Chicken Parmesan, tortellini, Mortadella, Parma ham, Lambrusco wine – just the very mention of these tasty dishes is enough to make you hungry. These famous foods and drinks that the world has come to know so well were invented and brought to perfection in a forgotten province of Italy, the Emilia Romagna. Fittingly, the area is also known as “The Belly of Italy” or “Italy’s Food Valley.” A trip to the Emilia Romagna is full of surprises. It’s an experience for the heart, mind and most of all, for the stomach!
This region of Italy is certain to bring out many emotions in any traveler. The Romanesque churches, Baroque basilicas, Renaissance piazzas, medieval nooks, pompous Palazzi, and little handicraft shops all tell their own stories. Each ceiling painting, each wooden window cover, each brick wall is unique. Dressed in warm, cozy colors, such as orange, yellow, and even pink, building façades quietly communicate the inherent, calm beauty of the cities in the Emilia Romagna — Parma, Bologna, Modena and Ravenna among the largest.
These towns mirror the atmosphere of this entire Italian region. Spared from mass tourism, people are far from pretense, false friendliness or seasonal busyness. One of Italy’s economically most stable and productive provinces, the Emilia Romagna has acquired an excellent reputation throughout Europe for its fertile fields and its hard-working, traditional people. Well, Italian-style, that is. There is always time for caffè or a quick aperitivo, while greeting all female passersby with a friendly “Ciao bella!” Could it be the fruit of this region’s labor has produced some of the greatest food and drink in the world? Many might think so.
In a province left in the shadow of its famous Italian siblings, such as Tuscany, Rome and Venice, people’s lives in Emilia Romagna revolve around the basic things in life. Basic, but indispensable. In fact, Italy would come close to mental, emotional and physical starvation without its “touristic orphan,” the province of the Emilia Romagna.
The region’s capital, Bologna, boasts the world’s oldest university (founded ca. 1100). Auto-makers Ferrari and Lamborghini have been building their seductive cars here for decades, creating passion and an Alter Ego in thousands of men and women around the world.
Furthermore, the hands of many European cooks would be tied without the Emilia Romagna, as this Italian province grows the largest amount of tomatoes on the continent. Globally active and long-established Italian companies, such as Barilla Pasta and Parmalat recognized the quality and potential of the region’s people and produce, and founded their main factories in the outskirts of Parma decades ago. Food just tastes better here!
Food tours are an enjoyable way to see the region, with its high-rolling hills (castles sitting atop, of course) and thriving cities. Twelve gourmet routes take you from wine cellars to cheese producers, vinegar fermentations, pasta factories, restaurants and food apprentice shops.
Dressed in a white overcoat, you may watch the production process of the famous Parma ham (Prosciutto di Parma: pronounced “pro-shootoe dee Parma”) and Parmesan cheese, truly a piece of registered art. Only specific cows, kept in a a specific area and fed a specific type of grass, produce the certain type of milk that gives Parmesan cheese its unforgettable taste. Every other similar cheese is considered a copy and may not be called “Parmigiano.”
People in the capital of the food valley, Parma, smile only mildly about Oscar Meyer’s wieners or beer sausages, which are considered to be cheap meat lumps, unworthy of attention. Like Parmesan cheese, the production of Parma ham follows strict but simple regulations: It must be hung in cellars for drying, and pigs’ legs develop their unique flavor from the west winds coming from the sunny Riviera Coast. In fact, the word “prosciutto” means “extra-dry.”
Parma ham (Prosciutto) follows strict but simple regulations: It must be hung in cellars for drying so that the meat develops its unique flavor from the west winds coming from the sunny Riviera Coast.
After having tasted the suave, mildly sweet-salty taste of real Parma Prosciutto ham, anything close to bright-pink baloney will probably never find its way into your refridgerator. Try some fresh, honey-sweet cantalope with a few slices of Prosciutto as an appetizer, and you will be convinced.
Parma has a rich Parisian flair and tradition, due to regency of Marie Louise, Napoleon’s second wife. Having gained an almost mythical reputation today, she bestowed strong influence on Parma when she was “comforted” with the “dukedome” of Parma after Napoleon was sent to exile.
Reminders of this French era can be observed in architecture and people’s classy lifestyle: The famous “Parma Yellow” paint on palazzi might well be an imitation of the French Versaille palace. And Parmesan people speak a heavy, almost proud Italian dialect with heavy, guttural “r’s”, like in French. Even the fashion worn in Parma can be compared to the extravagant Parisian style. Or did you think that tiny black miniskirt over there was just a belt? Oh yes, and with that fake fur T-shirt and the high-heeled boots you can be a real Parmesan trendsetter.
As the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Duomo and the Battistero are of cultural importance for Parma. Looking back on almost 2,000 years of history, the Emilia Romagna gave birth to numerous renowned artists, such as movie directors Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci, as well as fashion designer Giorgio Armani, and most significantly for the city of Parma, the composer Guiseppe Verdi.
Intimately tied to Guiseppe Verdi’s operas, such as “La Traviata” or “The Korsar,” is Parma’s main stage, the Teatro Regio. In the Casa della Musica, where everything revolves around the experience of melody, visitors can see historical music scores, listen to Verdi’s operas and attend open-air concerts in a quaint courtyard. Parma’s musical audience is passionate, but highly spoilt and critical. Luciano Pavarotti, the world-famous tenor, won’t sing in Parma anymore after having been mocked by the local crowd.
The Emilia Romagna inspires all senses, turning them much more acute. Even a short trip to this Italian province will create a new appreciation for the good life or “benessere,” as the locals would say. What more can you ask for than great food, beautiful people and a heart-felt “Ti Amo.” Sharpen your taste for the unknown beauty, the Emila Romagna.
If You Go
Italian Government Tourist Board
Emilia Romagna Tourism