9 Places To Eat And Drink In Italy’s Emilia-Romagna Region, From Bologna to Modena

“It [Italy] must be inhaled wholly, with the yielding of the whole heart… It is really something transcendent, both spirit and body.”
Margaret Fuller by Megan Marshall

Amarene (cherry) tart at Atti & Figli in Bologna

Amarene (cherry) tart at Atti & Figli in Bologna

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller [This article was published in Food Republic on September 3, 2014]

Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar — these staples of Italian cuisine all hail from the flat Emilia-Romagna region, a place often recognized as the best area for food in a country where the cuisine is fantastic everywhere. In our recent explorations through the region, the food and drink (including Europe’s best Tiki bar!) is superlative. Bologna, a city of roughly one million, dates back to at least 1000 BC. Famed for being home to the oldest university in the world, founded in 1088, the city retains a rich academic culture and an impressive architectural landscape that includes medieval prison towers and endless porticoes. Arguably, Italy’s greatest food markets are here. Within those walls of ancient Bologna and in the surrounding countryside and neighboring towns of Parma and Modena, you can find many unforgettable places to eat and drink. Here are nine of our favorites:

Truffle and mushroom season at Da Cesari

Truffle and mushroom season at Da Cesari

1. Da Cesari, Bologna
Stroll down a narrow street off Piazza Maggiore to find this cozy, intimate restaurant serving traditional Bolognese dishes in a dark, shelf-lined room filled with dusty wine bottles. The Cesari family has run the place since 1955, with Paolino Cesari charming customers while his wife, Irene, brings out fantastic Bolognesi dishes, including her divine pumpkin ravioli melting in butter and shaved Parmesan. In the fall and winter, truffles and mushrooms are piled in baskets and featured in numerous dishes. Many ingredients, wine and even pigs (the rare mora romagnola pig) hail from their family “Umberto Cesari” farm. Via de’ Carbonesi 8, Bologna, 40124, +39 051-237710da-cesari.it

2. Nu Bar, Bologna
Nu Bar is a shocker — and not just because it is a Tiki bar in Italy. But also because it is an excellent one, thanks to Bologna native Daniele Dalla Pola, whose passion for Tiki stems from his time in Miami. Tucked away in the medieval city centre of Bologna, there’s an outdoor patio with pizzas and pastas to dine on. But, really, it’s all about the cocktails. Don the Beachcomber Tiki classics abound, set to a funky painting of Elvis, a chic lounge and an impressive collection of vintage Tiki mugs. Dalla Pola offers a choice of sugars from varying islands and different rums from which to craft your cocktail. In the mix with the classics, his creative creations stand out, like a rum, chamomile and matcha green tea drink made with sugar from Guadalupe, lime and a house pimento dram. Or, the Smoked & Spiced Colada, set alight with house cinnamon and cloves. You won’t find another bar with this unexpected congruence of cultures anywhere in the world. Via Dè Musei, 6, 40124 Bologna, +39 051 222532, nuloungebar.com

Nu Bar, an unexpected Tiki and rum haven in Bologna's medieval city centre

Nu Bar, an unexpected Tiki and rum haven in Bologna’s medieval city centre

3. Osteria Francescana, Modena
We would easily call this one of the best meals of our lives. Yes, it’s one of the world’s top-rated restaurants, boasting three coveted Michelin stars — and, for good reason. Here, amid the intimate five-table dining room, Chef Massimo Bottura cranks out works of art that are also sigh-inducing delicious. His playful personality shows in his avant-garde, modern menu, as well as more traditional offerings. He may start with oyster and anchovy macarons, serve lush cuts of rare culatello and assign whimsical names to courses. Consider: “How to Burn a Sardine in 3 Days,” and the popular “Oops we dropped the lemon tart!” dessert on a plate made to look as if it cracked into many pieces. The wine list is stellar. Try flights of the region’s famed Lambrusco in a wide range of a varietals, which are too often sorely misrepresented. Prepare for chef Bottura’s stories: an eel course represents the river Po with elements of salt water. Meanwhile, “snails in the vineyard” is a delightful combination of snails in balsamico, white truffles, beetroot and chlorophyll sauce. For food lovers seeking to push the boundaries, Francescana is worth the great expense. Via Stella, 22, 41121 Modena, +39 059 223912, osteriafrancescana.it
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4. Ristorante Badessa, Reggio
In the countryside, between the towns of Reggio and Modena, sits a striking, multi-roomed building from the 1600s that once housed a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dairy. The multi-room structure moves from the elegant, vaulted ceilings of the center room to the comfort of humble back rooms where salt crystals are crusted on the walls from centuries past. It’s a family affair: gracious Alberto Ruozzi runs the place with his grandmother, mother and sisters rolling tortelli in the back as he and his cousin bring out rounds of fantastic dishes. It’s hard not to sigh over the sublime goodness of risotto cooked in mountain butter and leeks or stunningly fresh pumpkin ravioli, while they open up a treasure chest and pour their own house balsamico, dubbed “black gold” by locals. Post-dinner, order a pour of house nocino (walnut liqueur) in unorthodox flavors like mint. Via Case Secchia 2/a 42013 San Donnino di Liguria, Casalgrande, +39 0522 989138, ristorantebadessa.it

Sardines and squid ink - artful and delicious at Osteria Francescana

Sardines and squid ink – artful and delicious at Osteria Francescana

5. Trattoria Gigina, Bologna
More than 50 years old, Trattoria Gigina owes its legacy to Gigina herself whose recipes are still the focus of this cozy spot outside the medieval city centre of Bologna. Here you can try signature dishes of Bologna, like the rustic, hearty tortellini in brodo (broth) best doused in fresh-grated Parmesan. Lasagna Bolognese and a signature rabbit entree are other standouts. This old world respite is an ideal space in which to linger over a glass of amaro after dinner. Via Henri Beyle Stendhal, 1, 40128 Bologna,  +39 051 322300, trattoriagigina.it

6. Cremeria Funivia, Bologna
Gelato is one of the greatest pleasures of Italy and is excellent in countless places. But Bologna’s Cremeria Funivia is one of the best we’ve had anywhere in the country. The texture is of creamy silk. And, in the bright white shop, flavors range from tart limone or amarena (made from the Emilia-Romagna’s famed cherries) to boozy chocolate rum or “Alice,” mascarpone ice cream over melted chocolate in a cone or cup. Note: they even list nut sources for their fabulous nutty flavors from buttery pistachio to toasted pine nut. Via Porrettana, 158, 40135 Bologna, +39 051 614 5062, cremeriafunivia.com

7. Emilia Cremeria, Parma
In keeping with the superb gelato of the region, Emilia Cremeria is one of the great edible moments in the city of Parma and anywhere in Italy. Made from organic milk and finely sourced ingredients, the luxuriously creamy gelato is displayed in a charming, white shop with whimsical drawings of ingredients. All scoops are served in house-made, gluten-free waffle and sugar cones filled with fresh, dripping warm chocolate. Via Emilia Santo Stefano, 21, Parma, +39 0522 430532, cremeriaemilia.com

Ristorante Badessa in a 1600s former Parmigiano-Reggiano dairy

Ristorante Badessa, in a 1600s former Parmigiano-Reggiano dairy

8. Atti & Figli, Bologna
Dating back to 1880, family-run Paolo Atti & Figli is a quintessential Emilia-Romagna bakery, a prime stop for an intro to regional baked goods. Original furnishing and décor make it feel as if you’ve stepped into a 19th-century movie set. Look for traditional panettone, meringue shells filled with whipped cream, preserved fruits or chocolate, loaves of bread and rare local pastries like tortine Bolognese con le tagliatelle, an almond-based tart covered in crispy tagliatelle noodles. Our favorite is the amarene tartine, a tart loaded with juicy, sour cherries of the region. Via Caprarie, 7, 40124 Bologna, +39 051 220425, paoloatti.com

9. Zanarini, Bologna
Where Atti & Figli is classic and full of old-world charm, Zanarini is chic and modern, despite its 1928 origin. Look for brightly colored macarons (some better than others – try cioccolato arancia/chocolate orange), creative chocolate truffles and elaborate cakes in the windows created to look like everything from piano keys to owls. This bakery institution evokes the grand cafes of Italy, complete with seating in the square, ideal for an afternoon aperitif or espresso. Piazza Galvani, 1, 40124 Bologna, +39 051 275 0041