In my last post, I hit upon some lovely places to rest your weary head and what to do when in Rome. As I've mentioned before there's literally so much to see that you could keep busy for weeks on end. With all that seeing and doing, you need some sustenance, obviously, but you really need some cultural balance. Some wonderful ways to experience what Rome really has to offer is to take part in aperitivo, eat some local dishes, wander off the main roads, and for the love of God ditch the picture menus! After all, indulging in local cuisine and cocktails is why most of us travel (and if it isn't, then you're doing it all wrong and we need to change that!)
As you all are probably aware by now, I am obsessed with Italy and there is just so much of the country that I want to see. So. For our 1-year wedding anniversary, my husband and I decided to go back to where we got married in Tuscany. We have collectively spent a bit of time in this popular Italian destination and we admit we've neglected other regions of the boot so while we love Tuscany and felt the need to visit our wedding venue, we also wanted to take the opportunity to see other parts of Italy as well including the delicious region of Emilia Romagna.
Emilia Romagna is located just north of Tuscany and while the region may not sound familiar to you, I'm sure you've heard of Bologna, which is its capital city. This region is known for its filled pastas, meat sauces, Ferrari's and lambrusco. This is Italy off the beaten path for those who love to eat and take it easy. It has arguably some of the best food in Italy (the world's best restaurant is located in Modena) and being the foodies we are, it was the perfect place to indulge in some local specialties. We only spent a few days in this area before continuing south to Tuscany so we only got to experience a little but what we did experience was fantastic. Here's just a sample of the goodness to be had in Emilia Romagna.
Lambrusco Wine - This red bubbly got a bad rep in the 80s and 90s and it's a shame because the real stuff is delightfully fruity yet dry and perfectly effervescent. Served chilled, it is refreshing and very easy to drink. It comes in various shades of red but no matter the color it will go great with just about everything you eat in this region. There's no better place to try it than at local winery Cantina della Volta where you can do a tasting free of charge and learn about their unique method to fermentation for wines of this area. Closed Sundays. (Via per Modena, 82, Bomporto)
Bologna - The city, not the meat, is the capital of this region and is worth visiting for a day or so. It is home to the oldest university in the world which gives it a young, college-town feel. The main square is Piazza Maggiore where you will find Fontana di Nettuno (Neptune's Fountain). Another landmark is Le Due Torre (two towers) but the highlight is the area surrounding Mercato di Mezzo and Via Pescherie Vecchie, which is full of places to eat all with their homemade tortellini on display. Stop at Zerocinquantino for a piadina, a warm sandwich native to this region on thin flatbread, and a glass of lambrusco. If it's nice, grab a table outside and dine with the locals. (Via Pescherie Vecchie, 3/e)
Prosciutto di Parma & Parmigiano Reggiano - Perhaps the most well-known of the local specialties comes from the city of Parma, about an hour Northwest of Bologna. Parma is an obvious place to indulge in these yummy foods and happens to be a quaint city that you can see in half a day. Get your bearings at the Piazza del Duomo where the baptistry overshadows the church and then stroll through the charming streets stopping along the way for a bite. But if you want to visit the real-deal, where they make the cheese and cure the ham, visit Antica Corte Pallavicina where you can have a tasting and take a tour of the cellars. It's technically located outside of Parma but the visit will be worth the drive. (Strada Palazzo due Torri, 3, Polesine Parmense)
Modena - If there's only one city you see in Emilia Romagna, make it this one. Located about 30 minutes from Bologna, this is where balsamic vinegar originates from. There are several acetaie to tour if you prefer or you can find the liquid gold sold in specialty stores throughout the city. Regardless you must try it because what we have in the States is not anything like the real thing which is thick and syrupy and amazing. Aside from the vinegar, Modena is a lovely place to experience with quaint piazze that come alive during aperitivo, delicious cafes, and of course the best restaurant in the world. More on that in my next post!
And lastly, just a few words of advice:
- I would recommend hiring a car so you can drive out to the many wineries, dairies, ham cellars, etc. but if driving is just not your thing, the regional train does run between the major cities. You just won't have as much freedom.
- While Bologna might seem like the obvious place to stay, opt for one of the smaller cities or towns instead. Bologna is worth seeing but the ambiance does not compare.
Even though we were only there for a few days, we left Emilia Romagna with full bellies and big smiles. Yet somehow, and as Anthony Bourdain likes to say, we're "hungry for more." This area should be way more touristy than it is given what it has to offer and I highly recommend not overlooking this slice of Italy on your next trip. Its location geographically makes it easy to tack onto other destinations like Venice, Milan & the Lakes, and Florence & Tuscany as we did. Aim to spend a few days (at least) and you're guaranteed a delightful food fest. Buon appetito! :)
Being the Italophile that I am, of course I had to get to Eataly as soon as it came to Boston. Well technically I gave it a couple of weeks to "thin" out, which I'm not sure if that's even possible yet seeing as it opened about a month ago. But going on a weekday in the morning seemed to be okay and crowds were manageable. The verdict? Loved it. I mean it's not the same as going to Italy and picking up all of those goodies while you're there but it is the next best thing to hopping on the plane. And when I'm missing Italy it's a good place to go and get a little taste (which let's be honest is most days...) While many are there for a dish of ravioli (nothing wrong with that), I am looking for the more obscure things that are tough to find outside the boot. Incase you're wondering, here's what I think makes a trip to Eataly worthwhile:
- The coffee. Finally, a good macchiato around here. And I love that they will do a single macchiato (meaning just 1 shot of espresso). Most local coffee shops drop 2 shots and that's 1 too many for this caffeine-sensitive lady. I mean why does America have to supersize everything? In Italy it's always a single shot unless you specify you want a doppio. But I digress....
- The cracker section. Sounds stupid, right? I mean how exciting can crackers get? Actually, very exciting and you know what I mean if you've ever had taralli (or the baby version known as tarallini). Nope, can't really find those guys around here unless you're very lucky to catch the Whole Foods River Street on the right day. I'll let you in on a little secret--it's not often that happens. So, thanks Eataly.
- The marinated anchovies, known in Italian as alici. I can see you making that disgusted face right now but have a plate of these bad boys while dining on a cliff on the Amalfi Coast watching the fishermen pluck them out of the Mediterranean and you'll understand. Granted they're not as fresh coming out of a refrigerator in Boston but...air travel is amazing these days.
- The pizza. What makes it good is the wood-burning oven its cooked in. This is how its done in Napoli, where pizza was born, and in Boston there are few places that do it that way (it's mostly brick oven in these parts). Also, you have the option to have your pie with mozzarella di bufala imported from Campania. Molto delizioso!
- The olives. Along with my favorite bright green Castelvetrano variety, I was also able to find the enormous green Cerignola olives that I snacked on from a lounge chair on the Amalfi Coast. While the Castelvetrano olives are not exclusive to Eataly (Whole Foods actually carries them), I have yet to find the Cerignola variety anywhere else.
- The booze. I loved that I had a variety of amari and grappe to choose from along with an extensive wine selection that is very well organized by Italian region of origin. Oh and how amazing when there are multiple kinds of aperitivi liqueurs for a spritz beyond the usual Aperol or Campari. The hubs appreciated the Italian craft beer section too.
In the few hours I've spent in Eataly I've barely chipped away at the surface. There is just so much to see and do and buy and eat. It's glorious. While I would prefer to hop the pond (or just live there!) this place gave me a quick Italy fix. And it's nice to know that when I run out of my olive oil a quick stop at this place will hold me over until the next Alitalia sale :)
I don't have many pictures to feed you with but I think this photo of the enormous Parmigiano Reggiano wheels is enough to give you an idea of what you're getting yourself into. Buon appetito!
Okay well it’s a big part of it, of being in Belgium for that matter, but Bruges is a gorgeous, romantic city and is perfect for a couple days to escape the hustle bustle of a major city like London, Paris, or even Amsterdam. Today I’ve got Bruges on my mind because it is the 2-year anniversary that my husband proposed to me there. It happened along a picturesque canal and we celebrated afterwards as any Belgian would do with many strong beers. Let’s just say it was an early night. Bruges is located a little over an hour northwest of Brussels, the capital of Belgium, and only about 2 hours on the train from London or Paris (3 from Amsterdam) which makes it an easy weekend destination if you’re visiting one of those cities. It is pretty small so you don’t need more than a couple of days there to get a real feel for the culture. The local language is actually a dialect of Dutch (Flemish) but most people know English. French is not really spoken here despite it being the language in Brussels and other parts of Belgium.
In addition to wandering the quaint, cobblestoned streets and getting lost along its many picturesque canals, here’s a list of 5 things you should do in Bruges, most involving food and/or beer. Don't say I didn't warn you.
- Have an authentic Belgian beer at Staminee de Garre. Tucked away down a small alley off the main square, this tavern is quite hidden and tough to find but well worth searching for. The atmosphere is cozy yet lively and is filled with a good mix of locals and visitors alike. Most notably, this watering hole serves up its own Belgian tripel on draught and is the only place on the planet that you can have it. It is delicious but packs a punch at 11% abv, so expect to be cut off after 3. You can thank the bartender later for that. (Staminee de Garre, de Garre 1)
- Check out the scenic main square, Markt. Despite being very touristy, this square is still a must see with its Dutch step-gabled buildings, horse-drawn carriages and dramatic medieval facades. If you've seen the Colin Farrell movie In Bruges, this is where the famed belfry resides. As with any main square, there is no shortage of cafes, restaurants and shops. Bruges tends to clear out in the evenings so come back here at night when the buildings are beautifully floodlit for a quieter, more romantic experience.
- Indulge in a true Belgian waffle. When many people think of Belgium, the first thought that comes to mind is waffles and rightfully so. You can almost always smell the sweetness in the air with street vendors selling the doughy delight on practically every corner you turn. What we know as a Belgian waffle in the States doesn't really exist here although some places try to appease the tourists by offering the decadent toppings. You can expect the real thing, also known as a Liège waffle, to be about a quarter the size, slightly crisp and sticky on the outside, warm and gooey on the inside and best eaten plain or simply topped with powdered sugar. No maple syrup. No whipped cream, ice cream or fruit. Make sure you stop at Chez Albert to get one (or two, or three...) and don't be surprised if you find yourself searching for a Liège waffle maker when you return home. Note: I later learned that other types of waffles can be found in Belgium, like the Brussels waffle, which is closer to what we Americans know. But I did not come across this type at all on my trip, just the lovely Liège variety. (Chez Albert, Breidelstraat 16)
- Order Mosselen-friet (or Moules Frites) for dinner. Considered the national dish of Belgium, this meal consisting of mussels and fries is easy to find in these parts. The mussels are plucked locally from the Flemish coast and come served in the pot in which they were steamed. There are a variety of broths they can be prepared in—from basic and buttery to garlicky to one of white wine—but no matter what you choose you cannot go wrong especially when paired with fries made the Belgian way—double-fried in duck fat. Sounds intimidating but tastes amazing. And don’t worry, you can always get a side salad to help balance out your meal. A great place to enjoy mosselen-friet is at Brasserie Chagall, a small candlelit restaurant with a cozy fireplace that makes you feel like you're having dinner at a friend's home. Reservations recommended. (Brasserie Chagall, Sint-Amandsstraat 40)
- Take a load off at Café Rose Red. Adorned with red roses hanging from the ceiling, this bar is one of the best to sample a wide variety of Belgian brews. Yes, I'm encouraging you to have more beer because I mean why not? When in Rome... Anyway the atmosphere is casual, rustic and cozy making it easy to spend hours in. It's a perfect place to escape from the cold or wet weather and they have a great patio for when it's nice. The charcuterie plates are on point and are the perfect snack to balance out all the beers you will have. If the long beer list has you mixing up your saisons with your sours, the bartenders know their stuff so don't be afraid to ask them what you should order. (Café Rose Red, Cordoeaniersstraat 16)
Proposal or not, Bruges is a memorable place. I had no idea what to expect as far as Belgian culture goes and I was pleasantly surprised. Delicious food, friendly people, and pretty surroundings. Belgium easily went from being a place lower on my list of travel priorities to one that I cannot wait to visit again. In the meantime, I've picked out a liège waffle iron at Sur La Table. Wish me luck...