Secrets of Italy's Emilia Romagna Region
Visitors to Italy typically overlook the region of Emilia Romagna in favor of Tuscany, its more famous neighbor to the south. While Tuscany has a lot to offer, Emilia Romagna has a great deal to see and do—and eat!—with a fraction of the tourist crowds.
On this particular exploration we find ourselves in Modena, the balsamic vinegar capital of the world. Aceto balsamico is one of those quintessential Italian foodstuffs that originated in Emilia Romagna, along with prosciutto from Parma, the famous parmigiano reggiano cheese, and more kinds of salumi than you can count—like the prized, artisinal culatello of tiny Zibello. This region offers some of the best—and most filling—plates served anywhere.
It’s a hot day as we walk through Modena’s Piazza Grande; the huge open town square is flanked by the imposing Duomo (cathedral) and its adjacent clock tower, the Torre Ghirlandina. Some welcome shade is to be found between the two edifices: We lean against the cool stone Porta della Pescheria doorway, with its ornate carvings of Zodiac-like calendar figures, Biblical depictions, Arthurian characters, and other fantastical scenes. We hear the sound of the bells tolling in the tower; they mingle with the voices of the congregation singing while taking communion inside the cathedral. This is one of those experiences that feel like a step back in time; indeed, the bells themselves are over 700 years old.
Modena is small enough to wander effectively on foot, though good shoes are a must on the town’s many cobbled streets. We wander from the Piazza to the famous Mercato Albinelli, a huge covered marketplace with dozens of stalls where local food vendors and artisans ply their wares. You can’t ask for a better place to get all your shopping done, from fresh produce to local meats and cheeses to baked goods to oil, vinegar, salt and spices. Don’t miss stall #94, which sells a traditional cookie called “amaretti”—chewy, sweet cookies infused with almond essence. The smells are tantalizing; the temptation to try a bit of everything risks compromising your appetite for lunch. As always when eating in Emilia Romagna, pace yourself.
Not far from the Tower we stumble upon La Gioja, the shop of glass artist Susanna Martini. Susanna was trained by the glass masters of Murano in Venice; she has applied her skills to creating a more modern art form. Glass jewelry is her specialty, and each piece is unique. Her shop displays shelves full of her wares right next to her cluttered workspace—if you’re lucky, you’ll catch the goggled Susanna at work, and you’ll hear the sizzle of the glass melting under a white-hot flame. One of her best selling and simplest pieces is “una goccia di aceto”, a drop of vinegar—her homage to Modena’s life-blood, captured in glass as if frozen in mid-pour.
We speak to Susanna and her husband for quite a while—which pays off when we tell them where we planned to eat lunch. “Oh, they’re closed for the summer,” they explain (in a charming mix of Italian and English), “but we’ll call and reserve you a table at this other place, you’ll love it.”
The other place, it turns out, is a little trattoria down a small side street where tourists would never bother to venture: Ristorante Il Fantino, a very casual place filled with locals. There are only a few dishes available; everything is handmade and of a very high quality, in a light and cheery atmosphere. The walls are filled with food- and wine-themed art, which whetted our appetites while they made our dishes from scratch. A simple plate of tortelloni with butter and sage was delicate but rich; and the wine-soaked, falling-of-the-bone pork ribs were so delicious that we would have eaten them out of a bag in the street if they wanted us to. Happily, this was not necessary, so we were able to move on to a very artistic dessert, sfogliatelle (“pages” of crispy, flaky pastry) stacked with fresh sweet whipped cream in between and topped with a liqueur-soaked cherry.
On our way out of Modena’s centro, we come to the Church of the Benedictine Abbey of San Pietro (Saint Peter). After a walk through Modena’s narrow little streets, walking inside directly into this cavernous, cool space is a welcome change of pace. Its unusual art and architecture includes several depictions of fantasy figures like satyrs and giant seahorses. The monastic shop next door, Spezieria Monastica, sells products made by Benedictine monks: wine, liqueurs, herbal perfumes, soaps, tinctures, and teas. Just past this shop is an entrance to the local monks’ gardens, where they grow the herbs and other produce that they use to make their goods (as well as their dinners).