23 April 2014

Emilia Romagna: Not the ‘Foodie Mecca’ we expected

After three beautiful days in Venice, we departed by train; destination Bologna in the heart of Emilia Romagna. Located in the Po Valley, the terrain is broad, expansive and flat. Emilia Romagna is touted as the new or emerging foodie destination of Italy, and for good reason. It had a very agricultural feel that made me think of the Central Valley of California. It’s the home of Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, Prosciutto, and Lambrusco wine. But as we discovered, as much as it’s a center for food production in Italy, it has a long way to go to match the scenic beauty of Tuscany or other regions of Italy that attract tourists.IMG_0114

The train station in Bologna is located just at the edge of the center city. It was an easy walk, about 6 blocks, to our hotel, The Metropolitan. The hotel, in turn, was only about four blocks from the Piazza Maggiore and Due Torri (Two Towers, Bologna’s answer to Pisa’s Leaning Tower). So the location was ideal for exploring the city and for our day trips by train to Ferrara and Modena.

Quite in contrast to our hotel in Venice, The Metropolitan was sleek and modern. Some reviewers call it a boutique hotel. To me, it was more like a very comfortable business hotel. If I had ever been lucky enough to have a business trip to Bologna, I would have stayed in a hotel like the Metropolitan. Our package included breakfast. While the food itself was fairly standard (cheese, ham, bread, pastries, cereal, yogurt, fruit) the presentation was beautiful and very artistic. Appropriate I guess for a food Mecca.

After getting settled into the hotel, my wife and I took a walk around the city to get our bearing and scope out a restaurant for dinner. Our first impression was not favorable. Bologna is a noisy, bustling, gritty city. One of the things that struck me, unfavorably, was the graffiti. It’s everywhere. I mean literally, you can’t go anywhere without seeing walls tagged with stylized graffiti. It was a little disconcerting. We were expecting more of a historically preserved city center, like we did see on our day trips.

And unlike Venice, Bologna and the other towns we visited in Emilia Romagna observed the traditional mid-day break. So in our walk around town, we saw lots of graffiti and lots of shuttered shops. We were quite chagrined. However, as the afternoon wore on, the city gradually took on a different tone. As the midday break ended, the city took on a much more cosmopolitan aura. We also came up with a list of several restaurants that looked promising for dinners during our stay.

Now, as I noted above, Bologna was our base for exploring Emilia Romagna. We planned two day trips. Originally, we reserved a rental car. But we discovered that the towns we wanted to visit were easily accessible by train from Bologna. So we cancelled the car and took the train. To me, that was a great decision. Traveling by train in Italy was easy and mostly relaxing. (I always had a little apprehension about making sure I was on the correct train for my intended destination.) The train stations were quite close to the city centers, and it was an easy walk to see the highlights of each town.

We picked Ferrara primarily for the historic buildings. The city center is dominated by the Castello Estense. The huge impressive castle is surrounded by a water-filled moat. The other dominant feature of the city center is the cathedral Duomo di Ferrara. But as much as anything, we enjoyed just wandering the medieval streets within the city walls and taking in the ambiance of the town. After a couple of hours, we felt that we’d seen enough and headed back to the train station.

I suppose at that point, if we’d had a car, we might have driven around and explored the countryside between Ferrara and Bologna. Instead, when we got back to Bologna, we made an impromptu visit to an art exhibit. It was a collection of Dutch art featuring Vermeer’s painting of The Girl With The Pearl Earring. The exhibit was at the Palazza Fava, an exhibition center just two blocks from our hotel. We enjoyed the exhibit, but also enjoyed looking at the architecture and permanent exhibits in the palazza. IMG_0133

Our second day trip, to Modena, finally gave us the foodie experience we anticipated in Emilia Romagna. The food market in Modena is fabulous. In addition to the stands selling regional food specialties, we were fascinated by the array of vegetable vendors as well as vendors of fresh meat, fish, and seafood. It was well worth the trip. And overall, we found Modena to be a more inviting town. It was more cosmopolitan than Ferrara but much less gritty than Bologna. My highlight of the day was sitting at a sidewalk café enjoying a plate of lasagna alla Bolognese and a glass of Lambrusco. (I didn’t know this before our trip, but I learned that one of Modena’s sister cities is St. Paul, MN.)

We did return to Bologna for dinner each night. Here are the restaurants we picked:

Ristorante Il Moro: I suppose this would be considered a tourist restaurant. Its menu includes a line up of pizzas. But we had a very enjoyable meal here. It’s not far from The Metropolitan and sort of off the beaten path for the city’s restaurant district. We happened by on our way back to the hotel. We stopped to look at the menu, and a waiter who spoke very good English invited us in for a bite of lunch. We declined, but we liked the menu and liked the way the restaurant looked. So we came back that evening for dinner. It was very good, and the service was friendly and accommodating.

Ristorante Victoria: This was my least favorite restaurant of our whole trip to Italy. In fact, after eating here, I decided we had to check diner reviews of restaurants before deciding on a restaurant. (I actually installed the Trip Adviser app in the hotel that evening and used it the rest of our trip.) It had all the prospects of being good – menu, décor, ambiance. And it’s not that our meal was bad. It was just … so average.

La Capriata: This was a great restaurant. We got the recommendation from our hotel (so I bet that means they cater to business travelers). But on our last night in Bologna, it was not at all busy, and we got great personal attention from the servers. We played it up a little bit by telling them that our trip to Italy was in celebration of our wedding anniversary. They made a truly great effort to make the meal memorable, and they succeeded.

After our dinners on two of the nights in Bologna, we went to Cantina Bentivoglio to listen to music. Billed as a restaurant, wine bar, and jazz club, Bentivoglio was a wonderful find. The cover charge for the jazz club was only 4.5 Euros and the drinks were not expensive. One night we heard a trio with sax, piano, and bass. The second night was a duo of piano and drums. They were great performers and the venue was really cool. It was downstairs and had a feeling like a wine cellar or underground vault. It was my favorite part of our stay in Bologna.

One final note about our visit to Emilia Romagna: For being a center of food production, especially meat and dairy, I didn’t see a single cow or pig (or chicken, sheep or goat for that matter) during our whole stay. Perhaps if we had rented a car and driven around the countryside, we might have seen some farm animals. But I was surprised by that.

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