Emilia Romagna is one of the best regions to eat the best Italian food and the most authentic.
Nestled in the province of Emilia Romagna is one town you should absolutely visit if you truly want to know what to eat in Italy: Parmesan, Lambrusco wine, pasta, cured meats, balsamic vinegar, name it – you can find all the best food here in beautiful Reggio Emilia, home of 170 000 incredibly welcoming Italians and birthplace of the tricolor Italian flag!
Last October, I visited the small city of Reggio Emilia, or, as the locals call it, simply “Reggio”. I had the chance to be accompanied by Marialuisa from Italian Unplugged Tours who is an expert tour operator of the region and who taught me all about Reggio’s best food and touristic attractions. While the city is not known to most tourists, it definitely should be added to your own personal food tour if you plan to visit Italy. Those visiting Tuscany will find it very close and easy to reach by train (especially with the new high-speed train station inaugurated in 2013) and your tastebuds will thank you for the excursion.
The whole region of Emilia Romagna bursts with incredible food: it is home to the real traditional balsamic vinegar, called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (produced in the city of Modena, probably the most globally known) but also “di Reggio Emilia”, both products of high quality being protected by the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin and the Denominazione di origine protetta. This is serious business, nothing to do with the commercial product you would find at your local supermarket. True balsamic vinegar is thick and syrupy and was aged in barrel for a minimum of 12 years, 18 or 25 years. More years mean more taste, more texture, thus more quality. Foodies will be happy to spend 75 euros on a tiny bottle to bring back home, which precious droplets will later be used as a garnish on their favorite recipes.
The center of Reggio hosts an outdoor market on some days, and is full of food stores all more appealing than the previous ones. Casa Del Miele (Via Broletto 1/A, 42121 Reggio Emilia) sells the most amazing products since 1946: chocolates, honey, jams, and two regional specialties: sughi d’iva, a sweet paste made of red grape must, flour and sugar, and the tortellini dolci reggiani. No, this is not the pasta we’re talking about here, but a pastry, more or less a turnover than can be filled with cream or jam, oven-baked or fried. Another popular pastry here, a savory one, is the erbazzone: either baked or fried, it’s basically a salty cake filled with spinach or other greens and local Parmigiano Reggiano.
In fact, the popular pasta here is the cappelletti. Belly-button shaped, it’s made out of eggs and flour like all good fresh pasta. Ever since I was little, I was told a story about an Italian man who showed my ancestors how to make these little beauties. The story says that about a hundred years ago, my great- (or great-great?) grand-mother’s house hosted an Italian man in her small French Canadian town. Why? I have no clue. But what I do know is that every year, the women in my family and I make the cappelletti, and we eat them as noodles in a soup. During my stay in Bologna, I made my own version of that soup, called cappelletti en brodo. The noodles are usually filled with meat (beef, prosciutto, pork, veal and giblets), nutmeg, breadcrumbs and yes, you guessed it, regional grated Parmigiano Reggiano. (Let me tell you one thing: the quality of the products we found in Italy we so much better than those in my little hometown that the soup was a hundred times better than usual! Please don’t tell my grandma.)
And what about this famous parmesan? You’ll find it here in Reggio although the main shop is in Parma.It is always made with a mix of the buttermilk from the day before and liters of fresh milk. The parmesan-making process starts early in the morning and takes about 2-3 hours of manual work. The men start by mixing the milk in a tank before adding whey and raising the temperature. The mixture will be left to curd until it forms a heavy ball that falls at the bottom of the tank. After being recuperated with the help of a cloth, the ball is transferred into a round mold where it will take its shape, to be freed from it two days later. It will then bath in salted water for 20-something days before being put on a shelf to age for a minimum of 12 months, after which it will be inspected by quality. Just as the vinegar, the quality is rigorously controlled and if it meets the requirements of the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano, it will be marked with their logo. If not, it will be marked with lines and will not be sold as Parmigiano Reggiano, but under a different name and for a cheaper price. One of the most celebrated (and expensive) parmesan cheeses is the Vacche Rosse Parmigiano Reggiano.
If you have the chance to get a hold of these two incredible products (aceto balsamico tradizionale and parmigiano reggiano): here’s a simple idea for a snack. Break a piece of cheese with your fingers, top it with a drop or two of vinegar… and let it melt in your mouth. Enjoy. THIS is Italy, my friends. And if you’re still hungry, serve it alongside some cured meats. In Reggio, the Cotechino Modena (pork, fatback and pork rind) is a popular sausage. You’ll find this product and many more at Antica Salumeria di Giorgio Pancaldi (Via Broletto, 1/P, 42100 Reggio Emilia).
I could talk about Reggio (and Italian food in general, to be honest) for days, but an article about the best food of Italy would not be complete without a true authentic Italian recipe starring… yes, Parmigiano Reggiano! Here’s my twist of a Basic Parmesan Risotto.
Risotto al parmigiano recipe
– 1.5 litres of chicken stock
– 1 chopped onion
– 2 cups of Arborio rice
– 2 small glasses of dry white wine
– Salt and pepper
– freshly ground black pepper
– A knob of butter
– 90 g of Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
– Drops of traditional balsamic vinegar
– Heat the chicken stock. In a separate pan, cook the onions in butter for 10 minutes on low fire. Add the rice and turn up the heat. Cook it while stirring constantly for a minute then add the wine.
– When the wine has been absorbed by the rice, add a ladle of stock to it and a pinch of salt. Turn down the heat and keep on adding ladles of stock when the rice has absorbed all the liquid of the previous one. Keep on stirring and adding stock little by little until the rice is soft. It should take about 15 minutes.
– Remove the rice from the heat, add the butter and the Parmesan and stir. Add salt and pepper if needed. Cover with a lid and let it rest for 2 minutes. It should be very creamy at this point.
– Eat immediately and enjoy!
Interested in visiting the Parmigiano Reggiano factory in Parma (Via Puppiola, 15, 43122 Parma)? Contact the coop: email@example.com.