Emilia-Romagna, which is known as Italy’s “food valley”, lives up to its well-deserved reputation. The region offers incredible diversity – from the Apennine Mountains to the Adriatic Coast — with dozens of charming Medieval and Renaissance cities in between. And when it comes to food, this area is home to some of Italy’s most cherished recipes.
Emilia-Romagna is most famous for its capital city, Bologna. This delicious destination is known by a few names: La Rossa, referring to its left-wing political stance (and its red-hued buildings). La Dotta, aka the learned one, because it houses the oldest university in the world. And La Grassa — a nod to its incredible food scene.
This article will take you on a culinary journey through the traditions, the flavors, and the heart of Emilia-Romagna. Hopefully, with three meals a day, it will be easy for you to eat your way through Emilia-Romagna.
Prosciutto di Parma
Parma and its surrounding countryside are the birthplace of prosciutto di Parma, one of the most celebrated foods not only in Emilia-Romagna, but all of Italy.
This incredibly flavorsome ham is like nothing else you have ever eaten. Wind-dried by the sea breeze coming from Liguria and naturally aged for at least one year, Prosciutto di Parma is a “protected food” guaranteeing its high quality.
A delicious initiative concerning Prosciutto di Parma is called Finestre Aperte. Each year in September, prosciutto producers open the doors of their ham factories so visitors can discover the secrets of this decadent food. Many brands participate and guided tours are available multiple times a day. Find more details here.
Tagliatelle al ragù
When people refer to “Bolognese sauce”, they are speaking about ragù: a meat sauce served with homemade tagliatelle (never spaghetti). According to a legend, the Lord of Bologna, John II of Bentivoglio, asked his cook to create a dish to celebrate the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia with the Duke of Ferrara in the 15th century. Inspired by the beauty of her hair, the cook created the first tagliatelle in history.
One phrase that is often said to women in Emilia-Romagna who want to get married: You can be as beautiful as you want, but if you don’t know how to cook tagliatelle al ragù, you will never find a husband!
Parmigiano Reggiano, known as the King of Cheeses, is ubiquitous at all Italian dinner tables. Produced exclusively in the Emilia-Romagna region and aged for a minimum of 12 months (and up to 40 months), this cheese undergoes a quality inspection before being sold to the public. Salty and tangy, it goes well on almost any pasta, but there are many other ways to enjoy it.
Parmigiano Reggiano can be sliced over salads, vegetable soups, meat, or fish recipes, and also enjoyed as a snack with walnuts or almonds. You can also eat chunks of it with a few drops of traditional balsamic vinegar. While you’re in Emilia-Romagna, don’t miss the chance to visit a Parmigiano Reggiano Dairy, a real sensory experience that takes you through history and includes plenty of tastings.
If you visit Emilia-Romagna during the winter holidays, you’ll have the chance to taste a seasonal delight: tortellini. According to legend, these Legend has it that these delectable pasta parcels were inspired by Venus’s belly button. The goddess of love purportedly stayed in a tavern in the small town of Castelfranco Emilia when the owned spied on her through the keyhole of her room and saw a part of her body, her belly. Impressed by it, he ran into the kitchen to roll out a sheet of fresh egg pasta, thus inventing tortellini.
Tortellini are made from flour, eggs, pork and parmigiano, and they are traditionally eaten in brodo (chicken broth). According to nonna, they should be assembled with little fingers so they are tiny. Indeed, the ideal number of tortellini in a single spoon should be 16!!
Another tip? Try them alla panna (with heavy cream) — you won’t regret it!
Every Sunday, Italians in Emilia-Romagna gather at casa della nonna to enjoy each other’s company and savor a local specialty: lasagna! Made with layers of thin pasta dough traditionally layered with ragù sauce and creamy béchamel, this is one of Italy’s most iconic dishes. Lasagna believed to be the first pasta created and dates back to the Roman era.
Lasagna comes in many varieties, including spinach and ricotta, pumpkin and speck (cured ham), or porcini mushrooms and taleggio cheese. Be sure to look out for my favorite version, lasagne verdi which incorporates pureed spinach into the pasta dough to add extra color, and flavor, to this delicious dish.
Head east to the Adriatic Sea to taste another culinary gem: piadina romagnola. This comforting street food is a simple recipe made with wheat flour, lard or olive oil, yeast, salt, and water. One of the most traditional ways to eat it is with local meats like prosciutto di parma, spreadable cheeses like squacquerone, and leafy green vegetables like arugula. The piadina is folded and heated on a griddle until it’s warm and slightly crisp.
First popularized by locals in the 40s and 50s, this flatbread sandwich gained prominence through beachside kiosks and holiday resorts. It’s still common for Italians to enjoy a piadina romagnola as an easy dinner after a relaxed day at the beach.
Gnocco Fritto & Crescentine
What’s not to love about deep-fried bread dough? Gnocco fritto comes in a variety of shapes and can be enjoyed with salty or savory toppings. Preparing the gnocco fritto is an art and each family has its own tradition. The most traditional way to eat it is with cunza, a pesto made with lard, garlic and rosemary. The warm gnocco fritto melts the lard in the mixture, releasing the herb and garlic flavors. It is also delicious at the end of the meal with Nutella!
This fried dough has different names throughout the region. It is known as crescentina in Bologna, gnocco fritto in Modena, and chisolini in Piacenza. So be sure to look out for it at menus throughout Emilia-Romagna.
One of Italy’s most unusual wines, Lambrusco is a sparking red wine served chilled. Light and refreshing, it has a sweet-tart flavor with aromas of ripe cherries, raspberries and cranberry. Since bubbles are the perfect pairing for fatty dishes (they clean the palate), Lambrusco is a natural accompaniment for the region’s hearty fare. Sip it while enjoying prosciutto di parma, mortadella and gnocco fritto. It’s also a great wine to pair with pizza or drink at Thanksgiving dinner.
The origins of Lambrusco date back to ancient times, with historical evidence suggesting that the Etruscans cultivated these grapes in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy over 2,000 years ago. It was once associated with overly sweet and mass-produced versions, modern winemaking techniques have led to a revival of higher quality and drier styles. Today, you can find a spectrum of Lambrusco wines, ranging from dry to slightly sweet, and even rosé variations.
Do we even need to introduce Mortadella? This pink meat (without pistacchio!) made with finely ground pork, combined with small cubes of pork fat, is one of the symbols of Emilia-Romagna. Seasoned with spices and slow-cooked in special ovens, it produces a smooth, pink sausage that is irresistible. #MortadellaDay is the pinkiest day of the year!
If you love mortadella, visit Bologna at the end of September during the Mortadella Please festival. You can learn about Mortadella, taste its different versions, and participate in several cooking show activities — all while walking around with a huge Mortadella sandwich in your hands.
Emilia-Romagna’s esteemed Aceto Balsamico DOP is no ordinary balsamic vinegar. This is a true labor of love. Made in Modena and Reggio-Emilia using locally grown Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes, Aceto Balsamico is made with acetified musts, and aged 12-100 years in barrels of different woods that give it a unique flavor. The flavor becomes more complex and intense as it ages. The older the vinegar, the thicker it becomes.
Enjoy this syrup drizzled on everything from salads and cheeses to frittata, risotto and why not, even on your gelato! During your culinary tour of Emilia-Romagna, try to join a balsamic vinegar-tasting tour in Modena to learn the secrets of this ancient tradition.