One of the things I love the most is that Italian food is so diverse. While we often think of just spaghetti or lasagna – food dramatically changes from north to south in Italy.
Located in the Emilia Romagna region in Northern Italy, Modena is a short train ride from Florence, Milan and Venice. The Emilia Romagna region is undoubtedly the capital of gastronomy, coined the bread basket of Italy with its proximity to so many incredible food products like pasta, air cured prosciutto, parmigiano-reggiano and the incomparable Modena balsamic vinegar.
While most people only visit Bologna and maybe Parma as a day trip, Modena is worth its own exploration. A short train ride from Bologna, here are my recommendations for what to eat in Modena:
The OG of the charcuterie world, prosciutto is made from the hindquarter of a pig that
was once salt-cured and dried in open air. Today the process is a bit more scientific but the principles are the same as the word prosciutto literally means to suck out the moisture.
I visited Azienda Prosciuttificio Nini, a family owned company of nearly 100 years, while the methods of production have changed, it’s only to reflect the traditional way to produce prosciutto in
Modena’s aceto balsamico tradizionale is much different than anything you’ve bought at the supermarket which could be classified in comparison as fools gold.
For this reason there are several different balsamic vinegar products that you can buy – and while there is a degree of quality difference from one to another, each has its own use. Read my post here on different types of balsamic vinegar.
Lambrusco is the wine to drink in Modena, resembling a sparkling red, it is double feremented first for alcohol and then for bubbles. It’s a young, light wine that pairs well with rich Modenese meat and pasta.
If you want to dine like a true Italian you must end the meal with a digestive. In Modena ask for Nocino, made from unripe walnuts and aged for a minimum of 6 months.
Another DOP product from Modena, the production of this cheese is also strictly defined with its authenticity easily identified by the markings on the side indicating where it was made and the date produced.
Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be produced in Bologna, Modena, Mantua, Parma and Reggio Emilia. And it remains a local product from the beginning as cows can only feed on local grass and natural vegetable feed.
The cheese must be aged at least 12 months but it is common to find it aged for 24 months. It is inspected and approved as an official DOP product when it meets both structural and flavour requirements ensuring that is a true product of the terroir and expertise of the region.
Head to Bologna and you’ll be told that tortellini, the circle-shaped filled pasta, is the pasta of that city but others say it is originally from neighbouring Modena.
The legend says that the birthplace of tortellini is actually “Locanda Corona” in Castelfranco, a small town between Bologna and Modena, and so it’s becoming an ongoing debate with many food competitions to choose the best tortellini in the region.
The official recipe of tortellini Bolognesi is licenced and the filling is made of pork loin, ham, mortadella, eggs, nutmeg and parmigiano cheese.
It may not be noticeable to outsiders but the true difference between tortellini modenesi and bolognesi is the ratio of meat in the filling. Regardless of where you eat it, you’ll find it served in capon broth or in brodo, it’s a delicate dish that must be tried.
As the bigger brother, tortelloni is similar in shape but considerably larger and not
served in brodo. They are usually served with meat ragù or with butter and sage.
The filling is usually ricotta and parsley but you can find variations like the photo above of red turnip tortellone filled with robiola cheese.
Mostarda di Frutta
This sweet and spicy condiment is made from candied fruit. Try it while you’re in Italy because it’s impossible to replicate at home without real mustard oil, which is banned in North America as it is used to create home explosives.
If traditional food in Modena wasn’t rich enough, the people also invented an incredible pork spread of lard, garlic and rosemary.
Look for the Carrello dei Bolliti or boiled meat trolley when you are at Ristorante Da Danilo. It may not be the most visually appealing meat but trust me boiled meat can be delicious. Sample pig trotter, tongue, capon, chicken, beef brisket and other meaty delights.
The spicy sweet mostarda is a perfect condiment, don’t be put off by the bright candied meat in sugary syrup.
Shaped somewhat like a flat English muffin, they take their name from the pan where they’re cooked.
With a crispy exterior and soft interior they are split open and filled with a variety of things from pesto modenese to prosciutto and arugula. Try them at L’insolito Bar at Viale dell’Autodromo as they have won many prizes for their gnoccho frito.
This fried delight is not unique to Modena, you’ll find it in Bologna as crescentina fritta and in Parma as torta fritta.
Like many great Italian dishes, it arose from the desire not to have any waste. Using the same dough as tigelle it must be eaten straight from the kitchen while it’s still hot and fluffy. Or have it the next day at breakfast when it’s cold with a cappuccino.
Emilia Romagna is home to so many great cured meats, here are a few of my favourites:
Coppa di Testa – pork, higher part of neck and part of shoulder, meat is salted and massaged and then
Zampone – stuffed pig trotter is traditionally served at Christmas and served with lentils.
Cotechino – originally from Bologna, you can find this boiled sausage throughout Emilia Romagna and
beyond. It was historically served at New Year’s with lentils but it can now be found all year round.
Culatello – if you love cured meats you must try culatello as it cannot be exported to the US due to
preservation methods. It’s most famous in the small, nearby town of Zibello. Pork is seasoned and salted and inserted into a pig’s bladder, wrapped with twine and cured for a year.