Our final two days in the Emilia-Romagna region were packed full of new experiences. Tuesday began with a walking tour of the delightfully charming town of Modena, one of the more prosperous cities during the Middle Ages.
Modena is best known for two things: balsamic vinegar and fast Italian cars. More about that later. Our tour guide, Ricardo, shared the rich history of the town’s square with its leaning cathedral and equally leaning tower, the Torre della Ghirlandina. The town is built on top of Roman ruins, covered with several meters of mud and dirt due to heavy flooding that once occurred in this region. The cathedral sinks about three millimeters every 10 years; the tower sinks one millimeter every 10 years. Pisa has nothing on this town!
We began our day with a traditional Modenese breakfast of café (Turkish pressed tea for me) and little pillows of goodness called gnocco fritto.
We ventured through the local food market, where several of us tried Mustarda di Frutta – a condiment made of fruit with a spicy, mustard-based syrup. Not our thing, but interesting.
We also visited the town’s oldest pastry shop, Pasticceria di Ronchi, and a brilliant leather shop. Beautiful porticos cover the charming sidewalks along the streets, and there are lovely shops everywhere you turn. This is a town we’d love to return to someday.
After a relaxing few hours exploring Modena, we ventured just outside the city center to visit the famous Musei Ferrari for some car eye candy. What an incredible collection. Truly, these are much more than cars, but works of art. The museum includes actual cars that have won significant races, including the 125 Sport that secured Ferrari’s first win at the Rome Grand Prix in 1947.
Each car is custom designed and made to your specifications, and takes about 12 months to complete, with an average price tag of $400,000 (and quite possibly much more). Mark tried to convince me that one of these beauties was a perfectly acceptable souvenir from our trip. I think we’ll opt for the bottle of balsamic vinegar, some limoncello, and a few pieces of pottery instead!
After a short rest back at our hotel, we headed to our destination for dinner – award-winning chef Massimo Bottura’s Francescana at Maria Luigia and the pinnacle of our Emilia-Romagna experience.
The nine-course tasting menu featured a few of Chef Bottura’s signature dishes that helped earn him his three Michelin stars. I don’t think I can adequately capture this experience. The entire meal was the definition of juxtaposition. The food was complex, yet simple. The flavors were both singular and layered. The dishes were innovative and rustic. The service was formal, yet warm. The environment sophisticated, but casual. The wines were carefully and thoughtfully paired with each course, as though they were created for that dish. This is an evening we won’t ever forget – and the best meal we’ve ever eaten. I’ve included only a few pics of our most favorite dishes of the nine that were served.
If I’m wrong I’m right (rehydrated salted cod).
Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, in different textures and temperatures.
The crunchy part of the lasagna.
Beautiful psychedelic, spin-painted veal, charcoal grilled with glorious colors as a painting.
Oops, I dropped the lemon tart.
Icing on the cake? A surprise visit by Chef Massimo Bottura himself!
Maria Luigia is also Chef Bottura and his wife’s country bed and breakfast. You can actually stay on this serene property, complete with gardens, a pool, and tennis courts. We have every intention of returning!
Our final day of this fulfilling trip was spent exploring the third major town of the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna. What another lovely city. Bologna is known for Mortadella and for being home to the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere. The University of Bologna opened its doors in 1088, and today houses more than 100,000 students across 23 different schools of specialization.
We toured the fine streets, lined with ornate porticos, tasted local cheeses, mortadella, and grilled vegetables in a lovely osteria, Piano Piano, which in Italian slang means, “slowly.” Our guide, Paola, reminded us that meals are meant to be enjoyed and savored, not rushed. After our charcuterie tasting, and before any dessert, she reminded us that “sweets do not fill the stomach, they feed your heart.”
Bologna could not afford to adorn its entire, massive cathedral in marble when it was built, and stands today with its upper half in brick, and the lower half in stone. However, they spared no opulence when outfitting its interior. Wow – what a magnificent building.
As we exited this beautiful cathedral, David spotted who he believed to be Bono snapping pics in front of us. None of us believed him, so he proved himself right by asking Bono directly! What a treat – meeting Bono in Bologna!
Our afternoon ended with a local “fast food” tasting of Tagliatelle Bolognese, a local specialty made with fresh spinach pasta. Traditional bolognese is made of minced meat, carrots, and onions, with white wine and no tomatoes. Conversely, ragu has a tomato base with red wine and chunks of meat.
Just when we thought we could eat no more, we stopped for our final gelato of the trip! Delicioso! Mind you, none of us will dare to step on a scale in the next two weeks for fear of what will be glaring back at us! I see many salads and protein shakes in our future.
We headed back to Rome tonight, via a sprinter van, and will fly home tomorrow. Our driver had to take an obligatory 30-minute rest stop about four hours in, so we pulled over to what I can only assume is the Italian version of a Buc-ee’s. That’s right, three-Michelin-star restaurant last night, truck stop cuisine tonight. The juxtaposition continues, my friends. We are now safely at our hotel and in possession of our negative COVID-19 tests for our return to the U.S. tomorrow.
As we depart this great country, we will take with us the love we have of their culture, people, and landscape, along with the flavors we have savored, the memories we have made, and the laughs we have shared! Until next time, Caio!