Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Italian New Year Part II - Emiglia Romagna

Since Sara and I had both spent a bit of time in Italy hitting up the major cities and sites, we decided to spend a few days exploring the less visited parts of Italy.  I had always wanted to visit Emiglia-Romagna - the heartland of Italy.  Fed by the Po River, the fertile valley is home to some of the greatest delicacies in Italian cuisine.  At the center of the region is Bologna - home to the world's first university.  Our first night in town, we explored the main shopping and touristy area in town and ate in what was merely a mediocre pizzeria.
Bologna built a tower and it started to lean.  Rather than market it for tourists, they built a taller one next door.
The next day, we headed to Parma.  Original and true home of Parmesan cheese and prosciutto crudo.  We walked around town and saw a few sites - a church here, a piazza there.  Again, our goal was food oriented.  After some last minute googling, we made out way to La Prosciutteria.  A mecca to Italian cuisine with hams hanging from the ceiling, soft cheeses behind the counter, parmigiano sold by the kilo, salami, fresh crusty bread.  The place was amazing.  After looking bewildered for a few minutes, I talked to the clerk and told him we wanted to take some stuff for lunch.  He sliced us some delicious prosciutto, hacked off some parmigiano, sold us some bread and sent us on our way.  We added a few fresh tomatoes from the produce stand down the street and ate our delicious lunch in the main piazza.

La Prosciutteria

After lunch, we left Parma and headed to Modena for another Italian specialty.  We had arranged for a tasting at a century old acetaia, making traditional balsamic vinegar.  To make the vinegar, they start with local grapes (both red and white), cook the juice to make "grape must", which they put in a large barrel for 2 years.  After the first two years of aging, it is transferred into a serious of barrels and aged for at least twelve years.  The barrels, some centuries old, are made of different woods which affects the final flavor.  Each barrel has a hole on the top which allows for evaporation.  As the vinegar ages and evaporates, more vinegar is added from the next biggest barrel.  At the end of the twelve years (twenty-five years for "extra vecchio" balsamic), the vinegar is tested by the local consortium and bottled in specific bottles.  The acetaia we visited bottled only 2,000 bottles each year.  They only sell online and at their production facility (which is the home of the owners).  Only vinegar that has undergone this process can be called Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DPO.  There may be variations of that name, but that is how you know you are getting the real good stuff.  And it was pretty damn good.
Sara and I with some of the barrels - not the clothes covering the holes on the barrels

An oak barrel - labeled and numbered to mark the provenance of the vinegar

The final product.  We bought two.

Beautiful sky behind the Modena tower (which also leaned)
To end our day, we had dinner at a place recommended by our AirBnB landlord.  Upon arrival at Drogheria Della Rosa, we were given a table in a narrow hallway just barely wide enough for three people to stand abreast.  Somehow, they fit two tiny two-tops on each side of the hallway.  Precise and speedy wait staff zoomed through the tiny spaces, despite a young couple with their forty pound dog being sat next to us.  Without ever seeing a menu, we were brought prosecco and a cheese and salad starter.  The waitress came by and told us the menu options.  We both ordered a pasta primi.  Sara ordered a vegetarian secondo, while I got a veal dish.  Although we initially asked for a wine list, the owner (who kept tormenting the dog by making bird whistle sounds) listened to what we ordered for dinner and then ordered the waitress to bring us a bottle of Sangiovese wine that was the best we had on our trip.  The food was to die for, perfectly cooked, tasty, rich and light at the same time.  As we split dessert, a bit tipsy from the strong wine, we debated how expensive this four-course dinner was going to be.  Our estimates ranged from 85 Euro to 190 Euro.  We were both flabbergasted when the total came to only 80 Euro - less than our most ambitious guess.  Since we both loved the wine and knew it might be hard to find again, I asked the waitress if we could purchase a bottle to take with us.  She returned a few minutes later with a new bottle - compliments of the owner.  If you ever go to Bologna, be sure to go to Drogheria Della Rosa.

Our last day in Emiglia-Romagna, we got a late start to the morning and headed to Ravenna.  For a short period of time between 400 and 750, Ravenna was one of the most important cities in the world.  It served as the Western capital of the Byzantine/Roman empire.  One of the primary legacies of this history is the amazing mosaics in several churches.  Unlike in Istanbul, these religious mosaics were wonderfully preserved over the centuries as Ravenna remained Christian throughout the duration of its history.  
Basilica of San Vitale features mosaics from the 6th century.
The intricate and complex designs and beautiful colors are amazing to behold.

Basilica of San Vitale

Even the floor was a gorgeous mosaic.

Behind the Basilica is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which houses 5th Century mosaics.  I can't get over how advanced these mosaics are, especially compared with early Renaissance painting in the 14th century, which is clearly a backwards step from these mosaics.

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