This is what’s considered a light snack during a trip through Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. (Photo: Thinkstock)
If you’re going to indulge in a road trip devoted to food, there’s really only one way to go: Take a second-century BC Roman road through Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. In a country where good food is worshipped, Emilia-Romagna is pretty much the ultimate religious experience. Say goodbye to salads; learn to embrace the pig, fabulous cheeses, and sparkling dry Lambrusco; and prepare to gain a few pounds.
I hit the road with Romagnoli chef Gino Angelini and his wife, Elizabeth. To say Gino’s the best Italian chef in Los Angeles is kind of selling him short; he’s a chef’s chef.
We met at the Hotel Leon d’Oro in the beautiful medieval town of Castell’Arquato in Emilia’s northwest province Piacenza, tucked between the Apennine mountains and the river Po. It was the perfect start to a journey that would take us southwest across the region, ending in Rimini, Gino’s home turf on the Adriatic coast.
Where the quest began: in Castell’Arquato (Photo: Laurel Delp)
Our mission was simple: sample the region’s legendary artisanal products that have the denominazione di origine protetta designation. These products can be made only in certain geographical areas, using local produce and traditional methods. They are fiercely regulated.
In Emilia, olive oil takes a distant place behind butter. Béchamel is big.
Every meal starts with a platter of local salumi — cured meat — be it salami, coppa, culatello, prosciutto, or mortadella. The salumi is always accompanied by cheese and bread, including piadina, a flatbread from Romagna.
After a tasting (and, of course, salumi) at La Stoppa, one of the area’s best wineries, we dined at Da Faccini, which has been family-owned for three generations. At the gemlike country restaurant, a dinner highlighted by guinea fowl roasted in clay was capped with homemade nocino, a green walnut liqueur.
Guinea fowl at Da Faccini (Photo: Laurel Delp)
Wherever Gino went, he was a rock star. Italians revere chefs.
Listen to the cheese
Parmigiano-Reggiano has been made in basically the same way for centuries, using fresh milk from local cows fed grass and hay. At one year, consortium experts arrive with rubber mallets and tap the wheels of cheese, listening for imperfections. Only approved wheels can be labeled “Parmigiano-Reggiano,” then aged up to two more years. The parmigiano made from vacche rosse, or red cows, is particularly good. I brought home a big chunk from Grana d’Oro.
You can literally hear the wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano age to perfection. (Photo: Laurel Delp)
Antica Corte Pallavicina, a 14th-century palace owned by the Spigaroli brothers, is now a six-room inn and a one-star restaurant amid a vineyard and organic farm a short stroll from the Po. But the jewel in the crown here is the fabulously expensive Culatello di Zibello, the “king of cured meats.” Prosciutto is the pig’s rear haunch, but culatello is the “heart,” the three interior muscles. It’s rubbed with garlic, wine, and salt, enclosed in a pig’s bladder, crisscrossed with rope, and hung to cure — flavored by the mists rising off the Po — from 13 months to four years. I’m told there’s a photo of Massimo Spigaroli tucking some of his prized black pigs to bed in Pratesi sheets.
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The longer the culatello is aged, the more valuable it is — and many of the hams in the venue’s 700-year-old cellar are destined for royalty and celebrity chefs. Sliced paper-thin, it is silky, salty, and richly musty. Unfortunately, you can’t bring it into the U.S. (you can imagine what American regulators think of something that hangs around for years in a cellar by an open window).
Not a concept you hear often: aged meat. Culatello ages for years. (Photo: Thinkstock)
From Parma, we drove into the rolling mountains to Langhirano, the epicenter for prosciutto di Parma. The prosciuttificios have tall slit windows open to air that rises from the Ligurian Sea and crosses the Apennines, absorbing the aroma of oak and chestnuts. We visited the immaculate state-of-the-art Ruliano, whose automated windows open and close with the temperature.
After a lesson in the local dish, erbazzone, and dinner by chef Andrea Incerti Vezzani at country inn Cà Matilde, our little van seemed ridiculously large as we displaced people sitting at outdoor cafes in the medieval streets of Reggio Emilia.
The streets of Reggio Emilia (Photo: Laurel Delp)
After a visit to the Ferrari Museum and a chance to gawk at Italy’s most beautiful Romanesque cathedral, we went to Modena and checked out Acetaia Malpighi, where for five generations a family has made balsamico from its own vineyards. To be labeled traditional balsamico of Modena, the vinegar must be aged in wood barrels at least 12 years, and the fabulous syrupy stuff can be aged more than two decades.
Balsamico aging at Acetaia Malpighi (Photo: Laurel Delp)
The day ended at Cleto Chiarli, where we tasted sparkling wines made from estate-grown Lambrusco and Pignoletto grapes. Lambrusco has a bad rep in the U.S. — for years sickeningly sweet stuff was imported — but at Cleto Chiarli, the wines were dry, sophisticated, and sublime.
Enjoying the sparkling wine at Cantina Chiarli, (Photo: Laurel Delp)
So you know about Bolognese sauce. But the city of Bologna is home to Europe’s oldest university, two leaning towers, a medieval market, and miles and miles of porticos, or covered walkways. It’s also home to Home Food, an organization that offers cooking classes (or meals) in the private homes of talented cooks. Elizabeth and I learned to make lasagna with seven paper-thin layers of spinach pasta, Bolognese ragù, béchamel, and parmigiano.
A shop in Bologna’s market. (Photo: Laurel Delp)
We skipped the lessons at the Carpigiani Gelato Museum and went right for the tasting. After the velvety, refined gelato, ice cream just seems sadly inadequate.
The gelato will forever ruin ice cream for you. (Photo: Laurel Delp)
The last day, Gino was home in Romagna. We started in Cervia, which is north of Rimini and famed for its sea salt. Gino’s friend Stefano Bartolini provided lunch at his Osteria del Gran Fritto, a feast of seafood. Sardines! Anchovies! Later, we strolled along the Leonardo da Vinci-designed canal at Cesenatico, then dined on platters of mussels, squid, and fish at Trattoria la Marianna in Rimini. We said goodbye at the first-century AD Ponte di Tiberio, where today cars still zip across.
Next time? Two weeks. Maybe three.
Fisherman’s bread at Trattoria La Mariana in Rimini. (Photo: Laurel Delp)