Best meal I ever ate? Emilia Romagna. Best charcuterie plate I ever ate? Emilia Romagna. Best gelato I ever ate? Emilia Romagna. Emilia Romagna is THE foodie destination in Italy.
Naturally the foodiest city in arguably the foodiest country in Europe was on my short list after moving to Europe. The small town of Modena was the entire inspiration for our trip to Emilia Romagna. Sam and I both love the show Chef’s Table on Netflix and Massimo Bottura was an especially charming chef featured on the show. In fact, it was the first trip I planned…. one month before we even moved to Europe. That’s right — I planned our trip to Emilia Romagna in northern Italy before I even finished planning our move to Germany.
To celebrate the completion of my first semester of graduate school, Sam and I spent a long weekend eating our way across several cities in Emilia Romagna soaking in the deep cooking traditions of Italy. Our top priority for the trip was to learn about and eat some of the best Italian food on the market, and we couldn’t have enjoyed it more. Together we compiled this helpful itinerary to sum up some of our favorite culinary experiences from our trip to Emilia Romagna!
Day 1: Bologna
For most people arriving from international destinations, Bologna is where you will begin your long weekend in Emilia Romagna. I think that Bologna is one of Italy’s most underrated cities. It is not a popular tourist destination — and that is such a benefit in a country that bears a burden from overtourism by American and European travelers alike. Bologna is a refreshing escape from the hoards of tourists in nearby Venice and Florence, while still offering a plethora of interesting things to explore, and more importantly, delicious things to eat!
Equipped with recommendations from a friend who lived here for a semester, I confidently ate and explored my way through Bologna over the course of 48 hours, which felt like an appropriate amount of time to see the highlights of the city.
I recommend dedicating your entire first day in Bologna to wandering around. This is such a classic way that Italians experience their cities, and I think tourists should too. While there are cultural sights and museums to visit in Bologna, its real charm lies in the exploration and architecture. Less guide book agendas, more charming side streets was our motto!
One of Bologna’s characteristic features are the arcade or portico-covered walkways, and you’ll see them along piazzas and parks all over the city. I particularly liked Piazza Servi di Maria and Piazza Santo Stefano. Piazza Servi di Maria is relatively “off-the-beaten path” so you can enjoy the painted yellow columns in relative peace. The columns and arcades are well mirrored in this piazza for some interesting photography. Piazza Santo Stefano is also lovely with some cute cafes under the portici where you can grab a coffee and people watch in this lively area.
Find your way towards Piazza Maggiore, the largest square in the city, around lunch time. The streets to the east like Via Clavature and Via Pescheterie Vechie swell with farmers and shoppers selling fresh produce and lightly prepared food. Naturally, a cheese and meat plate at one of the stalls or shops nearby is a must, along with a glass of Lambrusco. This is such a leisurely place to enjoy lunch and start your culinary adventures in Emilia Romagna!
Another good spot to find yourself, particularly around golden hour, is somewhere with a good view. Whether that is a rooftop in the city center, or at the top of San Luca hill at Madonna di San Luca church, Bologna’s rust painted buildings and terracotta roofs seem to light ablaze in color at sunset. The walk to San Luca is one of the popular things for tourists to do, so it might be crowded, but it’s worth it because the entire walk there is covered in porticoes. Regardless of rainy weather or not, you can walk up because you’ll be shielded from the elements!
Day 2: Bologna
You spent your whole first day in Bologna walking around to prepare you for your second day in Bologna — which is all about eating. Start off with Italian breakfast, which is mostly just espresso. Naama Cafe is a great choice thanks to an expansive menu of tea and coffee drinks, while Vladigal Mister Coffee is a slightly more stylish option.
Your lunch time task in Bologna is to eat pizza. Although the city isn’t quite as famous as Naples in the south, Bologna is a foodie city and there are plenty of excellent pizza options to choose from. My local connection recommended Spaccanapoli on Via San Vitale as the best pizza place in Bologna, and I absolutely loved it. The dough and sauce are perfection, so any other toppings you get will only improve what is already there! Imported from Naples, L’antica Pizzeria da Michele is another excellent choice for pizza. Their traditional Antica style pizzas almost always garner a wait in their bustling downtown restaurant.
For your second meal of the day, it is battle of the bolognese. The iconic ragu sauce that is now known worldwide originates from Bologna, and adorns a variety of dishes other than spaghetti noodles. It is typically cooked in layers of lasagna or tossed with fresh tagliatelle. For a no frills student joint, check out Osteria dell’Orsa which has a lively vibe and cheap delicious food.
La Traviata on Via Urbana is another excellent choice. Make sure you call for a reservation the day before because this place fills up. Bolognese, or colloquially called ‘ragu, is always on the menu here and it is delicious. Not in the mood? On recommendation from my friend, ask for either the tortelloni alla zucca (pumpkin tortelloni) which comes glazed in balsamic vinegar or the cheese-filled gnocchi, both of which are “off-menu” but almost always available.
Lastly, comes the sweet finale — gelato. No trip to Italy is complete without a once (or twice) daily gelato run! Two excellent choices in Bologna are La Sorbetteria and the Cremeria Funivia. If you did dinner at La Traviata, Cremeria Funivia is just around the corner and it is awesome. You can customize the flavor and toppings of their artisanal gelatos to create the perfect pair. Sam opted for the Alice on recommendation, which consists of mascarpone gelato with melted dark chocolate at the bottom of the cone, while I had the incredible Cable Car Pie which is chocolate cake stirred together with your flavor of choice. La Sorbetteria is another great choice, with locations on Via Castiglione and on the way to Madonna di San Luca church.
Day 3: Modena
The entire inspiration for our trip to Emilia Romagna was the small town of Modena outside of Bologna. As bonafide foodies, we have eaten at a few other chef’s restaurants from the show like Alinea and Pujol, so when we decided to move to Germany, I knew we had to go to Osteria Francescana. Rated the best restaurant in the world for several years, I reserved a table at Osteria Francescana over 3 months ahead of time. It is quite the process! If you are also making a pilgrimage to Modena to eat some of Massimo Buttero’s incredible cuisine, read my post about what it is really like to eat at the best restaurant in the world to prepare.
Regardless of your motivation for going, Modena is a wonderful place to spend a day on your long weekend in Emilia Romagna. It is filled with foodie highlights! The Mercado Albinelli daily farmers market is spectacular, Truly one of my favorite things to do while traveling is visit food markets. This one in particular is filled to the brim with a wide assortment of beautifully displayed local produce, cheese, and meat. The sheer volume of stalls is a little overwhelming, so consider doing a tour of the market for the best experience.
Balsamic vinegar is one of the most important and famous products from Emilia Romagna and definitely a must-try food while traveling in Modena. I suggest doing an agritourism experience on this long weekend itinerary (see below), but If you aren’t interested in that, then Modena is the best place to learn about balsamic vinegar. While paid tours are available in Modena, you can actually visit many of the vinegar producers, called acetaias, for free with samples. Acetaia Del San Donnino is one of the most famous producers boasting an assortment of celebrity clients, while the municipal vinegar factory offers daily tours in English.
If you are interested in sports cars, consider a quick visit to the Museo Ferrari outside of Modena. Famed sportscar mogul Enzo Ferrari was born in this region, and his childhood home has been turned into a museum with tons of memorabilia. If none of this is of interest to you, simply explore this charming town! Like any good Italian city, Modena is a nice place to wander around without much of an agenda. The streets are much quieter than Bologna and I found the architecture to be much cuter and more pristine. Grab a scoop of very traditional gelato at Gelateria Pomposa or Emilia Cremeria to power your walk around town. Both are incredible with creative, delicious flavors abound.
Day 4: Agritourism
One of the things I knew that I wanted to do on our long weekend in Emilia Romagna was connect with the actual farming and production process of the incredible foods that I was eating. I am perpetually enamored with local produce and farmer’s markets for this exact reason. The people and process behind the food ARE the food, and seeing how things come to you is so important in understanding the interconnectedness of people and planet.
We opted to stay at two Agritourism hotels — one outside of Modena and one outside of Parma — because we wanted to see a few different products and production methods.
The family at Opera 2.0 hotel + farm are winemakers and DOP balsamic vinegar producers with a stunning piece of land outside of Modena. The winding gravel road into the premises is beautiful with rolling Italian countryside to admire out the window as you drive through tiny clusters of homes. Once you arrive, the sleek open concept lobby opens out onto a 180 degree terrace overlooking the vineyards. Even on a cloudy day like the one we had, it was gorgeous. The onsite restaurant offers a tasting menu featuring culinary highlights from the region, and their fully stocked breakfast buffet is a must try, featuring an abundance of local charcuterie products, cheese, bread and housemade jellies.
As you walk down one of the main hallways of rooms at Opera 2.0, you enter in the vinegar loft which you’ll recognize right away from the strong yet surprisingly pleasant smell. It is unmistakable. Balsamic vinegar requires open air fermentation in ventilated dark rooms, a feature which Opera 2.0 really leans into. You’ll learn all about the process on their guided tours of the loft. The process of Balsamic vinegar making is extensive, and I chat about it more in my post about the best food experiences to have in Emilia Romagna.
Antica Corte Pallavicina Relais was our second agritourism experience in Emilia Romagna and it was a completely different experience, but no less wonderful. Built into a 1700s farmhouse in the middle of countryside outside of Parma, this historically decorated home feels like stepping into a Van Gogh painting. This fully functioning farm produces an assortment of fruits and vegetables, but the real star of the show is their Culatello aging room and museum in the cellar.
Culatello, the lesser known big brother of Prosciutto, 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, and Antica Corte Pallavicina Relais ages hundreds of them a year. The result is a buttery, briney and delightful charcuterie product that has been perfected over generations of skilled butchers. Once you’ve gotten a tour of the aging room, you can also sample Culatello in all its glory at the Michelin starred restaurant inside the hotel.
Day 5: Parma
For your final day in Emilia Romagna, learn the ins and outs of two of the regions most famous products — prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano. Parma is the primary hub for both products and doing a full day of sampling and eating is in order! You can find highly rated group tours which include both cheese and meat stops, 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 cheese DOP consortium and from the ham DOP consortium.
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.
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 specialities.
Transitioning to the meat products of Emilia Romagna, the salty, fatty and infamous cured meat Prosciutto also calls Parma its home. 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.
Tips for Traveling in Emilia Romagna
Renting a Car
Although it is possible to travel from city to city via train, we decided to rent a car after leaving Bologna because we wanted to get out into the countryside. Having a rental car makes visits to farms and producers much easier, and allows you the flexibility to pull off if you see a scenic area or a particularly alluring cheese stand on the side of the road, both of which happened to us. It is relatively safe and easy to drive in Emilia Romagna, and the terrain isn’t rugged, so you can pretty easily function with just a basic sedan.
Arrival in Emilia Romagna
Bologna’s regional airport is Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport. While it has many flights from other European cities, its international presence insn’t huge. As such, flying into the nearby airports in Venice or Milan might be an easier (and cheaper) option for North Americans. A convenient albeit slow train connects Bologna to both cities with a relatively inexpensive ticket.