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A Culinary and Creative Adventure Through


Photo: Passport Archives

by Matthew Wexler

Neptune's Fountain In Bologna




a culinary and creative adventure through emilia-romagna

am Italian by association, although the blood that runs through my
veins is decidedly borscht by way of Russia. I grew up in a Midwestern suburb that was home to some of the four million Italian
immigrants who made their way to the US during the late 19th and
early 20th century. While most kids my age were cutting school to
smoke a joint under the bleachers, I was taking advantage of my newly
earned driver’s license to head to Alesci’s, a local Italian deli that’s famous
for their foot-long sandwich of thinly sliced pepperoni, authentic giardiniera, and melted provolone. So it only made sense that my first visit to
Italy would be one of culinary exploration, forgoing Milan’s high fashion
and Rome’s architectural wonders for a prosciutto-packed road trip through
Italy’s food and agritourism epicenter: Emilia-Romagna.
Nestled north of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna is one of Italy’s 20 regions
and spans from the Adriatic Sea in the east toward its western borders of
Piedmont and Liguria. Like the rest of the country, Emilia-Romagna touts
local products, many of which have Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)
status that ensures they are “produced, processed, and prepared in a given
geographical area” using recognized “know-how,” according to the European Commission. Labels aside, I quickly discover that local favorites such
as heaping platters of shaved prosciutto di Parma served with chunks of
Parmigiano-Reggiano and free-flowing Lambrusco are the stuff that a
foodie’s dreams are made of.



Photo: Alexander Tolstykh

I begin my road trip in Bologna, the region’s capital. The streets spill over

with students from the University of Bologna (Europe’s oldest university),
and if you can distract yourself from their youthful exuberance and dynamic gesticulations, the city teems with covered porticos and a collection of
more than 20 towers that were built by the city’s most noble families
between the 11th and 13th centuries. While it’s easy to look up to take in
the sights, look below and you’ll discover another unique feature: a 37-mile
network of canals that weave throughout and underneath the city.
I settle into the Hotel Commercianti, a four-star property that sits in the
glorious shadow of the Basilica d’San Petronio. Overseen by matriarch
Cristina Orsi, the family-run business is one of five Bologna Art Hotels that
offer visitors a taste of history amid modern amenities. Dating back to the
11th century, the building has served as Bologna’s city hall as well as a
guild house, and still retains its medieval wooden structures and other
architectural features, along with free bike rentals to explore like a local. A
visit to the neighboring basilica is a must, where construction began in
1390 but was never completed. Highlights include more than a dozen
chapels that were privately funded over the centuries, including the work of
late Gothic painter Giovanni da Modena. Astronomers will marvel at Gian
Domenico Cassini’s Meridian, which casts its epic line of sunlight across
the length of the church.
After touring Bologna’s markets and shops, I try my hand at some
authentic Italian cooking under the guidance of best friends Barbara
Zaccagni and Valeria Hensemberger, who own and operate Il Salotto di
Penelope, a charming cooking school that the pair founded four years ago
in a former bakery. Tucked in a back alley with a backdrop fitting a Fellini

Bologna Vista From Asinelli Tower



a culinary and creative adventure through emilia-romagna

Photo: Cividin /

Quadrilatero in Bologna

After touring Bologna’s markets and shops, I try my hand at some authentic
Italian cooking under the guidance of best friends Barbara Zaccagni and
Valeria Hensemberger, who own and operate Il salotto di Penelope.
movie, the school offers classes that embrace traditional Bolognese dishes
such as fresh pastas like tagliatelle and tortelloni, as well as pillowy gnocchi. Barbara points out that these are family recipes, passed down through
the generations and grounded in tradition.
The group begins slicing and dicing as Barbara explains what
feels like the unwritten Bible of Bolognese cuisine. Tagliatelle (a
flat, fresh pasta similar to fettuccini, except slightly wider) is
served with meat ragù; tortelloni (a stuffed pasta folded and
pinched to resemble a bishop’s hat) requires a simple sauce of butter and sage; and gnocchi, which can easily go from bliss to a
gummy nugget, requires baking the potatoes on a bed of salt to
extract moisture. When I make the meek suggestion that one could
add some fresh mint to the tortelloni’s traditional ricotta and parsley filling, it is received with a wayward glance and a simple, “No.
We don’t do that.”
And with good reason. After several hours of preparation the
group settles down to indulge in the fruits of our labors. We uncork
a bottle of Sangiovese from neighboring Tuscany while Barbara’s
son, Mateo, who has just sauntered in from school, eagerly grabs a
hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano and grates a massive pile for us to
sprinkle on our pastas. There are no garlic cloves or palate-neutralizing red pepper flakes to muddy the flavor. The cuisine of Bologna is

purist, relying on a handful of simple, rustic ingredients to deliver
comfort food that has been passed down through generations.
Though I’ve eaten more than my share of pasta, I decide to go on
a quest for the ultimate frozen Italian treat: gelato. Bologna has several artisanal gelaterias, including the famed Gelateria Gianni,
which produces upwards of 40 handmade flavors each day including
classics such as gianduia, pistachio, and stracciatella, as well as
unique combinations such as Inferno (white chocolate, black cherries, and wafers), and Divina Commedia (pistachio, chocolate, and
hazelnut with layers of white chocolate).
For a gelato-fanatic experience, I head to Carpigiani Gelato University and Museum. Incorporated in 1946, Carpigiani has become
a leader in manufacturing machines to produce artisanal gelato, and
has sold more than 900,000 machines worldwide. Of course, what
good is a gelato machine if you don’t know what to do with it? Entrepreneurs and gelato enthusiasts head to Anzola on the outskirts of
Bologna to learn the craft of gelato making and become “maestri
gelatieri.” For those seeking a more recreational experience, a gelato
master class enables participants to become gelato artisans for a day
and ends with a much-earned tasting of all the flavors.
The Gelato Museum opened in 2012 to trace gelato’s historical
significance and includes 20 original machines along with more than



a culinary and creative adventure through emilia-romagna

Photo: Mathew Wexler

Photo: Matthew Wexler

La Sabbiona Meal

Koko Mosaico

10,000 images and documents. “The Gelato Museum fulfills the
dream of our founders, Bruto and Poerio Carpigiani, the two Bolognese brothers who made it their job to spread gelato technology, culture, and business throughout the world,” says Andrea Cocchi, general manager of the Carpigiani Group.

My culinary adventure continues as I leave Bologna and head southeast
toward the outskirts of Faenza, a region known for its agritourism,
ceramics, and wine. Amid the rolling hills, I discover La Sabbiona, a
family-run farm, vineyard, and guesthouse that offers visitors an
authentic taste of life in the Italian countryside. Serena and Sebastiano
Altini welcome guests into their home with open arms. For those seeking overnight lodging, the six rooms and four apartments offer quaint

accommodations (be sure to request a vineyard-facing room), but visitors can also arrange an afternoon cooking class that offers a hands-on
opportunity to experience regional dishes.
Piadina is one of the local specialties—it’s a simple flatbread
made with all-purpose flour, lard, a pinch of salt, baking soda, and
just enough tepid water or milk to pull it together. Serena carefully
watches as we work our batches of dough, ensuring that we reach the
proper thickness (1/2 centimeter). The discs are then cooked on a hot
skillet, turned frequently, and pierced with a fork until lightly
browned. Piadina is simple peasant bread, lacking the crumb and
yeasty goodness of focaccia, but it’s the perfect vehicle for soft
cheese, slices of bacon, or braised cabbage.
The group sits down for a feast of cured meats, homemade giardiniera, slow-roasted figs, and plenty of flowing wine. Locals says that

After days of cured meats and never-ending bowls of pasta, I’m

La Buca

craving the sea. The salty air in the tiny port town of Cesenatico
delivers an idyllic backdrop for just such a meal, and restaurateur Stefano Bartaloni is the man to deliver it. Celebrating its
30th anniversary, the award-winning La Buca is a tri-generational labor of love. The cuisine honors Bartaloni’s father, who
was a local fisherman, while his son, Andrea, designed the
space. Budget-friendly diners seeking a casual, yet impeccably
prepared fish fry should head next-door to Bartaloni’s Oseteria
Photo: Mathew Wexler

del Gran Fritto, but if it’s a Michelin-star, bucket list meal you’re
seeking, settle into a multicourse experience at La Buca.
Chef Gregorio Grippo welcomes me into the kitchen for an
exclusive demonstration, where he and his team prepare olive
wood-smoked mackerel, almond-crusted John Dory, and
pasta fresca alla chitarca, a labor-intensive fresh pasta served
with locally caught raw red shrimp and shaved bottarga (dried

ence exquisitely executed preparations such as smoked mack-

and cured fish roe)—and that’s before dinner!

erel with radicchio and Tropea onions; crispy red mullet with

The official tasting menu at $73 per person is worth a visit
to the otherwise sleepy fishing village. The seasonal and locally inspired menu is constantly evolving, but expect to experi-



homemade mayonnaise, and fennel salad; and risotto topped
with burned-scallop carpaccio, leeks, and Sichuan pepper.
—Matthew Wexler

a culinary and creative adventure through emilia-romagna

Photo: Bologna Tourism

Cinema at Night In Bologna

those from Emilia will offer you a glass of water and those from
Romagna will offer you wine—the hosts at La Sabbiona are no exception. The onsite winery produces a range of blends and single variety
wines from the 15-hectare vineyard, including ancient varieties such as
Centesimino, Albana, and Famoso, a not-so-famous grape that dates
back to the early 15th century and is only now finding its way back into
production. Leave room in your suitcase for a bottle of Divo, an extradry sparkling wine made from Famoso that offers a golden-yellow hue
with floral notes and a hint of apple.
For dessert, Sebastiano presents nocino (a viscous liqueur made
from walnuts). The digestivo takes some getting used to, but plays well
with sabadoni (a traditional Easter dessert only made in Romagna). The
basic cookie dough is filled with chestnuts, jam, chocolate, saba (a
grape reduction similar to balsamic vinegar), and sugar. Serena inherited the recipe from her grandmother, and over time it has evolved from
a peasant dish of leftover beans and chestnuts into a delightful sweet
that celebrates the resurrection of St. Lazarus each spring.

Satiated with piadina, sabadoni, and more than my fair share of locally
produced wine, I depart the countryside and go farther east toward
Ravenna. Beyond its food culture, Romagna is known for superior
craftsmanship in the areas of ceramics and mosaics. The area is rich in
clay and raw materials, but it is the evolution of glazed ceramics for

which the region became famous.
One of the foremost artists of the last century is Goffredo Gaeta,
whose studio and gallery, called “La Cartiera,” reside in a former
paper mill power station in Faenza. Spending time in the Aegean
Islands as a boy, the sea plays a prominent theme in much of the
artist’s work, yet in his nearly 50-year career, Gaeta has developed
additional techniques that include bronze casting and large format,
stained glass windows. His work can be found worldwide at such
esteemed cultural institutions as the Museum of Modern Art in New
York City, the Ceramic Museum of Kyoto, and others. A workshop
visit reveals the vast range of the artist’s talents, and you can also
observe Gaeta’s artisans working on new projects.
Mosaics also play a prominent role in the region’s artistic history, and a
visit to the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna reveals one of the world’s
most glorious examples of this meticulous crafts. The church took 21 years
to build before holding its first mass in 547. Over the centuries, different
artistic styles were incorporated, including frescos dating back to 1780.
Austrian painter Gustav Klimt was so inspired by his 1903 visit that it profoundly affected his work thereafter.
The church is the springboard for a city defined by its mosaic work,
with several universities and dozens of studios specializing in the craft.
Koko Mosaico is one of the best, led by husband and wife team of Luca
Barberini and Arianna Galic. Both graduated from the Gino Severini
Mosaic Institute of Art and opened their mosaic laboratory ten years




a culinary and creative adventure through emilia-romagna

Il Salviatino Pool

Thanks to Italy’s high-speed rail line, in just over 30 minutes you can
leave behind the quaint city of Bologna and find yourself in Tuscany’s
bustling capital of Florence. Be prepared for an onslaught of tourists
traveling in packs that rival Pamplona’s running of the bulls. I head to
the hills for a spectacular respite at the five-star Il Salviatino. The
15th-century villa is just a 15-minute drive from the city center, with an
hourly shuttle service that will drop you off at Il Duomo, where you
can join the throng of tourists clamoring to view the cathedral and Filippo Brunelleschi’s famous Renaissance dome.
The city beckons, but also be sure to spend time wandering Il
Salviatino’s luxurious grounds. Over the years, the property had
fallen into disarray until hotelier Marcello Pigozzo rediscovered it
in 2007. A $16.8 million architectural renovation began to restore
Il Salviatino to its former glory, including the addition of La Spa,
which features scents from famed Florentine perfumer Dr. Vranjes. There are other treasures to discover among the grounds
such as elusive truffles. Guests seeking an immersive experience
can join Giulio Benuzzi and his dog, Eda, for an exclusive truffle
experience, which ends with a truffle-inspired meal.
Beyond its legendary monuments, palaces and piazzas, Florence is
also an epicenter for artisan goods. It’s easy to get distracted by the multitude of street vendors selling leather outside of The Central Market,
but forgo the cheap goods and head straight to da Nerbone, a food stall
famous for its boiled beef sandwiches slathered with salsa piccante. For
handmade leather goods with a contemporary edge, turn to Morrocanborn Hicham Ben'Mbarek. His tiny shop, BEN HEART, offers some of
the city’s most unique designs. Another great place to obtain a great gift
from Italy is Aquaflor, an intoxicating perfume parlor that features the
olfactory creations of Master Perfumer Sileno Cheloni. Choose from the
carefully crafted scents suitable for men or women, or opt for a customdesigned scent. “Creating an original perfume”, says Cheloni, “is like
constructing the biography of an individual. We are taken back in time
and then we return with a new sense of pleasure on having been called
to remember with awareness.”
—Matthew Wexler



ago. The studio specializes in contemporary interpretation of craft
using Ancient Roman cutting techniques, tools, and materials. Those
interested in having a hand at mosaic making can participate in a halfday workshop using traditional tools and materials such as marble,
glass, and gold tessere. Professional or aspiring artists looking to hone
their craft have the option of longer workshops ranging from 20 to 40
hours that utilize precise techniques as well as mosaic sculpture.
The duo continues to push the boundaries of mosaic art while
still staying true to the centuries-old art form. They recently collaborated with contemporary artist Domingo Zapata for a series
that riffed on da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. “Working with Koko was an
amazing experience,” Zapata told Mosaic Art Now. “Every member of the studio knows so much about contemporary art and is
very much in tune with what’s going on in the art world. By breaking down the composition and reconstructing it in mosaic, we created not only an explosion of light and color but also a new way to
understand my paintings.”

I’ve got one more pit stop before bidding arrivederci to Italy, and
that’s the Museo Enzo Ferrari Modena. Enzo Ferrari founded the
legendary racecar company in 1929 and it wasn’t until 1947 that the
brand’s street worthy vehicles hit the market. Architect Jan Kaplicky
designed the 16,400-square-foot, pillar-free exhibition hall, which
pays tribute to the Ferrari’s passion and innovation.
While the immaculately preserved cars would be enough to
engage any aficionado, even those without a penchant for Formula One engines will get a kick out of the sensory video installation,
which turns the hall into a 360-degree screening room through the
use of 19 projectors. For a more high velocity thrill, the museum
also offers a semi-professional simulator where you can experience being behind the wheel of a single-seater on the infamous
Monza track.
After indulging in my Ferrari fantasy, I traverse Modena’s winding roads and settle in for my final night at Opera 02, a winery and
boutique resort nestled in the hills of Levizzano Rangone just outside of the city. Enrico Montanari began the project in 2002 with the
purchase of five hectares of vines. A subsequent purchase of a
1950s cow stable and additional land increased the footprint to a
panoramic 45 acres. The stable was transformed into eight junior
suites as well as a vinegar loft to house Montanari’s batteria, a series
of barrels used to age the famous balsamic vinegar of Modena, a
local product with Denominazione di origine controllata (D.O.P)
status that ensures high standards of production. This is not the stuff
of salad dressing, but rather a viscous, sweet reduction with a vinegar bite that is often used as an accent to cheese, drizzle over risotto, or even as a topping to ice cream or gelato. Use sparingly as the
25-year goes for approximately $100 per bottle.
Later, as the sun sets over the hillside, I wander the grounds and
come face to face with a gaggle of ducks, grazing goats, and the
neighbor’s dogs having a roll in the dusty road. They look like a
happy lot, untouched by the bustle of city life just a few miles away.
I can’t blame them. I stroll along with a glass of the region’s signature wine, Lambrusco, a frizzante red that tickles the nose with light
bubbles and typically finishes with a tart, juicy bite. My luggage
will have to withstand several more bottles, as I simply cannot leave
without my own personal stash. I can’t pack the sunset or the generous people I’ve met along the way, but I’m determined to bring a
taste of Italy home.

(Dial +39 for the U.S. before the number listed
below unless otherwise noted.)

Basilica San Vitale Mosaic

Basilica di San Vitale, Via San Vitale. Tel: 544541688. Ravenna church that features what many
consider the first examples of Byzantine art in
Western civilization. Ticket includes admission to
five historic sights throughout Ravenna including
the Archiepiscopal Museum, Mausoleum of Galla
Placidia, and more.
Bologna, Online guide to Emilia-Romagna’s capital. Must-see’s include the Basilica d’San Petronio
and a tour of the city’s 24 towers built around the
12th century.

Photo: Michal Szymanski

Carpigiani Gelato University and Museum, Via
Emilia 45. Tel: 051-6505306. Gelato museum and
school. A range of classes and workshops are
offered, from a guided tasting to a hands-on master class.
Emilia-Romagna, An online resource to one of
Italy’s most food-centric regions. Discover the origins of Parmigiano-Regiano, Aceto Balsamico
Tradizionale, Lambrusco, and more.
Gelateria Gianni, Various locations. The artisan
gelato shops throughout Bologna produce nearly
400 pounds of the frozen delicacy daily and relies
on locally sourced ingredients including Langhe
hazelnuts, Amalfi lemons, and Amedei chocolate.
Goffredo Gaeta, Via Firenze 455. Tel: 0546-43044. Art
studio and gallery of famed artist Goffredo Gaeta. The
former paper mill power station is packed with original
works of art and also houses artisans working on
Gaeta’s latest projects.
Hotel Commercianti, Via De’ Pignattari, 11. Tel:
051-7457511. Historical four-star property in the
city center that’s family owned that originally
served as Bologna’s City Hall in the 11th century.
It features original architectural details.

Il salotto di Penelope, Via San Felice 116/G. Tel:
051-6493627. Cooking school specializing in authentic Bolognese recipes, including Bolognese ragù,
tagliatelle, tortelloni, and gnocchi. Market tours also
Koko Mosaico, Via di Roma 136. Tel: 0544-465190.
Mosaic laboratory in the heart of Ravenna. Half- and
full-day classes offer participants the opportunity to
produce a copy of an ancient mosaic or create an original design.
La Buca, Corso Garibaldi 45. Tel: 0547-1860764.
Stefano Bartolini’s Michelin-star restaurant in the
charming fishing village of Cesenatico features
locally sourced seafood from the Adriatic Sea pre-

sented in a modern setting designed by his son.
La Sabbiona, Via di Oriolo, 10. Tel: 0546-64214. Guesthouse, vineyard, and cooking school located in the rustic region of Faenza. The Altini family welcomes visitors
for agritoursim experiences and plenty of wine produced from their own vineyards.
Museo Enzo Ferrari Modena, Via Paolo Ferrari, 85.
Tel: 059-4397979. A spacious exhibition hall pays tribute to some of the most exquisite cars ever produced
and currently features a multimedia installation showcasing one of Italy’s most famous tenors, Luciano
Opera 02, Via Medusia 32. Tel: 059-741019. Hillside winery and resort overlooking the hills of Modena. The eight-room boutique property boasts vineyard views, pool, sauna, and a rustic country breakfast included in rate.

Aquaflor Firenze, Borgo Santa Croce, 6. Tel: 0552343471. Ornate perfume parlor near the Basilica
of Santa Croce. Choose from carefully crafted
scents or splurge for a custom-made creation (by
appointment only).
BEN HEART, Via il Prato, 25R. Tel: 055-2608625. Handmade leather goods from up-and-coming designer
Hicham Ben’Mbarek, who you’re likely to find in the tiny
shop just steps from the Arno River.

Photo: R. Cheek

Central Market, Piazza del Mercato Centrale 4. Tel:
055-2399798. Sprawling food market offering fresh
ingredients and prepared foods. Be sure to add da Nerbone’s boiled beef sandwich on the first floor to your
culinary bucket list and pick up souvenirs from Eataly
on the second level.
Il Salviatino, Via del Salviatino, 21. Tel: 0559041111. Five-star property overlooking Florence.
The palatial villa began as a modest 14th-century
farmhouse and has been expanded over the years,
culminating in its most recent $16 million restoration.