that Culatello di Zibello is rarely exported and can even be difficult to find outside the area. 

A balsamic tasting at Villa San Donnino.
A balsamic tasting at Villa San Donnino.
Photo by Susan Wright

The Real Deal: Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

Balsamic vinegar seems ubiquitous – until you realize that much of what’s found on grocery shelves isn’t the original. The DOP-certified stuff comes in a 100-milliliter container designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro – famous for his work with Ferrari – in 1988, when the consortium systemized the rules for making it. It’s labeled “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena,” not “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena,” and the sole ingredient is grape juice. (Nontraditional versions blend grape juice with various wine vinegars.) To be certified, along with the region’s only other DOP-certified vinegar, from Reggio Emilia, it must be made using the original method, unchanged for centuries. Visitors can see this process in play in barrels dating from 1512 that Davide Lonardi still uses at Villa San Donnino in Modena, 45 minutes northwest of Bologna. 

Lonardi, one of about 125 local producers, offers travelers the chance to peer into the attic of his 1911 villa and wander among the acres of grapevines in front before they stop in the shop to taste his vinegar – alone, over cheese, or, surprisingly, on ice cream. Like Culatello di Zibello, traditional balsamic is made without climate control; seasonal temperature changes contribute to the product’s flavor. Under one of Villa San Donnino’s sixteenth-century barrels, a ceramic bowl catches drips falling through the cracks of the aging wood.

Things are a bit sleeker – impeccably so – eight miles away at Opera 02, a winery, restaurant, farm-stay, and acetaia (balsamic producer). There, few of the barrels are older than the fresh-faced proprietor, 36-year-old Mattia Montanari, even though the production process – boiling down the grape juice, filling the barrels, then moving the aging product from the largest container to the smallest – takes a minimum of 12 years. There’s no dust or dripping vinegar here. A pristine glass wall separates the air-conditioned lobby from the required uncontrolled climate of the vinegar loft, where gleaming lights and uniform batteries of casks give off a “Lamborghini of vinegars” impression. 

The vinegars of both acetaie have a complex, round sweetness without the sharpness and cloying caramel notes of the other versions on U.S. shelves. As different from their counterparts as fine china is from paper plates, they accomplish the same thing, but with infinitely more style and finesse.

Antica Osteria Le Mura’s pumpkin flan with Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Antica Osteria Le Mura’s pumpkin flan with Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Photo by Susan Wright 

A Classic, Elevated: Parmigiano-Reggiano

Of all Emilia-Romagna’s traditional foods, Parmigiano-Reggiano, the “king of cheese,” is perhaps the most famous. Still, the delicacy’s sacrosanct status has left it a bit behind the times. While it shows up on nearly every menu in Bologna, the presentation rarely changes: a few crumbles, perhaps drizzled with vinegar. When Antica Osteria Le Mura opened in the city last year, it hoped to buck that practice. Rather than outright rejecting the city’s culinary classics (green lasagna, rich ragù, tortellini in broth), Le Mura split its menu in two: classic dishes on the left, creative reinterpretations on the right. Diners looking for the famous and familiar can sit at the narrow wine bar or at wooden tables and order their Parmigiano on the salumi board. But those looking to try something new will find it in an elaborate asparagus-and-Parmigiano-Reggiano flan topped with peas and lemon, as bright as the sun shining on the contemporary patio out front.       

Le Mura’s dual setup might hardly be groundbreaking in many places, but in a part of the world so entrenched – even legally so – in tradition, these baby steps to move Culatello di Zibello, balsamic vinegar, and Parmigiano-Reggiano into the modern world are a pretty big deal. 

Dig Into Emilia-Romagna

STAY: Base your culinary exploration at Bologna’s oldest hotel, the 109-room Grand Hotel Majestic già Baglioni, housed in a former seminary built for Pope Benedict XIV. Stop number one: the property’s I Carracci Restaurant, where, beneath Murano chandeliers and Carracci brothers frescoes, tradition lives on in the region’s authentic rustico cuisine.    

GO: While you’re in the homeland of some of the world’s finest automobiles, it’s only fitting to take one out for a spin: Self-drive itineraries get a boost from Onirikos, Italian Experiences Designer, one of Virtuoso’s on-site tour connections in Italy, who can work with your travel advisor to arrange Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini rentals.
Your travel advisor can set up a private full-day food adventure with another
Virtuoso on-site connection, IC Bellagio, that includes stops to taste Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, and balsamic vinegar.
Artisans of Leisure’s 11-day food- and wine-focused trip through Italy features two days in Emilia-Romagna, plus winetasting in Piedmont, truffle hunting in Tuscany, and market-hopping in Florence.

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