Italy’s breadbasket is the fertile Po River Valley, which extends across the north of the country from Turin to Milan, Piacenza, Parma and Mantua. Flat plains, alluvial soils and a shallow water table make for some of Europe’s most productive agricultural land. La pianura, the farming heartland, is home to inexhaustible rice paddies and fields of maize, barley and clover, which fuel centuries-old dairy and cattle traditions.
Lombardy, for example, is a cheese lover’s paradise with sharply aged cheese, spreadable stracchino (named after tired cows, or stracchi, in local dialect) and Bergamo’s oozing taleggio. Towns such as Cremona and Crema are not coincidentally named after prized dairy treats. The olive oil used so commonly in other parts of Italy tends to be replaced by butter and heavy cream in Lombardy. Ossobuco alla Milanese (braised veal shanks) and cotoletta alla Milanese (breaded, fried veal chop) are favorite main courses.
Emilia-Romagna stands at the pinnacle of Italian culinary excellence. Opulent, rich and sophisticated tastes prevail: The region feasts on tortellini, lasagna, tagliatelle alla Bolognese and other incarnations of fresh pasta. Fizzy Lambrusco wines do a great job of cutting through the fats in those foods. Prosciutto di Parma, mortadella, culatello, zampone and cotechino are flavorful meat-based specialties.
In contrast, Liguria boasts la cucina profumata (“fragrant foods”) thanks to the widespread use of basil, herbs, fresh fish, light-bodied olive oil (from the Taggiasca cultivar), nuts and wild mushrooms. The region’s signature dish, pesto, is traditionally made exclusively from the top foliage tier of a baby basil plant, where the best aromas and sweetest flavors are found.
Legend says a damsel traveling between Bologna and Modena stopped to rest at a tavern in Castelfranco Emilia, Italy. As she washed in a basin, the tavern owner peeked through a keyhole, but all he could see was her bellybutton. Inspired by the vision, he rushed back to the kitchen and shaped dough to resemble her navel. This scene is re-enacted every year in a pageant that brings out thousands of hungry enthusiasts.
Tortellino Tradizionale di Castelfranco Emilia
Recipe courtesy Associazione di Volontariato La San Nicola, Modena, Italy
3 pounds beef shank
4 pounds chicken or capon
3 cups all-purpose flour (“00” flour in Italy), plus more to sprinkle
2 tablespoons olive oil
3½ ounces pork tenderloin, cut into ½-inch cubes
1¼ ounces prosciutto crudo, thinly sliced
1¼ ounces Mortadella di Bologna, thinly sliced
2 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano (aged 24 months)
2 pinches ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper, to taste
Create a broth by simmering the beef shank and chicken for 4 hours in a large pot filled with water. Reserve the meat for the pasta filling.
To make the pasta dough, pour the flour into a mound on a wooden pasta board. Form a crater in the center of the mound with your fingers and break the eggs into it. Whip the egg and the flour with a fork and use your hands to knead the dough to a smooth consistency, about 10–15 minutes. Sprinkle flour onto the board and flatten the dough with a wooden rolling pin until it is 1 millimeter thin.
Heat the olive oil in a skillet set over a high flame, and fry the pork until all sides are white, approximately 10 minutes. Let the beef and chicken cool before passing them through a meat grinder with the prosciutto and pork. Pass the mixture through the grinder twice, a third time with the mortadella and a fourth time with the Parmigiano, egg, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
To form the tortellini, cut the pasta sheet into 50–60 1½-square-inch pieces. Place some of the filling onto the center of each square, and fold the square into a triangle. Press the edges closed tightly, then pull the lower ends of the triangle together to form a ring. Let the tortellini dry for at least 15 minutes before cooking.
Fill a second pot with half the broth. Cook the tortellini until they are al dente and float to the surface of the broth, approximately 3–4 minutes.
To plate, use a slotted spoon to divide the tortellini among 4 large soup bowls. Ladle in enough of the reserved broth to allow the tortellini to float. Serves 4.
Wine Pairing: Fizzy red Lambrusco is served with this dish because the acidity and effervescence cuts through the fatty meat flavors. Excellent producers include Cleto Chiarli, Donelli, Cantina della Volta and Cantina Medici Ermete.