Pairings: Savoring Emilia-Romagna

Pairings: Savoring Emilia-Romagna

Savoring Emilia-Romagna

Some of the world’s great cheeses, pastas and charcuterie are produced in this region, known as Italy’s breadbasket. What’s new are the vibrant and flavorful wines.

In the past, when I told people that I loved Emilia-Romagna, they assumed that I was talking about my Italian girlfriend. Twenty years ago, even the most in-the-know Italophiles only had a vague sense of this region and the many treasures it harbors. Foremost among these is its glorious cuisine, which is the richest and most complex in Italy.

Situated in northern Italy, with its eastern border on the Adriatic sea, the region of Emilia-Romagna includes nine provinces, divided into two sectors. In the west, in Emilia, are the provinces of Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena. In the east, in Romagna, are Ferrara, Forli, Ravenna and Rimini. Bologna straddles the two and is the region’s capital.

To understand this region’s cuisine, it is necessary to list some of the native products that any cook on the States has within reach. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is the first solid food a baby in this region is fed. It comes in 75-pound wheels and has been made by hand in the same manner for 700 years. It is unmistakably nutty and fragrant. It is delicious to eat on its own-it will melt in your mouth—or you can grate it over pastas or vegetables.

Every two years the town of Dozza holds a murals contest, and artists from all over the country converge to decorate the city’s walls.

The animal of choice in Emilia-Romagna is the pig. Italians will tell you that the pig is like the music of Verdi—nothing goes to waste. Indeed, the pig gives its all to make charcuterie that is unrivaled anywhere in the world for delectability. Most famous is the silken prosciutto di Parma, the exquisite air-cured ham. Bologna loves its mortadella, a delicate sausage studded with pistachio slivers and eaten either in slices or chunks. Modena favors zampone, stuffed pig’s trotter (feet) that is boiled and served at New Year’s with lentils. Ferrara likes salama al sugo, a very soft sausage that crumbles when cooked and is served with mashed potatoes.

Eggs and abundant flour make the sheets of fresh pasta for which the region has no rival. When cut, these become tagliatelle that will be tossed in ragù, a delicate meat sauce sweetened with carrot and softened with milk. Tortellini, cappelletti and tortelloni are pastas of various sizes that embrace such fillings as prosciutto, mortadella, ricotta and chard, or pumpkin with candied fruit.

The region also has gorgeous fruits and vegetables. And of course it has grapes. Emilia-Romagna grows a great quantity of them—and up until recently, quantity was prized far more than quality. Traditionally, the people of the region preferred their wines young and frisky rather than mature and complex. In this regard, they went against the wisdom that big, complex food called for big, complex wines. Here, instead, a fruity and lightly acidic wine was thought to complement rich food because it contrasted with it.

Fruit and vegetables are abundant in the markets of Bologna

But in the past 10 years, there have been subtle changes on both the food and wine fronts. For one: As the food is getting lighter, in accord with heart-healthy dining, the wines are getting bigger. The other great change is a movement toward excellence. In the early 1970s, when I began exploring the wines, I found them direct and uncomplicated, pleasing to drink but not world-class like those from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Piedmont and Tuscany. The most famous red was the very agreeable Lambrusco, which bore precious little resemblance to the soft drink-like wine that flooded the American market at the time. The Lambrusco the Italians enjoy has an agreeable dry, grapey flavor and often (but not always) a light sparkle. Some high-quality Lambrusco from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena is now arriving in North America, and this wine merits reconsideration as a companion to food. With its remarkable ability to enhance the flavor of pork and cut the fattiness that can accumulate in the mouth, it is the perfect wine to go with the region’s charcuterie.

Another important red is Sangiovese, which used to be vinified as a beverino (a light, inconsequential table wine). Now the grape is as exalted here as it is in Tuscany, and more than ever Sangiovese made in Romagna has come to resemble Chianti Classico and even some Super Tuscans in terms of structure, power and complexity. It pairs well with fresh pastas, beef, veal, game and hearty cheeses, and could easily be the wine of choice for an entire meal of foods from the region.

Less well-known are Bonarda and Gutturnio, reds from the province of Piacenza. These grapes grow in profusion near the banks of the nearby Po, Italy’s largest river. Bonarda is like a less fruity Beaujolais, and does not age well. It pairs with cold cuts, vegetable soups (especially those incorporating beans) and many meats. Gutturnio is made either as a still wine, or with a slight sparkle. It has gained more acceptance recently because it has a structure that allows it to pair with either light or more substantial dishes.

More and more wines of the region are becoming available in the U.S.—and are worth the search.
By Charles Scicolone

Emilia, the western half of the region, is known for its purplish-red and slightly sparkling Lambrusco, both sweet and dry. The Lambrusco enjoyed in its home region is of a better quality than is generally available elsewhere, and is a far cry from the cheap, sweet and fizzy beverage known here in the U.S. A DOC wine that can be either red or rosé, Lambrusco is produced around the cities of Modena and Reggio nell’Emilia. One of the best Lambruscos comes from the village of Sorbara. The DOC requirements vary according to the area in which the wine is produced.

Savvy Emilians are beginning to send some of the better producers’ wines our way. One to look for is Concerto by Ermete Medici. It has all the qualities of this variety that make it ideal to accompany food: deep red color, good acidity and pleasing berry flavors.

To the east of Emilia, in Romagna, the favored wine grape is Sangiovese. For the DOC Sangiovese di Romagna, the grapes are vinified alone or in combination with up to 15 percent of other red varieties of the region. One of the finest wines of this type is the Fattoria Paradiso 1997 Vigna Lepri Sangiovese di Romagna. Made from Sangiovese Grosso, it has a violet fragrance with intense, spicy fruit. The flavor is dry with a pleasant, slightly bitter finish. Other good producers of Sangiovese di Romagna are San Patrignano and La Macolina.

Fattoria Paradiso is also the exclusive producer of Barbarossa, a dry red with an aroma of faded roses and violets. The vines for this wine were found growing in a disused vineyard that was destined for replanting. It is named for the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who spent time in this region.

Albano di Romagna was Italy’s first white wine to be awarded the DOCG designation in 1987. Produced from the grape of the same name, it comes in four different types, though usually only the secco (dry) and passito (richly sweet) is found in this country. Tre Monte Albana Vigna della Rocca produces a secco with hints of peaches, plums and almonds.

Fattoria Zabrina produces passito called Scacco Matto made with several clonal selections of botrytized bunches. The wine is hard to find, but well worth seeking out for its ripe fruit flavors with hinds of almonds and honey, and a good acid balance for a dessert wine. Umberto Cesari is a very large producer who manages to combine quality and quantity. His Albana di Romagna Passito is widely available.

Another white wine from the region is Pignoletto from Vallona. It is made from 90 percent Pignoletto, a local white grape, and 10 percent Riesling, fermented in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation. The wine is dry, fresh and delicate with good acidity and a hint of almond.

Throughout Emilia-Romagna, wine producers have been experimenting with clonal selection, foreign varietals, better vineyard management and the latest equipment and technology. Expert enologists such as Franco Bernabe, Riccardo Cotarella and Umberto Fiore are at the forefront of these changes.

One of the “new-style” wines is Drei Dona Tenuta La Palazzo. Made from 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine is well balanced, powerful and elegant and will keep for many years. Stoppa from producer La Stoppa in the Colli Piacentini area is another new-style wine. Aged two years in barriques, it has the flavors of black cherries and berries. La Stoppa also makes Alfeo from 100 percent Pinot Noir and Macchiona, made with 50 percent each Barbera and Bonarda, a more traditional wine of this area.

These same varietals are used to make Romeo, a Gutturnio Colli Piacentini by Castello di Luzzano. The grapes are fermented in glass-lined cement vats, then aged one year in oak casks and one year in the bottle. The finished wine is ruby-red with hints of wood and dried fruit aromas.

Although Sauvignon Blanc and a delicate Malvasia are made in small quantities near Parma, the region’s two most important whites are Albana and Trebbiano. Albana used to be a by-the-glass, seldom-bottled wine that was served indiscriminately all over Romagna with fish, vegetables and meats, with little regard for an appropriate pairing with food. It was there and you drank it. Once dusky and bracing, Albana is now notable for its suave finesse. On the dry side, it is wonderful with poultry, fish, vegetables and savory baked goods. A small percentage of the grapes is reserved to dry out to make an excellent passito dessert wine, ideal for meditative sipping after a grand meal.

As a wine for drinking, Trebbiano is less impressive than Albana. It is pleasing, and pairs well with fish and seafood but its first, best destiny is as the base for aceto balsamico tradizionale, the genuine balsamic vinegar made in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Do not confuse this with mass-market balsamic vinegar, which is often no more than wine vinegar colored with caramel and other substances. The genuine aceto balsamico tradizionale is made of Trebbiano grape must and aged for at least five years in barrels made of various woods. It is an elixir—just a few drops will enliven most anything, including the recipes below.

It is a fortunate time for anyone who wishes to discover Emilia-Romagna. Except for the area along the Adriatic shore, mass tourism has not done the damage that has so altered Venice and Tuscany. And the wines can now be enjoyed with pride. But if a trip is not in your itinerary, try some of the wines paired with the following recipes. Close your eyes, and you’re there.


Hot Pears with Prosciutto di Parma
Adapted from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (William Morrow & Co., 1992)

  • 2 large ripe Bosc pears
  • 1/2 lemon
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 thin slices prosciutto di Parma
  • 4 sprigs fresh mint

Peel the pears vertically with a vegetable peeler, trimming away the stem. Halve each pear, then core and cut into 8 wedges. Rub with lemon to keep from discoloring.

Heat the butter in a 12-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the pears in a single layer and sprinkle lightly with sugar. Cook over high heat for about 3 minutes. Brown lightly on both sides, turning with care so pieces do not break.
Fan out 4 pear slices on each plate and sprinkle lightly with black pepper. Drape 2 prosciutto slices over each plate and garnish with a sprig of mint. Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: Albana di Romagna can be both dry (which pairs well with the silky sweetness of the ham) and rich, which makes it the ideal match for the sweet and fleshy pear.



Penne with Porcini and Tomato Sauce in the style of Piacenza
Adapted from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (William Morrow & Co., 1992)

  • 2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons sweet butter
  • 2 medium onions, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 13 canned plum tomatoes, drained and crushed
  • 1 3/4 cups cold water
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 pound imported Italian penne
  • 6 to 8 quarts cold water
  • Salt
  • 1 wedge Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

For the sauce: Rinse porcini mushrooms carefully in cold water for no more than 20 seconds. Place mushrooms in a bowl and add hot water. Let soak for 30 minutes. Remove mushrooms from the water, lightly squeeze to drain, chop and reserve.

Combine the oil and butter in a 5- to 6-quart heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the minced onion and reduce heat to medium-low. Sauté for 10-15 minutes, or until the onions are soft and clear. Stir in the garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes and cold water. Bring to a gentle boil. Partially cover, and cook for 25 minutes, or until the mushrooms are very tender and the sauce has thickened a bit. Add salt and pepper and stir well.

For the pasta: In a large pot, bring 6 quarts of cold water to a boil over high heat. Add a pinch of salt. Once the water returns to a full rolling boil, add the penne and cook, according to package instructions, until al dente. Drain and set aside.

To serve: Pour sauce over penne and toss until thoroughly combined. Serve in warm dishes. Pass the wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano with a grater so that each diner can add the desired amount of cheese. Serves 4 as a main course; 6 as a first course.

Wine recommendation: This recipe, from Piacenza, is complemented by Gutturnio, a wine from the same soil. It is hearty and direct, with a mouthfeel that goes with the chewiness of the pasta, the slightly beefy sensation of the mushrooms and the lustiness of the tomato sauce.


Touring Emilia-Romagna
Along the Via Emilia, where simplicity meets sophistication.
By Stephen Beaumont and Janet Forman

It’s ironic, and it’s a contradiction: The region most celebrated for Italian food is one of the most maligned in wine. But contradiction is the nature of Emilia-Romagna. It’s a region where sleek bodies and beach umbrellas crowd the Rimini seashore while in small agricultural towns like Aiola, bovines far outnumber humans. It’s a region where a
Versace-clad banker at the wheel of his Maserati and a farmer hand-forming Parmigiano Reggiano are equally familiar with the local socialist politician and the words to at least one Verdi aria. Here, simplicity and sophistication are not mutually exclusive. Resist these incongruities and Emilia-Romagna will drive you mad. Embrace them and it will deliver untold delights.

In the second century B.C., the Roman Empire built a broad highway, the Via Emilia, from Piacenza to Rimini. This is what we found as we retraced that path via the autostrade.

Piacenza is overlooked by tourists in favor of flashier cities like Parma and Bologna. It’s usually just the locals strolling this town’s tranquil medieval center with its flamboyant equestrian statues and menacing gabbia—an iron cage attached to the 12th-century duomo where ruffians were imprisoned naked. The city does, however, have one “don’t miss” attraction: a liver. A rather extraordinary internal organ as you might well imagine, the bronze Fegato di Piacenza was used by second-century Etruscan priests to predict the future.

Just minutes outside the city and almost within view of one another are two of the Colli Piacentini’s finest wineries, La Stoppa and La Tosa. The larger, La Stoppa, is run by Angela Pantaleoni, who has drawn acclaim with her focus on such international styles as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, although she also produces traditional, DOC-classified Gutturnio, Barbera and Malvasia. La Tosa is the domain of winemakers Stefano and Ferruccio Pizzamiglio, brothers who produce a highly concentrated DOC Gutturnio Vignamorello.

In sophisticated—some say snobbish—Parma, Renaissance court life endures in patrician architecture surrounding gracious piazzas and in the throngs that turn out each evening for a languid stroll. This is a place where Verdi and Toscanini are cultural heroes and the hottest ticket in town is for the opera. While truly distinguished wineries may be in short supply, the Parma area does offer a remarkable opportunity to visit some of Italy’s most venerable artisans: The Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium will arrange a visit to a cheese producer at no charge, even providing transport and a translator. We also visited producers of Prosciutto di Parma and its erudite cousin, Culatello di Zibello—considered the king of Italian ham.

Modena/Reggio Emilia
The Italians call Modena “Mink City,” for it is the town with Italy’s highest per-capita income. Sightseeing stops are few. This is a place to live like the locals, to relish the pleasures of food, wine and music. It’s no surprise that such an environment gave birth to the larger-than-life Luciano Pavarotti.

While Modena and its neighbor, Reggio Emilia, can be a spectacular gastronomic destination, it can also fill North American wine lovers with dread, as its principal export has been sweet Lambrusco, the “cream soda” of red wine. Lambrusco in its native land, however, is something else entirely. Dry and full-bodied, admittedly simple but surprisingly satisfying Lambruscos can be found throughout the region. The budding Lambrusco-phile will want to visit both the Casali family winery in the Colli di Scandiano e di Canossa on the Enza River, and Chiarli 1860 in Modena.

Bologna has been called many things: “La Dotta” (The Learned), for Europe’s oldest university and “La Rossa” (The Red), for its russet rooftops as well as its political leanings. But no appellation captures the city’s nature as well as the moniker “La Grassa” (The Fat), for Bologna’s opulent cuisine. Only the most sensual of towns would be likely to invent a pasta like tortellini, modeled after the navel of Venus.

In Bologna, food has become something of an industry, and while fine meals can still be consumed in town, a drive into the countryside will unearth the subtlest ragù and the most tender pasta. “In summer, most of us look for cool air near the rivers and brooks,” advises Franco Minganti, a native of nearby Imola and a professor at the University of Bologna. “We don’t really go to a trattoria or a restaurant. We just look for a roadside bar, the more cars lined up the better, for montanaro food: piadina nel testo—a soft round savory pancake cooked on a round clay stone; affettato [pork products like prosciutto, salame, culatello, mortadella, ciccioli or coppa]; and fresh formaggio morbido, cheeses like casatella and squacquerone.”

The countryside of the Colli Bolognesi also has an abundance of wineries. Standouts, like the well-established Terre Rosse and the up-and-coming Tenuta Bonzara, focus less on the fizzy Albanas and Trebbianos typical of the region than on more muscular wines such as Terre Rosse’s DOC Cabernet Sauvignon and Bonzara’s Rocca di Bonacciara Merlot.

The route from Bologna to Forlì passes through the art-filled town of Imola with its portico-lined Piazza Matteotti and its classic castle, Rocca Sforzesca, although Italians know the town better for its racetrack and its restaurants. Worthy of a stop a few kilometers away is the mural-covered hamlet of Dozza, where cellars of the Rocca Malvezzi-Campeggi castle have been transformed into the Enoteca Regionale dell’ Emilia-Romagna, a treasure house of viticulture where 600 local wines can be sampled.

The hills surrounding Imola also shelter Tre Monti, one of the pioneering wineries behind the recently designated Colli d’Imola DOC. Their Boldo, a Cabernet-Sangiovese blend, has great character.

The unassuming town of Forlì has one of the area’s oldest wine tasting osterias, Ca’ de Be’. Here you’ll want to taste the local Sangiovese di Romagna, often disregarded as light and undistinguished, but which has recently shown dramatic improvement. Modigliana’s Castelluccio produces several noteworthy wines from this Romagnolo workhorse, as do the Pezzi family, owners of Fattoria Paradiso.

Far less common is the local Pagadebit, a grape so reliable even in poor years that it was named for a contraction of “pagare i debiti”—”pay the debts.” A delicate white, Pagadebit is a DOC wine, and Paradiso’s hometown rates a mention in the Pagadebit di Romagna DOC classification.

Elegant Ravenna with its opulent Byzantine mosaics is where the Via Emilia meets the Adriatic. Curiously, some of the most striking images illuminated in the mosaics’ jewel-like greens and golds seem to have been inspired by women. On one wall of the Basilica di San Vitale, for example, Empress Theodora, whose exploits as a child prostitute and sex show performer would raise eyebrows today, is lavishly wrapped in long strings of diamonds and pearls. “

Today, one of the most respected wineries in Emilia-Romagna is run by a woman. Since 1985, Cristina Geminiani has been at work in the vineyards of Fattoria Zerbina, replanting stock and lowering densities. Her Sangiovese vines grow on hills 150 to 300 meters above sea level and rival some of Tuscany’s finest in intensity. The grape can appear in quantities of up to 75 percent—with Cabernet as the rest—in the winery’s outstanding flagship label, Marzieno.

Just a few kilometers from Ravenna, the beach resort of Rimini is the hometown of film director Federico Fellini, and many say that it is in the outrageous characters of his semi-autobiographical Amarcord that the region’s wild diversity can most vividly be seen. In its wine, its food and its people, Emilia-Romagna is a region that revels in its inconsistencies and celebrates its oddities.


For more recipes from Emilia-Romagna, pick up this month’s issue of Wine Enthusiast at your local newsstand.

Published on May 1, 2002