Home to the gastronomic capital of Italy, Bologna, and the Italian culinary holy trinity of Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, and aceto balsamico, Emilia Romagna doesn’t need an introduction. But the reality is that those claims to Italian food fame belong to Emilia not Romagna. You see Emilia Romagna is actually made up of two regions, and Romagna is often overshadowed by its sister region Emilia, especially when it comes to popular Italian dishes.
Don’t believe us? Even the Italian culinary historian Pellegrino Artusi, who hailed from the Romagna town of Forlimpopoli, neglected to include the local flatbread piadina, in the original edition of his renowned work, The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well.
Whereas Emilia is rolling hills and plains, Romagna hugs the Adriatic Coast. Europeans have longed flock there during the summer months to bask on the beaches in towns like Cesenatico, home to the famed Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan. But a visit to Romagna shouldn’t just include beach time but also some time trying some of the most popular Italian dishes around.
Here are 10 popular Italian dishes from the region that you may not know, but should definitely be on your list when you travel to Romagna.:
To kick off our list of must-try Romagna foods, we’ve got the local flatbread, piadina. Numerous piadina stands pepper the region, serving forth hot rounds of this popular Italian dish. The most authentic Italian recipe dictates that piadina be served folded around slices of prosciutto, dollops of soft cheese, and topped with arugula.
From town to town, the local preference for piadina may be to make it slightly thicker or thinner, on the order of millimeters. The best piadina is made of the simplest ingredients and each shines through: 0-grade flour, lard from local mora pigs, and Adriatic sea salt.
The soft cheese most often enjoyed in piadina is this whole-milk cheese with a soft, creamy texture and fresh, milky flavor. With its high fat and water content, squacquerone cheese is incredibly perishable, and must be eaten within two to three days of production. Consequently, you will almost never find squacquerone outside of Emilia Romagna.
Sal Dolce di Cervia
Even the salt is special! Much like France’s fleur de sel or England’s Maldon, the sea salt in Cervia, known as Sal Dolce di Cervia is produced near the Po River delta and is harvested by hand from salt ponds. The particular mineral contents of the ponds lend the salt a mild, faintly sweet flavor, hence the name Sal Dolce di Cervia. One of the salterns, Salina Camillone, has been recognized by Slow Food International as a Presidia, worthy of preservation. Camillone’s salfiore, a fine, flaky salt like fleur de sel, has been favored by the Vatican for centuries, and so it is also called sale dei papi, or the pope’s salt. They also produce a coarser riserva.
Hand-rolled pasta is abundant among Emilia-Romagna foods, but Romagna has a few specialties all its own, the most well-known of which is the spiraled strozzapreti pasta. Made with a less eggy dough than the typical popular Italian dish, strozzapreti pasta are rolled between the palms, creating twisted curls that grab sauce.
Like many Emilia Romagna foods, strozzapreti gets its name from historic origins. The name strozzapreti translates to “strangle the priests” and reflects Romagna’s longtime anti-clerical sentiment, having been a Papal State for centuries. One of the explanations is that the action of twisting the pasta between the hands is like the action of snapping a clergyman’s neck. Another is that households would serve strozzapreti pasta to priests when they came over for dinner, hoping that they’d eat their fill of the pasta to the point of choking, so the family could reserve more precious foods, like meat, for themselves.
Formaggio di Fossa
The tiny hill town of Sogliano sul Rubicone is built atop a mound of porous limestone. During medieval times, residents carved pits in their soft stone basements to hide their sheep's milk cheese from papal tax collectors. The pressure of packing the cheeses into the pits caused them to expel liquids, which penetrate the pit walls, and are reabsorbed over the months in storage, bringing with them minerals from the limestone. The resulting cheese, Formaggio di Fossa, is a staple dairy product in Emilia Romagna foods and has a sharp flavor and faintly chalky texture, excellent to savor with crisp, flinty white wines.
An autumnal conserve often paired with the region’s authentic Italian recipes, savòr is made with quince, apples, pears, nuts (including almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts) and saba, the reduced grape juice that makes the base of balsamico. It’s hearty, sweet-savory, and goes very nicely with formaggio di fossa and wedges of piadina.
Unlike typical authentic Italian recipes for pasta, which uses flour and eggs and/or water, the recipe for passatelli produces something akin to a dumpling made from bread crumbs, eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, flour and a touch of nutmeg. These ingredients are mixed into a thick paste, which is then extruded through a press similar to a potato ricer directly into simmering broth, forming thick, shaggy noodles..
While the authentic Italian recipe for passatelli calls for the pasta to be served in a broth, nowadays chefs are draining the noodles and pan-frying them with other ingredients. The dough for passatelli can also be rolled into a single log known as salame matto and poached in broth, then served with braised meat and boiled potatoes.
Cagnina di Romagna
In the fall, when truffle festivals pop up in hill towns throughout the region, a popular Italian dish is roasted chestnuts paired with the local wine known as Cagnina. A young red wine, Cagnina di Romagna is soft on the palate and very low in alcohol, and its fruity aroma enhances the natural sweetness of the chestnuts.
In Emilia, the choicest cuts of the hog, the legs and shoulders, are hung for salame like prosciutto and culatello and used in popular Italian dishes.The humid climate in Romagna makes it inhospitable for curing whole-muscle salumi, so the salame of Romagna contains the best, leanest cuts of pork and tiny, hand-cut lardetti of fat. Secondary, more marbled cuts are ground and used in salsiccia, and the skin, sinew and other off cuts are ground to make rustic cotechino, one of many authentic Italian recipes made on New Year’s Day. The fat of the hog is rendered for strutto, or lard, leaving cracklins from the fat solids known as ciccioli, enjoyed as a snack.
All the seafood from this part of the Adriatic is delicious so it's hard to go wrong with local seafood from Romagna. While you're eating Emilia Romagna foods, keep an eye out for canocchie, or grey mantis shrimp, with long tails full of soft, sweet meat; they're often baked in crusts made from sal dolce. The extraordinary local clams are also a staple in the authentic Italian recipes of the region -- no bigger than your pinky nail but huge in flavor. There’s hardly a more enjoyable meal than sitting down to a big bowl of these little bivalves, slurping the meat from the shell and dunking rustic bread in the fragrant broth.
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Opening photo by Sara Remington