The regional cuisine of Emilia-Romagna is the stuff of Italian culinary dreams. Many of Italy's most iconic dishes hail from here: among them Bologna-born ragú, the inspiration for the dubiously named spaghetti bolognese, a global favourite that thankfully bears little resemblance to the far superior homegrown version. Parmigiano reggiano (Parmesan), prosciutto di Parma (dry-cured ham) and balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico) were also made famously delicious in this gastronomic Eden.
Don't Leave Town Without Trying
Every city in Emilia-Romagna has its gastronomic secrets, weird and wonderful local recipes that you’d be unlikely to find on the menu of your local Italian restaurant back home. Don’t leave the following towns without trying these specialities.
- Piacenza Anolini in brodo – pasta pockets filled with meat, Parmesan and breadcrumbs swimming in a rich brothlike soup.
- Parma Trippa alla parmigiano – slow-cooked tripe in a tomato sauce enlivened with Parmesan.
- Modena Cotechino di Modena – pork sausage stuffed with seasoned mince and paired with lentils and mashed potatoes.
- Bologna Tagliatelle al ragù – thick meat-heavy sauce served with wide-cut egg-based pasta.
- Ferrara Cappellacci di zucca – ravioli-like pasta stuffed with pumpkin and nutmeg, and brushed with butter and sage.
- Ravenna Piadina – thick unleavened bread stuffed with rocket, tomato and local soft squacquerone cheese.
- Rimini Brodetto – a hearty fish soup served over lightly toasted bread.
If you came to Emilia-Romagna in search of 'authentic' spaghetti bolognese, you’re out of luck. The name is a misnomer. Spaghetti bolognese is about as Bolognese as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and Bologna’s fiercely traditional trattorias never list it. Instead, the city prides itself on a vastly superior meat-based sauce called ragù, consisting of slow-cooked minced beef simmered with pancetta, onions and carrots, and enlivened with liberal dashes of milk and wine. Calling the city's signature meat sauce 'spaghetti bolognese' is like calling Champagne 'fizzy wine'.
So why the misleading moniker? Modern legend suggests that ragù may have acted as spaghetti bolognese’s original inspiration when British and American servicemen passing through Emilia in WWII fell in love with the dish. Returning home after the war, they subsequently asked their immigrant Italian chefs to rustle up something similar. Details clearly got lost in translation. The 'spaghetti bolognese' eaten in contemporary London and New York is fundamentally different to Bologna’s centuries-old ragù. First there’s the sauce. Spaghetti bolognese is heavy on tomatoes while ragù is all about the meat. Then there’s the pasta. Spaghetti bolognese is served with dry durum-wheat spaghetti from Naples taken straight from a packet. Ragù is spread over fresh egg-based tagliatelle (ribbon pasta), allowing the rich meat sauce to stick to the thick al dente strands.
Ever keen to safeguard their meat sauce from mediocrity, Bologna’s chamber of commerce registered an official ragù recipe in 1982, although, ironically, it’s still nigh on impossible to find two Bologna ragù that taste the same.