Destination Guide

Stephen Bailey
The world's best foodie destination
The world's best foodie destination
Stephen Bailey

The best foodie destination I have ever visited is Emilia Romagna.

It’s a region in the north of Italy, and for most people outside Italy, it is the heart of Italian gastronomy.

Of course, if you ask an Italian where to find the best food in Italy, they’re most likely to say their mom’s house, or the region that they come from.

But Italy’s great food region is Emilia Romagna.

Not for its pizza — pizza is from somewhere else — but for the time-honoured gastronomic traditions, and the quality of the culinary expertise and what you eat.

It’s unrivalled.

I was so excited to go to Emilia Romagna. I’m a big foodie, and I choose destinations that offer good food experiences.

Emilia Romagna completely overdid what I expected. I was blown away.

The region’s raw produce

First, let’s start with the famous raw produce — Parma ham. It’s only Parma ham if it’s made in the city of Parma.

What I was in surprise for was how glorious a place Parma is. It’s an old city full of riveting, grand Romanesque architecture, centuries of art in its galleries, and beautiful palaces.

And then, the Parma ham. Also the Parmesan cheese — a hard cheese called parmigiano in Italian.

It’s great going into the factory and tasting how this cheese evolves over time. Tasting not just parmigiano, but parmigiano aged at different months.

Nearby is the city of Modena, which is the home of balsamico.

I learned that this is not balsamic vinegar. The original product is balsamico, which is very sweet — and very expensive.

It’s usually aged for 12 to 25 years, but there are balsamicos that have been aged for more than 50 years.

Here, the classic experience is to have it on your ice cream, or to have it on a salad. But you just need a tiny drop of it. It’s really sweet, really moreish — so much flavour packed into a single drop.

Now, balsamic vinegar — which is the product I was used to, and I imagine you’re used to — is a mix of balsamico with vinegar. So it’s a tiny bit of an incredible balsamico mixed with vinegar, which is a very cheap product.

This is what we get around the world. The quality of the balsamic vinegar we get is based on how much balsamico is actually in the product.

Again, in Modena I was blown away by how pretty the city was, how untouched the history seemed to be.

There were great cobbled walkways and medieval structures that completely took me by surprise.

Because I thought I was going there for the food, for balsamico tasting — and I was suddenly in a glorious 14th century city.

Everybody was eating great food on the terraces, and there was much more to experience in that city than just the food.

I visited Parma and Modena on a day trip from Bologna, which is the capital of the region.

But I would recommend that you stay the night.

Because when I was there, I realized I would have preferred to slow it down and spend at least 24 hours in each city, rather than just visiting both on a day trip.

They seemed relaxing places — worth being in not just for the black gold, as the balsamic is known.

I wanted to stay in Bologna because of its food reputation.

And I pre-planned every single meal I was to have there. I felt I that having only four days there, I could not waste a single meal by having average food.

But fortunately, that would not be possible.

Because pretty much every restaurant, every cafe, everything in Bologna that has to do with food, is exquisite.

The original Bolognese

One of my favorite meals was at a very local restaurant, where there are no reservations, and you have to queue.

It’s communal seating — 20 people around a single table, and they just give you a place, so you sit next to strangers.

The menu is incredibly basic.

They served Bologna’s famous classic pasta, tagliatelle al ragu. And if you think about it, Bologna is the word that originated the word bolognese.

Al ragu is the sauce — a mincemeat, tomato-based sauce which is now famous around the world as bolognese.

But in Bologna, it’s never spaghetti. Instead, it’s tagliatelle al ragu — and tagliatelle is a broad flat pasta rather than a circular thin pasta.

In this eating house, tagliatelle al ragu was around six euros. There was a great atmosphere going on, and they served the tagliatelle with a bottle of wine — that cost also six euros.

This was a working-class eating house, based on the quality of this one dish.

On another day, I visited a classic trattoria.

And I have to say that if you want to eat at one of Bologna’s restaurants, you have to make reservations — there may be hundreds or thousands of restaurants in the city, but the people love the food and eat out all the time.

So you need to know someone who can get you those reservations in the local, more off-the-beaten-track places.

I was grateful that the owner of the place I was staying in recommended me some places.

He actually changed my eating list. I’d found some places online, but he suggested I try other ones instead, which were better and had the same price.

Trattorias in Bologna

In the trattoria, the classic meal is as follows.

First, you have your pasta. It could be the tagliatelle al ragu or a different type of pasta dish.

The second course is a charcuterie course — Parma hams, balsamico, cheese.

So you eat your hot dish first — things are designed so you get full first, then sit around the table picking at great produce for an hour, two hours, drinking wine, drinking more wine…

You finish it off with desserts.

Classic desserts will be something like rice cake with almonds and amaretto cookies, strawberries and ice cream with balsamic and mascarpone, or just a thick chocolate cake with almonds and coffee.

The meal rounded off, there’s an aperitif on the house — a shot of liquour and an espresso.

None of it is outlandish. It’s not overly creative cuisine. It’s not going to get Michelin stars.

But the quality was mind-blowing. It seems to be quite simple, but it was just out of this world.

Since being there, I have struggled to eat pasta. I’ve definitely not ordered pasta in a restaurant again, because I think, how can something compare with that?

The other great highlight was that I went to Bologna for the food — and again, I found an incredibly diverse medieval city.

A Romanesque tower, then next to it a Gothic one which was a bit higher, then across the square an even bigger one. I found archways and cobbled walkways — a living, breathing slice of history.

I found that it’s the food, the gastronomy, which ties both the city and the region together.

I was there for four days. If you like food, I would recommend you go for four years.

And even if you’re only a little bit into food, I’d still suggest you get it on your itinerary in Italy.

Emilia Romagna is a region with history, culture, art, lots of things that can really excite — but it’s nowhere near as popular as Tuscany, Rome, or Venice.

It’s not off the beaten track, but it certainly wasn’t as crowded as the more famous destinations in Italy.

And of course, there is the food.

By Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.

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