Is Emilia-Romagna on your radar? It’s Italy’s most delicious region and a favorite of foodies. Read on to find at least a baker’s dozen reasons why you should go, and why kids would love it too.
Raise your hand if you’ve never heard of Emilia-Romagna. You won’t be alone. Whenever I wax poetic about this must-visit region of Italy, I see puzzled faces. Mentioning the region’s capital Bologna often sparks recognition: Bologna… Bolognese … Bingo!
Located in Northern Italy, the region of Emilia-Romagna borders the better known (but also more touristy) region of Tuscany. Think an easy train ride from Florence or Milan. It extends from the Po River southeast to the Apennine Mountains, where it cascades down to the Adriatic Sea. It’s the birthplace of the world-famous cheese Parmigiano-Reggiano, DOP (Protected Designation of Origin), Aceto Balsamico (balsamic vinegar), Prosciutto di Parma and Ragù Bolognese. This is where they created lasagna and those whimsically shaped (and stuffed) pastas.
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Emilia-Romagna is considered Italy’s “belly” and is worthy of a culinary pilgrimage by every foodie worth their salt.
Amazing Food, Art, Music and Culture
I first visited Emilia-Romagna several years ago as a guest of its tourist board. It was love at first sight—and taste. It well deserves the name “food valley” but an itinerary can include a wealth of other experiences. All to be relished.
Beloved sons, the composers Verdi, Pavarotti, and Toscanini, are responsible for its proud history of opera. In the town of Ravenna, art lovers will thrill to the stunning byzantine Christian art mosaics granted World Heritage status by UNESCO. Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s motor valley and celebrates legends Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati, and Ducati. Fancy car enthusiasts will swoon at the factories and museums that showcase these beauties.
If time for visiting this region is limited, focus on the cities of Bologna and Parma. If Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s belly, then Bologna is its navel. Its monikers include “la grassa” (“The Fat One) for its culinary legacy; “The Learned,” as it claims Europe’s oldest university, and “The Red” for both its lefty-Bolshie leanings, and rosy rooftops.
Bologna’s symbols are its towers and porticoes. In varying styles, they connect the city’s streets and palazzos. Its heart is its main square, the Piazza Maggiore, bordered with medieval and Renaissance buildings, and cafes. It’s a lovely spot to sip a morning cappuccino and watch the day begin, and a fun spot for aperitivo. Street musicians provide the soundtrack. We love staying close by at the boutique Hotel Commercanti or one of the other Bologna Art Hotels, all in the historic center.
One of Bologna’s top attraction is FICO/EATALY. Opened in 2017, it’s the largest food park in the world and pays homage to Italy’s cuisine. Visitors can observe food production, stroll gardens, take classes, shop, taste, and eat… and eat. (There’s an abundance of restaurants from pizza kiosks to fine dining.) Entertaining and educational carousels and 200 live animals will keep kids enthralled. It makes for a great first day—and plan to spend the whole day.
Look, Learn and Eat
We visited Eataly on the first day of our recent tour of Emilia-Romagna. It was a great overview for what would we experience the coming week.
I collaborated with my colleague Carol—she of Carol’s Moveable Feast—to design a food-focused itinerary for a group of culinary professionals. A native New Englander, Carol has called Italy home for the past 20 years. And she is as passionate about its cuisine and foodways as anyone I’ve ever met. She curated some unique experiences for us, and she’s an amazing guide.
We began our second day at Mercato Delle Erbe. This covered market built in 1910 has adapted to the times, but remains authentic and frequented by locals. Walking back through the Piazza Maggiore, we learned its history. We continued down a narrow lane to the cobblestone streets of the medieval market ( known as Il Quadrilatero). Shops and stalls are filled with colorful produce, myriad pastas, fragrant cheeses, and hanging hams. Fishmongers hawk their wares, fresh from the Adriatic Sea; nonnas scout for bargains and elegantly clad signorinas sip espressos. There are cafes galore for see-and-be-seen alfresco dining and hidden trattorias. Everyone in the group returned later to explore on their own and take photos. To say Il Quadrilatero is Instagram-worthy is an understatement.
We feasted at the legendary Italian “deli Tamburini,” then strolled on for gelato. Best gelato in Bologna? I say it’s Il Gelataura.
Any trip to Emilia-Romagna should include a cooking lesson. We had a wonderful Sunday at the cozy Salotto Di Penelope cooking school in Bologna. There, we learned to make authentic Ragù Bolognese in situ (no garlic!) and tagliatelle. (Never with spaghetti!).
Day Trips from Bologna — Modena, Ravenna, Rimini, Cesenatico
Modena makes an easy day trip from Bologna. This charming, well-preserved medieval city gave us Luciano Pavarotti and balsamic vinegar. Visitors can learn about, taste, and buy the “black gold” from one of the families who’ve produced and aged it under strict regulations for generations. One taste and you’ll get what all the fuss is about.
A morning arrival in Modena will give you time to stroll the historic, Mercato Albinelli This covered market is one of Italy’s most beautiful and just off the Piazza Grande where the magnificent Romanesque Cathedral of Modena has sat for a thousand years.
Consider a stop at the Enzo Ferrari Museum. Even if you’re not a car buff, you’ll be dazzled. End the day with a chilled glass of the local fizzy elixir, Lambrusco and one of Modena’s specialties — gnocco fritto. This toothsome puffy fried bread pairs well with prosciutto.
Try to plan at least half a day for Ravenna and its churches and mosaics, even if you don’t have time to see all seven of its UNESCO World Heritage sites. For a grab-and-go snack, stop at a kiosk for Piadina. This traditional grilled flatbread is beloved by the locals – and you can get it stuffed with yummy options.
If you are yearning for the sea, and time permits, you can travel along the Adriatic Coast to Fellini’s laid-back birthplace Rimini, or its more sophisticated sister, tiny Cesenatico.
TravelingMom Tip – If the kids need to blow off some steam, Ravenna is home to Mirabilandia, Italy’s largest amusement park. It encompasses two areas, a water park and rides to please all from toddlers to teens. A zoological park, Zoo Safari, is just adjacent.
On my first visit to Parma, I asked the hotel concierge for a good restaurant recommendation. He told me, “There are no bad restaurants in Parma.” And that may well be true. UNESCO named it a Creative City of Gastronomy (the first in Italy). They honored those iconic wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, its famed Prosciutto di Parma, and the artisans who take such pride in their work and hand down the traditions.
The array of markets and dining choices is, well, awesome. It’s little wonder that Parma is a mecca for foodies. It satisfies appetites for art, music and history as well, and has been named Italy’s Capital of Culture for 2020.
Nestled in the heart of the Po Valley, with its cobblestone streets, sepia-colored houses and distinctive architecture, Parma is elegant. A walking tour encompasses the Piazza del Duomo with its Bishop’s Palace, pink marble Baptistery and the Romanesque cathedral boasting Correggio’s masterpiece the Assumption of the Virgin. During World War II, many of Parma’s residents were active in the resistance. Plaques and statues acclaim the partisans’ bravery.
Our tour had us in Parma on the April 25 holiday – National Liberation Day. We loved the concerts and parades that celebrated Italy’s emancipation from the Nazi occupation and Mussolini’s tyranny. We joined in the fist-pumping and singing of the anthem “Bella Ciao.” Special.
- Group Dinner at Casadelle Photo credit: Carols’s Moveable Feast
Seeing cheese being made here is not to be missed. We toured the Caseificio La Rinascente, one of the province’s first cheese cooperatives. Our hosts from the farm, Fattoria Rossi, were charter members of the coop and the family has owned their farm since the 1800s. We observed all the steps of the process from the arrival of the milk, and then traveled up the road to the farm to see the “genesis.” The cows happily roamed free. Cameras and iPhones ready, we entered a room stacked floor to ceiling with giant stamped cheese wheels aging for 24-30-46 months. We were ready for our tasting! Together with the farm‘s cured meats and a glass of sparkling Pignoletto (the region’s version of Prosecco). Wow.
- Parmigano – It’s quite a sight! Photo Credit: Connie Walsh
Prosciutto, Culatello and Black Pigs
Seeing the prosciutto produced is fascinating, and we took it up a notch to include the rare Culatello di Zibellot, only produced in the misty Po Valley. At the historic farm estate Antica Corte Pallavicina we saw the Black Pigs of Parma – a breed once almost extinct. After touring the pungent cellars, hung with the pear-shaped hams, we tucked into lunch.
For our last night, an extra-special meal was in order. We dined at La Forcetta Ristorante. Widely acclaimed, it serves traditional Parmesan cuisine in a sleek contemporary setting. Delizioso.
Why Kids Will Love Emilia-Romangna
I have yet to meet a kid who doesn’t love pasta. And if your bambinos eat it with “just a little butter,” I bet you a whole wheel of Parmigiano they’ll take it up a notch. One of the best ways to ensure this happy result is to arrange for a family cooking lesson where they can go hands-on in making pasta.
Kids enjoy seeing cheese being made, and of course, farm visits to see the cows and pigs are always a hit. Emilia-Romagna boasts a pain-free history lesson from the ancient Etruscan civilization, that predated the Roman Empire, to the brave World War II partisans’ resistance to the Nazis and Mussolini.
- Parma honors its partisans who served in the WWII resistance. Photo credit: Connie Walsh
A private guide can tailor sightseeing to accommodate (and please) kids. There are lots of different ways to see the cities including cycling and Segway tours. Budding fashionistas will love shops. Families can head out to the countryside for hiking the hills and foraging for porcini mushrooms. Wouldn’t truffle hunting in Italy make a great subtitle for a “what I did on my vacation” essay? And lastly there is gelato galore!