Food & Travel Guide to Emilia Romagna, Italy – What to See, Eat & Do

Italy

Trace the origin of any Italian ingredient and you will somehow end up in Emilia Romagna. Mention the name to any well-deserving Italian chef and they would talk for ages, about the “sensational Parmigiano Reggiano”, the “noble Culatello”, the “Balsamico Vinegar, smooth as velvet”. The list just goes on. It is where the most Italian of all Italian food comes from, and the most quintessential. In Emilia Romagna, there is no festival. There is only the feast. And so, the gastronomic adventure in Italy’s eating table begins. 

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PARMA

In Parma, the practice of ham-making practice is a tale as old as time. It is here, near the Po Valley, where the luxurious Culatello di Zibello is made. The Bergonzi family at Podere Cadassa has been crafting culatello for decades. In a natural cellar frozen in time, the culatello ages until its flavour is at its fullest. The precious meat is salted and refrigerated, before being placed in the cellar where humidity takes full reign. A walk through the cellar always ends at the family’s restaurant, Al Vèdel. In the kitchen, Chef Enrico arranges thin slices of culatello, from 16 months to 26 months to 38 months, on a perfectly polished porcelain plate. In the evenings, loud chatters emanate from the linen dining tables and red leather booths. Waiters rush to and fro tables to shave black truffles on ox tartare as a cheese cart trails them. Ravioli is served Colorno style, as Al Vèdel calls it, with pears, grape seeds and pumpkin. 

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MODENA

In Modena, the making of balsamic vinegar is a tradition still preserved at Acetaia Pedroni. Cooked fermented grape must sit in the battery, or barrels, to age for at least 12 years.

The tasting menu gives a small but complete offering of dishes that compliments the balsamic vinegar, but it’s the a la carte menu the locals order from. Vegetable flan with Parmigiano Reggiano cream, ricotta tortelloni and custard cream gelato are dished out before the owner comes over with their treasure – a bottle of balsamic vinegar. Slowly, he dabs the smooth, thick vinegar over the food in carefully measured drops as he smiles with pride. It could be the pride of owning a centuries-old tradition, or the pride of owning the barrels that produce the best balsamic vinegar in the world. Nobody knows. But everyone leaves the osteria in silent agreement that it was a dining experience unlike any other. 

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BOLOGNA

When in Bologna, a few slices of mortadella are in order. Mo Mortadella Lab gives a generous serving of Bologna’s favourite slice in a panini. Go before lunch to avoid the queue of hungry Bolognese. In Bologna, the wining and dining hour eases past the reasonable Italian lunch hour. Armed with a few plates from the local macelleria, you can grab a seat and a mandatory drink at Osteria del Sole where this longtime establishment has a strict bring-your-own-food rule. At one table, a class of students from the nearby university are having a toast with their teachers. At another, an old man sits perched over a notebook as he pens some sentences on the parched paper. Everyone has a glass of something on their table. For dinners, Hostaria San Carlino and Osteria dell’Orsa are perfect for Bolognese classics like tagliatelle al ragù and tortellini in brodo.

On any day in Bologna, chefs clamber to Antica Aguzzeria del Cavallo located on Via Drapperie. Hundreds of kitchen tools hang on wooden displays from ceiling to floor in this historical shop, any kind you can ever imagine. As a customer rattles off a list, the shop assistant bustles about, grabbing two ravioli stamps, an anolini stamp, a truffle slicer, a gnocchi cutting board and a dozen or so ravioli moulds. It’s a busy day at the Antica Aguzzeria del Cavallo. 

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BRISIGHELLA

It’s a whole new world further south in the region. Brisighella is nearer to Ravenna, and so nearer to the coast. There is a very serious seafood scene with restaurants like La Lanterna, where plates heaping with pasta and shellfish are paraded to the tables. Others include La Cavallina and Osteria Pontenono, or Il Portolano and Osteria Il Paiolo in Ravenna.

A few minutes on an unpaved road across a bridge from Brisighella will take you to Azienda Agricola Baccagnano, an agriturismo with a handful of rooms. The owner of the winery, Marco, furnished the modern rooms with vintage finds. In a restored church, guests have a breakfast of croissants, local cheeses and fruits on beautifully-mismatched place settings. 

For views of Brisighella, take a walk from the town center to La Rocca Manfrediana and on to Torre dell’Orologio. The town truly comes alive when celebrating the autumn harvest. People come in droves from the neighbouring houses to gather around the white-top tents where the food – salumi, cheeses, pears, truffles, porcini mushrooms – are proudly boasted by their farmers. There is a band making uproarious music. White-haired Italian men are indulging in a guitar riff on a makeshift stage, crooning the tunes of 80s Italian rock music. Even as night falls and the stalls close, the crowds disappear into the bars. The night is still young. 

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120 Hours in the Amalfi Coast – What to See, Eat & Do

Italy

In the blazing heat of the Italian summer, the entrance to the Amalfi Coast is a sight for sore eyes. Houses and terraced vineyards sit atop undulating precipices against the bluest ocean. The ride on the coastline is beguiling in the picture-perfect scenes that surprise at every twist and turn. In the evening, the coast glows like a placid dream. Along the Italian Riviera, the towns light up to form a trail of stars. Elsewhere, glasses of limoncello clink.

Many have claimed the romance of the Amalfi Coast, and few would contradict that assertion. It is a place where the sweltering sun rays melt into a sultry warmth for sunbathers lounging on the golden sand. Where boats wait in front of summer villas, ready to whisk day trippers away. Where every dinner is preceded by an endless flow of aperitivi. In every season, in every decade, the Amalfi Coast still stuns the well-travelled. 

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POSITANO

Positano sparkles like a jewel on the coast, with ornate buildings climbing down a cliff that falls sharply into the ocean. A trip here will cost in parking, but the jaw-dropping views it affords are not to be missed. These views are best enjoyed from the balconies of Le Sirenuse.

Once a summer house of four Neapolitan siblings, the hotel is now the vacation home of the upper echelon. The rooms are designed with an eclectic mix of Italian antiques, mosaic-patterned cushions and cream-coloured linens. Doubles start at €470. Also on the premises of Le Sirenuse is the ultra-chic Franco’s Bar, where Negronis are paired with sunset panoramas.

But of course, the celebrated Il San Pietro di Positano will never be forgotten as the 19th century villa hangs gracefully off a cliff edge. At the foot of the hotel is the guest-only beach club. Tangerine sunbeds and umbrellas gather on a cove accompanied by a bar. Private charters on a yacht and cocktail masterclasses are also available. Doubles start at €442. For another sun-kissed view, Residence Villa Yiara is an adults-only hotel with bougainvillea-clad rooms. Doubles start at €230.

From Positano, a five minute boat ride brings you to Da Adolfo. This beach shack hidden from footpaths does grilled local fish, mussel soup and mozzarella on lemon leaves. Saraceno d’Oro is also a crowd-pleaser for being friendly on the wallet, and for the vongole and seafood pasta. The best finisher to a meal there will have to be the limoncello shots. 

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RAVELLO

Unlike the glitz of Positano, Ravello enchants with a sonata. It is little wonder that Ravello is the stage for the Ravello Festival of music at the Villa Rufolo, a 13th century villa with a well-manicured garden of climbing figs, hydrangeas and umbrella pines. Ravello’s villas and gardens are like the museums of Florence, and the Villa Cimbrone Hotel and its garden the masterpiece. Owned by the Vuilleumier family, the estate is a favourite of the literary set. The hotel is furnished with frescoed halls leading into 19 bedrooms and an outdoor tea room. Doubles start at €300. On the same grounds is the English garden. It can be hard to leave once you set foot on the path rambling along the rose gardens, the shaded walkways dripping with wisterias, and the unrivalled view from the terrace leading out to the ocean that knows no end.

You will most certainly pass by Villa Maria towards the town square from Villa Cimbrone. The hotel breathes old-fashioned Italian style. Small, family owned, marble staircase, and mahogany furnitures that look centuries old. The hotel only has one restaurant and that is the only restaurant to be. The menu is made up of produce from the garden sprawled below the outdoor dining area, overlooking the valley.

Back in the square, the most talked-about restaurant is Mimi Pizzeria. You get the classic margherita or prosciutto crudo di parma, and contemporaries like the Mimi – San Marzano tomatoes, anchovies, garlic burrata and lemon zest. The outdoor dining area is perfect for having a slice under a vine-covered canopy. 

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CONCA DEI MARINI

The biggest draw to Conca dei Marini is the Grotta dello Smeraldo. Visiting this Emerald Cave is uncomplicated – a staircase, an elevator and a boat tour. A less than 5 minutes car ride away is Fiordo di Furore, an inlet that narrows into a fishing village. In the late afternoons, the beach there is a sanctuary for some unobstructed swimming. For food, Le Bontà del Capo is best known for its lemon and ricotta ravioli. Ask for the outdoor area seating that juts out into the ocean for the best views. 

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PRAIANO

Praiano has always been the one for affordable stays within reach of Positano, but really there is more than meets the eye. There is the view. The buildings seem to be etched vertically into the cliffs, and staying at Calanteluna will make you feel like you are at the edge of the coast. This small bed and breakfast has a casual beat to it. The occasional homemade lemon cake and lemon juice in the afternoons. The after-dinner laughter and cheer resonating from the floor below. Doubles start at €90. Then there is the food without the crowds – La Strada for the seafood risotto, or Kasai for quiet dinners by the sea. 

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120 Hours in Puglia – What to See, Eat & Do

Italy

One glance at Puglia, and all you can see is a sea of green. Olive groves stretch as far as the eye can see, a precursor to the cerulean beaches that embellish the rocky boundary meeting the Adriatic Sea. Here, the green scent of olives dances through the air, lending the region its characteristic charm. Waist-high wild grass accompany narrow roads, leading to sleepy hamlets and farmhouses. Puglia is a countryside haven – all food, all beach, all cobblestone towns and all Italian

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THE TOWNS

Puglia glows in the daylight, where pearly white towns rise above the olive groves. Ostuni, also known as The White City, is the fairest of them all – white cobbled streets, beige-coloured churches and a majority local attendance. While there, Sapori D’eccellenza does panini-to-go, with octopus panini being a specialty. Alberobello also gained traction for its conical-roofed houses that looked like they walked straight out of a fairytale book. Mellow afternoons are for sunbathing in Cala Porto in Polignano a Mare, where pasty buildings punctuate the beach that curves into this coastal town. In the capital city of Bari, roam the famed pasta alleys in the morning. This unmarked back street is located in Bari Vecchia, an unassuming spot where nonnas knead out orecchiette so nimbly they can rival pasta machines. 

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DAY TRIP TO BASILICATA

Less than two hours away from Puglia is Basilicata, the often overlooked wine region of Italy. Cantine del Notaio is home to the Aglianico del Vulture wines and a trip there would be accompanied by a tour to its grottoes where wines are stored for ageing. In Venosa, the stunning grounds of Cantine Re Manfredi make it worth a visit. At the centre of the wineries in Basilicata is Matera, a town of centuries-old caves and rock churches. At dusk, the warm glow emanating from the caves makes for a contemplative evening best spent with a glass of Basilicata’s finest wine. 

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THE FOOD

The eating table of Puglia is scattered all over its hamlets. Butcheries are an institution in Cisternino. At Rosticceria L’Antico Borgo, the butcher grills the meat in a down-to-earth fashion. Just salt, pepper and its juices. Bombettes are the bomb there. The meat encases provolone cheese, herbs and sometimes, salami, before being placed on the grill. Closer to the coast, seafood rolls in in abundance. Go with raw seafood here, preferably at La Tana Del Polpo in Bari. Also situated in the capital city, Mastro Ciccio needs no introduction. It’s fast food meets luxurious ingredients. The sandwiches displayed alone are visually tempting and its taste does not betray. For prim food at casual fare prices, Primi & Vini in Polignano a Mare does a standout gnocchi vongole and prawn orecchiette. 

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THE ROOMS

Bari makes for a good start off point for day trips to the Pugliese countryside. Near the old town, Palazzo Calò’s minimalist decor stands out from the surrounding old-world cobblestone alleys. While lacking a dining area, the hotel does a breakfast in bed, fitting for a morning of loafing around in your pyjamas. Doubles start at €120. 

Spend the night in a masseria, Puglia’s rendition of a farmstay. Masseria Celentano is a converted Apulian manor farm with five rooms. Other than exploring the nearby Lucera and Troia towns, you can take the masseria’s sailboat and cruise along the Gargano while seafood is freshly prepared. Doubles start at €70.

Stays at the Masseria Torre Coccaro are a sociable affair. Children get to bake panzerotti, harvest olives and bike through the country. In summer, communal tables are pulled out for dinner feasts and live Puglia music dance. Doubles start at €300.

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