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).
We venture out of the city and drive south into the beautiful rolling hills of the Modenese countryside. We come to Vignola, a small but bustling town on the Panaro river dominated by its huge 12th-century castle. Access to the castle, which is free to enter, is generally unrestricted and totally unguided, giving visitors free reign to explore everything this remarkable site has to offer. Like most castles, there are displays of medieval weaponry, and furniture and artwork from throughout the ages. Several huge rooms are adorned with what looks like an early version of wallpaper; this is actually finely detailed fresco-work depicting various animals, resulting in names like the “Lion and Leopard Room” or the “Hound Room." In the upper stories of the fortress, a couple of the vertigo-inducing towers are open to climb freely. The ascent up the worn stone stairs raises the all the way to the topmost levels overlooking the entire town and river valley. Those who aren’t claustrophobic can also visit the dank and ominous prison rooms.
Following the Panaro river south towards its source in the forested Apennines, we divert to the east and wind our way up to the little town of Zocca. Here, on an unassuming commercial street across from a tire shop, sits Osteria dal Cinon. Flowering vines and other plants envelop the front patio, creating a little refuge from the road. This excellent restaurant has been in the same family for generations, preparing old recipes sourced from the best local, organic producers. Their classic dish is anolini in brodo, little salty prosciutto-filled tortellini in a light broth. One of the occasional daily specialties is a chicken leg quarter, slow roasted for many hours and then finished in a hot oven. The result is a very crispy, crunchy skin encasing the deliciously juicy meat inside. Cinon offers several homemade liquori, such as walnut, peach, and orange, to quaff after your meal.
Continuing south and then turning west, we climb up to the little mountaintop ski resort village of Sestola, a remote town in the steep foothills of the Apennine mountains. The lower village is largely a pedestrian-only zone, and from it one can hike the short but challenging footpath up to the old medieval fortress that overlooks the town and the entire surrounding countryside.
While the crowds mill around below in the town, we find ourselves nearly alone in the castle. The current castle walls and structures date from the late 1500s, though the site was a military stronghold for some 800 years before that. The castle now houses several museum installations: The fascinating Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments; the Museum of Mountain Civilization; and a whole room devoted to Teresina Burchi, a Sestola native who became a hugely successful opera star in the early 1900s. The real display, though, is the fortress itself, especially the very scary but rewarding climb to the top of the big guard tower that commands a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountainsides.
Now we retrace our steps, following the river back downstream towards Modena, and winding through the hills until we approach our stopping place for the evening—the Ristorante Corte di Ca’ Bosco. On a hillside overlooking the various farms and groves below, Ca’ Bosco offers clean and comfortable rooms at a good price; but the real attraction here is the restaurant. Many of the diners are locals; others have driven nearly an hour, from Modena and Bologna, to eat on the restaurant’s beautiful terraza. Owner Mirella makes delicious fresh pastas daily; her husband Andrea is locally famous as Ringo, “DJ della griglia” (dj of the grill). His meat dishes—local beef, sausage, chicken, and veal—are all cooked perfectly and with flair on an open-air wood grill. The grill smoke and cooking meat creates a light haze of tantalizing aroma that lingers throughout the evening. While he’s cooking our dinner, Ringo chats freely and jovially with his guests; the atmosphere is less like a restaurant and more like a barbecue at an old friend’s house.
This entire exploration, from Modena to Sestola and back, covers really only a tiny portion of the extensive countryside of Emilia Romagna. The itinerary demonstrates, though, the breadth of experience, the richness of history and art and architecture—and of course the wide range of great food—that one finds when steering away from the big tourist attractions, venturing instead down the little roads.
Read about these places and more great Emilia-Romagna locations in the first of our Little Roads Europe Travel Guide series: “Emilia-Romagna—A Personal Guide to Little-known Places Foodies Will Love”.