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While foodies most often flock to Florence or Rome, get the best bang for your buck in Northern Italy
Most of what we associate with Italian cooking—lasagna, tortellini, parmesan, prosciutto—originates in the north’s Emilia-Romanga region with Bologna standing as a true food capital of Italy often overlooked by tourists. Think of Bologna as the European version of Portland, the original intellectual hipster town with a killer food scene. Given that it’s only a short train ride away from Florence, Modena and Venice, visitors can park themselves in this city filled with architecturally astounding porticoes, while eating your way through Northern Italy.
When many diners consider a quintessential spaghetti Bolognese, it’s often neither spaghetti nor Bolognese sauce we think of. Tagliatelle al Ragù is what you want to order at restaurants, where wider handmade pasta is used to hold a thicker meat sauce. A popular favourite with locals, Osteria dell’Orsa is where you want to go for this classic, which often goes on special for only 6 Euro. (While you’re there, enjoy the brie with honey and walnuts to start, but arrive early. They don’t take reservations.)
Since Bologna is one of the rare Italian cities where innovation is starting to outshine tradition, you’ll want to try a “traditional, but not traditional version of this classic dish, according to Gessetto‘s restauranteurs Danilo Verone and Gaetano Lanza. For Ragù, they use Sangiovese-braised sausage blended with Squacquerone soft cheese, mixed in with handmade egg noodles. The Squacquerone is unique to the Emilia-Romana region and has a shelf life of only four to five days refrigerated, so try the old and the new!
Italians love to argue over cooking. So before you accidentally start a war with a proud local, be sure to try tortellini in broth, and not in a cream sauce. The origin of tortellini is a never-ending dispute between Bologna and Modena, so try one in each city. In Bologna, Ristorante Da Nello is the go-to. Near Piazza Maggiore, it is where you can try a traditional tortellini in brodo along with a wide range of other traditional dishes, including smoked goose carpaccio, another Northern speciality.
A short 30-minute train ride away in Modena, Francesetta 58 promises celebrity chef Massimo Bottura’s mind-blowing version of tortellini in a silky cheese fondue. Just one bite of these delicately-made tiny stuffed pastas and you’ll experience delicious Parmesan saltiness. Buonissimo!
Before Massimo’s restaurant was the talk of the town, balsamic vinegar was small town Modena’s claim to fame. True foodies willing to spend a good portion of the day touring an acetaia (vinegar cellar) will love Acetaia di Giorgio, which garnered praise from U.S. President Obama, but the quicker way to sample a good variety of authentic balsamics is at La Consorteria 1966 in Modena. The staff will walk you through different brands of “black gold” aged 12 or 24 years; the older it is, the thicker and sweeter it becomes, like a syrup. A few things to note about balsamics with official D.O.P. (Denominazione Origine Protetta) status: they are only sold in 100 millilitre perfume-style bottles; each has its own unique identification number; and you’re not supposed to use it to cook but rather drizzle it on meats, salads, desserts and more. (Foodie tip: Inspired by the food-tour series Somebody Feed Phil, go next door to the gelateria for a cup of Fior di Latte and ask for droplets of aged balsamic to top your ice cream.)
Gelato is one of those things that will inevitably taste good anywhere in the Bel Paese. Two that stood out in Northern Italy are B.Ice and Emilia Cremeria.
B.Ice is a newer gelato shop in historic Florence, and you just might want to forego the traditional shops as this spot offers ingredients free of preservatives, hydrogenated fat and uses only natural thickeners (guar flour and locust bean flour). Interesting flavours include cream with biscotti, lavender and organic spirulina and ricotta and caramelized figs. The handmade popsicles (dipped in dark chocolate on request) are a must-try made with fresh fruit and no added sugar.
With unparalleled creamy gelato, Emilia Cremeria in Modena offers specialties including the Siciliana (almond and pistachio), the Emilia (white chocolate and gianduia—a chocolate hazelnut spread similar to Nutella, but different), and chocolate cherry. This environmentally friendly cremeria boasts a recyclable jar program for its parfaits and makes its desserts using free range eggs, organic milk, fresh fruit and cane sugar. Savour these sweets that taste good, and are good—or at least better!—for you.
For those who grew up in East Vancouver, $2 mortadella sandwiches were a delicious local snack. I always thought those tasted amazing… until trying mortadella in its place of origin.
Pigro Mortadelleria in Bologna’s main square sells one thing: mortadella sandwiches in perfectly baked bread. Try thinly sliced mortadella in traditional Bolognese cresente bread (similar to a focaccia with ham bits sprinkled on top) or sciocco bread, an Italian hybrid of bread and croissant made without butter yet retaining a commendable flakiness.
Closer to Bologna Centrale train station is Breaking Toast, the two-year old popular takeout counter that skips paninis, to serve large, thinly sliced toasts with the tastiest fillings inside. They range from five to seven Euro. The young owners were inspired by the acclaimed television series Breaking Bad, so the entire menu references American pop culture. With Bologna being a more liberal city, you can find vegan options too. Try the Zohan, featuring hummus, baked eggplant, baked zucchini and paprika. In this meat-based culinary region, you won’t regret it.
Good meats and cheeses are staples of Northern Italian diets. In the heart of the main market, Salumeria Simoni in Bologna has been a deli hot spot with locals since 1960. In Modena, the tiny four-table Hosteria Giusti was featured on Master of None and is only open for lunch five days of the week, so plan well ahead for this quaint but popular osteria.
One of the best places for parmesan cheese and prosciutto (aka Parma ham) is in Mercato Albinelli in Modena, akin to Granville Island Public Market or Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Walk away with a sizeable 100 gram block of the best tasting Parmigiano Reggiano for only 2 Euro. It’s also a great place to compare Modena prosciutto vs Parma prosciutto. But when in Modena, just don’t say you prefer the Parma ham too loudly.
These are only the most famous of Northern Italian cuisines, and undoubtedly there are many more menu items worth trying. When in Europe, spending your entire vacation in one country might seem like putting all your eggs in one basket, but—for foodies—a two week Italian vacation only offers 28 lunch and dinner opportunities!