Gee, it has only four months...but I finally finished! Finally! The second-half of our trip! I don’t know why it has taken me so long. I swear I think about our trip there everyday since we’ve been back.
The second half of our trip took us to Emilia-Romagna. My desire at first was to stay all five days in Bologna, Italy’s food capital (they don’t call it Bologna la Grassa [Bologna the fat] for nothing). But after reading about the area and talking with our travel agent, there was more in Emilia-Romagna we wanted to see than Bologna. So we decided to say someplace central and take day trips to places we wanted to see.
But in between leaving Florence and heading to Emilia-Romagna, we took a side trip to Montalcino for my wine-loving husband. We wanted to find some Brunellos. Well we found some, as well as some terrific olive oil, chestnut honey, a beautiful town high on a hill, and wonderful food. My lunch that day consisted of roasted lemon flavored guinea fowl. My plate was wiped clean with bread…a complement to the chef, I understand. Our lunch started out though with an antipasti of affetati misti or mixed cold cuts. There was prosciutto and mortadella and salames, arranged artfully on the plate with toasted bread. In the center of the plate was a small mound of thinly sliced white “stuff” with a peppery edge. I asked our server what it was (I had an inkling and needed to confirm), and she proudly responded “Larda!” Just as I suspected. It was smoky good and melted in your mouth. Together with the toast, it was heavenly. And no, I have not been to have my cholesterol checked since I’ve been back.
After a few hours of strolling and some gelato for dessert,
we headed for the Po River valley.
Our travel agent led us to an Agriturismo farm between Bologna and Modena. It is a working farm with small apartments for guests. It was such a smart suggestion. It was lovely to stay in the countryside but still be close to the cities. The setting was picturesque; the food was locally made, if not produced right on the farm. We had breakfast on the farm every morning. Breakfast consisted of a neighbor’s Parmigiano-Reggiano, a neighboring local prosciutto, farm-made preserves and pomegranate juice, and a sweet cake. Oh yeah, and wonderful Italian café, which we became addicted to while we were there. The farm also serves dinner 6 nights a week. We indulged one night, and it was the most serious and filling meals of our trip. It was 8 courses. The plates are stacked as you sit down. As you finished each course (served family style) the dirty plate was taken off the top, leaving you a clean one for the next course. I am not sure what all we ate, either. Some things that stand out was the farm-produced Lambrusco (slightly frizzante), triangles of fried dough and proscuitto, fried squash blossoms, friend zucchini sticks, balsamic meatballs, and tortellini in brodo (hubby picked up his bowl and slurped down the broth—it was that good), and nocino (a walnut liqueur). The women on the farm make the tortellini everyday. In fact, the smell of chicken stock came from the kitchen everyday we were there. They are very serious about the simplest of foods. It was inspiring. If you are curious, here is the link to the place: http://members.aol.com/gaidello/index.html
Our first day trip was to Bologna, of course. It was very different from Florence in that in Firenze I felt the tourists out numbered the locals. In Bologna, that was NOT the case at all. Bologna is a center of commerce, and there were times I almost felt we were in the way of getting business done! However, walk into a different quarter of the city and you will undoubtedly feel old and unhip, as Bologna is a university town. Dreads and body piercings everywhere! Since it is home to a university, the town is full of book stores (books are almost as much a passion for me as food). Food and books: Heavenly!
But of course, what we came to Bologna for was the food. It lived up to our expectations. Our first meal was at Rosteria Luciano (via Nazario Sauro 19, tel. 051-231240). We were obviously the only tourists there, because everybody else was in business suits. When we were seated, the waiter announced they had just gotten a basketful of truffles (black and white ones) and the chef was making tagliatelle with truffles special that day. My husband ordered the special, and it came out with not only truffles in the sauces but generous shavings on the top. Exquisite! Since it was a hot day, I stayed with a lighter meal and had carpaccio of swordfish…see below.
It was draped over a mound of radicchio and arugula and other lettuces and topped with carrots and peas. It was dressed with vinegar and oil. SO good!
We were the last ones left in the restaurant and our waiter was bantering with us a bit. He told us owner was allowing him to take some of the truffles home with him and he was excited because he knew his wife made a wonderful truffle sauce. Then he said “uno momento!” and disappeared into the kitchen. He came back out with a small sack and pulled out whole truffles to show us. Now I have seen them on cooking shows and the like, but had never actually held one before. I couldn’t believe how dense and heavy they were. I swear if you threw it at somebody, you could knock them out cold. And the smell!!! Kind of like wet, almost mildewy, earth. Like a dirt cellar or something. It was so cool.
For dinner we went out for our only snooty, expensive, dress-up dinner of the vacation. It was at Trattoria Battibecco (via Battibecco 4, tel. 051-223298). The name makes it sound casual, but it isn’t. Battibecco is known for its seafood, which is what we indulged in. They had a “chef’s discretion” seafood sampler. Three tastes of different seafood at the whim of the chef. We ordered it and could not have been more happy that we did so. But I am getting ahead of myself a bit. The dinner started out with an amuse bouche of a small cup of leek and barley soup with a large crouton. And THEN came the three tastes: Tuna tartare with avocado, balsamico, and apple slivers; smoked baby octopus salad with tomatoes and arugula and olive oil; and my favorite, baccala (salt cod) cakes on white polenta and drizzled with balsamico, with zucchini and chives. Our primi course was pasta for me (spaghetti with tomatoes and monkfish and roe) and risotto for hubby (with sea scallops and saffron). And finally for our main course we each had sea bass. Mine was with fresh porcini and baked under super-thin slices of potato. His was oven roasted with lemon chunks and capers with a lemon/wine reduction. It was a tremendous meal with lots of courses that took us well into the night. We felt truly Bolognese afterward!!
The next day was spent in Ravenna to see all the incredible mosaics. I don’t remember where we had lunch that day, but I do remember what I ate. It was the perfect example of how the simplest of foods taste better in Italy. It was nothing but a tuna sandwich but it knocked my socks off with how good it was. It was crusty white bread spread with aioli with big chunks of tuna and tomatoes and some lettuce. That was it. But, man! Was it good!! I can still taste those ripe tomatoes and the fresh fish and the garlicky aioli. Mmmm.....
The following day was spent visiting Ferrari in Marenello. They have a great museum. The test track wasn’t open to the public as we had hoped, but you could hear it no matter where you went in the town! We ate at a trattoria in Vignola (where there is an incredible castle). What was cool about this place was that there was no printed menu. The waitress just told us what they had that day. Hubby had the classic tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce. I had gnocchi in fresh tomato sauce. Simple and divine!
We also visited all around Parma and visited various Verdi sites. In Parma, we had lunch at a lovely restaurant called “I du brasse” (Piazzale Cervi 5, tel. 051-21-286098). And since we were in Parma, I made sure our antipasti was some prosciutto di Parma. Check it out:
We also had cipollina (onions) in an agrodolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce made with balsamico), along with tagliatelle with a rabbit ragu for me, and risotto with pears and gorgonzola for the hubby. It was a great lunch!
Our last day in Italy was spent doing foodie-tourist things. We visited a farm to learn about Parmigiano-Reggiano production,
(I believe that this is what heaven must look like)
as well as to a “Casa del Balsamico” to find out how balsamic vinegar is made.
The older the vinegar gets, the thicker and more concentrated it becomes. Our guide showed us a barrel of 150-year old balsamico, and it was like a paste!! They enjoy it on special occasions, such as weddings and births. Now I know why the good stuff is SO expensive. Of course, the stuff in the supermarket pales in comparison now, too. Balsamico could become an expensive habit.
Our last dinner was in Modena, at a very tiny restaurant (10 tables) called Cucina del Museo (Via San Agostino 7, tel. 059-217429). There were celebrating the season of mushrooms with a special 5-course mushroom degustation menu. Since we can’t get fresh porcini here, we decided to indulge for our last night in the country. The five courses were: thinly shaven slices of fresh porcini mushrooms dressed only with salt, pepper, and olive oil; a trio of warm antipasti—onion and mushroom tart, fried squash blossoms, and seared foie gras dressed with balsamico; gnocchi cooked in a mushroom broth and served with porcini, morels, and chanterelles; roasted chicken breast (skin on, bones removed—why don’t we do this in the states? It’s either skinless-boneless, or skinful-boneful), with a mélange of mushrooms sautéed almost crisp with breadcrumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano and fried sage leaves; and lastly, a savory mushroom “napolean”—puff pastry layered with a mushroom ragu. Dessert was vanilla ice cream topped with balsamico (I know it sounds horrible, but it was fantastic!!).
In the Roadfood vein, we made sure to stop at one of the incredible autostrada rest stops. We bought stuff for a picnic dinner back at the farm. Cheese, proscuitto, salami, olives, bread, and vino. Yes, all this from a rest stop! They have gourmet food and small grocery stores, not to mention espresso bars. Check it out: http://www.autogrill.it/site/it/default.htm
One night we ate a pizzeria in the town near the farm. It had THE most incredible pizzas—the best of our trip! It is on the second floor of a hotel just off the via Emilia (kind of like Rte. 1 between Baltimore and Washington). The pizzas were huge! And the menu was endless. Of course we took pictures of the pizza. Mine was with grilled eggplant, fresh tomatoes, and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano:
and the hubby had one with prosciutto, peas, and cream:
Yes, there are plates under there somewhere! Pizzeria Maté, Via Leonardo da Vinci 3, Castelfranco Emilia.
All in all, a food-lover’s dream vacation. I wish I had the money to go every year. ****sigh**** Maybe when my Powerball dreams come true!
If anybody is interested in the details or more pics about the Parmigiano-Reggiano or balsamico being made, let me know. I can post a travelogue appendix!