Years ago, all it took was a simple a few tortellini in brodo to catapult me into the Cult of Culinaria that is Emilia Romagna, Italy’s northeastern region and the country’s bread basket. After my first taste, I fell hard into fully warranted idolatry of Emilia Romagna and its regional dishes. I became more than convert, more than one of the fervent masses, I had a calling to which I became a self-proclaimed gastronomic preacher on mission to bring the masses to the Temple of Taste where the pantheon of gods includes Parmigiano, Prosciutto, Balsamico and Lambrusco.
Repeat the following: tortellini, tagliatelle, lasagne, cappelletti. This is my Emilia Romagna mantra. And now it’s yours.
Welcome to Modena
Driving into Modena is niente di che. After passing through flat plains of farms and factories, another one of Italy’s city-towns begins to form where industrial streets feed to modern roads that lead to the medieval center, casually mixing up a bit of old and with a bit of new. Once you arrive, you can’t help but fall in love.
Modena is both history and innovation. A former Roman outpost, a fortified medieval town, the city is a UNESCO world heritage site, but not a mausoleum. It’s a vibrant town of mom-and-pop shops, large chains, art galleries, churches, restaurants, and more, where its smartly dressed residents zip around cute scooters and bicycles.
Unlike the chaos of Rome and the crowds of Venice and Florence, Modena has vibe that is relaxed with a purpose. Most likely because things get made in Modena which makes sense because this town is the font of the world’s best food and best comfort dishes, and it is the driving force behind Italy’s luxury automotive industry..
It is easy to write that you eat well at every bar, restaurant, osteria and snack shop in Modena is amazing. With so many amazing places and little time, it helps to have a little help.
L’Incontro, Ask about tortellini and you are guaranteed to get a varied list of the best tortellini in the city. We found our t-spot at L’Incontro, a pizzeria in nearby Maranello (20 minutes outside the city) recommend by our dear friend Silvana who grew up down the street. Bonus points for location- the non-description pizzeria is via Dino Ferrari, across the street from the Ferrari high school and down the street from the factory so when you’re sitting window at a L’Incontro table, expect to spot a Dino or California cruising by.
Oreste, I first fell in love with Oreste for its design – mid-century modern Italian, very hip and very vintage. The vibe just feels great. So does the location in Piazza Roma. Cuisine is of course Emiliana – traditional and delicious.
Osteria di Rubbiara could very well be my favourite place in the world because it literally has the best of everything. Located in the farmhouse of an Acetaia Pedroni, a historic balsamico producers, the rustic restaurant features the very best of Emilia cuisine like tortellini in brodo, strichetti al ragù, and arrosti con patate al forno, and so many recipes are made with balsamico as well as lambrusco.
Osteria del Mirasole, slightly outside of the city is another delight for tortellini lovers. Osteria del Mirasole obviously focuses on the traditional dishes, but it’s their tortellini alla panna d’affioramento Mirasole that gets me. Essentially, tortellini in a soft and sweet cream.
Ristretto, a gastro pub and wine bar on a tiny side street off from the Duomo. The menu is off tradition and focuses on the very top quality products with a creative flair.
For those looking for the kind of culture you can bottle up, I suggest booking a tour of the acetaia, the family-run balsamic vinegar makers where you’ll learn the decades long process and find out how balsamic vinegar can make or break family relationships.
I’ve had the privilege of dining at Italy’s Numero Uno Osteria Francescana over the years, and if you can get a reservation, you must go. But if you cannot, you have a few more Bottura options.
Franceschetta 58, Osteria Francescana’s little cousin and chef Massimo Bottura’s pet project. In a former mechanic shop, Franceschetta is a cool slip of a spot – a long room with black tables, putty colored walls, ceiling to floor windows, and a bit of mismatched dishes on the walls. Everyone in the room is either a Bottura friend or a fan, so the vibe was energetic and fun. The menu is experimental Italian tapas where tradition and taste duke it out in your mouth. We went à la carte and tried everything on the menu including the creamed cod, the low-cooked egg with black truffle, anEmilia burger (Bottura’s signature hamburger and song to his homeland), and those tradition-turning piadine with what may have been a bit of kimchi.
Francescana at Maria Luigia, consider this the Greatest Hits of the Francescana team with a very cool vibe. The menu is set tasting menu featuring signature dishes which are created in front of you. Guests dine together at community tables, surrounded by Damien Hirst prints. It is a whole new kind of dinner show where Lara, Massimo and team talk about the inspiration behind the dishes.
Ristorante Cavallino, Enzo Ferrari’s favoured foodie pitstop and now the collab of Ferrari and Massimo Bottura. Located in Maranello, this is Bottura’s love letter to Modena and its storied cuisine.
Mercato Albinelli, located smack in the center of Modena, positioned as perfect snack point whilst checking out the town. My friend Lara told us to get there early and beeline for frittelle di bacalà, Modena’s version of deep-fried codfish seasoned with oregano and garlic. We ate that and more- the historic market has everything, including an incredible fried chicken.
Belli Formaggi & Salumi, a family-owned delicatessen in Maranello where you can try deep-fried porchetta rinds (an addiction) and vintage balsamic vinegar.
Explore the city
Modena is a living, breathing city, far from the open-air museum of Rome and Florence. It is meant to be lived, and by all means walked. A pastiche of history from pre-antiquity to tomorrow is on every path, so here are some of my favourite things to do.
Walk on the Via Aemilia, the ancient Roman road that runs from Rimini to Piacenza and bisects Modena at its very center- the Modena Cathedral, and then really take a look at the bas relief on the church’s structural walls- especially a gothic arch entrance near the bell tower where the months are medievally depicted as the wine making process. Walk some more: Modena is one of the nook-and-cranny cities with beautiful shops and hidden curiosities like the small lingerie/karoake bar.
Bike: Like almost every city in the pianura padana (regional plains), Modena is flat, which means it is choc-a-bloc with cyclists and places to cycle to and from whether following those monumental walls, slowly pedaling around the historic center or circumnavigating the entire city as a whole.
Drive – the charming team at I Love Maranello will bring a Ferrari to your front door for a test drive around the area, or else, stay in the passenger seat and enjoy a little Enzo double feature at Modena’s Museo Ferrari, and Maranello’s Ferrari Museum and Factory.
Where to Sleep
Lara Gilmore recommended Stella21, an artists’ loft located within the medieval fortification walls of Modena, and conveniently located just two doors down and across the from Osteria Francescana. The attic apartment is a Fabergè egg for art and design lovers. The apartment is lined with art books, and decorated with art piece furniture like my favorite Eames lounge and ottoman, as well as original paintings and prints, all carefully culled by owner Francesca, a restoration artist.
Pro Tip: you hang out on the street late nights, you may just catch a glimpse of Massimo & Co.
For a splurge, you may want to stay at Gilmore and Bottura’s very own Casa Maria Luigia, a gorgeous country villa (filled with art) about a 15-minute drive from the city center.
Train or Car?
Roma-Modena is an easy trip. By rail, it’s approximately three hours – two hours and change on a high speed train, switching to a 25-minute regional train at Bologna Centrale. By car is a different journey, a somewhat scenic four hours and more sprawl up the A1 autostrada, and we choose a morning drive to avoid Modena’s notorious nebbia, a thick fog that practically hides the city from view.