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Forbes incorona la cucina dell'Emilia-Romagna

Italy's Greatest Gastronomic Treasure, Emilia-Romagna

FORBES, 28/11/2013 by David Rosengarten

Il mensile Forbes ha incoronato la cucina dell'Emilia-Romagna. Il periodico dedica infatti un ampio reportage alla regione Emilia Romagna, proclamandola come la regione "dove si mangia meglio nel mondo".
Tra i ristoranti da non perdere: "Il Cappero alle Mura" e "Zoello Ristorante" di Castelvetro di Modena.
La regione del Lambrusco - conclude il giornalista americano - è una delle ambientazioni rustiche più belle d'Italia, sembra perduta nel tempo, ed è forse il posto migliore per scoprire l'incredibile cibo dell'Emilia-Romagna.


If you ask an Italian where the best food is in Italy, you almost always get the same answer. “Eh,” they like to say. “At my mother’s house!”…looking like “how could you be so stupid to not know that?”
But if you push it to a regional discussion…as I have hundreds of times…the most likely answer is…”Emilia-Romagna”…the wondrous north-central region that lies in the fertile Po River Valley.
Oh, you may hear a few votes from Italians for Piemonte, and a few for regions of the south. You never hear the American’s favorite answer, Tuscany, because Tuscan cuisine is not viewed as something special in Italy…and most Italians haven’t read “Under the Tuscan Sun.” Once, in New York, a great restaurateur opened a place called Amarcord, a reference to Fellini, who was one of Emilia-Romagna’s greatest sons. No one came. Finally, the restaurateur closed the place for a week, re-tooled, and re-opened as Il Toscanaccio. The joint was jammed from Night One. I simply can’t tell you how many plates of spaghetti and meatballs I’ve had in America at places with names like “Tuscan Village,” or “Taste of Tuscany.” Whatever they think that is.
The powerful charms of Tuscany, as seen on a hillside overlooking Siena at dusk. Great sights, people, culture, wine. The greatest food?
Nope. Americans aside, it is Emilia-Romagna that gets most of the votes over there. When sensible people try to explain this phenomenon, they usually point to the extraordinary number of products and dishes from Emilia-Romagna that seems to lie at the heart of “Italian” cooking. Emilia-Romagna is the home of Parmigiano-Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma, tortellini, and much more. And man o mano, are these wonderful things.
But on a recent trip to this gastronomic paradise, I came away with the feeling that it’s not a specific group of products that boosts Emilia-Romagna into the realm of heaven. Every region in Italy has remarkable specialties; prosciutto di San Daniele from Friuli, for example, easily competes with prosciutto di Parma…but it has not turned Friuli into a gastronomic hotbed. I actually visited three Italian regions on this trip, adding Tuscany and Sicily to my itinerary, spending equal time in each. On the plane back home, for amusement, I listed my top half a dozen meals of the two-week journey. I wasn’t trying to prove any thesis in compiling that list–but it turned out that 5 of the 6 meals were in Emilia-Romagna.
I ask myself: “Why?” Why does my heart race every time I’m headed towards Emilia-Romagna (even before I’ve ingested the prodigious cholesterol that awaits me)? That off-hand joke may be part of the explanation: this is a region of full-bore rich food, with, I’d wager, a lower percentage of calorie-counting maniacs trying to fit into their new outfits. Eating rich food seems so natural in Emilia-Romagna. And…miracle of miracles…it doesn’t seem oppressively rich! That bowl of tortellini in cream–well, somehow in this magical context, you don’t obsess about the fact that you’re not having a salad for lunch.
Furthermore, the hands that prepare these specialties…seem so true, and sure. There is great food being made all over Italy, but I can’t think of another place where food comes to the table as proudly as it does in Emilia-Romagna. And it’s not a noisy bragadoccio…it’s simply… “this is what we do. This is what my grandmother did.” I know, I know, that’s not uncommon in Italy…but the scale of this attitude in Emilia-Romagna, and the percentage of chefs and restaurants that really do hit the sublime, traditional spot, consistently…in my mind, these things set the whole region apart.
Sure, there’s lots of creative food in Emilia-Romagna, as everywhere. They have a top-ten-list molecular palace for chrissake, Osteria Francescana, three Michelin stars and all. But even there there’s tagliatelle Bolognese on the menu. When you look behind most of the creative frou-frou in Emilia-Romagna, you find it’s the soul of the region that anchors many dishes. The supremely powerful connection of chefs to their homeland can never be abandoned or improved upon here.
How did we fail to get this memo in America? You can’t blame Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the American food writer who wrote perhaps the greatest of all Italian cookbooks in English: The Splendid Table, published in 1994, about the cuisine of…Emilia-Romagna! The book is a cult classic, of course…but failed to inspire a nation-wide mania for Emilia-Romagna cuisine, as it should have. Never mind. You can pick up a copy today, and start working those amazing traditions in your own kitchen.
Better yet…get thee to Emilia-Romagna! Push off that trip to Venice, or Florence, or Rome…and put Emilia-Romagna on your itinerary instead.
That’s what I did recently. But my trip was unusual…and all the better for it…
Visitors to Emilia-Romagna usually focus on one of the Big Five cities that lie like the jewels in a diadem along the major regional highway that runs northwest to southeast.
Starting in the northwest corner of the Emilia region, you have Piacenza…then Parma…then Reggio Emilia…then Modena…then the big town, Bologna…Bologna the Fat, with its rich restaurants, and its Communist leanings.
But, as I say, this trip was different. Apart from quick drop-ins, I did not focus on the big towns, which is what I’ve usually done in the past. This was a trip into the heart of Emilia wine country, where the perfect wine to accompany this food–dry Lambrusco, purple and foamy–thrives (more on Lambrusco below). It is one of the prettiest rustic environments in Italy, lost in time–and perhaps the best place to discover the amazing food of Emilia-Romagna.

The gorgeous Emilia-Romagna countryside just after harvest

The gorgeous Emilia-Romagna countryside just after harvest

One of the regions's many castelli

The Castle of Levizzano Rangone, Castelvetro di Modena

I started in the outer environs of Modena, the city so famous for balsamic vinegar production. In the past, I’d focused on Modena itself–where my one-time favorite restaurant in Italy, Giusti, a grocery store with a few tables in the back, thrived until the death of its owner some years ago (I hear it’s still doing well, by the way, with mama at the helm).
On this trip I started in the countryside, near the town of Cantoni, about two miles south of Modena…at one of the area’s most famous restaurants. But I didn’t hold that against it, because the food was riveting.
Europa 92 was opened in 1992 as a kind of palace of regional food, as excellent for the casual diner as it is for the serious party host seeking a grand, festive venue. But its real secret is the identity of its greatest fan: Luciano Pavarotti. The Big Guy actually lived next door, and always referred to Europa 92 as his favorite restaurant. We even know exactly where he used to sit–and my dinner, arranged by a major wine producer in the area, took place at Pavarotti’s table! The gathering at Pavarotti’s favorite table at Pavarotti’s favorite restaurant, outside of Modena. The staff is smooth and ultra-friendly. The environment is celebratory, fancy but not-too-fancy. And the food is wonderful. Almost everywhere in Emilia-Romagna (and many other Italian regions) a meal begins with an array of salumi–but this array was one of the best of the trip. And the assault included some unusual items, such as the wonderful Europa 92 specialty, stracchino con patate–the local rindless cow’s milk cheese layered with mashed potatoes, topped with olive oil and, of course, good balsamic vinegar. “We opened this restaurant in 1992,” the manager Luca told me…”with Pavarotti and with stracchino.” It is not a classic dish of the region: it is a specialty of the house. Don’t miss it. For primi, several rich pastas worked their Emilia-Romagna magic, including the all-time regional classic, tortellini in brodo. More on this stuffed pasta in broth later, from my observations on the day I officially declared myself addicted to it. But the star of the primi here was a perfect bowl of golden, creamy risotto, made with Santandrea rice (a semifino variety that leads to a wetter risotto than Arborio does). A few rice-topping dribs of the local star, great balsamic vinegar, didn’t hurt. The huge, happy party that night in the main dining room was feasting on roast pork…
…and if you can talk your way into some of this ultra-porky, ultra-crisp-and-moist stuff, don’t fail to do so. But there are plenty of other mouth-watering secondi options on the menu.
I always hate to say, “leave room for dessert”–because, frankly, who wouldn’t, even without my advice? But at such a large and delicious food-fest as this, I must say, “leave room for dessert”–because there are a few things incontestably worth waiting for. Ignore most of what’s on the big-deal-restaurant chariot, which seems to have “show” in mind…but zoom like a sugar-seeking missile into the mascarpone cake…
…which is the restaurant’s most famous confection. And pair it please with the chocolate and coffee cake…
…which is the most famous of all Modenese dessert specialties. If you dare (dare! dare!), have them together on the same plate, appropriately sauced.
This is Emilia-Romagna after all, where a calorie amnesty is always in effect.
The next thrill occurred at an entirely different kind of place–the quasi-creative Il Cappero alle Mura, in the enchanted hilltop village of Castelvetro di Modena, even further south of the big city.

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Castelvetro di Modena, founded around 150 B.C.E. by the Etruscans

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