If there was ever an ideal travel destination for foodies, it would be the province of Emilia Romagna in northern Italy. We planned an entire long weekend holiday here just to eat! Emilia Romagna stretches from approximately Rimini in the east on the Adriatic sea to Piacenza in the west, just south of Milan, and contains famous cities like Bologna and Parma.
It is arguably the foodiest region in one of the foodiest countries in the world. I find myself hard-pressed to find a destination more appropriately suited to travelers with big appetites -- you can eat and eat for days on end! Plus the food you eat in Emilia Romagna is special and unique to this province! This region of the world has the highest density of DOP, the Protected Denomination of Origin (DOP), label products in the world. This means that under EU law these products must abide by strict production regulations and geographical restrictions in order to be certified with the DOP label, similar to things like Champagne from France or Bourbon from Kentuck
Sam and I spent a long weekend snacking, dining and eating our way through Emilia Romagna soaking in the deep cooking traditions of Italy. It was a quintessentially “us” vacation with our only priorities really being to eat amazing food. Together we compiled some of our favorite culinary experiences from the trip into this blog post!
10 Essential Foods to Try in Emilia Romagna, Italy
Parmigiano Reggiano DOP
Let’s start this list with my favorite food in the world -- CHEESE! I would be lying if sampling Parmigiano-Reggiano from its source wasn’t one of the main reasons we opted to travel to Emilia Romagna. Famed for its salty, umami taste and hard, crumbly texture, Parmigiano-Reggiano is actually one of the most counterfeited food products in the world (along with olive oil). The official Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese wheels must carry a DOP stamp on their rind to certify validity. A traditional wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano is 18 inches wide and 9 inches tall clocking in at nearly 90 pounds.
Similar to other things on this list, true Parmigiano-Reggiano is very pure -- salt and enzymes are the only things added to the milk prior to aging. The cheese is given a series of salt water baths during its first few weeks before it is placed on an aging shelf in a cold case. The wheels of cheese will be aged for a minimum of 12 months up to 36 months. The younger the cheese, the more soft and velvety it will be. The oldest Parmigiano-Reggianos will be dense, grainy and crumbly with a strong flavor. It’s low fat content and high-crystallization make it more challenging to melt and cook with, so you are most likely to see Parmigiano-Reggiano used as a freshly grated topping or on a charcuterie plate with other regional specialties.
Where to Find Parmigiano-Reggiano
The provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and part of Bologna are the only places where Parmigiano-Reggiano can be produced. The DOP label is so specific as to say that the cows who produce the milk used in this cheese can’t graze outside of these provinces! You can easily find Parmigiano-Reggiano in every deli or restaurant in the region, but the real experience is to go on a farm tour. You can find highly rated group tours like this biking tour or this tour by a cheese producer on AirBnb, or you can visit a specific farm using the index from the DOP consortium.
Grana Padano DOP
To an undiscerning foodie, Grana Padano and Parmigiano-Reggiano are likely to taste very similar. But Emilia Romagna is the perfect place to refine your palate and get to know the nuances and differences! Also a DOP certified cheese, Grana Padano is a hard, slow-ripened cheese that is treated and aged in a very similar way to Parmigiano-Reggiano. The biggest difference between the two cheeses stems from the skimming of the milk prior to aging. Grana Padano is made only with partially skimmed milk, while Parmigiano is made from a mix of whole and skimmed milk.
This results in a shorter aging period for Grana Padano, which is ready in as quickly as 9 months with a maximum aging time of 20 months. At its full aging, the crystallized enzyme granules inside the wheel give Grana Padano a unique texture. The flavor of Grana Padano is more mild and creamy than Parmigiano-Reggiano, and you will see it more commonly used in cooking or sauces. It is ubiquitous in Emilia Romagna, so you are likely to see it on many menus in taverns and high-end restaurants alike.
Where to Find Grana Padano
The production area for Grana Padano is larger than Parmigiano-Reggiano, so you have a wider assortment of places to sample Grana Padano. Look for it on restaurant menus during your stay or visit a deli to try it on its own. My favorite application I sampled was stuffed inside of a ravioli and served with a brown butter sauce!
Prosciutto di Parma DOP
Transitioning to the meat products of Emilia Romagna, the salty, fatty and infamous cured meat Prosciutto also calls this region of Italy its home. Largely produced in the city of Parma, Prosciutto is made by rubbing sea salt onto the hind pork legs and then letting the meat age in a cold case for at least 12 months. Some might be aged all the way up to 36 months.
In order to get the official DOP stamp, salt can be the only ingredient used in the curing process and all other chemicals are forbidden. This means that all the flavor variation you taste in Prosciutto comes from two factors -- the diet of the animal and the microclimate in which it is aged.
The quality and taste of the meat is entirely dependent on the diet of the pig. We tasted some prosciutto that was grassy or nutty, flavor profiles which are cultivated by the farmers who raise the pigs. Emilia Romanga has a distinct microclimate that is caused by the air rushing over the Apennine Mountains along the Tuscan coast. Any microparticles or nutrients carried by this wind can also impact the flavor of the meat to have notes of olive, pine or chestnut.
Where to Find Prosciutto di Parma
As the name would suggest, the ideal place to eat Prosciutto is in Parma. The central food markets in Parma and Modena are gold mines for sampling. Similar to the Parmigiano-Reggiano, there are also lots of tours to see prosciutto aging facilities which include samples at the end. In fact, many of the tours combine visits to both cheese and prosciutto producers for a full culinary dry trip!
Culatello di Zibello
Prosciutto is known around the world, but its lesser known big brother -- Culatello -- is the real kingpin of the northern Italy cold cuts. It is considered to be the most prized (and expensive) of all the cured meats in Emilia Romagna. The biggest differences between Prosciutto and Culatello is the cut of meat. The leg of pork is entirely processed by hand, where all of the rind and all excess fat is removed.
Once trimmed, only the prime cut of the back inside the leg can be used to produce Culatello. The aging process for Culatello is also 12-18 months, but it needs to start in the fall when the low temperatures and high humidity are ideal for aging. The result is a buttery, briney and delightful charcuterie product that has been perfected over generations of skilled butchers.
Where to Find Culatello
Sampling Culatello can be a little bit harder because it is a more expensive ingredient, but it is well worth the effort! We were staying at Antica Corte Pallavicina Relais which has an onsite Culatello aging facility we toured. You can also sample it as a dish at the Michelin starred restaurant inside the hotel.
Ever the coveted ingredient, truffles are known to grow in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. While not as famous as the black truffle variety found in France, the white truffle is no less mighty and is absolutely one of the must-try foods when traveling in Italy. The pungent smell and taste of this wild fungi is unforgettable. Although there is a burgeoning truffle cultivation market in Europe, most truffles eaten today are still caught in the wild with the help of animals. The truffles typically grow in high moisture regions near the roots of common trees like oak and poplars.
Where to Find White Truffle
During your visit to Emilia Romagna, consider going out on a truffle hunting tour! The white truffle season spans September to December and there are a number of tours offered in the region. White truffle has a more fragrant and robust flavor than other truffles, which is why you almost always see it served raw on top of a dish. It is so valuable that chefs and servers weigh the amount before shaving it onto a dish to ensure they don’t use too much.
Gnocco Fritto or Crescentina
As if bread couldn’t get any yummier, the people of Emilia Romagna naturally tried and succeeded at doing it -- by frying it! Typically called Gnocco fritto or crescentina depending on which city you are in, these deep fried bread pillows are truly a treat. I would recommend eating one (or 7) during your food adventures in Emilia Romagna.
A simple milk and flour dough is formed into little squares or circles and fried to crispy brown perfection. Because they are typically served with fatty meats and cheeses, the bread itself has to be watched carefully during frying so that it doesn’t get too greasy. You will almost always see Crescentina as an appetizer or street snack, and it is often flavored with fresh herbs like rosemary or tarragon.
Where to Find Gnocco Fritto
We had so many of these little treats, it's hard to pick a favorite place to recommend. A good rule of thumb is to order it when you see it. You’ll never be disappointed with fried doughy goodness!
Produced primarily in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia, balsamic vinegar is another DOP product that originates from northern Italy and is absolutely a must-try food in Emilia Romagna. We had the distinct pleasure of staying in an agritourism vinegar loft hotel where we could get a true sense of the labor that goes into producing this rich, dark brown vinegar.
Grapes, similar to the species used for wine making, are fermented as the basis of the vinegar and then aged in open-air wooden barrels. The aging process for balsamic vinegar takes anywhere from 12 to 25 years to complete -- hence why it is sometimes referred to as ‘liquid gold’. Balsamic aging barrels are grouped together (and passed down between family generations) as vinegar makers undergo an elaborate ritual of ‘feeding’ the vinegar mother and mixing batches of different aged vinegars.
The final product will look nothing like the balsamic vinegar you have probably bought in a grocery store. It has an almost sweet, syrupy texture with intense nuances of flavor. The price reflects the time-intensive production process with 500ml of the 25 year vinegar starting at 80 euros.
Where to Find Balsamic Vinegar
Doing a full tasting experience is recommended so that you can learn about the process and see how intensive it really is. We did a cellar tour and tasting at Opera 02, which I would definitely recommend. You can also find balsamic vinegar on many menus around the region. The most popular applications are serving it with cheese and prosciutto, infused into sauces, and poured over fruity desserts.
In a country known for great wine, I find it funny that the wine from the foodie region Emilia Romagna actually has a bad reputation. Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine, originates from the wine vineyards in this area, and it is typically thought of as a cheap, low-quality wine drank by university students. Turns out, the reputation does not match the reality at all, because all of the Lambruscos we tried in Emilia Romagna were fantastic. They range from an almost rose-like ruby to intense red color typically with a fruity flavor and pleasant acidity.
Where to Find Lambrusco
Lambruscos are typically served with cheese and meat because the fizziness cleans and freshens the mouth from the heavy fats of these foods. You can find them on the wine list in nearly all restaurants in Emilia Romagna. We wound up loving the Lambrusco from Opera 02 so much that we shipped a case of them to our house in Cologne!
Tortellini (en Brodo)
One of my all-time favorite pastas is tortellini and I bet you guessed it -- it originates from Emilia Romagna! Tortellini is a delicate stuffed pasta that is almost always handmade and fresh from a standard egg and flour dough mixture. This pasta was created in Bologna but quickly spread across the region. Different cities and towns will have special varieties of Tortellini, whether that be what it is stuffed with or what kind of sauce it is served with.
The most common preparations you’ll encounter serve tortellini stuffed with cheese or vegetable and tossed in a light tomato sauce. My favorite variety that I tried in Emilia Romagna however was Tortellini en Brodo, in which the Grana Padano cheese I mentioned earlier was filled into the tortellinis and served in a piping hot rich chicken broth. Basically, the best chicken noodle soup imaginable.
Where to Find Tortellini en Brodo
Modena and Bologna are the most popular destinations for the traditional dish of Emilia-Romagna. You’re bound to see them in a lot of small restaurants, as it is a beloved local dish. I absolutely devoured a heaping bowl in Bologna at Ristorante Albergo Tramvia.
What is arguably the most famous Italian dish besides pizza -- Spaghetti Bolognese -- naturally originates from Italy’s foodiest region. The name of the dish stems from Bologna where the ragu was initially created. A traditional Bolognese sauce is a rich, hearty ragu made from crumbled ground beef and pork, browned with tomato paste and mirepoix before dry white wine and beef stock are added and reduced over a slow simmering heat.
Contrary to popular belief, bolognese sauce isn’t typically served with spaghetti in this region of Italy. It is usually paired with freshly made tagliatelle noodles or layered into a lasagna or even served over polenta. Regardless of how you sample this sauce, it is a homey and deeply delicious flavor that is likely to flood you with memories of family dinners from years past.
Where to Find Spaghetti Bolognese
Because of its popularity and diversity of use, there isn’t one specific place to get bolognese while traveling in Emilia Romagna. But Bologna is a natural choice! Check out the 8 euro bowl of yumminess at Osteria del’Orsa or pop into the trendy fast casual Bottega Portici. For some really special ragu, make a reservation at La Traviata -- you won’t be disappointed.
Have questions about what to eat in northern Italy? Ask me in the comments!
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