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Culinary Bliss in Parma
by Jen Westmoreland Bouchard
On the way back home to Nice (France) after spending the week in Italy, my travel companion turned to me and asked “Do we need to pick up groceries? Parma’s the next exit.” And so began the best one-stop “foodie spree” of my life. Of course, the three famous foods associated with Parma are Parmesan cheese, prosciutto (flavorful cured ham), and handmade pasta (specifically tortellini, cappelletti, and anolini). However, Parma is also home to fantastic espresso, tantalizing pastries, and first-rate eateries.
With so many delights to choose from, we had to figure out where to begin. First things first; it’s all about the cheese. While speaking with the owner of a local cheese shop (in a combination of broken English, French and Italian), I learned that Parmesan cheese can take on different flavors depending on whether it was produced in the winter, spring or summer. Winter cheeses tend to have a deeper and earthier flavor than their vernal cousins, which are typically lighter.
Parmigiano Reggiano (the official cheese of Parma) is typically aged between 24-36 months to acquire the distinctive flavor savored by foodies around the world.
I also learned that the cheese and pork industries in Parma are directly linked; the pigs of Parma drink the good whey that is drained from the curds during cheese production. No wonder that ham tastes so good!
When it comes to ham in Parma, there are many choices. Culatello is cured, boneless ham produced from the tastiest muscles, the rounds (the top and bottom round of the pig’s hind leg). The piece of meat next to the round is used to make fianchetto. Authentic Parmesan pancetta (made from pork belly) is made with red wine and garlic, a divine flavor combination.
Pastries in Parma
But wait! There’s more goodness to be had. Parma is home to some of the best tasting pastries in Italy. You must try cornetti, the regional specialty that is often eaten at breakfast. Cornetti are small pastries filled with fruit preserves or nuts.
The most common flavor is apricot, but Pasticceria Torino 61 Strada Garibaldi Giuseppe, serves up a host of tempting flavors such as peach, strawberry, black cherry and blood orange. Pair them with a cup of authentic regional espresso and you’re set for the morning.
If you’re looking for a nice dinner out in Parma, La Greppia 39/A Strada Garibaldi will not disappoint. The gorgeous interior and impeccable details (starched linen tablecloths, sparkling wine glasses) are rivaled only by La Greppia’s transcendent cuisine.
The restaurant also appeals to my feminist streak; I learned (after eating here) that Chef Paola Cavazzini only hires women to work in her kitchen. In terms of quality, service and value, it doesn’t get much better than this Parmesan gem.
Cooking Peasant Style in Emilia Romagna
by Claudia Flisi
Why does “peasant cooking” get such a bad rap? In Italy, peasants seem to eat better than patricians in many other countries. That is certainly the case in Romagna, based on my recent trip there at the invitation of #lovingromagna.
Cooking Class with Nonna Violante
Admittedly the organizers had an ace: they are related to Nonna Violante, a famed local chef who gives cooking lessons at her family’s hotel in Bellaria- Igea Marina, a beach town eight miles north of Rimini. Nonna (the appellation means “grandmother”) was born there in 1939 and has been holding court in the kitchen of the Hotel Elisio for decades. She is entirely self-taught, which means that her cooking is based on local recipes handed down for generations.
No vegan, Paleo, or low carb dishes in her kitchen, or in any true Romagnola kitchen for that matter: the focus is on fresh food, locally sourced, cooked and consumed without delay.
Since Romagna is the eastern half of Emilia-Romagna, arguably the most famous food region in Italy, one might expect a cavalcade of renamed lasagna, tortellini, mortadella, and cotoletta Bolognese, all washed down with Sangiovese. But that is not the case. Romagnola cooking has its own distinct character. A local food expert described it as “a less sophisticated Emilia in some ways and a poor version of Venetian cooking in others.” There is more seafood (all that coastline) and less butter (not so many cows).
Anti-clerical sentiment runs strong in this part of Italy, which helps explain the origin of strozzapreti, one of Romagna’s most famous culinary offerings.
Strozzapreti means “strangle the priests”: while the explanations for this name vary (angry housewives twisting the pasta in their rage against the clergy; greedy priests downing it too quickly and choking to death; overtaxed husbands imaging what they would like to do in lieu of feeding a priest during a home visit), the underlying attitude is clear.
The twisting motion that transforms tagliatelle dough (flour, egg or egg white, water, salt) into strozzapreti looks easy when Nonna Violante does it. For lesser mortals it is not an easy technique to master. But the result is very easy to eat, with a simple fresh tomato sauce and a sprinkling of fresh-grated Parmesan.
Passatelli are less challenging technically, but you need a special tool to make them. The passatelli iron looks like a garlic press on steroids. It transforms leftover bread crumbs and Parmesan (plus eggs and nutmeg) into a fragrant accompaniment for chicken broth.
The cook’s role is to work the dough into a soft, supple ball before it gets pressed or “passed through” the iron – hence the name. The iron handles the hard work of uniformity and consistency.
Romagna’s best-known contribution to Italian cooking is the piadina, a flatbread that is served at meals and for snacks, with savory or sweet fillings, depending on the creativity of the chef and the hunger of the consumer.
The most traditional recipe, as adroitly demonstrated by Nonna Violante, is with wheat flour, baking powder, warm water, and lard, but a vegetarian can substitute olive oil for the latter and produce an equally tasty result.
The classic piadina Romagnola is filled with squacquerone di Romagna (a local DOP cheese, soft and creamy), slices of prosciutto crudo, and a sprinkling of rucola. Sounds simple, but the result hangs on the absolute freshness of every ingredient, so this sandwich must be consumed in loco.
The importance of the piadina is underscored by the Festa della Piadina held in Igea Marina at the close of the summer season. The main streets and piazzas of the town are lined with stands selling piadinas of every kind – fish, spinach, herb, jam, Nutella – as well as the classic varieties. Cooking shows, displays of typical products for kitchen and table (passatelli irons, anyone?), live music, and street entertainers engage the crowds who turn out for this annual event.
Wines of Emilia Romagna
Wherever there is food in Romagna, there is wine. The area hosts two separate wine routes: the strada dei vini e dei sapori dei colli di Rimini and the strada dei vini e dei sapori dei colli di Forlì e Cesena (the routes of wine and flavors of the hills of Rimini and of Forlì and Cesena, respectively).
The former begins at Bellaria-Igea Marina and includes 34 vineyards as it meanders inland from the Adriatic, leading through picturesque towns like Santarcangelo to the Conca Valley, an area dotted with sangiovese and trebbiano grapevines as well as olive groves (for the local DOP olive oil). Our recent trip included a stop at Tenuta Carbognano in Gemmano di Rimini, owned by a young, enthusiastic couple, Marco Grossi and Ornella Petz.
They have been operating only since 2005, but are already listed in Italy’s most prestigious wine guides. They grow all 11 types of sangiovese on their three-hectare vineyard, as well as cabernet, syrah, and some ancellotta grapes (a variety found mainly in Emilia-Romagna). If you come here, you can taste their four wines and one spumante brut, as well as olive oil, but they prefer advance notice because they are so small.
Authentic Hotels Near Rimini with Food You’ll Crave
by Claudia Flisi
When in Romagna, Italy do as the Romagnoli do. Go to the beach. Bring your friends, your kids, your parents, even your dog. The hotels in hotels near Rimini, in Italy’s Romagna region, accommodate all tastes.
While most guests come for the sun and the sand, “taste” is also important: they want good food. The hotel’s kitchen is more important in many ways than the amenities in the room, since people are often at the beach all day, and the singles are out prowling the discos at night, but everyone is at a table morning and evening.
In Rimini proper there are 1,130 hotels to choose from, including 800 dog-friendly ones. They range from B & Bs to five stars (including the iconic Grand Hotel showcased by native son Federico Fellini in many of his films). Keep in mind that 70 percent of these establishments are owned by companies or absent proprietors. The opposite is true of Bellaria-Igea Marina, a seaside community eight miles north of Rimini. Its 360 hotels (230 of which accept pets) are 70 percent family owned and run; you feel a personal vibe that isn’t possible in a corporate atmosphere.
#lovingromagna recently invited me to experience the family friendliness of four three-star hotels in Bellaria- Igea, including meals in all four hostelries. Almost two-thirds of the hotels in this middle class community are similarly starred. All four are members of a consortium called the Piccoli Alberghi di Qualità (small hotels of quality), and are the only members located in Bellaria-Igea Marina. As such, they have certain commonalities: family owned and operated, great emphasis on food, free WiFi (not always in the room), no swimming pool, maximum of 50 or so rooms. The rooms themselves are clean with all the essentials, not spacious or amenity-rich.
Hotel Eliseo is the home of Nonna Violante and her cooking lessons. It is the only one of the four with a direct beachfront view and is set back from the road by a beautiful garden. Customers include the children of former clients who come with their children. The family grapevine is a major source of business, and the atmosphere is decidedly familial.
Dinner is a major event. Antipasto and salad are available buffet-style but the meal itself is served by staff. One evening the antipasto consisted of prosciutto, fresh vegetables and four local cheeses: pecorino stagionato, fossa, squaquerone, and scoparolo, accompanied by homemade jam accents. A passatelli enriched chicken broth was followed by tagliatelle with meat-enriched tomato sauce. For those with stamina, a mixed grill followed — bacon, sausage, osso buco, and ribs – along with stuffed vegetables (red and white onions, tomatoes, and eggplant).
Classic Italian ciambella was the dessert, a “cake” that tastes like a softer, larger cantuccio. Albana di Bertinoro substituted vin santo for dunking the ciambella. To reinforce the mood, or, more likely, to help people digest their meal, the hotel showed a local, short film about the area, including music from Amarcord.
This was a “normal” night. Every so often Eliseo offers a complete meal including wine, music, costumes, and a theme. The last night of the season was a festa Malatestiana, featuring a menu based on medieval recipes and elaborate costumes designed by a wardrobe employee of a local production of La Scala.
Hotel San Salvadore
The mood is completely different at San Salvador, the largest and liveliest of the four hotels. It is run by two handsome bachelor brothers, Federico and Stefano, who seem to remember the name of every guest by the second day. Although the hotel location offers no striking views, it is animated by its super-friendly owners and their staff. You forgot hand lotion? We will bring some to your room. You need an adaptor? Here it is. Suggestions for night life? We’ve got ‘em.
Every afternoon the front desk offers abundant refreshments — health beverages, fresh fruit, yogurt, and cookies. In the same healthy vein, the hotel has an agreement with a well-equipped local gym, pool, and tennis court; entrance free of charge. Once a week or more, a happy hour infuses the front terrace with an upbeat aura.
The dining approach is buffet only, not atmospheric, a little chaotic (although you do have an assigned table for the duration of your stay) but with surprisingly good food. The chef has been with the San Salvador for 15 years and knows what he is doing. A pizza oven, a pasta station, an extensive salad bar, and an ice cream corner ensure that every appetite is catered to, and the quality can’t be faulted. No wonder that the majority of guests at San Salvador opt for the full board plan.
The Hotel Daniel is the smallest of the four, and is located on a quiet corner off the main drag. The bathrooms have been recently modernized and the furnishings in the cozy main lobby are contemporary in feel. A small outdoor terrace includes a refreshing pool for soaking your feet after a hot day in the sun. The food focus is on wellness, in attune with modern dietary requisites.
Our meal there was organized by a wellness consultant for the hotel. We began with a turret of duchess potatoes and turnips that looked like dessert. But it was all healthy – turnips are loaded with vitamins and minerals, and potatoes add vitamin C and potassium. Pasta was spaghetti with pumpkin, bacon, and bread crumbs; pumpkin is an excellent source of vitamins and antioxidants. The meat dish was tagliata with rucola, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese. Meat eaters needed no persuasion as to its benefits. Dessert was chocolate pudding with hazelnuts; its virtue was simply tasting great.
The fourth hotel in our tour was the Hotel Cannes, located in Bellaria (the other three are in Igea Marina). The difference is more than hyphenation. Igea Marina, the southern part of Bellaria-Igea Marina, is relaxed and family-oriented. Bellaria is smaller (resident population 13,000 as compared to 20,000 in Igea Marina) and more concentrated, with more cafès and night spots to liven the atmosphere. The annual Piadina Festival is located here because the centralized commercial area is more conducive to such events.
The Hotel Cannes is not beachfront but boasts a pleasant roof garden and jacuzzi. It is family-focused, with a special menu for children and a children’s assistant three times a week at the hotel and all day at its beach area. The food is a source of special pride: the owners have changed chefs only four times in 51 years of business, and prefer that the chef be from the area. Note: The bread is made on the premises.
Our menu included traditional dishes prepared in unexpected ways. Appetizers could have been a meal in themselves: langostine, marinated salmon, vol-au-vent with tomatoes. Their passatelli were not in broth, but served with speck and rucola. Their strozzapreti came with pesto and gamberi. They had polentina alla marinara, an unusual combination because polenta (cornmeal) is not normally associated with seafood.
Second courses were seppia con piselli (squid with peas), tuna sliced like tagliata, and coniglio nostrano alla Romagnola (local rabbit served Romagnola style).
The desserts were irresistible, perhaps because the hotel has its own pasticciere (pastry chef). We couldn’t decide among mascarpone cream with a croccantino (winner of a local food contest) ciocco-cocco (chocolate and coconut), and pasta frolla with hazelnut cream. So we had them all.
Where in the US or the UK can you enjoy five star meals at three star prices, with comfortable beds and proper bathrooms thrown in for good measure? Add the attractions of Romagna, cultural and historic, and you too will come away #lovingromagna as we did.
Written by and photos (unless otherwise noted) by Claudia Flisi for EuropeUpClose.com. Claudia visited Romagna as a guest of #lovingromagna in September 2015.