If you ask an Italian where to go to find the best food in the whole of Italy, I would bet that their first reply would be ‘at my mum’s house’, although probe further and they would indeed reveal to you that the best gastronomic experience can be had throughout one of my favourite regions, Emilia Romagna! This region has long been overlooked, but I invite you to take time to explore this underrated place and you’ll discover an area that’s not only rich in mouthwatering food and wine, but also rich in art and culture, of buzzing coastal resorts and quiet backwaters.
This region lies between the river Po to its north and the Apennine Mountains to the south and it’s one of the most fertile and productive regions of Italy and probably best known for its capital Bologna, that is a true foodie’s paradise.
Tortellini were born here – allegedly modelled on Lucrezia Borgia’s navel – while ragu’ sauce (a very rich meat sauce) is an obsession (don’t call it spag Bol here!), served with tagliatelle pasta and nothing like you have ever tasted back home! Butchers sell mortadella salami and the scent of aged Parmesan cheese catches the nose. After having experienced it myself a few years ago, I highly recommend you discover how the artisans of Modena craft the province’s flavour-packed Parmesan, prosciutto and balsamic vinegar.
For all its culinary delights, Bologna doesn’t just feed the stomach, but also the mind. Famous for one of the oldest universities in Europe, dating back to 1088 and still in operation to this day and a stunning medieval centre full of porticoes, it’s a city full of pleasant surprises at every turn and one that will linger in your memory for a long time.
When you visit, don’t miss watching the world go by over a cup of espresso in Piazza Maggiore, where Bologna chills out. If you have come to Bologna to worship at the altar of Italian gelato just like me, then you must make a pilgrimage to the Gelato Museum Carpigiani (www.gelatomuseum.com). It’s packed with veteran ice-cream machines and recipes – including one for 11th century Arab sorbet!
A visit wouldn’t be complete without sampling Bologna’s world famous cuisine and a restaurant where we had some memorable food was at ‘Al Sangiovese’ in Vicolo del Falcone 2, a few steps away from Piazza Maggiore.
After you have satisfied your appetite both for food and art, don’t stop at Bologna but head to Ferrara and Ravenna, as they both merit a visit, Ferrara for its beautiful Renaissance centre and Ravenna for its sensational Byzantine mosaics.
Ferrara, a Renaissance art city, full of colossal palaces and still ringed by its intact medieval walls, is a gem you will find en route from Bologna to Venice and like any city in close proximity to La Serenissima, it is consistently and unjustly overlooked. As a result, Venice’s avoiders will find Ferrara’s bike friendly streets and its canals relatively unexplored and tranquil.
Historically Ferrara was once the domain of the powerful d’Este family, rivals to Florence’s Medici in power and prestige, who endowed the city with its signature building – a huge castle complete with moat positioned right in the city centre.
I wonder how many of you knew that Ravenna was considered to be the centre of the world for several centuries, first as the capital of the Western Roman Empire and then as the centre of the Byzantine Empire, which considerably changed the architectural shape of the city, enriching it of monuments and stunning mosaics.
Not to be missed is one of its finest constructions of the early Christian period, the Basilica di San Vitale. Its interior is lined with marble and mosaic decorations, such as for the example the wonderful gold and bright green Byzantine mosaics of the apse. These emerald and sapphire masterpieces will leave you struggling for adjectives! In 1996 the mosaics were listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites.
When you need a break from all the art and culture, head to the Adriatic coast where you will find loads of lovely towns, from the crowded beaches of Rimini and Riccione with a busy night life to the quieter and more gentle pace of coastal towns like Cervia and Cesenatico. In the summer you can enjoy a variety of sports, concerts, themed nights with tastings and typical markets every evening.
In my experience you won’t come across people with a greater sense of hospitality and conviviality and enjoyment of everything that life has to offer, and from its plains and countryside to its cities and cosmopolitan resorts, their ‘joie de vivre’ is so palpable and contagious that you will leave, not only with a smile on your face, but with a yearning to come back again and again!