The food emporium called Tamburini, in Bologna, is a feast for the eyes, as well as for the stomach. Locals call it an antica salsamenteria; for food travelers, it’s a door into our gastrocultural past.
Friends who know Italy well have long told me that the best food in the nation is in Emilia-Romagna, the narrow region that lies atop Tuscany, running west to east. You may know the big towns here: Bologna, Parma, Reggio Emilia, and Modena.
Having just spent two weeks in Emilia-Romagna and having eaten at such places as All'Osteria Bottega, in Bologna, Parizzi Ristorante in Parma, and Trattoria Della Ghiara in Reggio Emilia, I must agree with my know-it-all friends; this likely IS the best food in Italy.
The one dish that seems to separate the GREAT cooks in this region from the just-good cooks, is a regional specialty – small pasta shapes stuffed with a mixture of meats, served floating in brodo, or broth.
In Bologna, at All’Osteria Bottega, I had the single best bowl of broth that I have ever tasted, a perfectly made, rich brodo, which had nearly as much complexity as many Napa Valley Cabernets. Certainly as much texture and finish. The broth that chef Daniele Minarelli makes here relies on capons for flavor. His broth was served with homemade tortellini, tiny, navel-shaped pasta pockets filled with a tasty forcemeat of (equal parts) ground chicken, veal, pork, mortadella, and prosciutto.
In Parma, about 60 miles west of Bologna, at Parizzi Ristorante, I succumbed to a sensational order of anolini (a variation on tortelli, tiny pillows each about the size of an oyster cracker; they melt in your mouth) floating in a rich beef broth. How’s this for meticulous care: the anolini are made to order each time someone chooses the first-course soup!
For the record: other highlights of lunch at Parizzi included a tasting of three different prosciuttos di Parma aged 24-, 30- and 36-months, respectively as well as a tasting of three different Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses, aged 20-, 30- and 44-months.
In Reggio Emilia, I had the pleasure of dining at Trattoria Della Ghiara, where owners Antonio Giordano and his wife, Marilena Braglia, lighten regional fare, but never neuter it. Marilena’s cappelletti in brodo presents brilliantly; she makes a forcemeat of ground beef, pork, veal, prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano and mortadella and stuffs the mixture into tiny pillows of tender pasta. Her broth is made with beef and capon stock.
In short, if you want perfection at the dinner table, head to Bolgona, or Parma, or Reggio Emilia, to any of these restaurants. They deserve serious attention, not to mention a mountain of Michelin stars. There are many other fine restaurants throughout the region, too, most of them serving variations on these regional dishes.
The one disclaimer that I need to make is what this region lacks in term of cuisine. We always think of Italy as a land of sunshine and tomatoes. Well, Emilia-Romagna has lots of the former, sunshine, but the land is farmed to feed pigs for all that delicious prosciutto and for grasses and hay to feed cows -- to furnish 4,300 area farmers who supply milk to make Parmigiano-Reggiano. So there isn't much land left to farm tomatoes.
In addition to tomatoes, which are missing from the Emilia-Reggiano diet, so are other vegetables. Spending two weeks in E-R is a bit like spending time in Argentina; there, every meal, including breakfast, includes some form of beef. In E-R, every meal offers a selection of ham, prosciutto, or mortadella. Get used to it.
Okay, enough of the overview; let’s get back to Bologna.
The chef at All’Osteria Bottega is Daniele Minarelli, who has been in business four years, but who has been in the restaurant trade for a total of 23. Recently, Daniele was asked to join the Slow Food movement, honoring his attention for using local, seasonal ingredients, as well as for his ambitious use of organic (biologique) ingredients.
What does a full dinner with wine cost at this Best of Italy restaurant with 24 seats and where the lighting fixtures – bare bulbs – go out time and again during the course of an evening? Answer: 88 Euros ($125), including wine, service and as many digestifs after dinner as you can wash down.
But it is the brodo on which I am still stuck, two weeks after having it. Quite simply, this was the single best broth I have had in 30 years of professional tasting. I have no idea how many capons sacrificed their life for this soup, but they died a noble cause because this broth, were there an Olympic event for broth-making, would take the Gold, Silver and Bronze Medals – all of them – hands down. Think of Chef Minarelli as the Michael Phelps of soup-making and you’ll understand this guy’s drive for perfection and culinary achievement.
At All’Osteria Bottega, Daniele’s at the stove; he’s at the phone; he slices the mortadella (which is excellent by the way), he takes your order, he runs the dishes to your table; he suggests what wine to have with your dinner as he IS the wine list (there is no printed selection).
Daniele is aided by two women on my first visit, and by only one serveuse on a second visit, but Daniele still does most of everything anyway. If you crossbred one of Louis de Funes’ food characters (one of my favorite French film comics) with Manuel, the waiter in Faulty Towers, and added the spice of a knowledgeable Italian cook such as Marcella Hazan, you’d have a good idea of Daniele’s strengths and focus.
Like the Soup Nazi, Daniele has rules. In the kitchen, it’s his way or the highway. He ONLY uses 3-year-old Parmigiano cheese because (translated from his Italian) “it must grate in a very particular way.” He says that if the cheese is younger, it is too moist, and if older than three years, it tends to crumble when grated.
At All’Osteria Bottega, Daniele tells you that you MUST start dinner with a selection of his delicate salumeria items, which Daniele will choose for you, of course. (As they say in the movies, Resistance is Futile!) Daniele’s mortadella is as light and ethereal as the best prosciutto di Parma that I’ve ever had.
In one of the few instances in which I saw tomatoes in a restaurant in E-R, Daniele served a small, complementary bowl of papa al pomodoro (fresh tomato soup, made with organic tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, basil and then intensified with an oil-garlic emulsion). It tasted as though the chef had condensed the pulp of a bushel of ripe tomatoes into a single cup of chilled soup. I am not sure that I have ever eaten anything with a more intense tomato flavor; even if I squeezed tomato paste concentrate from a commercial tube onto my tongue, I do not expect that I would experience such an intensity of tomato-ness.
In Parma, the eating highlight was lunch at Parizzi Ristorante, which looks and feels like a Michelin 1-star restaurant. If you are lucky enough in a lifetime to be served ONCE by someone as pleasant and knowledgeable as Mimo (short for Cosimo), at this restaurant, you have had a blessed life, indeed. This is a THRILLING dining room. Nothing is left to chance; every aspect of your meal is looked after by chef Marco Parizzi.
Culinary highlights at Parizzi included two tastings conducted at table; the chef chose three Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses, each of a different age. It was instructional -- I immediately understood how age transforms the acidity, salinity and texture of this stunning regional cheese. I also now understand why Parmigiano is considered by many to be the King of Cheeses.
The menu also offered a tasting of three different prosciuttos di Parma, each a different age, and again I understood how age affects the taste and texture of this slightly sweet, slightly nutty, totally delicious, cured ham.
Everything on the menu at Della Ghiara, in Reggio Emilia, is delicious, but a favorite dish was the roasted black-eyed rabbit, served with a regional version of ratatouille.
One other regional restaurant on my Best Of list, which must not be overlooked, is Ristorante Cocchi (pronounced Coke-ee), in Parma. Located on the ground floor of the family’s hotel (Hotel Daniel), the restaurant is run by Corrado (front of the house and the one who chooses the fabulous wine list), by his wife Laura (who makes all the pasta from scratch) and their amiable son Daniel, all of whom share the common last name Cocchi.
Corrado’s father opened a restaurant at this location and he took over; and now, in Italian tradition, the son of the son (Daniel) will take over. Everything here is homemade, everything here is delicious. The pasta melts in your mouth, the meat sauces are meaty without being heavy, the wine list and the wine cellar (which Corrado opened for me) are gems for serious wine lovers.
A private tour of the wine cellar at Cocchi reveals all sorts of secrets – where they age their prosciutto and culatello, where they keep their breakfast cereals, and, as you might suspect, where they keep the REAL killer reds.
If you are heading to Emilia-Romagna in the near future, be sure to print out and take this short list of Must-Not-Miss Restaurants.
All’Osteria Bottega, Via S. Caterina, 51, Bologna, Italy
Parizzi Ristorante, Strada Repubblica 71, Parma, Italy.
Trattoria Della Ghiara, Vicolo Folletto 1C, Reggio Emilia, Italy.
Ristorante Cocchi, Via Gramsci 16A, Parma, Italy.
This purple bike has absolutely NOTHING to do with this food story but I so loved the bike, and the color of the wall behind it, that I chose to include it in this story. Taken in Parma, Italy.