Have you visited Emilia-Romagna yet? See why Italy’s food valley is the ultimate Italian destination for both food travelers and culture vultures.
When most food travelers think of Emilia-Romagna, Italy’s cheese, meat and pasta centered food belt, the first town they generally think of is Bologna. After all, Bologna is nicknamed “The Fat One” for a reason – many of the region’s famed products and foods can be easily found in the city’s porticoed center.
But there’s a world beyond Bologna and other Emilia-Romagna cities that deserve attention. These cities stand on their own and are, in many ways, hallmarks of Italian food culture and centers of the Italian food dreamland called “Food Valley.”
We recently toured Emilia-Romagna as part of the Social Travel Summit – a gathering of bloggers and influencers dispatched to uncover the gems of Emilia-Romagna. Visiting in the autumn shoulder season allowed us to dig deep into the region’s culture and food scene.
The more we dug, the more we found to love.
We knew we’d love the food in cities like Reggio Emilia and Parma. Hello, Emilia-Romagna is famous for products like Parmigiano Reggiano, Proscuitto and Culatello. Beyond food, Emilia-Romagna, like much of the Po Valley, represents some of the best of Italy’s culture with contributions from music greats like Verdi and Toscanini and artists like Corregio.
In other words, this is a region that touches all the senses. After our deep immersion, we found it difficult to imagine Italy without the culinary and cultural bounties that this region offers.
Exploring Italy’s Food Valley
We packed a lot of experiences into just three days in Emilia-Romagna. Not only did we indulge in food from dawn to dusk, but we explored the region’s non-edible delights too. We also drank copious amounts of Lambrusco, Emilia-Romagna’s ruby-red sparkling wine that pairs well with pasta and pork.
If you travel to Emilia-Romagna, plan to do some or all of the following activities:
Visit a Parmigiano Reggiano Dairy
For many including us, visiting a Parmigiana Reggiano dairy is the highlight of any trip to Emilia-Romagna. Nicknamed the King of Cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano is a DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) product that can only be produced in specific locations including Reggio Emilia and Parma.
We visited Latteria Santo Stefano, a typical Parmigiano Reggiano dairy where food travelers can observe the cheesemaking process in person. The educational tour showcased how raw cow’s milk, rennet and salt are transformed into 50-kilo wheels of aged cheese.
Parmigiano Reggiano dairies must follow super-strict standards during each phase of the cheesemaking process. The multi-year process is a synergy of land, cows and people.
But the highlight of our Parmigiano Reggiano tour happened at the end when we posed along the aisles with maturing cheese wheels, stacked high to the ceiling. After our obligatory ‘beauty’ shot among the cheeses, we sampled wheels aged for 12, 24 and 36 months.
We looked at the cheese, We felt the cheese. We broke the cheese and smelled its complex aroma. And then, finally, we tasted the cheese.
Although we appreciated the 36-month cheese’s crystallization and the 12-month cheese’s smoothness, we preferred the balanced yet slightly funky flavor of the 24-month Parmigiano. Ideal for both munching and cooking, the two-year version is the most popular sold by the dairy.
Drink Wine at a Vineyard
We love drinking wine in Emilia-Romagna. In our opinion, the Food Valley’s wines are a hidden gem worthy of exploration at a local winery.
Emilia-Romagna isn’t globally famous for its wine compared to Italian regions like Piemonte and Veneto but, surprisingly, the region produces 15% of all the wine in Italy.
We explored local Emilia-Romagna viniculture at Tenuta Venturini Baldini, a 130-hector organic wine farm in the Reggio Emilia province that dates back to the 17th century. The winery typically starts its production in August when workers pick grapes that have matured under the hot summer sun.
And the best part? Since it was autumn during our visit, we got the chance to assist with the harvest. This is back-breaking work that’s not as simple as gently plucking clusters from the vines. These grapes don’t simply grow in easy to reach locations and it’s important to pick every piece of the precious fruit.
As we learned, the centuries-old winery produces Lambrusco grapes which are used to make the region’s famous red sparkling wine as well as other grapes including Malvasia and Pinot Noir. The organic vineyard also produces Balsamic Vinegar, a signature Emilia-Romagna product.
After filling baskets with grapes, we adjourned for lunch and wine. Drinking Emilia-Romagna wine at the source was a memorable experience and one that we earned cluster by cluster.
Taste Balsamic Vinegar
In addition to wine, Tenuta Venturini Baldini has been producing balsamic vinegar for centuries. It would have been wrong to leave the winery without tasting their Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale DOP di Reggio Emilia product.
Fueled by lunch and wine, we climbed up to the vineyard’s vinegar attic, a piece of living history that dates back to 1670. More than 400 barrels fill the dark space, each worth € 40,000 to €50,000.
The winery ages grape must in these barrels for at least 12 years and up to over 25 years. The aging process is quite rigid, resulting in certified bottles of balsamic vinegar available for purchase.
The end product is unlike anything sold in grocery stores – a creamy, complex elixir that can be added to anything from salad to Parmigiano to ice cream.
Eat Gelato and Pasta in Reggio Emilia
Reggio Emilia is a charming city that deserves exploration. With limited time, we focused on exploring two of the city’s culinary stars – gelato and erbazzone.
In our never-ending quest for excellent gelato, we walked 15 minutes beyond the center of town to find Cremeria Capolinea, an award-winning gelateria that only uses fresh Italian products sourced both locally and nationally. Our reward was some of the best gelato we’ve eaten in all of Italy.
Michele Luliano guided us through a tempting array of divine flavors before we settled on a scoop of ‘Al Contadino Non Far Sapere’ made with robiola cheese and honey-perfumed pears. Since we were able to choose two flavors, we topped our cone with a scoop of plum gelato for good measure.
We could taste the pride that this gelateria places into every bright, fresh, tasty flavor. This little shop is a true Emilian gem.
Without speaking a single word of English, Chef Gianni d’Amato introduced us to erbazzone, a vegetable pie unique to Emilia-Romagna. D’Amato fills the herbaceous pastry with fresh ingredients like swiss chard, spinach and, of course, generous amounts of Parmigiano Reggiano, the region’s undisputed king of cheese.
The filling is then wrapped in a pastry layer of water, strutto (an Italian word for lard) or butter and water. The end result is a savory pie that’s almost an Emilian answer to Greek spanakopita. D’Amato adds his own twist by wrapping his erbazzone with kataifi instead of conventional pastry dough for a more delicate crunch.
Walking through the cellar of Antica Corte Pallavincina is like walking through a culatello fantasy land. Slabs of curing pork hindquarters hang from the ceiling on chains, aging in darkness for one to three years.
Pallavincina is located at the banks of the mighty Po River in Polesine Parmense. The weather in the area is generally humid and dank. This climate may not be optimal for growing vines for winemaking but it’s great for aging culatello, layering the curing meats with a special, funky, protective, flavor-contributing mold.
DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) culatello is coveted by food connoisseurs throughout the world. The pear-shaped cured pork product has been produced with pig buttocks for at least three centuries exclusively in Emilia-Romagna.
Previously reserved for noblemen, today’s culatello fans include the likes of Prince Charles as well as savvy food travelers like us. It’s possible to reserve your own culatello – every piece of meat is labeled and, indeed, we were able to observe culatello consigned to the aforementioned British prince as well as Prince Albert of Monaco.
Antico Corte Pallavincina is an ideal spot to sample culatello, though you’ll need to rent a car to get to its bucolic location. The extra effort is worth it for the chance to eat culatello after learning about the pork product’s storied past. Touring Pallavincina’s museum reveals that the Spigaroli family’s connection to the historic property dates back to the 19th century.
Chef Massimo Spigaroli continues his family’s culatello legacy – and what a legacy it is! Spigarolis have fed a number of notables throughout the 19th and 20th centuries including Giuseppe Verdi.
Today, the family not only produces culatello but also runs a Michelin-starred restaurant, a more casual hosteria and a hotel. As if that’s not enough, they offer cooking classes too.
Take a Cooking Class
Cooking classes at Antica Corte Pallavicina include fun three-hour lessons focused on pasta, meats and preserves. Food professionals can engage in a six-day full pig immersion course. As for us, we learned how to make tortelli and gnocchi in a pre-lunch session.
We cracked eggs, mixed dough and shaped pasta with our thumbs. We did just enough to work up an appetite for the fantastic meal to follow.
→ Discover more great noodle dishes in the Food Valley and beyond.
Our lunch at Hosteria del Maiale was epic. Not only did we eat tortelli and gnochhi pasta dishes, but we also feasted on a smorgasbord of cured meat. The delectable cuts included strolghino, salami and, of course, culatello.
We saluted each other as we sipped Lambrusco in traditional style out of small white porcelain bowls between bites of meat and forkfuls of pasta. This is the type of singular food experience that you can only experience on the banks of the Po.
Step Back in Time in Parma
Parma’s history dates back to 183 BC. An important trading city, Parma became part of the Roman empire before being destroyed and rebuilt more than once.
Controlled by the likes of Napoleon and his violet-loving wife Maria Luiga, Parma has a past worth exploring. We learned about this history during a fascinating walking tour that took us back to the middle ages and forwards to World War II when much of the city was destroyed.
Cathedral of Parma
Rivaling cathedrals in Florence and Rome, the Parma Cathedral is a stunner. Constructed in the 12th century, the majestic building impresses from the outside with reliefs carved into marble; however, the inside of the cathedral is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Art fills the impressive cathedral from floor to ceiling. One could easily spend hours exploring the cathedral and not see it all. However, Correggio’s Assumption of the Virgin is the cathedral’s crowning glory.
Correggio painted the epic dome in the 16th century. Visitors can spend € 2 to physically light the dome. This small cost is easily justified for the chance to properly view the spiritual masterpiece.
We visited the Parma Cathedral twice – once during our Social Summit trip and again during our follow-up visit to Parma. In our opinion, this cathedral is a must-visit during any and all trips to Parma.
Located next to the Parma Cathedral on Piazza del Duomo, the Parma Baptistery is another must-visit site. Benedetto Antelami designed the building, making it distinctive both inside and out.
The Baptistery’s exterior is covered with pink marble imported from Verona. Inside, the Baptistery is filled with religious art. Seemingly every inch of the polygon-shaped structure is filled with paintings and sculptures.
Dating back to the 12th century, the Parma Baptistery continues in its intended purpose to this day. Local babies still get baptized in an ancient stone pool with a view of the stunning ceiling above.
Explore Parma’s Culture
As we quickly discovered, Parma is a cultural city. Both Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini hail from the Emilia-Romagna province. Culture permeates Parma in venues like the Teatro Regio and Teatro Farnese, especially during the annual Festival Verdi every autumn.
And it’s not just us who are enthralled with Parma’s culture. The Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism has designated Parma as the Italian Capital of Culture for 2020. The city will celebrate the honor throughout the year, making this a great time to visit Parma.
Parma’s Teatro Regio is one of the grandest opera houses in all of Italy. The guided theater holds 1,400 patrons in chairs and galleries. If you time your visit to Parma right, you can experience an opera in the legendary building. Otherwise, you can settle for a fascinating tour like we did.
Inspired by Giuseppe Verdi, the theater has hosted performances of each of the hometown hero’s operas and presents an annual Verdi Festival during the autumn season. Named the best festival in the world at the 2017 International Opera Awards, this festival is a must for opera lovers traveling to Italy at this time of year.
Originally built in the 17th century and later rebuilt after World War II, the Teatro Farnese is a striking building made almost exclusively of wood. Designed by Giovanni Battista Aleotti, this Baroque-style theater is a versatile space that can be flooded for water-themed shows.
All travelers can visit the historic building that was recreated with its original design and with some of the original materials. Lucky travelers can attend a performance to experience the theater’s full glory.
Eat Your Way Around Parma
Many food travelers visit the outskirts of Parma to taste products like Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, cured ham and balsamic vinegar. Perhaps they’re taking a food tour. Or maybe they’re simply unaware of Parma’s vibrant food scene. Either way, they’re missing out if they don’t spend time in the city of Parma itself.
Parma enchanted us at with its history and culture, both described above. However, we most connected to Parma through its gastronomy, both sweet and savory.
Walking around the city provides a chance to taste the best of the Food Valley at eateries and specialty shops. Casual visitors can eat well without reservations; however, slow travelers can experience the city’s best restaurants at all price points.
To be honest, two days in Parma wasn’t enough time for us. That’s why we returned a month later to further explore the city and its food.
Emilia Romagna Logistics
We recommend that travelers fly to Bologna and take a train from Bologna to Parma or Reggio Emilia. Expect the ride to take under an hour and cost less than € 10.
Check Trenitalia for current routes and fares.
Plan Your Food Valley Stay
We stayed at the following hotels during our Food Valley visit:
Do the following if neither of these hotels meets your needs or budget:
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.
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