James and I have arrived back from the most wonderful time in Italy, our bellies rather much rounder and filled with pasta, Parmesan and blissful memories. We explored Verona and the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, home of Parmesan cheese, prosciutto, Balsamic vinegar and the city of Bologna of course which is known as the ‘stomach of Europe’, what could be more enticing for a foodie? If you want a true ‘taste’ of Italy without all the tourist crowds yet with the beauty of Tuscany, I would definitely recommend exploring the Emilia-Romagna region. We booked our holiday through Which? recommended Inn Travel and couldn’t rate their organisation more highly. We were also provided with lots of maps and a comprehensive travel pack describing each stage of our journey with handy tips on where to visit and very importantly, what to eat. We also did our own research beforehand too, including looking up when Rick Stein visited when he was in Verona for his long weekends programme and also a couple of blogs from locals and travellers who have been there before. In the two weeks we were away, we devoured so much wonderful cuisine on our travels so it has been hard to whittle down a list of our highlights without this sounding like a never ending ‘what I did on my holidays’ blog. Nevertheless, here they are and I hope some of the food photographs speak for themselves!
We started our trips with two nights in Verona which came highly recommended to us from James’ cousin who previously lived and worked out there. It is safe to say that Verona really cast its spell on us as it really is enchanting and small enough to explore at a leisurely pace without feeling like you have been walking for days on end. Here you will find the infamous Casa di Giulietta or House of Juliet from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the Roman amphitheatre, known today as the Arena to name just a few sights.
This was probably our favourite evening of the whole trip. One tip though, do book ahead. If you don’t you will miss out on having a table right on the terrace onlooking the river Adige which is arguably one on the best views in the city. Coupled with this, the food and wine was fantastic. I had my favourite pasta dish of the holiday from this place too, maccheroncelli pasta with porchini mushrooms and goats cheese, followed by lamb rack. James had linguine with fava beans, pesto and cherry tomato compote and for secondi, pata negra pork with beetroot. Our waiter was exceptional and very attentive. At the end of the evening he asked us where we were from and when I said Chester, it turns out that he waited on at The Grosvenor in Chester for three years! What a small world it is.
We ate here for lunch before heading off on the rest of our Italian road trip. The food was delicious! We shared an antipasti starter of salumi – porchetta and culatello (made with the muscular part of the hind leg of pigs) meats and then had a pasta dish each, I had parpadelle with deer ragu. Again this place is very popular with the locals so do book ahead.
I made it my mission of the holiday to try gelato in each city we explored (avoiding all the tourist trap gelaterias) and then decide which was the best. This was actually my favourite of the whole trip in the end so I started well! I chose to have white chocolate and pistachio and Malaga’ flavour which was basically rum and raisin and they also had some other exciting flavour combinations too which they update regularly. Reading up on a blog beforehand, they say if you order a scoop of stracciatella flavour and see if they use good quality cream and chocolate, it is usually a good indication of how good the gelato is. So this is what James decided to do but I liked to try something different at each one!
We stayed in a wonderful little Agriturismo (an independently-owned farm that the owners have decided to use partially for accommodation purposes) La Rondanina in the Piacentine hills near Alseno. We arrived here as guests and left here feeling like family, we would definitely go back. The food here is all homemade using their homegrown vegetables and freshly laid eggs from their chickens to make pasta and is such good value for such a lot of food! They also serve their own Gutturnio wines which were the best tasting wines that we had on the trip. We even sampled a sparkling red wine at our wine tasting evening which was something I had never heard of or tried before and it was absolutely fantastic and I think would also serve itself well as the base of a cocktail with lots of ice and fruit. They really have got their wine tasting evenings right, leaving you each wine’s whole bottle on the table with each different course, allowing you to have as much or as little of each as you wanted. This all finished off with a zesty limoncello and some other homemade digestives made it a very joyous evening. If you ask here, the chef will spend a morning with you teaching you how to make pasta which you can then later eat in the evening. We made pisarei with Chef Thomas which is the most traditional dish of the Piacenza cuisine; small gnocchi style dumplings in a sauce of beans, stock and tomato. Pisarei is made from breadcrumbs, flour and water kneaded together and then shaped using an almost flicking action to make small curls which allows the sauce to get inside to cook the middle. James was much better at getting to grips with the ‘curling’ action of shaping the pisarei but I did get there in the end and I found it quite therapeutic. I have the recipe and will bring this to the blog next week! A few other culinary delights we had at La Rondanina and which I will definitely take some inspiration from was parmigiana made from sliced pumpkin instead of aubergine and tiramisu made with orange.
Parma was a very relaxed place to visit with lots of Italians going about their way on bicycles. Parma’s Duomo is one of the greatest Cathedrals’ in northern Italy and there is also an exquisite octagonal baptistery built of pale rose coloured marble from Verona. The park is also definitely worth a visit to take in the peace and serenity.
For lunch we chose to go to Gallo d’Oro and spoilt ourselves with platters of meats, cheese, tomato bruschetta and salad. It was all really fresh and delicious, especially the tomatoes, they tasted like sweets!
A very good gelateria with lots of lovely flavours, served to you by ladies in a ‘gelateria uniform’ complete with hats, apron and blushed rosy red cheeks! I had cherry and ‘baccetti’ flavour.
We then moved on to Locanda Gli Ulivi set among breathtaking views of hillsides and vineyards. The hotel’s restaurant served lots of local specialities and is much loved by locals as well as its guests. One of the local dishes they serve and are famous for (most of the Italian families seemed to come to the restaurant specifically for this dish) is Crescentine which is a type of fried bread and they are usually filled with cold meats and cheeses from the local area and eaten like a sandwich. It was here we also discovered our new favourite aperitif – Aperol Spritz, a vividly orange coloured drink made up from Aperol, Prosecco and a splash of soda water, refreshing and delicious!
The hotel also were able to organise a couple of food tours for us too – a trip to a Parmesan cheese factory and a Balsamic vinegar producer where we were enthusiastically shown around and of course had to take some samples home with us!
For the last part of our journey we stayed at the superbly picturesque Borgo Conde; a wine resort set on the hillside with vineyards as far as the eye can see. They have three restaurants here (only two were open whilst we were staying) and the food was very good at both. A few particular favourites were ‘pasta candies’ (radish dyed pasta) with a ragu, bresaola (sir-dried salted beef) filled with goats cheese, radish risotto and pistachio semifreddo with custard. Their rosé wine was probably our favourite and even though their red and white was perfectly quaffable, we didn’t think it was as good as La Rondanina’s.
Bologna is a fantastic place to visit, basked in the glow of its terracotta buildings and you can take shade under many of its portici. Bologna is home to the oldest university in the western world and so definitely has a lively student buzz about the place. It also has two famous towers, one of which is leaning (because Pisa shouldn’t get all the glory). The markets are also cracking with stalls crammed full of fresh fruit and vegetables all of which look so tempting to devour in the heat. I found a great blog on Bologna and eating from It’s Rude to Stare who visited a lot of the places we did.
Rick Stein visited here in his programme! It was a lovely, friendly restaurant and looked how one would think up an Italian restaurant with red chequered table cloths, lots of candles and shelves crammed with red wines. Whilst in Bologna I thought it would be rude not to have tagliatelle con ragu and to start I had Parmesan tart which is almost more like a souffle and has no pastry. I was impressed with the tagliatelle con ragu, it is a much drier eat than what we are used to and the ingredients are very finely chopped, I even think they put some liver or something in the sauce as it has a very meaty flavour. The food was excellent and the portions here were huge (look at the size of James’ carpaccio!) so we left feeling very satisfied and could have done with an afternoon siesta rather than walking round the rest of Bologna!
This was James’ favourite gelato and it came a close second for me. I also concluded by the end of the trip that the best gelato seems to be served out of deep buckets with lids on, not the shops you see with piles of gelato in each tub. My last ice cream flavour choices were crema and cassata siciliana.
James wanted to visit here after watching Anthony Bourdain go there on an Italian food trip and I was so pleased he found it. The restaurant is mainly famous for its open-fire grill on which it cooks its steaks, but as it was a very hot day they sensibly didn’t have it going! Nevertheless the restaurant had a really cool and neighbourly vibe and our waiter come chef come owner spoke very good English and was more than happy to have a chat to us and welcomed us like we were at his home. The restaurant was first run by his great grandfather and had been in the family ever since and definitely seemed to be the place ‘where everyone knows your name’. We even got chatting to the couple sat next to us who were very keen to know all about us and England as I don’t think it is a place that they get very many tourists. Our host gave us the menu but then recited to us another ten dishes that we could have using up what they had in the kitchen, so the menu became somewhat redundant. The food was simple but exceptional. We had red gnocchi with walnuts and Gorgonzola (dyed using radishes again which they seemed to do a lot in this area) and ‘fake tortellini’ which is the same shaped pasta but it is not filled, hence why it is fake! I also had a super panna cotta with a strawberry coulis and fresh berries.