Welcome to Part II of this series, Eating Through Europe! This part is all about the places I loved in Italy. More specifically, in Venice, Parma, and the foodie’s paradise, Bologna. (Check out all the places I loved in Paris in Part I).
I quickly realized that Venice in July was populated by more tourists than locals, and I was a little anxious about falling into one of the many tourist-trap eateries that seemed to be on every corner. Luckily, though, I was able to stumble upon couple spots off the beaten path that offered a more authentic view of Venetian fare. First up, though: the outdoor markets.
As it is surrounded by water, it only makes sense that Venetian dining is heavy on the seafood. The bustling fish markets by the Rialto bridge were a sushi-chef’s dream, and the fresh produce stands that accompanied it were a feast for the eyes.After a full day of getting lost in Venice’s ancient, narrow streets, cicheti (small bites) were the perfect pre-gelato snack. At All’Amarone, these salty cicheti included toast with various salumi, cheeses, olive spreads, and sardines. I was pleasantly surprised by the baccalà mantecato (salted and dried cod cooked in milk to become a creamy, salty spread). It was rich, yet simultaneously light like a mousse, and was one of my favorite foods in Venice.My other favorite? Dinner at Osteria del Cason, a modern eatery well away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist-filled piazzas. Spaghetti al nero di seppia, a black pasta dish with cuttlefish in a sauce of its own ink, was saltily delicious and the cuttlefish were plump and meaty. If black pasta turns you off, that’s your loss – this was seriously good. Although to be fair, it did stain everything from my gums to the tablecloth (sorry I’m not a perfect eater, guys). The shrimp at Osteria del Cason were also plump, herbed and buttery, and downright drool-worthy. When in Venice, this is the place to go.While I was sad to leave Venice, I was thrilled to finally get to my next stop: the Emilia-Romagna region. While each region in Italy has their own cuisine, Emilia-Romagna is considered the foodiest region (yes, “foodiest” is the technical term). It’s famous for some of Italy’s richest foods: meats, cheeses, pastas…basically, all the good stuff. Let’s get into it.
The quaint, colorful and cobblestoned city of Parma is known for its rich musical history along with its many gastronomic achievements. And like every other city in Italy, it was home to some breathtakingly-beautiful frescoes – like the one below in the Parma Cathedral from the 12th century.
You can’t go to Parma without delving into the world of prosciutto. Prosciutto di Parma, aged anywhere from 12 months to 36 months, is cured with just salt and the mountain air just north of Parma. The less it’s aged, the more buttery and sweet it is; the longer it’s aged, the tougher, saltier, and dryer it gets. At Borgo20, a contemporary caffetteria serving old classics with a new twist, I tasted prosciutto aged for 36 months. And it was unlike anything I had ever had: dry, paper-thin slices of the most delicate, mouthwateringly-salty pork, that was chewier and more meaty than the 12-month, buttery prosciutto I was used to.
But wait, there’s more! Parma also produces parmesan cheese, or parmigiano-reggiano. These huge rounds of cheese are fermented for 12-36 months, and are then rigorously tested and given a seal of approval. Because parmesan is produced here in Northern Italy, it is the appropriate cheese to use when cooking. Go farther south (Rome and beyond), and pecorino-romano is the cheese of choice, because it was originally produced in Rome. In Italy, local food always wins.
So next time you’re wondering what cheese should go on your pasta dish, think about where the dish originates: richer, meaty or buttery sauces are more typical in the north and would call for parmesan, while cacio e pepe, a Roman dish, demands pecorino-romano.
(Check out Episode 1 of Chef’s Table on Netflix if you’re really curious about the Emilia-Romagna region – they show the process of Parmigiano-Reggiano being tested. Also, Osteria Francescana, the 2nd best restaurant in the world, is only 30 minutes away from Parma in the small town of Modena, Italy. On your way to Bologna!)
Bologna, known as, “la dotta, la rossa, e la grassa” – meaning the learned, the red, and the fat – is a food blogger’s paradise. These nicknames are well deserved: the University of Bologna is the oldest university in the world (founded in the 11th century), the city appears to have been painted exclusively from a red and pink palette, and it is the capital of Italy’s gastronomically richest region and the origin of some my all time favorite foods.The best meal I had in Bologna was at Al Cappello Rosso, one of the oldest osterias in the city. First came a sampling of meats, including soft slices of mortadella, prosciutto, and various salumi. Mortadella is a light pink cured pork sausage spotted with delicious pork fat, and it melts in your mouth. Its cheap derivative is known as bologna (baloney) in the U.S., but mortadella doesn’t deserve that association.
And while I don’t believe bread is Italy’s strong suit, there were a few breads that are worth mentioning. Tigelle, a Modenese pancake-like bread resembling an english muffin, was the perfect vehicle for eating copious amounts of Pesto Modenese, or pesto cotto. When I ordered the pesto cotto (above, top center) I had no idea what it was, and was surprised to be served a tiny bowl of a rich, light-pink fatty spread. I was hooked after the first bite. I later found out that pesto cotto is made with lard, bacon, rosemary, and salt – which totally explains its addictiveness.
My preferred bread, though, was the gnocco fritto: hollow fried dough puffs. Served warm, these little squares of dough were divine when filled with a spread of pesto cotto, a bit of creamy cheese, and a slice of mortadella for good measure. The locals may not have approved of that technique, but it was delicious. And of course, I had to get the tagliatelle al ragù (a.k.a. Bolognese). I had totally hyped it up in my head, and it somehow managed to live up to every single ounce of hype. Pro-tip: ragù (meat sauce) is not to be served with spaghetti, only tagliatelle (wide, flat noodles). “Spaghetti Bolognese” is not something you can ask for in Bologna, they’ll look at you funny. (Thanks for the tip, Andrea!).
Andrea was my tour guide for the food tour “Taste Bologna”, along with his trainees Chiara and Sarah. I knew I wanted to really take advantage of my short stay in this fat city, and I was really lucky to snag a spot in one of his tours at the last minute.
First we got an inside look into a tiny pasta shop, with two ladies swiftly shaping tortellini in a warm, open kitchen. Tortellini (being made above) are tiny stuffed pasta dumplings the size of just the tip of your thumb – filled with mortadella when they’re made in Bologna, and ham in Modena. Their filling is raw but they are boiled and served in broth, or brodo, like a soup. Tortelloni, below, are like jumbo tortellini, and are usually filled with ricotta and herbs instead of meat, and served in a typical sauce such as butter and sage.
These ladies were so passionate about their pasta, they even let me try to shape a tortellini myself. The dough was yellow, soft and elastic, and with their direction I managed to shape it into something that actually resembled a real tortellini! So if you never hear from me again, it’s because I’ve run away to work with those women in their hole-in-the-wall pasta shop and live out my dream.
The food tour also included a trip to the market for fresh fruit (where I smelled the most fragrant oregano, or “origano”, of all time) and a trip to the deli and a local bakery, Antico Forno Piemontese. There, I spotted a chocolate salame, which is apparently what you make when you have leftover cookies and nuts you don’t know what to do with (because why not roll whatever you have lying around in with some chocolate, right?). I’m eager to try making that one at home.
Lunch consisted of a variety of meats from the deli and breads and sweets from the bakery. We ate at the oldest osteria in Bologna, Osteria del Sole. Uniquely, Osteria del Sole only serves alcoholic beverages, so it’s not BYOB, it’s bring-your-own-food. The restaurant itself looked ancient, with solid white walls covered with black and white photos, and long rustic tables filled only with locals.
For dessert, I tasted a traditional sweet rice cake, which was creamy with hints of almond flavor, a layer of nuts and raisins at the bottom and sweet caramelized top, traditionally eaten around the holidays (typically after a dinner of tortellini en brodo and Lambrusco, the sparkling red wine of the region).
The food tour was definitely the highlight of my trip – it was refreshing to speak to people who actually cared about their local food, and to see things I would have never otherwise known to look for. If you’re ever in Bologna, I highly recommend it. Hell, you should go to Bologna just for this food tour – it’s that great! What I’ve shared here is really only the tip of the iceberg.
Before I left Bologna, I wanted to stop by Majani, a chocolate shop founded in the 1700s. Unfortunately they were closed, but Majani happens to make the promotional chocolates for FIAT, so their chocolates weren’t hard to track down elsewhere – they’re sold in a lot of shops and grocery stores throughout Italy. Italian chocolatiers like to use gianduja, a hazelnut chocolate spread, because back in the day adding hazelnuts allowed them to extend their chocolate supply. These Majani chocolates are little squares layered with milk chocolate and a gianduja creme. I don’t usually go for milk chocolate, but I could eat a box of these without complaint. (And now I’ve got a recipe in the works that uses Italian hazelnut chocolates, so get ready).
And that’s a wrap! These were the places I loved in Venice, Parma and Bologna. More Italy deliciousness will be coming soon in Part III, so stay tuned!