… beyond the Bolognese – a great guided tour of Italy!
Paul Lay – ed FWT
12:01AM BST 19 Aug 2006
For lovers of Italian food and touring Italy, there are countless pleasures to savour along the Italian food trail of the via Emilia, the ancient road that links the great food cities – Parma, Modena and Bologna – of the northern province of Emilia-Romagna.
Now that Ryanair has opened a route to Parma, it’s easier than ever to travel in Italy, explore Italy’s gastronomic heartland, eating in endless trattorias, visiting wineries, an abundance of colourful country markets and, with a car, meandering off the main road to visit some of the region’s hundreds of specialist food producers.
To witness the painstaking creation of Emilia’s world-famous specialities of prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham), parmigiano-reggiano (Parmesan cheese), and the balsamic vinegar of Modena, then to taste these products in optimum condition, is an experience that lingers long in the memory.
Though its cities are the equal of any in Italy, Emilia is not as visually enchanting as, say, neighbouring Tuscany. The countryside, especially as one nears Bologna, is flat and fertile, where abundance outweighs aesthetics. It’s industrial, too, the home of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati – a place of cutting-edge technology that has made many of its people as rich as its cuisine.
Emilian food is emphatically not “Mediterranean”. Butter, cheese and pork fat abound, though these are tempered by a surfeit of vegetables and fruit: spinach, pumpkins, asparagus, melons and the cherries – arguably the world’s best – that bloom in the town of Vignola.
With a few exceptions, a meal in an Emilian restaurant, trattoria or osteria will be inexpensive, at least by British standards – about £15-£20 a head, including house wine. It will also be of a uniformly high standard, and sometimes quite exceptional: Emilians are passionate about food, as the cities’ crowded daily markets demonstrate, and demand high standards.
The restaurants mentioned overleaf are personal favourites, though in a region of such culinary abundance, you won’t go far wrong if you simply pop into any restaurant or café that catches the eye. Just as quality won’t vary too much, neither will menus. Though Emilia has a reputation as a stronghold of “prosecco socialism”, when it comes to food, tastes are defiantly conservative.
Parma – The home of Food n Walk
Though one could begin this journey in reverse, from Bologna, my preference is always to start in charming Parma. The gentlest possible introduction to Emilia-Romagna, it’s almost comically civilised, a city of few cars, many bikes, and a beautiful medieval heart around the Piazza Duomo. Numerous osterie line the narrow streets behind the Duomo, serving typical local fare: a plate of prosciutto and culatello (a gorgeous cut from the rump of a pig); asparagus and artichokes served alla parmigiana; tortelli alle erbette, a delicious ravioli of spinach beet served in broth; pork, rabbit and tripe.
Osteria del 36 (via Saffi 26, 0521 287061; closed Sunday) is an old place with youthful staff. Three courses, with wine, should be around £25 per person. At around £20 per person, it’s a little cheaper at nearby Osteria I Tre Porcellini (Borgo del Correggio 60, 0521 236138 ), and more traditional, though no less friendly.
For a more upmarket dining experience, try Il Trovatore (via Affò 2, 0521 236905 ), a short stride from the opera house that saw many of local boy Giuseppe Verdi’s premieres. The food is not substantially different in content (though served on finer china), but the wine list is impressive and includes reds made from local gutturnio grapes. It makes a change from the fizzy Lambrusco served in many osterie. The price is around £35 per person.
More pleasure lies in the countryside beyond. The tours of ham and cheese producers are fascinating . Langhirano, nine miles south of Parma, the centre of the ham industry, is crammed with warehouses, all with tall shuttered windows facing in a northerly direction to capture the Appenine air that gives the hanging hams their distinctive taste. It is the highlight of a tour of Italy beyond most dreams!
The quality control verges on the fanatical. A visit to one of the 600 producers of Parmesan cheese is, if anything, even more compelling, especially if you are lucky enough to be there when one of the inspectors cracks open a drum of perfectly aged, smooth, crunchy Parmesan.
The home of aceto balsamico, the delicate but intense vinegar derived from crushed grapes, Modena feels a little more youthful and adventurous than its rivals. This is reflected in its most celebrated (and expensive) restaurant, Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana (via Stella 22, 059 210118; closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday).
Bottura is the Heston Blumenthal of Emilian cuisine. His set menu, served up and explained in great detail by sharp-suited waiters, includes a foam of four Parmesan cheeses, each at a different stage of maturation; an astoundingly delicate agnoli of beef and red wine; and the lightest fillet of pork I’ve ever tasted, seasoned in 30-year-old balsamic vinegar and served with an onion marmalade. Even with the cheapest wine on the list the bill came to almost £100. But think what you’ve saved on the flights.
More traditional (and cheaper) Modenese fare can be found at Hosteria Giusti (Vicolo Squallore 46, 059 222533; closed Sundays and Mondays) which does wonderful gnocco fritto – light, crisp breads served with salami; a terrific salad of capon dressed in 18-year-old balsamic vinegar; and zampone, a mixture of seasoned pork made into a sausage with the skin of a pig’s front leg, served with lentils. It costs around £28 per person.
For those seeking something less meaty, Aurora (via Coltellini 24, 059 225191; closed Monday, and Tuesday lunchtime), behind Modena’s synagogue, specialises in seafood fresh from the Adriatic. Expect to pay £22 per person.
Tours in Bologna – Parma – Region
If you want to see balsamic vinegar made, contact a good guided food tour company such as FWT Parma ,www.foodnwalktours.com. .. the very oldest balsamic vinegars can cost anything up to £80 a bottle.
This is Italy’s gastronomic capital, and a more epicurean place is hard to imagine. Strolling along via Drapperie and via Clavature you’ll pass through food markets established since the Middle Ages, stocking everything from herbs to horsemeat, while most nights crowds gather outside the area’s bars snacking on hams and olives washed down with frizzante. Try Bar Calice (via Clavature 13) or grab a table outside the chic Zanarini (Piazza Galvani 1, 051 2750041), whose dry martinis arrive accompanied by ridiculously generous snacks (oysters on one occasion), all for around £2.
In the city’s trattorias, it’s best to embrace tradition. Lasagne, the classic Bolognese dish, is a revelation. There are many basic but superb eateries on via Righi.
Trattoria Tony is probably the best (via Righi 1/b, 051 232852; £17), though its neighbour, Trattoria Montanara (via Righi 15, 051 221583; £15) is worth a visit just to encounter Arimatea and Mattei, the wonderful couple who run it.
More upmarket is Diana (via dell’Indipendenza 24, 051 231302; closed Mon; £24), a light, airy 1930s building serving excellent tortellini in brodo.
If you want to learn how to make tortellini, tagliatelle, lasagne and other staples of Bolognese cuisine head for Alessandra Spisni’s La Vecchia Scuola (via Malvasia 49, 051 649 1576, www.lavecchiascuola.com). The ebullient Alessandra offers a five-day course for around £150, the results of which you wash down with copious amounts of wine.
Similarly larger than life are the staff of my favourite Bolognese food shop, Salumeria Bruno e Franco (via Oberdan 16, 051 233692 ). It’s camp, colourful – the staff all wear huge red berets – and crammed with customers tempted by the mouth-watering displays of home-produced specialities. If you ask nicely, one of the ragazzi will take you across the road to their laboratorio to see how the food is prepared. The enthusiasm is boundless – and infectious.
Paul Lay travelled to Parma with Ryanair (0871 246 0000,www.ryanair.com): from £15.18 one way, including taxes; and flew back from Bologna with BA (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com): from £48, including taxes. In Parma, he stayed at Hotel Torino (via Angelo Mazza 7; 0039 0521 281046, www.hotel-torino.it), £65 per night for a double room. In Modena, at Hotel Centrale (via Rismondo 55; 0039 059 218808,www.hotelcentrale.com), £55. In Bologna, Hotel Roma (via D’Azeglio 9; 0039 051 231330, www.hotelroma.biz), £70.