How to spend three perfect days in Italy’s most delicious region
With a name that means ‘pleasant place’ (Placentia, from the Romans) and a strategic location (I flew into Milan and drove just over one hour to get there), Piacenza is the perfect point of entry to Emilia-Romagna. It’s mellow and quiet, almost reserved, and not over-crowded with tourists, which I loved.
Don’t be fooled by its timid appearance though: this picturesque town is actually home to interesting museums and over 100 churches, some still dedicated to worship, others deconsecrated and transformed into cool antique dealers’ shops.
My personal favourite – and the one you must visit – is Piacenza Cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral built between 1122 and 1233, and one of the most valuable examples of a Romanesque cathedral in northern Italy. It’s a sight to behold, not to mention testimony to the city’s long and storied history. Look up, and marvel at the octagonal dome decorated by 17th century frescoes by Guercino, then turn your attention to the tiles bearing the symbols of the Mediaeval guilds that participated economically in the building of this church.
Done walking? Don’t leave without having tried Piacenza’s most famous product: salame! Or shall I say salami: Coppa Piacentina DOP “La Regina”; pancetta Piacentina DOP “La Castellana”; and salame Piacentino DOP “Il Principe.” Only in Italy can a tiny town make three amazing cold cuts worth a DOP appellation (‘protected designation of origin,’ aka the certification that ensures that products are locally grown and packaged in Italy).
Go to the Baptistery, an octagonal pink-marble marvel that’s a hybrid of Romanesque and Gothic, with a stunning interior featuring marble columns and coloured 13th-century frescoes in the Byzantine style. Next to it is the Duomo, another masterpiece that looks quite sombre from the outside but it’s highly ornate inside, with a dome painted with Antonio da Correggio’s Assunzione della Vergine (Assumption of the Virgin) and a gilded pulpit that’s the definition of Baroque.
You could tour Prosciuttificio Galloni, a family-run manufacturing company that’s been making top-quality Parma ham for generations (it’s a 40-minute drive from Parma centre), where the friendly staff will happily guide you through the craft and dedication that go into the perfect slice of ham. Traditional methods rule here, and you’ll be amazed to see the quality control and strict standards of the entire process.
Or you could head to the wine estate Venturini Baldini, which produces the typical Lambrusco wine (I stayed at their pretty boutique Relais Roncolo 1888, set in a restored 1500s villa). Vineyards surrounded by cypresses will remind you of Tuscany, but the red wine – long a symbol of the region and its proclivity for socialisation – will take you right to the soul of Emilia.
Venturini Baldini does aceto balsamico too (under the name Acetaia di Canossa) which you can find on ISSIMO.
ColtISSIMO: Labirinto del Masone
Near Parma, don’t miss the Labirinto Della Masone (Mason Labyrinth), a cultural park and arts complex built by late publisher and editor Franco Maria Ricci in 2005. Make sure to stop by its BelliSSIMO on-site boutique!
ColtISSIMO: Palazzo della Pilotta
Like a local Louvre, this former palace houses museums devoted to art and archaeology.
BuonISSIMO: Antica Corte Pallavicina
A rustic-chic restaurant with an excellent wine cellar, set in a 14th century castle.
Modena & Bologna
A new day, a new gastronomic adventure. The last day of your Emilia-Romagna jaunt should be all about tasting as many traditional ingredients, recipes and treats as this region has to offer – starting with Modena’s famous balsamic vinegar at Acetaia Giusti. The story of this producer is short of incredible: the Giusti family has been in business since 1605 – that’s right! –passing down the same guarded recipe for generations. Doing a tasting here is akin to doing a wine tasting at a historical winery, and an experience you shouldn’t miss.
Fun fact: whenever a new Giusti baby is born, the family makes a balsamic vinegar bottle just for him or her, which they’ll be given once they reach adulthood. Sweet, right?
If you’ve ever wondered how tortellini (Emilia-Romagna’s most classic pasta) are made, Tortellante is the place to sate your curiosity. A project founded by Chef Massimo Bottura and his wife Lara Gilmore in 2016, it’s a lab where autistic teenagers and adults learn to make fresh pasta by hand with the help of local nonne, fostering autonomy and involving the whole community. Many of the best-looking tortellini are then used at Bottura’s restaurant, Osteria Francescana (another ISSIMO Monopoly stop), which I think makes Tortellante even more special.
Visit – and if you’re looking for a place to hunker down in style, do consider Gilmore’s gorgeous Casa Maria Luigia, not far from here – then book lunch at Cavallino.
Serving gourmet fare in stylish, memorabilia-filled surroundings, the restaurant was opened by automaker Enzo Ferrari in 1950, and today is a cool trattoria run by, you guessed it, Bottura. A must.
A quick stop at the Parmigiano-Reggiano factory of Castelnovese will leave you with newfound respect for the delicious cheese, but before you decide to just keep eating parmesan for the rest of the day, get back in the car (more on this later!) and head to Bologna.
Known as “La Dotta” – it hosts the oldest university in the Western world – “La Grassa,” because of its renowned cuisine, and “la Rossa” for its stunning red clay rooftops and left-leaning politics, Bologna is an underrated gem whose centro storico begs to be discovered. I wish I had more time here: from its portici (a series of arched arcades that unravel under historic buildings), to its iconic Torre degli Asinelli, (the tallest leaning mediaeval tower in the world) there’s a lot to see and eat, and that’s what I’ll focus on during my next trip.
BellISSIMO: Capperi di Casa
In Modena, stop by Capperi di Casa, a superb 20th century furniture and home accessories store.
ColtISSIMO: Santuario di Santa Maria della Vita
Pop by this late-Baroque style Roman Catholic church in central Bologna, to admire the outstanding pietà by Nicola dell’Arca, “Sorrow over Dead Christ.”
In business since 1932, this deli and wine bar is a Bologna institution.