Driving through the ancient town of Modena on a brisk, clear autumn day, I found myself scanning rooftops hoping to spot yet another one of Modena’s famous attics. I had been told that almost all of these dark, dusty spaces were crammed full of wooden barrels of varying sizes, all of which contained – but only after the appropriate aging period – Aceto Balsamico, aka Balsamic Vinegar. I had read many an article about the aging process of this illustrious “brew,” how each year the vinegar is transferred to a different wood barrel in order to obtain the flavor of all the different wood types resulting in a product of extraordinary complexity. Authentic, super-rich and syrupy balsamic depends on not only the quality of the grapes put into those barrels but also the length of the aging process, the timing of the transfer to the ever-smaller barrels and of course, the kind of wood being used which might be cherry, ash, chestnut, oak or mulberry. Ultimately, balsamic vinegar relies as much on the ingredients that go into it as the skill and care of the artisan making it.
The environment also plays an important role in the aging process. Modena’s hot, dry summers followed by humid and cold winters make for perfect conditions. I was fortunate to actually visit one of those attics with Neil Empson, esteemed exporter of fine Italian wine and a good friend of Convito. The attic we examined – perched over a little rustic cottage right next to the restaurant we dined in that evening – was owned by the chef, an artisan himself. It was just as I imagined; a small dark space tucked under the slopping beams of the roof above it, smelling of the sweet and sour perfume so typical of Aceto Balsamico . To be labeled Aceto Balsamico Traditionale the vinegar has to be aged a minimum of 12 years, though some of the most highly sought after bottles are aged 25 years and beyond. In the dark, tight recesses of the chef’s private attic we tasted several different ages of balsamic each drizzled over slivers of Parmigiano Reggiano. The saltiness of the cheese combined with the sweetness of the vinegar made for a sublime partnership and I was hooked.
Modena, the home to Balsamic Vinegar, is located in a flat section of Emilia-Romagna that is considered one of the richest agricultural areas in all of Italy. Fertile fields yield sugar beets, hemp, and juicy red tomatoes, shafts of wheat, rice and maize. I clearly remember being mesmerized by the miles of grapevines lacing the countryside and the sea of rosy cherry blossoms whose trees would soon yield Amarena cherries – the finest, most succulent and intensely flavorful cherries in the world. A few miles from Modena is Bologna. It is the capital of Emiglia-Romano, but is probably best know as the home to Bolognese; a succulent meat sauce that you can now find versions of all over the world. A myriad of stuffed pasta dishes like lasagna, tortellini, cappelletti and cannelloni were also all first created in Emilia-Romagna. And a great variety of sausages also come from all over this region; Mortadella, the smooth textured delicate pork sausage flavored with spices, whole or ground black peppers and myrtle berries is one of its most well-known. But perhaps most significantly, in just under an hour from Modena is the town of Parma, the home of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma both of which are staples in Italian cooking across all regions of Italy. There is clearly good reason that this region is considered the gastronomical and culinary heart of Italy. It has an embarrassment of riches born of the care and standards of the local artisans who continue to make this region so important to the country.
My partner, Wanda Bottino, loved and used Emilia-Romano products almost every time we cooked together. Parmigiano-Reggiano was a main ingredient (or at least a finishing garnish) in many of the dishes we cooked in her kitchen. And the uses for Balsamic Vinegar and Prosciutto di Parma were endless. Because of their popularity in the world today, all three have been copied – or at least there has been an attempt to copy them – though in Wanda’s opinion (and mine) mostly of those imitations are woefully inadequate replications.
True Parmigiano-Reggiano was her favorite. “Assaggia” (taste it) she would say. “Casual” tasting would not do for Wanda. She wanted me to savor each and every bite – to concentrate on the flavors in my mouth. Throughout each session we tasted at every step of the cooking process making sure the dish we were cooking had the correct seasoning and was of the right consistency. Since my time was limited (I had to get back to Convito in the U.S.) we often cooked up to fifteen different regional dishes in an afternoon. Needless to say, it was sometimes difficult working up an appetite for dinner after one of those marathon sessions.
In addition to learning about taste, I loved learning product history. Emilia-Romagna had an abundance of fascinating stories to match each of its renowned products. Many dated all the way back to the Middle Ages where food was often more than just sustenance. Balsamic vinegar for instance began as a “miracle cure” for sore throats and even labor pains! Stories about intrigue and jealously particularly piqued my curiosity. Certain monk orders fiercely protected their cheese recipes from neighboring monasteries. They went to great lengths to keep secret the meticulous production techniques their order had developed through the years. The history major in me delighted in that kind of research – going back to the very beginnings of why and how an excellent product came about even though in some cases, the earliest stories were nothing more than folklore. However, folklore can sometimes give us a hint as to the true origins of a product. Great food accompanied by great stories makes eating so much more interesting.
I followed Wanda’s tasting advice when I opened Convito. Two to three times a year we open bottles of all our best Balsamic Vinegars and Extra Virgin Olive Oils (as well as other products), giving our customers the opportunity to evaluate the many oils and vinegars holding their secrets within those beautiful jars sitting on our grocery shelves. It is not so easy for anyone to pay $45.00 or more for a bottle of aged Balsamic Vinegar until they taste it and understand firsthand the difference between our offerings and something from a supermarket that costs a quarter of the price. An example is Villa Manodori Artigianale Balsamic Vinegar made by Massumo Bottura, chef of a restaurant in Modena. It is produced in very limited quantities with Trebbiano grapes aged in oak, chestnut and juniper berries. Why should it cost so much more than the bottle also labeled Balsamic Vinegar for $6.99? “Assaggia” – Taste it! The vinegar itself tells its own story.
When I first started traveling to Italy, the only Balsamic Vinegar I encountered was the “real” kind – an aged, slightly viscous liquid with a complex taste profile that was usually added to dishes by the chef before it hit the table or splashed on very upscale salads. Gradually I began to see bottles of what was labeled “Balsamic” vinegar sitting in the middle of restaurant tables – usually paired with Olive Oil – as the suggested condiments for dressing your own salad. It was not the good kind but rather a mass-produced vinegar with no aging – just added coloring. I was surprised. Traditionally red wine vinegar was the preferred partner to olive oil pretty much everywhere I had travelled in Italy. I myself actually much prefer the tartness of red wine vinegar on my salad to the sweeter taste of balsamic, especially if it was not high quality. But as Paolo pointed out, the balsamic craze was new in Italy and was mostly found in “touristy” restaurants. He assured me it was in response to the demands of customers looking to be trendy, not real Italians who must have understood that this mass produced version was neither being used properly nor was the real thing.”
To this day I love to use fine, aged Balsamic Vinegar as a glaze for veal, rib eye or pork. Or sometimes I sprinkle a few drops over strawberries or as a finish to a stew. But I pretty much stick to red wine vinegar for dressing my salads. However, famous chefs like Mario Battali use it in his his fantastic Arugula and Parmigiano salad at Babbo in New York City. He actually names the specific producer in the descrption of the dish (Villa Manodori Artigianale Balsamic Vinegar made by Massumo Bottura). There is clearly room for personal interpretation when it comes to using this amazing vinegar!
Nodino Di Vitello Alla Salvia e Balsamico
3 – 4 tablespoons olive oil
4 veal loin chops cut about ¾ inch thick
1/3 cup all-purpose flour spread on a plate
8 fresh sage leaves chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¼ cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons butter
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Dry the chops and coat both sides of veal chops with flour. (Shake off excess flour) Place the chops and the sage in the hot oil and cook for approximately 4 to 5 minutes per side. Add the sage near the end of that browning time. (Do not cook too long or veal will become dry – should be a rosy pink and moist) When cooked, remove to a warm platter. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Add the wine to pan and raise the heat to high scraping up and brown bits and boiling until the sauce has thickened.
Turn the heat to low, add the balsamic and heat then whisk in the butter. Return the chops to the pan coating them with the sauce. Serve immediately.
I visited the Emilia-Romagna region frequently with Paolo in the early eighties because it was close to his home turf, Milan. Bologna, its capital, is home to one of the world’s great universities. While Paolo attended a conference or a business meeting, I often wandered the handsome portico lined streets of the city – some 40 kilometers of arches and columns, Paolo pointed out. It was delightful to stroll around the center of the city under them – protected from any kind of weather – rain, sleet, snow or even extreme heat. The buildings in restful colors of sienna, misty rose, faded reds and burnt orange emanated a calm, quiet intellect so representative of the city itself. Bologna also has a network of secret canals built originally as a source of water and as a major method of moving goods around the city. Though most of them have been covered over, some of these “hidden” canals remain. Unlike Venice, Bologna eventually decided that the fastest way to move people and goods around a city was with motorized vehicles. The city didn’t drain off or fill in its canals like many cities did but simply covered them to build roads and parking lots. So many still exist (mostly running below the streets). You just have to know where. Some can be seen from a bridge or an alley or a secret window. Paolo took great pride in “uncovering” this charming part of Bologna for me. Never could I have found it on my own.
Perusing its many historic food markets was also a favorite pastime – especially the Quadrilatero market located off the main square in the central district of the city. It is an area packed with vendors of every kind all crowded into narrow little streets just like it was in medieval times. Because I was a tourist and not looking to buy ingredients to take home to cook, my enjoyment of this incredible market consisted mainly of meandering down its cobblestoned streets gazing at the abundance of high quality food stalls all brought together in one spot. Smells of pastries, great cheeses and sausages wafted through the air, whetting my appetite and encouraging me to pause at one of its outside cafes to order a Salami Panini and a glass of Lambrusco (Emila- Romagna’s famous floral fruity red wine). It was also a chance to sit and admire the interesting mix of people dressed in everything from jeans to formal suits all in pursuit of great food. My kind of people!
It was impossible not to be tempted by the cured meats in this region. One lunch in particular in the heart of Bologna, a huge mortadella was displayed on a grand wooden table in the center of the restaurant dominating the room and filling it with its unique spicy fragrance. How could I not order a few slices to begin the meal? Delicious – smooth and savory, we could not resist ordering seconds. “Can you believe”, Paolo mused, “ that this sausage is the forerunner to your baloney?” Italian Mortadella is, of course, a more delicate, better-seasoned cured meat than our American boloney. No question. But I have to admit, having grown up in the American Midwest and still harboring a fondness for simple foods, I am a baloney-kind-of-gal. A couple slices slapped between two pieces of good bread with a smear of mustard and a leaf or two of lettuce may not be a gourmet lunch but regardless, it is still very satisfying none-the-less. And being from Wisconsin where we take our deli meats seriously, a good ring bologna with the right amount of seasonings and spices and high quality pork and beef makes for a delicious Sunday supper alongside fried potatoes and maybe a little sauerkraut. (It’s true – Italy hasn’t taken all of the German out of me! My Alsatian roots often rear their savory-sour head).
The city of Bologna is often referred to as “la grassa” –literally meaning “the fat”. Ever since the Middle Ages Bologna was known for its rich food culture. “The fat” doesn’t so much refer to the fat content of the food but to its abundance, its variety and its high quality. The cuisine, though rich and succulent, is refined. Bolognese sauce is a perfect example. The authentic version is delicate, creamy and subtle – in other words, a refined meat sauce. However, Bolognese in America has become a generic name for “meat sauce”. One critic a few years back commented that they preferred a spicy Bolognese sauce to the one we serve at Convito. Really a complete oxymoron. Spicy meat sauces are great (we actually sell one in our market called San Marzano Napoletana Meat Sauce) but in no way should the adjective spicy describe authentic Bolognese sauce. Our Bolognese sauce recipe begins with the classic Italian soffritto, a mixture of chopped onions, carrots, celery and garlic (the foundation to many Italian sauces) sautéed in olive oil. The meat is added, then the spices and then the milk, Not all recipes call for milk but Wanda insisted that the milk coats and protects the meat from the acid brought in from the wine which is added next. Although tomatoes are an ingredient, Bolognese sauce is basically a MEAT sauce – a slow cooked, delicate and delicious meat sauce building on the basic soffritto – the classic Italian start of many a sauce bringing succulence and flavor just like the French mirepoix.
Convito’s Pappardelle with Bolognese Sauce is one of our most popular café items – one of those dishes we would not dare take off the menu.
Six servings for approximately 1 ½ pounds pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2/3 cup chopped carrot
2/3 cup chopped celery
½ pound ground chuck
½ pound ground pork
salt & freshly ground pepper
1 bay leaf crushed
1-teaspoon rosemary crushed
pinch of ground nutmeg
1-cup whole milk
1 cup dry red wine
1-½ cups diced Italian tomatoes with their juice
1-tablespoon tomato paste
1 ¼ pounds pasta
freshly grated parmesan cheese
In a large skillet heat the olive oil with the butter until butter is melted. Add the onion and sauté until transparent. Add the garlic, carrots and celery and cook for about 3 minutes. Add the ground beef and pork with some salt and freshly ground pepper and cook until the meat has lost its raw red color. Add the bay leaf, the rosemary and a pinch of nutmeg. Stir into sauce.
Add the milk and let it simmer gently until evaporated. Add the wine and simmer until it has evaporated. Then add the tomatoes and simmer very gently for approximately 1 ½ hours stirring to make sure the sauce is not sticking and flavors meld.
Toss with cooked, drained pasta and serve with grated parmesan
In the summer of 1985 when I was in Milan to work with Wanda on Emilia-Romagna recipes, Paolo and I made yet another trip to this region. On our way back from Bologna we stopped for dinner at a small informal restaurant in Parma called Degusteria Romani. The décor was simple yet tasteful. Paolo chose this restaurant because he was told “you can’t go to Parma without eating there”. The restaurant is known for its authentic Emilia-Romagna cuisine. Our waiter insisted that we begin our meal with some paper-thin slices of Prosciutto di Parma reminding us that this particular prosciutto is produced in the hills around Parma. Here again, curing a leg of pork correctly is a painstaking process requiring the instincts of a great artisan. – instincts like so many of the artisans in this region. With this carefully controlled process, the ham absorbs only enough of the pure sea salt to preserve it. Just like balsamic vinegar, the product is reduced in size (with prosciutto – to a quarter of its weight). The reduction comes about through moisture loss and trimming. That process helps to concentrate the flavor and gives it that distinctive full-bodied taste and aroma.
So buttery the slices were, they dissolved in my mouth leaving a fragrant and salty aftertaste. Paper-thin slices of prosciutto are often difficult to achieve. I should know – I had to be trained on the meat slicer when I first opened Convito. Too thin – the slices fall apart; too thick – even the best prosciutto will be chewy. A well presented slice will always be served with a ring of fat around it. This lends flavor and helps keeps the slices fresh. The perfect slice should be just thin enough that the prosciutto melts in your mouth. Sadly, I was never an expert slicer (I always erred on cutting it too thin and then ended up snacking on the detritus of my efforts) but fortunately for me, many of our Convito salespeople are.
Italy offers another excellent prosciutto – Prosciutto di San Daniele (blog – Friuli-Venezia-Giulia “A Second Look”). For me, most domestic prosciuttos have proved disappointing, but one produced in Iowa – La Quercia is a fine substitute for the imported ones. I suspect it has something to do with the whole curing process as well as the origin of the pork. The La Quercia prosciutto artisans understand that there is no short cut to excellence and they have single-handedly brought excellent prosciutto production to the U.S.
We continued our meal with another well-know product from the Parma area – Parmigiano–Reggiano. Like Aceto Balsamico Originale and Prosciutto di Parma it is made with the same care and exacting standards. We started with a bowl of tortellini in brodo (little stuffed pasta pouches shaped like a person’s navel) and, of course, plenty of Parmigiano-Reggiano grated on top. Then came a simple pan-crisped chicken with rosemary served with baked asparagus. The baked asparagus had also been prepared with plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. It was the essence of simplicity: only 5 ingredients; in-season asparagus, local Parmigiano, butter, salt and pepper. A wonderful side dish or good enough as the whole meal.
Asparagi alla Parmigiana
2 pounds asparagus
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiana-Reggianno
4 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Trim, peel and boil asparagus until al dente
Butter a rectangular baking dish. Arranged the cooked asparagus in the dish next to one another in slightly overlapping rows. Do not cover the tips. Sprinkle each row with salt and pepper and Parmigiano-Reggiano and dot with butter.
Bake in upper part of the oven for 15 minutes until a golden crust forms. Serve immediately.
The first recorded reference to Parmigiano-Reggiano dates back to 1344 discovered in the purchasing ledger of a priory’s refectory. It comes as no surprise to many that this cheese comes from this region where the monks had been experimenting with cheese making for centuries. Reference to it can also be found in Bocaccio’s 1353 masterpiece, the Decameron.
Real Parmigiano-Reggiano, referred to as “The King of Cheeses” is highly regulated. It can be made only in specific regions from mid-April to mid-November. That specific timing ensures that the milk comes from cows pastured on fresh local grass. Finally the large cheese wheels laid out in long rows in temperature-controlled maturation rooms are aged to perfection producing a marvelous cheese that is hard and sharp with a rich deep flavor. When grated over any pasta dish – really any dish – it transforms the dish into something extraordinary.
Most of our domestic cheeses generically called Parmesan are pale in color and nowhere near the flavor of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Is domestic Parmesan bad? No, not necessarily (though what I have occasionally found in many restaurants in this country bears more resemblance to sawdust that cheese). Because of the cost of the real thing, many dishes contain the domestic variety – pizzas, lasagnas, Caesar Salad and many more. If the real thing was used as a main ingredient the costs of those dishes would escalate dramatically.
But when you are looking to make a simple dish superb, buy the real thing. It can easily be stored in your refrigerator wrapped in a freezer ziploc bag for at least 6 months. Or you can also freeze it for even longer. Buy a big hunk, split it between fridge and freezer, and bring it out both for your most important occasions and to transform simple weekday meals into something special.
Complexities abound in two-worded, hyphenated Emilia-Romagna. Both Emilia and Romagna contain numerous important cities each with their own personality, each with their own influence on the region. Although I made several visits to Bologna, many of the other towns and villages I visited only one or maybe two times. Since my focus was on regional cuisine I always tried to order the dish or dishes the city was most identified by.
In Ferrara I ordered the classic signature dish of the city – pumpkin cappellacci with a sage brown butter sauce (cappellacci are stuffed pasta squares or rounds). It was a perfect pairing – the sweetness of the pumpkin and the savory of the browned butter and sage still linger on my palate. Another vivid memory of Ferrara is the Palazzo Dei Diamanti, a Renaissance-style building whose striking exterior walls are comprised of some 8,500 white marble blocks carved to represent diamonds. There are so many beautiful buildings in Italy but this building, for some reason, remains in my memory.
One of my last trip to ER with Paolo happened in the autumn of 1985. We traveled there on a weekend to visit cities closer to the Adriatic in the Romagna part of the region. A taste of the sea prevails in this area especially in the towns right on the Adriatic like Rimini. Rimini is Italy’s premier party spot attracting holidaymakers since the 1800’s. Since we came in the fall, we didn’t see the ubiquitous array of brightly colored umbrellas that usually lace the 9 miles of prime sandy beaches. But we did see the blue sea and tasted it in many meals over the weekend. A delicious fish soup called Brodetto was one that has always lingered in my memory. We have made fish soup at Convito (Liguria I “Poets & Pesto) that is more of a peasant dish, but this one was especially aromatic and fragrant using the fresh herbs famous in this area along with clams, shrimp and sea bass from the Adriatic. All along the coast of Romagna many types of fish are found on the menu (amberjack, mackerel, bonito, tuna, porgy) as well as seafood and eels from the lagoons in the Comacchio valleys, a series of contiguous brackish lagoons situated close to the sea.
The next day we travelled a short distance from Rimini to Ravenna where we marveled at the spectacular Byzantine mosaics in this Unesco World Heritage site. I was floored. Paolo told me story after story of Ravenna’s complex history, but I quickly realized one day would was not enough to take in the architecture, the mosaics and the culture of this amazing city. I would eventually return a few years later to further marvel at the city’s history, but spent hours studying it before I came back. This trip was one of the few times in my travels with Paolo where food and wine took a back seat to culture. We were so busy feasting our eyes on the many treasures of Ravenna that we only had time for a late lunch at a cozy wine bar. My memories of Ravenna are dominated by those early Christian mosaics and monuments, but I do remember being rejuvenated by an impressive fish antipasti spread featuring many gifts from the Adriatic and a fine glass of the dry version of the region’s Malvasia white wine – aromatic and perfect with our fish antipasti.
We had dinner in Imola just outside of Bologna on our way back to Milan. Although pasta is the favored starch of Emilia-Romagna, risotto is also a part of the region’s cuisine especially in the areas close to the Adriatic. I loved this particular risotto which to me defined the very taste of the autumn season. I have tried to duplicate the recipe – successfully, I think! It is hearty enough to serve as a whole meal by itself.
Risotto all’ Imolese
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped carrots
3 tablespoons finely chopped celery
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
4 ounces lean ground beef
3 cups finely chopped cabbage
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup water
5 cups beef broth
1 ½ cups Arborio rice or carnaroli rice
½ cup grated parmesan
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat. Add the carrot, celery and onion; cook until soft. Add the ground beef and cook until no longer pink. Add the cabbage and the tomato paste dissolved in warm water. Cook gently until the mixture thickens and the water has evaporated, about 20 minutes. (This can be completed earlier.)
Bring the broth to a steady simmer in a large saucepan. Add the rice to the vegetable mixture and stir until it is thoroughly incorporated. Cook for 2 minutes. Add ½ cup of the simmering broth to the mixture. After the rice has absorbed the broth, continuing adding the broth, ½ cup at a time. Continue stirring over medium heat, making certain the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan and being careful not to add too much broth at one time. The rice is finished when it is firm but tender. The process will take approximately 20 to 25 minutes. If you run out of broth, add water.
When you estimate the dish is a few minutes away from being done. Add the parmesan cheese and mix well. Taste for salt. Serve immediately.
I am amazed at how many of the products of Emilia-Romagna are still an integral part of my cooking and eating repertoire. Grating Parmigiano-Regianno over my pasta occurs several times a week whether in my home or at Convito. Bolognese is my favorite meat sauce, which I happily devour a few times a month. Prosciutto is a product that always piques my interest whenever I see it on a menu, especially when paired with melon or figs. And although I may not have mortadella often, it is up there with my list of favorite sandwiches. My kitchen cupboard always houses aged Balsamic Vinegar, which I happily use as a condiment when I am cooking a chop or a steak. Even Amarena cherries preserved in syrup can occasionally be found in my household especially at the holidays when they serve as an excellent topping for ice cream or holiday panettone. But as much as I love all the specific products that I discovered in Emilia-Romagna, I think I may have been affected even more by the region’s ethics of production. The local artisans who create these essential Italian ingredients (both in this region as well as the rest of the country) consistently do so under self-imposed standards of care and excellence that I have rarely seen anywhere else. I have tried to bring that philosophy to my own life and to how we make food at Convito. I know that when we are at our best, it is because of this mindset.
Such a rich region with so many excellent products – all with great stories of their origins and history. A bonus to eating all of these delicious products is that I actually know their stories. What could be better? As author, journalist and activist Michael Pollan said in one of his many brilliant “right-on” quotes about food: “At home I serve the kind of food I know the story behind.” It makes dining so much more interesting!