15 Popular Emilia-Romagna Foods You Should Try at Least Once
Nestled in the north of Italy, between the Alps and the Apennines, lies the beautiful region of Emilia-Romagna, home to some of Italy’s greatest gastronomic products. Besides the world-known Parmigiano and Aceto Balsamico, to mention just two, the region boasts a great wealth of authentic and high-quality products, many protected by PDO and PGI designations; the region is so bountiful that the Romans baptized it “Italy’s food valley”.
Emilia Romagna’s gastronomic richness is due in large part to the geography of the area. Indeed the Po River running through the Pianura Padana has made the fertile soils an ideal spot for cultivation for centuries, turning it into the agricultural heart of Italy. However, while politically one region, Emilia-Romagna is culturally made up of two very different sub-regions which have witnessed throughout the centuries differing historical and social influences, thus each presenting their very own unique culinary culture.
Emilia, which lies in the north part along an old Roman trading route, includes cities like Bologna and Ferrara and is known for its rich, indulgent, and aristocratic culinary traditions, having been ruled by powerful noble families that hired strictly the greatest Italian chefs of the time.
It is from the 15th Century Renaissance spirit, in fact, that Emilia gained its worldwide reputation for gastronomic sophistication. Indeed, as the 19th century author Pellegrino Artusi said: “When you come across the Cucina Emiliana, take a bow, because it deserves it”. The cuisine of Emilia relies heavily on pork and animal fats, due in large part to the ancient domination of an old Germanic tribe whose diet was predominantly meat based.
In the south-west part of the region, bathed by the waters of the Adriatic Sea, lies Romagna, which was part of the Papal States for almost four hundred years. Its byzantine heritage and proximity to the sea greatly influenced its gastronomy and cooking methods, privileging pots made of terracotta and a simple diet largely based on seafood and simple, fresh ingredients.
Let’s discover the main specialities of Emilia-Romagna, exploring separately the traditional recipes of each sub-region.
15. Parmigiano Reggiano
Starting with Emilia, Parmigiano Reggiano is by far the most renowned local produce and most famous Italian cheese, both in the country and worldwide. Parmigiano is a PDO-protected cheese with a delicate yet firm and almost spicy taste which is categorically only made from the milk of cows reared in a specific area around Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena, and which follow a specific diet of Parmigiano whey.
Whether generously sprinkled on their pasta dish, finely cut on top of their steak or cut into medium chunks and savored as an aperitivo, Parmigiano has long been a staple ingredient for Italians.
14. Prosciutto di Parma
And what’s better than a delicious board of Parma ham to savor with your Parmigiano as an aperitivo?
This incredibly flavorsome ham is like nothing else you have ever eaten. Wind-dried by the sea breeze coming from Liguria and following a one-year natural ageing process, PDO- protected Prosciutto di Parma is one of the finest in the country!
The premium quality standards start from the very beginning with the selection of a particular pig raised within a designated area and strictly fed on cereals and Parmigiano whey. They culminate in the remarkably thin and weightless slices that are delicately and accurately cut, melting wonderfully in your mouth.
Tigelle, also known as crescentine, is a traditional small, round flatbread from Emilia, typically savored for antipasto by cutting it in half while still hot and filling it with Parma ham and cheese.
The name refers to the ancient clay disks once used to shape the flatbreads, presenting an engraved symbol on the bottom that decorates the Tigella, distinguishing the cooked from the ones that still waiting to be baked. The most common symbol was, and still is, a star-flower, a symbol of life and fertility. Indeed, during ancient times farmers on the Apennines would feed their sons Tigelle before going out to work as a sign of prosperity and fortune, and many do still believe in it today!
12. Aceto Balsamico di Modena
Balsamic vinegar is a globally renowned local produce from the city of Modena and is, indeed, the most prestigious form of Balsamic vinegar around, characterized by its signature sweet and sour taste and glossy dark color.
In order to be categorized as such, the Aceto Balsamico di Modena must fulfil a series of regulations, the first of which is that it must be produced from specific grapes such as Ancellotta, Lambrusco or Trebbiano, which are only grown in the area around Modena. And secondly, it must be kept to age for a minimum of twelve months before being released.
Balsamic vinegar was traditionally used to flavor roast meat, but nowadays it is more commonly used as a condiment for salads or to enjoy with a chunk of Parmigiano cheese. Or why not even add a drop of it on your ice-cream?
11. Zampone o Cotechino
Cotechino is a traditional pork sausage from Emilia, though it is very common in many other northern regions, such as Lombardy and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Cotechino is made of pork, lard, and pork rind flavored with cloves and cinnamon and simmered for a few hours with a drop of white wine, giving the sausage an incredibly soft and melting consistency.
Cotechino has long been a staple food for peasants, indeed it is primarily made using leftovers and the less noble parts of the pig, called “cotica”, hence the name of the sausage. However, nowadays cotechino is traditionally eaten on Christmas Day, typically served on a bed of mashed potato and accompanied by stewed lentils.
10. Gnocco fritto
Gnocco fritto is a traditional appetizer of puffed-up dough, made with flour, water, yeast, and lard. These golden pillows are typically cut into diamond shapes and puff up as they fry, making them ideal to fill with slices of thinly cut salumi or cheese.
Despite the name, gnocco fritto has nothing in common with the traditional gnocchi pasta, and indeed the term has long been the cause of debate among the various cities in Emilia, so you will come across the pasta fritta in Parma, crescentine fritte in Bologna, and chisulèn in Piacenza, though the concept is always the same.
9. Pisarei e Fasò
A true masterpiece of peasant cuisine from Piacenza, this traditional dish simply consists of bread and flour gnocchi in a delicious tomato, bean, and lard sauce called fasò. The gnocchi were traditionally made by soaking stale bread in water but nowadays bread crumbs are usually used in order to speed up the process.
It is believed that the recipe was created by monks living in the old convents in Piacenza, who during the Middle Ages would create these simple yet nutritious foods to feed the pilgrims who walked for days on the famous Via Francigena on the way to Rome.
8. Ragù alla Bolognese
Ragù alla Bolognese is undoubtedly one of the greatest culinary symbols of Italy, historically originating from Bologna and soon adopted and revisited by many other cities in the country.
The original recipe, according to Pellegrino Artusi, the famous Italian gastronomic writer, entails frying up tiny cubes of carrots, onions, and celery, the so-called soffritto, then adding both beef and pork mince, a generous dash of red wine, and finally letting it all slowly simmer with passata di pomodoro (tomato purée) for a few hours in order to let the flavors nicely blend into one another.
Ragù is by far the ultimate winter comfort food and it’s traditionally eaten with tagliatelle, or used to make the timeless lasagne al ragù.
Related: Most Popular Italian Sauces
7. Mortadella di Bologna
Another gastronomic landmark from the city of Bologna, mortadella, is a cured pork sausage spiced with black pepper and slices of pistachio. Its origins date back hundreds of years, when the Romans would crush pork meat in a mortar and spice it with myrtle berries, hence being historically called farcimen myrtatum (myrtle sausage).
Subsequently, during the Renaissance, because the assembling and cutting of mortadella into very thin slices was such a long and laborious process, this delicacy was exclusively reserved for the aristocracy and was mostly unaffordable for the rest of the population.
Today mortadella is typically served on a charchuterie board, eaten inside a focaccia bun, or diced into cubes and enjoyed for an aperitivo.
In terms of vegetarian cuisine, erbazzone is probably the simplest and most delicious delicacy from Emilia-Romagna.
This savory pie, made with spinach, chard, onions, and Parmigiano, has long been a staple recipe for peasants and farmers as the ingredients were readily available during most of the year. And in fact still is today: in 2006 it was recorded that 1,500 tons of erbazzone were produced! A large part was consumed in Emilia-Romagna alone, thus the Erbazzone Consortium was established in order to promote and safeguard the production of this wonderful delicacy.
It truly is a must-have when visiting the region: and don’t forget to savor it with a glass of Lambrusco wine!
5. Torta Tenerina
Torta Tenerina, literally meaning “tender cake”, is a super soft and velvety chocolate cake with a slightly harder outer layer. This flourless cake is simply made using chocolate, eggs, and sugar and it’s believed to have been invented at the end of the 1800s in honor of the Queen of Montenegro, Elena Petrovich, who became the wife of the king of Italy Vittorio Emanuele II.
It is said that when the two first met at the theatre in Venice, the King fell in love immediately as he could not resist the tender heart and soul of this beautiful woman, in honor of whom he decided to name this delicious cake.
Delving into Romagna, the southern part of the region, the first traditional specialty we come across is certainly cappelletti in brodo, small stuffed egg pasta which for centuries has been a culinary symbol of the region.
Typically filled with mince and cheese and submerged in a vegetable broth, cappelletti were one of the staple foods of peasants and farmers.
Indeed, the term derives from cappello (hat), as their shape evokes the hats that peasants used to wear while working in the farms under the blazing sun. Today you will find cappelletti in every Italian household and it is certainly not missing from every lunch table on Christmas Day!
3. Strozzapreti al Sugo di Canocchie
If you want to get the authentic and delicious taste of the Adriatic Sea, strozzapreti with seafood is definitely the dish to have. Literally meaning “to choke priests”, strozzapreti is a typical fresh pasta from Romagna, simply made with water and flour.
According to tradition, the term derives from the fact that when Romagna was under the Papal State, priests would confiscate eggs from the farmer’s wives, who were then forced to make pasta only using water and flour. In revenge, they created a pasta shape that could easily choke them. Strozzapreti are typically savored in a delicious tomato and garlic-based seafood sauce.
2. Polpette con gli Strigoli
Polpette con gli Strigoli is an excellent vegetarian dish widely made throughout the region. This wild herb (Latin name Silene Vulgaris), known for its nutritious and homeopathic properties, is widely used in a great variety of pasta and risotto recipes, though the dumplings are by far the most delicious of all!
The herbs are boiled and then assembled with breadcrumbs, garlic cloves, eggs, and about four different types of cheese, including Parmesan. According to certain recipes, mainly in the north around Bologna, the dumplings are flavored with small cubes of tasty mortadella, making them all the more irresistible!
1. Bustrengo Dessert
What could be better than bustrengo to end on a sweet note? This typical dessert from Rimini is a delicious delicacy with simple and humble origins. In fact it was created for using up all the food in the pantry, which is why it is made with a great variety of different ingredients; the original recipe counts about 32! The main ones are always breadcrumbs, eggs, flour, citrus zest, and raisins.
Be sure to be in Romagna during the Sagra del Bustreng, the local festival which takes place every year in Borghi in honor of this traditional specialty from Romagna.