By a stroke of luck I ended up in Emilia-Romagna, an Eden of fine cooking and savory ingredients. I’d been living in France for nearly a decade and, while the food captivated me, each trip to Italy begged another. Growing up in the U.S, I had an idea of Italy as a European state, but now I was discovering its infinite provincial diversity. The nation has millennia of history, but it’s only been a unified country since 1861. Twenty individual regions weave a multicolored patchwork of provinces, cities, and villages: bygone kingdoms and feudal states.
In 2000 I landed a job as a tour guide with a company based in Forlì. No idea where that was. I hefted my world atlas onto the kitchen table and thumbed through the index: F… For… Forlì. Italy sculpts more of a leg than a boot on the map. Forlì lies in Emilia-Romagna: a broad expanse spreading across her thigh like a garter. The region takes its name from the Via Aemilia – the 160-mile ancient Roman road stretching east, straight as a tightrope from Piacenza to the Adriatic Sea.
The Apennines, Italy’s mountainous spine, arch east then south from the Mediterranean Sea to form the territory’s lower border. Slanting vineyards and soft grassy slopes smooth north into orderly orchards. Parcels of kiwi populate the flat Po River plain. Renaissance towers, medieval ruins, and cypress spires cap rolling hills. And wavy grids of silvery olive trees garnish the slopes.
Emilia-Romagna’s cultural heritage embraces Parma’s powerfully arched cathedral, Bologna’s leaning brick towers, and sixth-century mosaics in Ravenna; once the Western Roman Empire’s capital. Pellegrino Artusi, the father of Italian cooking, grew up in Forlimpopoli.
But Emilia and Romagna are one only on paper. In the eighth century, the Frankish King Pippin III pawned off the troublesome southeastern regions on the papacy. Like twins separated at birth, they matured into individual personas. Romagnoli are “chicken-farming country bumpkins,” say the “snooty, know-it-all” Emiliani.
Emilia prospered under centuries of wealthy, highborn families who maintained their prestige through lavish banquets. Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma, and bollito – an opulent dish of boiled meats – all hail from the region. Mortadella sausage too, even if I only knew its poor American cousin: baloney. In 1088, Europe’s oldest university opened in Bologna la Grassa (Fat Bologna) – also Italy’s culinary capital. Parmesan Cheese in the making
Lucky for me, it’s the cradle of handmade pasta too: the centerpiece of weekly family get-togethers. Sunday mornings, Emiliana grandmothers pour mounds of flour on their table-sized cutting boards. Mixing in only eggs, they knead it into sticky yellow balls. With yard-long rolling pins, they flatten this sfoglia thin enough to see the board’s wood grain. From the far edge, they curl the immense sheet into a tube, take a wide flat-bladed knife and slice off quarter-inch rounds. As the spirals unfold, classic tagliatelle emerge. The noodles’ rough texture will soak up a rich ragu of slowly simmered ground meats, tomato sauce, red wine, and minced aromatic vegetables.
Local wines often sparkle to combat such rich food: the bubbles and acidity cut the fat. Lambrusco brought fame to the area in the 80s with, “Riunite on ice, that’s nice”. Natives call the sweeter version, “the soft drink of wine”, but the dry, sparkling red marries well with lasagna and heavy meat dishes. Malvasia and Barbera produce refreshing drinks too, as often as not with shimmering foamy heads.
Romagna looks south to Rome – from which it gets its name – and the Vatican. Subjected to the church’s rule, Romagna maintained a simple and frugal character. Under the balmy Mediterranean sun, it evolved around seafood, rural gardens, grilled meats, and flat unleavened bread. While cream and butter inundate Emilia, Romagna cooks with its own olive oil.
Here, your fresh pasta might be eggless, such as twisty strozzapreti, aka “strangle-the-priest”. Since housewives had to make extra for the church, the many stories behind the name all finish badly for the cleric. In one vivid version, the cook imagines wringing his neck as she twirls scraps of flat pasta between her palms. Brisighella in Romagna
I remember my first passatelli in brodo. For generations, winter brings fierce competition to the mountain village of Rocca San Casciano – rivalry within towns runs strong too. The annual Festa del Falo divides the community in two rioni (neighborhoods): Mercato vs Borgo. Much like Siena’s world-famous Palio horserace, the townspeople throw themselves 100% into preparing the weekend celebration. It takes months to organize the food, parades, and the falo: two skyscraping bonfires that defy each other across a glacial stream.
The men invited me to help for a few wintry weekends. We collected truckloads of broom bush to erect the towers. Chainsaws buzzed as we sloshed through frosty mud up snowy hills. For hours, we collected branch after branch, the guys passing the time with exaggerated stories of what they did the night before. Finally at noon, we drove into town for lunch. The townswomen had prepared Passatelli: parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs squeezed into thick, golden noodles. More than a dozen of them floated in meat broth – the liquid left from our bollito: the next course. We ate from plastic bowls on makeshift tables, but the scalding soup was more welcome than a gourmet meal.
We washed down the meat with Sangiovese. This grape produces some of the country’s top wines: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, to name a few. Its origins lie somewhere in the Apennines, and Romagna’s best bottles rival those from its more famous Tuscan neighbor. But most locals drink simple concoctions, dispensed in carafes at lunch for a few euros.
Italy’s great diversity strikes me the most at this more rustic level. Centuries of competition keep traditions alive. The history, rivalry, and landscape reveal themselves in the people and on the table. Emilia’s open stretches and wealthy history result in sumptuous meats and cheeses. Romagna’s rustic character gives you stronger flavors and a whiff of the sea. Is it the rivalry that keeps them so unique – and so delicious?