Ask any Italian to name the best place for Italian food in his country and you’ll be sure to get a unanimous response of ‘my mother’s house of course!’ But regionally, those in the know agree that it’s Emilia Romagna in north–central Italy, stretching from the fertile plains of the River Po to the eastern Adriatic which offers the most mouth-watering cuisine – not to mention medieval architecture, hilltop castles and fast cars.
Better known as Italy’s ‘region of hospitality’, Emilia Romagna is the birthplace of Parma ham, aged balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese and most of the pasta dishes we know and love. As one of the wealthiest regions in the country – expensive names like Ferrari and Lamborghini reside around Bologna and Modena – you would expect it to be teeming with tourists. Yet unlike its more showy neighbour – nearby Tuscany – Emilia Romagna remains one of Italy’s most beautiful and best kept secrets. Our tour took in the western Romagna part of the region starting in the historic art city of Ravenna, making our way through medieval fortresses in Forli Cesena down to the seaside town of Rimini.
From the regional capital Bologna, of lasagne alla Bolognese fame, we follow the Via Emilia road, Emilia-Romagna’s central artery first laid down by the Romans in 187BC. Dotted along this road are picturesque towns like Dozza, a real open air museum with its colourful decoration of houses, streets and squares. On the table at the Locanda del Castello trattoria, we feast on a typical regional specialty: hand-made cappelletti and tortelli pasta stuffed with squacquerone and ravigiolo cheeses and walnuts. There’s no such thing as spag bol here; instead it’s the more lyrical tagliatelle al ragu, topped with creamy parmiggiano reggiano. A plate of prosciutto di Parma and mortadella is washed down with the region’s typical wines, a glass of sweet white Albana and a fruity red Sangiovese.
In the historical city centre of Ravenna, once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, no fewer than eight of its buildings are UNESCO world heritage sites such as the impressive sixth century Basilica Di San Vitale and its glittering mosaics. Predating even Venice’s Basilica di San Marco, San Vitale is considered to be the crowning achievement of Byzantine art. It’s no wonder that visiting artists such as Klimt mirrored its dazzling mosaics in the golden background of his masterpiece, The Kiss.
Hopping on one of the city’s beaten up bicycles, it’s onto to the medieval Piazza del Popolo for a scoop of frothy lemon sorbetto and a glimpse of Dante’s tomb. Don’t miss the buzzing Osteria del Tempo Perso for its signature squid ink risotto with shrimps and ‘cannoli mascarpone scaglie di cioccolato’, typical Sicilian rolled pastries filled with mascarpone cheese and dark chocolate. Whilst Bologna is known as the city of jazz, Ravenna is the city of style and shopping on the Via Cavour is an art to be mastered. Upmarket boutiques jostle with stylish local brands like Scooter. Down little side streets, you’ll find traditional Italian stationery, antique jewellery and the customary mosaic craft shops.
Now in its 26th year, the week-long Ravenna Festival is in full swing and as evening falls, alfresco bars begin to fill up with people enjoying an aperitivo. We watched a contemporary ballet, Terramara, choreographed to an exotic blend of Hungarian, Indian and Sicilian music. A dance among hundreds of oranges echoes the rich fertility of the region from the foothills of the Apennines to the banks of its many rivers.
After eating my way around Ravenna, it seems a good time to visit the region’s capital city of ‘Eating Well’, Forlimpopoli. At the Casa Artusi cookery school, the town pays tribute to its most illustrious citizen, Pellegrino Artusi, considered to be the father of modern Italian cooking. Armed with a first edition of his famous book, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, I’m confident in my ability to create the best fresh pasta ‘sfoglia’ this side of Romagna. Half an hour later I’m still desperately rolling out my pasta and my delicate tortellini parcels look more like a set of squashed pillows. I’m handed a take-home apron which reads ‘La cucina e una briconcella’ (Cooking can give you trouble). If only Artusi could have warned me himself…
With my pasta vocabulary and stomach successfully expanded, it’s time for an afternoon of wine tasting around Bertinoro’s local farms. Legend has it that when the Emperor Theodosius’s daughter rode through Bertinoro and tried its gold-coloured Albana wine in a humble terracotta cup, she declared it so good that it should be ‘drunk in gold’ or ‘berti in oro’. Bertinoro’s vineyards also produce the light and fragrant Trebbiano and the citrusy Pagadebit. But if water really could turn to wine, I’d wish for a glass of the delicious, full-bodied Sangiovese, or ‘Blood of Jove’, so-called by local friars for its ruby red colour and hints of violet and red fruit.
Continuing east on the Via Emilia, Rimini offers a taste of old-school seaside glamour. Its beachside ‘boom boom bars’ and giant ferris wheel straddle the old Roman port and the majestic Grand Hotel. Everyone from Fellini to Mussolini holidayed on this famous strip of the Adriatic and inland hides a charming old town filled with spacious squares and segments of preserved Roman roads. As dusk falls, children jostle for their last ice cream and drag their buckets along the beach. We snack on ‘street-food’ of Italian flatbread ‘piadina’ with a sweet twist of fresh figs and squacquerone cheese ice-cream then stroll along the 2,000 year old Tiberius Bridge, stopping for a drink in one of the crowded bars around the Pescheria Vecchia, the 17th-century arcaded fish market.
Around Rimini we visit spectacular hilltop chateaux for a lesson on Romagna’s old feuding families, the notorious Malatesta and Montefeltro. Each area is more historical than the next – San Leo in the Marecchia Valley was praised by Machiavelli and emulated by Dante in his Divine Comedy. Santarchangelo di Romagna is the birthplace of a former pope and more intellectuals and artists than any other town in the province. As we sip our last Sangiovese at the foot of Montebello’s fortress, my thoughts wander to visitors of the castle in centuries past who at the hands of the Malatesta undoubtedly wouldn’t have been quite so lucky.
For further information on Emilia Romagna, visit www.emiliaromagnaturismo.it/en. There are regular flights to Bologna with easyJet and British Airways from London Gatwick; easyJet flies direct to Bologna from London Gatwick, from £36.49 one way. RIH stayed at the Bisanzio Hotel, Ravenna where a double room starts from €80 on a B&B basis and at Hotel Lungomare, Rimini where a double room starts from €70 on a B&B basis.