I usually define Emilia-Romagna, and especially my city, Modena, as the place of slow food and smart cars. Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari – as well as Ducati motorcycles – are all built here. Gastronomically it is one of the most influential places in the world. Here in Italy, the region is sometimes referred to as il granario, the granary, because it is the country’s food valley. The River Po connects it to the Adriatic, and merchants used to come here from Venice to trade their goods for dairy products and cured meats. It’s in this way that the region became so rich and full of flavours.
The best way to explore Emilia-Romagna, with all its little towns and single-lane back roads, is by car. People from Modena dream about driving Maseratis. I grew up trying to guess whether I was hearing an eight or 12 cylinder from the sound alone; the eight was high-pitched, like Charlie Parker’s saxophone, and the 12 was deeper, like Ben Webster’s. My father had a Maserati, and a couple of years ago I bought my first. But a Fiat 500 will do nicely too.
The most beautiful drive is the stretch of road through the Apennines connecting Bologna to Piacenza. You ascend 1,000m in just a few kilometres, with 180-degree curves, and the views are unbelievable. It’s wild and green like Tuscany, with lots of cypresses and full of food treats to try.
As you head south from Modena, the first stop you should make is at Spilamberto, home to the museum of balsamic vinegar – Museo del Balsamico – about 10km out of town. After the tour you should visit the shop and buy a bottle of mine; it’s called Villa Manodori. That’s not a joke. Everyone thinks I just do crazy things as a chef, but I am really into tradition and I care so much about my balsamic vinegar. It has a long finish with a lot of cherry, plums and toasted almonds; we won the gold medal for it in 2014.
Another 10km takes you to Castelvetro, where you will feel like time has stopped and you are back in the 13th century – it’s unbelievable how empty the streets are. If you walk up to the castle, Castello di Levizzano, you can see Modena in the distance. Then you can go to an enoteca in the piazza for a glass of Lambrusco Grasparossa of Castelvetro. It’s almost violet.
Another 15km further is Vignola, the capital of cherries, where you must stop at Pasticceria Gollini for a cappuccino and a slice of muratori, the famous almond cake, or Barozzi, the chocolate one. When I call the ladies in the shop to say I’m coming to visit, they go to the hairdresser to get their hair fixed; the people here are like this.
For lunch you should try Il Grano di Pepe in Ravarino. The restaurant is interesting because the chef, Rino Duca, is a Sicilian guy cooking fish Sicilian style, but in the middle of Emilia-Romagna. He gives value to sardines and pesce spatola (paddlefish). I let him do whatever he wants because I trust him, and so should you.
The Adriatic coast, specifically Rimini, is only one hour 20 minutes from Modena. (If you’re feeling adventurous, you should try this road on a Ducati.) In June, I organised an event in the Piazzale Fellini here. I’d had this idea to build a circus in the piazza, as in Fellini’s movie 8½. Every year we invite chefs and artisans to bring the essence of Emilia-Romagna. This time there were 80,000 visitors, and on the Sunday we had brunch at the Grand Hotel on the terrace, with music from the movie playing. Everybody needs to spend at least one night of their lives at this hotel, for the grandeur and the location right on the sea. They have amazing rooms in an opulent style, and friendly service.
But you could also spend a night at the Albergo Ristorante Ca’ Cerfogli, which is completely different. It is a hillside, family-run restaurant/hotel featuring simple rooms with traditional touches such as wrought-iron beds. The restaurant has heavy stone walls, wooden tables and a chimney. It’s been in the family for two generations, and the younger one is almost better than the previous because they are even more passionate. They have fantastic Emilian truffles, handmade pastas and a wonderful cellar with local and Italian wine. You might order the tortelloni filled with ricotta, with shaved truffles, porcini or morels depending on the season. And a bottle of Brunello.
To really understand how important the culture of food is for Emilians, you need to visit the Mercato Albinelli in Modena on a Saturday morning. There is every cut of Parmigiano and every type of ham and mozzarella. Two stalls bring fresh fish from the Adriatic, where they keep their own fishing boats. People eat salty cod frittelle – like fish and chips without the chips – while deciding what to buy.
For a late-morning snack, I’d suggest Da Panino, owned by Giuseppe Palmieri, my maître d’ at Osteria Francescana. You cannot leave without trying the prosciutto cotto with gorgonzola, dried almonds and mostarda – a sweet and spicy condiment made with candied fruit. He has given pride of place back to the sandwich, and it is an amazing thing to rebuild a simple food culture that’s disappearing.
For a traditional Modenese lunch, nothing beats Trattoria Bianca. Giuseppe, the owner, brings out prosciutto and Parmigiano with fresh vegetables, steak tartare and pumpkin tortelli, and for dessert I’ve had fried dough with a cherry compote. It’s not a light meal, but you can work it off walking around the city afterwards. The restaurant has tables in the garden, which reminds me of my mother’s: lots of colours, full of geraniums, very Emiliano.
Modena is not just a place to eat, but a place to drink, and the best wine bar in town is Archer, with a beautiful setting near the Piazza Grande and Ghirlandina bell tower, which you can listen to while you are drinking. Marina, the owner, was the one who taught the Modenese how to drink 20 or so years ago. She’ll open your mind beyond the sparkling wines and introduce you to producers like Valentini and Soldera – natural wines that no one was talking about back then.
And of course, there’s the coffee. The best stop in town is Mon Cafè. Alessandro, one of the owners, worked with me for more than six years and has now opened the trendiest coffee place in the city. He is a perfectionist; he has thought about every detail to create a modern, cosy, stylish place. You should order a macchiatone – a double-shot espresso with a little more foam than a macchiato – and then head to San Biagio, a more traditional bakery, to try some of their amaretti biscuits before going shopping.
For anything made of leather – very nice bags or wallets – there is Grassa, whose quality is excellent. Another very Modenese shop is Dallari, which sells all sorts of beautiful products, from handmade Neapolitan suits to Loro Piana sweaters. In Adani they sell Prada and Gucci. I’m Italian, so I have a lot of Gucci loafers. They are the perfect shape for my feet and go well with jeans or a beautiful suit – Lara, my wife, is crazy about Gucci. And people come from all over the world to go to Libreria Mezzacqui bookshop. It’s full of amazing books, some centuries old, and is run by two real characters. Inside, within the ordered chaos, I once found a first edition of Il Manifesto della Cucina Futurista, published in the 1930s; it cost one lira. It would be worth a lot now. I also bought a first edition of Artusi’s The Art of Eating Well, published in 1894.
If you’re staying the night in Modena, I recommend Vittorio Veneto 25, a beautifully restored early-20th-century villa with six suites. The building is in classic Modenese style: a balcony at the front, shutters on all the windows, façade painted orange. When three US ambassadors to countries in Europe were coming to the restaurant, I told them to stay there and they were delighted with it.
For a nightcap, an absolute must is Ristretto. Gian, one of the maître d’s, is passionate about wine and has a good selection of Lambrusco. After service ends at Osteria Francescana around midnight, we all go there together and he usually wants us to taste something, so we let him surprise us. Ask him to do the same for you and he happily will. Emilia-Romagna is like that: it is not as beautiful as Sardinia or Tuscany, and the people know that, so they create beauty with their warmth and their smiles. I think it’s the most undervalued place in the world.