1950s Archive

A Gastronomic Tour of Italy: Emilia-Romagna

Originally Published March 1955
The lackluster Valley of the Po is crowned with pinnacles of architecture and seraphic cooking.

Even the most enthusiastic Emilian press agent would hesitate to designate his two sprawling regions as among the most seductive in Italy. The upper half, which stretches almost entirely across the high calf of the Italian boot, is as flat as Iowa, and just as fertile. The southern half consists mainly of Apennine foothills, and is a bit forbidding, as any veteran of General Mark Clark's Italian forces will tell you. The famous Via Emilia, built by the Romans in the year 187, and running in an almost straight line for one hundred fifty miles from the Adriatic shore to Piacenza, is not an imposing highway today. It is beset with impacted road signs, clouds of dust and incessant repairs, and cluttered with the cacophony of sputtering scooters and motorcycles. Yet, by some peculiar justice, the Via Emilia is one of the most fascinating in Italy, due solely to the chain of medieval cities which it connects, and the monumental cuisine which thrives in them. From the Adriatic shore a string of significant names stretches almost to Milan—Rimini, Cesena, Forli, Bologna, Modena, Parma and Piacenza, each famed in its way, each offering something unusual to the observant—and hungry—traveler.

This, to Italian epicures, is the cradle of the best food in Italy. They beam when they talk about la cucina bolognese. Bologna, the Eden of gastronomes, the city of fine cooking and keen brains! This is the land of those famous egg noodles with savory meat sauce, of the immortal mortadella sausage, of Parmesan cheese, and of turkey breasts sublimated with melted cheese and wafers of truffle!

The Bolognese are proud not only of their cooking bur of their robust appetites, and cite, as an example, a wedding feast held in 1475 when the bride and groom and a thousand guests sat down to table for three consecutive days, attacking such substantial fare as pasta, assorted roasts, sausages, hams, truffled turkeys, cheeses, fruits and pastries. All this was lubricated with the good wine of Montedonato and larded, one supposes, by judicious intervals of sleep.

Ingrassamento, or fattening, is the word for Bolognese dishes in the minds of most epicures. The one lowering specialty, the key to everything, is called sfoglia, the basic homemade egg pasta which forms the foundation for any number of farinaceous dishes. Their names ripple along fortallini, tagliatelle, lasagne, pappardelle, cappolletti, tortellini. What musical names they are, and how gratifying to the gourmet! Each of them deserves a separate essay, truffled with tinkling adjectives! A rapturous Bolognese gourmet hit the proper poetic peak when he termed the tortellini the “umbilicus of Venus.” These incredible little circles of sfoglia are rolled around a stuffing composed of ham, mortadella, chopped veal, Parmesan cheese and a suspicion of nutmeg. When this tender delicacy is cooked in a good chicken broth and lightly sprinkled with Parmesan, it is no slight tribute to the goddess of love, 1 assure you. Cappelletti (little caps) are somewhat similar. Tagliatelli are famous throughout Italy-wide egg noodles with a delicate meat sauce. Lasagne are wider, thicker, inclined to be a little heavier, and are often tinted green from an increment of spinach, as are pappardelle. But it is useless to attempt to paint word pictures of these splendors. They must be tasted to be believed.

The porkers who snort about in their restricted backyards in Emilia are some of the noblest in Italy, and they end up in sublime disguises-the ample mortadella of Bologna, the hoofed zampone of Modena and a variety of succulent salami from Parma and Ferrara. Only one sausage is totally missing from local shops in this region the one we call Bologna. Nothing vaguely resembling it can be found anywhere. Yes, we have no Bologna in Bologna. Mortadella is its particular pride. As you know, it is different from other sausages-larger, wider, redder, more delicate in tasre, interspersed with white cubes of fat. Its origin dates back to the Middle Ages, and the monks may have been mixed up in its invention. At all events, old engravings show robed ecclesiastics happily pounding pork in a mortar while large sausages hang overhead.

The wines of this region are honest, hearty and acceptable, but they lack the luster of those from neighboring Tuscany and Veneio. The best wine lists feature these, but there are several local wines worth asking for. The best is Lambrusco, grown near Modena. The Albana Di Bertinoro and the Sangiovese will reward you well if you see them on a rural wine list.

In sketching out a gastronomically guided tour of Emilia Romagna, we are arbitrarily beginning on the Adriatic coast, where you may not be us all, and covering Romagna first. This puts Ravenna and Perrara at the head of our list. The savory path of interest then leads straight up the Via Emilia, ending in your own American kitchen with two Bolognese recipes which we implore you to try. Rimini and Cesenatico, on the Adriatic coast, have access to superlative sea food, but we haven't found the right restaurant in either of them-yet. So the first gourmet stop on the Via Emilia is Ravenna.

Subscribe to Gourmet