Eataly: An Italian Guide to Wine and Dine

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Italian open market
Open air street fruit and vegetable market

An Italian Food Tour in Bologna and Modena

By Cindy-Lou Dale
Senior Travel Writer

Watch the careful creation of Parmigiano Reggiano; sample wines and balsamic vinegar; partake in a cooking class, eat vegetarian tasting menus; have a go on Lamborghini’s driving simulator, then hit the racetrack in a Ferrari.

Osteria del Sole
A glass of something at Osteria del Sole. Cindy-Lou Dale photos.

See Bologna

Look at the students who go back and forth from Europe’s oldest University, hide among the crowd, and find refuge from the rain under the porticoes (now UNESCO’s listed heritage) of the ‘cultured, fat, red and towered’ city of Bologna, Italy.

Every corner of its historic center has its own original glimpse of history to show you.

Walking along Bologna’s ancient, cobbled streets is a sensory blast: a vibrant fusion of markets and delis selling hand-made pasta, wheels of cheese, hocks of ham, fresh fish shops, greengrocers selling colorful bursts of fruits and vegetables.

Pungent aromas of ginger, cloves, garlic, and cinnamon hang low in the air.

Chaotic and Intoxicating

It’s chaotic, intoxicating, and utterly exciting and all interspersed with tiny restaurants that spill out onto the streets, like Torre Alberici (opened in 1273), filled with locals partaking in a little pre-dinner aperitif.

My English-speaking guide introduced me to Gilberto, a grocery shop since 1905.

Here I sampled a range of balsamic vinegar and then decided their sweet 35-year-old one was my favorite, followed by a shot of Nocino – a dark, syrupy liqueur made of (green) walnuts, cinnamon, and cloves.

We stopped at numerous delis, sampling their wares, then found our way to Osteria del Sole, a ‘salt-and-sawdust’ kind of pub since 1465.

Eat Bologna

BotanicaLab soup
Few would rave about soup, till you taste this!

Ingredients tend to end up in recipes for different reasons. Sometimes it’s because they come from the same part of the world.

Like peppers and tomatoes, things that grow in the same space, share the same soil. It’s like they were always meant to share a pot. And Italians know this. 

On a quiet side street, is BotanicaLab, serving delicious vegan cuisine. The interiors are aesthetically pleasing giving the small restaurant a very cozy feel.

My vegan Italian dinner starts with a fresh seasonal green creamy soup, topped with seeds and baked kale, plus a couple of wedges of chickpea flour bread.

Then came the (wheat flour) pumpkin gnocchi, with cashew nuts, turnip tops, and plant-based meat.

Followed by the star of the show – green triangles – fresh homemade pasta filled with Macadamia Ricotta, cashews, and artichokes, seasoned with kale, sundried tomatoes, ground olives, and herbs.

There was just a little room for a cocoa and avocado dessert – which must be one of the best desserts out there!

Sleep Bologna

I thought I’d taken a wrong turn going down a narrow seedy alleyway, which runs off Via dell Orso, the main shopping drag in the Italian city, Bologna.

my gorgeous terrace in Bologna.
My gorgeous terrace in Bologna.

Google Maps assured me this is where the 4-star Hotel Metropolitan would be. Then BAM! there she is.

An elegant glass-fronted hotel that would not look out of place on London’s Pall Mall.

Inside it’s cool, understated, just oozing class from every subdued ceiling light, rattan sofa, oversized mirror, and Buddha bust.

My second-floor room, in shades of cream and taupe, has an exquisite little courtyard terrace hung heavy with a jasmine pergola.

I took tea on the fifth-floor terrace which has terracotta roof views across Bologna. It’s right in the city center, yet all you hear is serene birdsong.

Starting price *€140 B&B

See Modena

A private tour of Caseificio4Madonne, a Parmigiano Reggiano DOP cheese dairy factory farm is an assault on the senses.

The earthy aromas, the wall of glass view onto the small production line, where heavy wheels of cheese are maneuvered into tight molds; the watching the Casaro (cheese master) cutting a wheel of cheese in half; then, finally, the tasting.

Here you need to take care and do it slowly, bringing the cheese into contact with every part of your mouth and exhaling from the nose.

parmigiano reggiano
a vault of Parmigiano Reggiano – imagine the heady aromas

Many aromatic sensations can be perceived in the mouth – especially the older crystallized cheeses, as the overall intensity of Parmigiano Reggiano’s aroma increases with aging.

It’s an emotional experience, a biblical one even, that has you thinking about the aging process; it’s slow passing of time; about future generations.

Emilia Romagna is known as Italy’s Motor Valley due to celebrated names like Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Pagani, Ducati and Energica who are all produced in the region.

It is also the birthplace of Enzo Ferrari. In addition to manufacturing, there’s a wealth of motoring events.

Vacations are all about the food, and there’s no better place for it than Italy’s food basket – Emilia Romagna’s, served with sides of supercars.

Whilst in Modena, the supercar capital of the world, it would be rude not to partake in a little motoring action.

autodromo di modena
Before my navigator and I head out on the track

So, I took myself down to Lamborghini’s Museum, and had a ten-minute ride in their driving simulator; followed by a visit to the Autodromo Di Modena, where I threw a Ferrari 488 Challenge race car around the track.

At this juncture, I need to add that reviewing supercars is part of my job.

Think plush upholstery and thick carpeting, surround sound, an onboard champagne mini bar, a GPS with a gentle voice, and a car that does most of the thinking for you.

There’s nothing refined about driving a racing car – it’s brutal. No heated steering wheel, or comfy ‘massage’ seats. I don’t even think there was a suspension.

lamborghini driving simulator
Lamborghini driving simulator

I have a newfound respect for F1 racing drivers as I discovered butt muscles I didn’t know I had. But heck, it was fun hearing my instructor scream like a girl!

Eat Modena

Franceschetta58

Whoever thinks vegetarian food is lacking in flavor and substance needs to expand their palate and succumb to the wine pairing vegetarian tasting menu created at Franceschetta58 by chef Vincenzi – a small, bespoke restaurant, yet part of Chef Massimo Bottura’s family – in the center of Modena.

Here’s what I had on their vegetarian tasting menu: Raw squash blossom with goats’ cheese and lemon; a thin slice of zucchini marinated in rice vinegar and served with sesame cream.

There were wafer-thin slices of radish served with camomile powder and a frothy jus made of green pepper and green tomato; grilled asparagus with wild garlic and a creamy tarragon sauce (which puts this dish into another league!).

Franceschetta58 - it's an event, and not near as expensive as most steak houses
Franceschetta58 – it’s an event, and not near as expensive as most steak houses

And twirly Fusilli (pasta) cooked al dente in a pea jus and topped with an aromatic explosion of herbs, aged ricotta, and cracked black pepper.

I had a slice of chicory cured in rhubarb reduction, a slice of cooked red beetroot infused in red wine vinegar, shallots roasted in butter and regional vinegar, finished with a drop of sour Morello cherries, hibiscus, and pink pepper; thin slices of grilled courgette, topped with grilled onion, mint, peppers, and a jus of herbs and kefir fermented milk.

To sweeten my palette for dessert I’m served a lemon and oregano semifreddo parfait, coated in a thin film of white chocolate and topped with laurel (Bay leaf) powder. Rhubarb semifreddo parfait, ultra-creamy yogurt, on a delicate puff pastry base, finished with a rhubarb reduction. Even their breads are a thing!

They’ve created a food destination within the motor city of Modena, and a taste experience worthy of their listing in the Michelin Guide.

Erbavoglio

Erbavoglio
Erbavoglio: prepare mushrooms that taste like fillet steak

Most trendy restaurants are nervous about flavor, erring instead on this side of blandness.

Put a blindfold on and you’ll struggle to identify what you’re eating. Mention vegan and you’re sniffed at on the flavors scale.

It takes Chefs like Fabio Vandelli of Erbavoglio to step in and push the limits. This food icon brings something else to the plate besides vegetables.

His concept is to take traditional and interpret it into something modern, more interesting, playing tricks with your palate.

He loves flavor and is exacting in the execution of its delivery.

Before you know what’s happening, your first mouthful figuratively grabs you by the hair and drags you into the dark side of the veganism world.

And this is where the brain changes gear.

Ingredients get to know one another and express themselves to your tastebuds.

Expect waves of gourmet excellence to arrive – like chickpea mousse topped with fermented onions, carrots, and celery, plus a drizzle of herb-infused olive oil.

A well-seasoned mushroom, with steak-like consistency, on a bed of corn and cashew puree, and a drizzle of green olive oil.

Potato gnocchi with a ‘Trapanese’ filling of tomato, orange, and capers resting in a soft white wine jus, topped with caper dust.

Tortellino handmade egg pasta with a filling of organic cashew, fermented barley and aged parmigiana then drizzled with parmigiana cream. Roasted artichoke with fermented buckwheat in a puddle of cream potato and beetroot ketchup.

potato gnochi
potato gnochi to die for

Faux Grass in a brown mushroom base, BBQ’d cabbage, with a truffle, cognac and nuts filing, and a few drops of bergamot on the side.

A lightly fermented Kombucha tea comes next – a raspberry and lemon Japanese palette cleansing tea… which fills me with joy, as this could only mean one thing.

Dessert is en route. Bavarian yogurt cream, glazed with white chocolate and oregano, accompanied by a spicy rice waffle, blood orange, and lemon jus, plus capers.

I have just one suggestion – try everything and be sure to start with the dessert. All of them.

Opera02

This is not what I expected to find in the traditional Italian countryside, 20km outside Modena, Itlay.

And neither is the owner of Opera02 Winery, Mattia Montanari. Both are young, progressive, and forward-thinking.

Opera02's Mattia Montanari proudly standing beside his vats of balsamic vinegar
Opera02’s Mattia Montanari proudly standing beside his vats of balsamic vinegar.

The organic estate of Ca’ Montanari Farm, cradled in the gentle rolling hills of Levizzano Rangone, started off with five hectares, which soon became 30 – some planted to vines, others to fruit trees, and a large chunk left for mother nature.

Biological wines are a result of continuous experimentation, merging old traditions and modern technologies.

“When Ca’ Montanari was started,” says Mattia, “the first vines planted were Grasparossa – one of the oldest vines in the world, whose name describes the peculiar red nuances of its stalks in autumn.

Over the years we’ve added other typical regional varieties like Trebbiano di Modena, whose grapes are necessary to produce Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, in addition to Malbo Gentile, Moscato and Fiano.”

“Every year our product follows the rhythm of the land and of the seasons,” he continues, “and from year to year, as nature changes, so too does the wine.

balsamic vinegar
Mattia Montanari liberally doused my pasta with 12-year-old balsamic vinegar.

The old cow shed is now a resort.

On one side, a small balsamic vinegar factory/tasting room, and eight bespoke guest rooms with vineyard views, and on the other side, two restaurants.

One is a bistro, serving traditional food, and the other is listed in the Michelin Guide, whose offering is a fusion menu of the Puglia and Emilia-Romagna regions of Italy.

Enough with the talk, it’s time to eat. And, as expected, it arrives in blasts of culinary excellence.

Flan of PDO Parmigiano Reggiano with Opera02 balsamic vinegar. Traditional Tortelli filled with Ricotta, garnished with drops of Opera02 balsamic vinegar.

Passatelli in PDO Parmigiano Reggiano cream with black truffle. Panna Cotta with fruit and Opera02’s 20-year-old balsamic vinegar.

Combine the generosity of the Italian spirit, superb food, good company, jaw-dropping views from the terrace over the hills, vineyards, an infinity pool, with a tall glass of Opera’s organic Brut Lambrusco – it doesn’t get much better than this.

Unless of course another bottle of Lambrusco magically appears.

Chef Francesco Rompianesi
Chef Francesco Rompianesi standing to attention in his kitchen.

Modena Food Lab

Chef Francesco Rompianesi’s cooking school, Modena Food Lab, was busy.

A class was happening in the adjacent room, whilst we were doing one-on-one tuition in a small adjoining kitchen.

Tonight, I’m given a demonstration in creating ‘traditional’ vegetarian food.

Chef Francesco began with fresh ‘sfoglia’ (pasta), which consists of only flour and eggs, then Tortelloni Spinach and Ricotta cheese, followed by Erbazzone (spinach cake), friggione (an onion, tomato, and sage dip), and salsa Verde.

pasta filling
Chef Francesco Rompianesi carefully adding the pasta filling.

 

 

He is meticulous in every step. “It’s all about the ingredients,” he said, “and following the simple recipes of rustic staples. But every step is crucial. Don’t cut corners.”

Standing around, moving from work surface to stove top, getting in his way, and occasionally sampling the produce (and becoming distressed at the lack of seasoning going in), it all came together quickly.

Dinner was served and again, I was proven wrong. Chef Francesco ably demonstrates, “less is more.”

After mentally filing several cooking tips, I left with a doggy bag filled with food just made.

Despite my protestations that I’ll never eat again, I did manage to eat the rest of the spinach cake whilst being driven back to my hotel.

The simplest dish, with the biggest flavor.

a standard room at the Milano Palace Hotel.
A standard room at the Milano Palace Hotel.

Sleep Modena

The 4* Best Western Premier Milano Palace Hotel is on the outskirts of Modena’s historic town center.

Across the road is the train station, 10 minutes in the opposite direction is the ‘old town’ and, more importantly, it’s a 5-minute walk from the Ferrari Museum.

The Milano Palace is elegant and small with just 55 rooms and has all the bells and whistles required of a modern-day living.

There’s also a guest Spa with a sauna, Turkish bath, and jacuzzi. Plus, free onsite parking in the basement.

Starting price *€200 B&B

Getting Around

I’d suggest you hire a chauffeur service instead of going down the car hire route.

Think massive European fuel costs, driving a stick shift in an unfamiliar city, insurance, limited parking spaces.

It may not be cheaper than the rental route, but it’s a lot less stressful, and massively convenient – especially when your chauffeur is fluent in English.

* Summer 2022 prices