Our group of irreverent expats (C.O.S.I.) is at it once again, joining forces in an attempt to impart our hard-won knowledge upon you, the unfortunate readers. This week we welcome a member to our brood, Andrea from Sex, Lies, and Nutella. Admittedly, our discourse can often sound a bit cantankerous, as we lament the challenges of battling the Italian bureaucracy, or debate the necessity of superfluous bathroom hardware (a.k.a. the ubiquitous bidet).
However, this time around, we are here to sing the praises of one of Italy’s greatest contributions to the world: its regional cuisines. On this topic, the only cantankerous part is arguing over which region is the best.
So we’ve each chosen a city/region/area to defend, expounding on the culinary wonders indigenous to the local farms, markets, kitchens, and restaurants. I could have chosen Rome…probably should have chosen Rome; it would have made perfect sense since it’s the area that I’m most familiar with. But after a few trips to Romagna this year, I’m pretty excited about all of my latest tasty encounters, and I want to let everybody know about this relatively unexplored foodie paradise and some of the typical products of Romagna.
Of course, Romagna is part of the region of Emilia-Romagna. But when you look up the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna on the Internet, invariably the food from the Emilia side appears in the search results—and for good reasons. We are all familiar with these capolavori (masterpieces) of food artistry: Prosciutto di Parma, Aceto Balsamico di Modena, Ragú, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Lasagne Bolognese, Mortadella—the list goes on.
This will be an interesting comparison, because one of my C.O.S.I. partners, Maria, will discuss and defend the Emilia side. But since last month I had the pleasure of exploring the Romagna side with a group of fellow bloggers during #romagnabuonvivere, I’m going to share my discoveries about this diverse culinary landscape. Allow me to highlight some of the best products, traditional dishes, and fine restaurants.
Typical Products of Romagna
Inland, the most frequent star on the secondo menu is a type of pig called “mora romagnola,” which is often fileted, skewered, or made into sausage and salumi. Delicious in all its forms, I do not discriminate. In one restaurant, which I’ll mention below, we really “porked out” and sampled it three ways.
There is also a specific type of onion called, “scalogno,” which is sort of like a shallot, and it’s often found in pasta dishes this time of year. Very flavorful, but not overpowering. Eat enough of them, though, and your breath still reeks.
The famous cheese of the region is called “squacquerone,” and it’s soft, mild, white cheese. Most commonly, one encounters it inside a piadina along with the local variety of prosciutto cotto (cooked ham).
Piadina is the Romagna version of a soft flatbread, almost like a flour tortilla, folded in half and quickly grilled. They tell me that you can determine exactly which town a piadina comes from by its thickness—they are made fairly thick in the western part of the area near Faenza, and then become progressively thinner as you approach Rimini. Why? I never found out…
The most popular wine by far is Sangiovese di Romagna. That “Sangiovese” means “Blood of Jupiter” (Giove to the Romans, Zeus to the Greeks) should not surprise you, as this is the most dominant red grape throughout Northern Italy. Genetically, it’s the same grape grown in Tuscany to produce Chianti, but of course has its own unique “terroir” in Romagna.
Near the coast, you naturally find seafood dishes. The canocchie was my favorite food discovery of the entire trip. If you’re in the area and see this on the menu, do NOT pass it up!! If you can eat them aboard a boat floating in the Adriatic, they will taste even better. I should know.
Some great restaurants
Lunch our first day was at Locanda il Cardello in Casola Valsenio. Wow, this is a really foodie’s paradise, but without being fancy or pretentious the way most self-proclaimed foodies are. First came a dish of delicate purple potato gnocchi, lightly dusted with shaved white truffles. Still swooning, the mora romagnola arrived in front of me, accompanied by a light sauce of porcini mushrooms. Don’t even get me started on the dessert, a small tart made from marroni (sweet chestnuts) with grappa syrup.
The next day’s lunch was just as good, and in some ways more entertaining. We went to the Cooking School of Riolo Terme, where our lunch prepared by the students. The mayor of the town even showed up to dine with us. Everything was excellent, and made even more enjoyable by the students enthusiasm.
For dinner that evening, we crawled into the wine impressive wine cellar at Antica Grotta, right in the shadow of the town’s massive Rocca (fortress). The young chef here dazzled us with both his cooking skill and wine knowledge. This is where the “mora trio” made its appearance, much to our delight. It was even included in the pasta dish in the form of, “taglioni di pasta al uovo con guanciale di mora e scalogno di romagna.” Out of this world.
For the second part of the trip, we relocated to the coastal area of Romagna, and didn’t waste any time getting into the seafaring mood. We boarded a working fishing boat to watch the fisherman harvest the local cozze (mussels), and then went back to port to introduce said shellfish to a boiling pot of water, and then a nice crisp white wine. They got along famously.
But the celebrities of that show were the aforementioned canocchie; steamed in a tomato-based broth and eaten with bare hands. These little critters were as tasty as could be, with the texture of a shrimp and the flavor of a mild lobster.
If you do the math, you can see that only about three days into this trip we were already exceeding our calorie allotment for the entire month. That’s why I was relieved to hear that we were “only” going to have an aperitivo for dinner on the third night. I do this quite often by myself when I don’t have the time or hunger for a proper meal. Little did I know that the owner at Bevabbè in Riccione was eager to show us more of this region’s inexhaustible bounty. A nice wine (yes, Sangiovese) and then plate after plate of local meats and cheeses.
The next morning, our hostess/liaison/driver, Alessandra woke up with the flu. She was being very brave, but I could tell that she felt miserable—so I offered to drive the bus that day to get us to the Acquario di Cattolica. My fellow bloggers thought I was crazy to get behind the wheel of a large vehicle in an unfamiliar Italian city. I reminded them that I drive in Rome occasionally, so the drivers along the Adriatic Coast don’t scare me in the least—in fact, I was practically bored by the so-called “challenge.” To borrow from Beppe Severgnini, I felt like a champion matador facing down a milk cow.
But our visit to the aquarium was very enjoyable, as we were given a guided tour by one of the staff ichthyologists. He showed us many species of local fish (example: spigola), crustasceans (example: gamberi), and cephalopods (example: polipo) swimming around in huge saltwater tanks. Beautiful and very relaxing. At the end of the tour, he dropped us off at the seafood restaurant inside the park called Pesce Azzurro. Lunch was delicious and it included—you guessed it—spigola, gamberi, and polipo. It’s good to be at the top of the food chain.
Afterwards we went to the restaurant’s bar and the owner/manager Lucia made me a great coffee drink called, moretta. It’s specific to the area, traditionally consumed by sailors and fishermen in the morning before going out to sea. You mix sambuca, brandy, and cognac, then heat it up with a lemon peel and sugar, and finally, you add the coffee. Perfect after a seafood lunch, but I’m not sure how they drink it for breakfast. Those old salts are a tough bunch.
True, but we made up for it during our final dinner together where we participated in a vegan cooking class at a wonderful restaurant/organic food co-op called La Serra. Everything was fresh, organic, and seasonal, and we used these ingredients to make each course, from the appetizer to the dessert. 100% vegan. Appearances matter in professional cooking, and so every recipe included a very colorful assortment of edible flowers. Honestly, I was skeptical. But by the end of the meal, I was a believer. The meal was delicious and left me feeling satisfied without being uncomfortably full. Not only that, but it compensated for the total lack of veggies in my diet in just one sitting!
The next morning I woke up at the exquisite Hotel San Giorgio and waddled downstairs to say “ciao” to my fellow bloggers. The management had put out a generous breakfast to help sustain us on our journeys. I couldn’t look at it. I took a double espresso and didn’t eat again until dinner that night.
If you consider yourself a foodie, enjoy exploring a culture by consuming it, or else just have a big appetite, I suggest that you put Romagna on the itinerary for your next Italy trip. But you might want to go on a preemptive diet first. And don’t bother packing your “skinny jeans.”
The other buongustai
So don’t forget to click over to my friends’ pages to see what they have to say about other regional cuisines of Italy. Let’s start off with Maria in Emilia because you can pick your side for the food according to tastes, but she clearly defeated me in the battle of food writing.
- “Arm yourselves against Emilia’s arsenal of food.” – Married to Italy
- “Nobody Leaves The Table Until They’ve Eaten So Much That They Hate Themselves”–Observations on Eating in Italy – The Florence Diaries
- Operation: Italian Thanksgiving – “La Festa della Gallina” – Sex, Lies, and Nutella
How (not) to Spend Thanksgiving in Florence – Girl in Florence
- Foraging, Toxoplasmosis, And Eating Until You Die In Cassino, Italy — Surviving in Italy