Travel Log: Modena, Italy
For Thanksgiving this year, Mike and I flew to Italy for almost a week of eating and drinking (as any normal American living overseas would). This little town in Italy quickly stole our hearts and our stomachs. We drove down the center of Italy from Lake Como straight into the heart of Emilia Romagna, the region best known for their exports of Balsamic Vinegar, Parmesan DOP, Prosciutto, and Ferraris.
Modena's downtown is a vehicle restricted area, so unless you own property downtown, you can't park and probably shouldn't drive in. Luckily, they have ample free parking near their football stadium and paid underground parking near
the city center, both of which are easily walkable. On our walk to our flat, we were mesmerized by the gorgeous Christmas decor in the pedestrian shopping area near the center of town. Though Harrogate is decorated for Christmas, the lights just look like they were tossed into the trees and if they were caught on the branches deemed okay. These seemed like they were designed and architected for this specific street, and I was personally already in love.
Our Airbnb was in the heart of the town, right off of the Via Emilia in the Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini. The Via Emilia is the road that cuts right through the center of Modena, and used to be one of the major roadways in Roman Italy (that will be the extent of the history lesson here..probably).
I'm pretty sure our host was an interior designer because this flat was gorgeous. It had a small spiral staircase leading up to a rooftop terrace that overlooked the landmarks of Modena. We arrived on Sunday night, so much of Europe is not open for business. Our host recommended a spot for dinner since we hadn't planned it yet, and it was a fabulous restaurant. Here's a disclaimer, she knew we had planned this whole trip around going to Osteria Francescana (more on that later, but it won #1 in the World's Top 50 Restaurants of 2016). Since she knew we were going to experience the very best, she sent us to Trattoria Pomposa al re Gras because she said it would give us a taste of authentic, traditional Modenese cooking without the pizzazz of molecular gastronomy and the like.
Trattoria Pomposa was fantastic. We started the evening with a bottle of Lambrusco, one of
the lesser known exports of Modena. It is a sparkling red wine (stay with me). In the 70s and 80s it was the largest selling imported wines in the US. Like most varieties of sparkling wine, it ranges from very dry (secco), off dry/slightly sweet (amabile), or very sweet (dolce). The variety we got was made from a producer who makes it in the "classic method" (not going to go into what that means), all you need to know is it was great. It was dry, cut the richness of our fabulous food beautifully, and was the best start to our time in Modena.
Our food journey began and ended with panna cotta. Dessert for appetizer you may be thinking? NO! They had a savory panna
cotta - parmesan with braised apples and walnuts. It was luscious. Our world revolved
around Parmesan cheese for 72 hours, and this was no exception. Just imagine the best parts of a panna cotta: creamy, melt in your mouth, and imagine that combined with the intense umami of aged parmesan. On the note of aged parmesan, if you've gone to Harris Teeter (or for my English friends, Sainsbury's) and gotten a shrink wrapped thing of parmesan cheese, there is simply no comparison. If I could fly you all to Italy to sample the different ages of cheese and what a couple years does to parmesan cheese I would. It is life changing. Speaking of cheese, we of course continued our meal with a cheese plate filled with local cheeses. Our plate had a 25 year old parmesan (stacked in the middle), 5 year old parmesan (triangles in the back), Pecorino (triangles in the front), Ricotta (soft cheese in bottom right corner), and a fresh soft cheese squacquerone in the back corner (had to look up what that was before writing it here....)
Our main courses (not the Italian way making our pastas our mains, but there's only so much food we can hold) were these beautiful pastas. Mike got a traditional bolognese, which for those of you who think bolognese is the same as a plain tomato sauce on spaghetti: I beg you to try a recipe or traditional version. It is made with veal and pork, simmered with red
wine and draped around fresh tagliatelle or linguine, and it is to DIE for. I had a mint ravioli filled with ricotta and drenched in a butter sauce. If you know the Veasey girls you know we have a thing for pasta, and this was a dream come true.
We finished with another panna cotta, as I mentioned above. We wouldn't normally go for 2 of the same thing in a meal, but when we read that this panna cotta was finished with a very old balsamic vinegar, we couldn't resist. This panna cotta was not doused with balsamic-vinaigrette tasting stuff. Balsamic vinegar, as it ages, takes on this rich, syrupy flavor that maintains just enough vinegar "zing" to cut through the richness of a dessert. The
bottle we brought home from this trip we use most frequently as a drizzle over ice cream or
in our (interesting) attempt to make Foie-nolli (result was...not like we expected but still tasty).
After we stuffed ourselves silly, we went home and rested up for our second day!
Our first order of business on day 2 was to find a great coffee shop. Even though Mike (my husband) doesn't drink coffee, he always yearns to find the most "hipster" coffee shop in the area. We ended up at MENOMOKA, and it delivered on the hipster: there were flannel-wearing bearded men working behind the counter, edison bulbs, and plant life abundant. My favorite part about breakfast + coffee culture in Italy is its simplicity. I love that the expectation is to just pop into a cafe, quickly drink an espresso and eat a pain au chocolate, then go about your day. It is not an event, like the ~millennial brunch~, and it is so ingrained in their culture that you feel a part of it just by being in proximity.
Our first day was spent exploring the streets of Modena in day time. The architecture was gorgeous, and every street was perfectly decorated for Christmas (which we were finally ready to accept since it was after Thanksgiving).
This street (pictured below) is my favorite decorated strip of land I think on planet Earth. I can't describe the joy I felt when I looked at the bustling of people on the landscape of the old, rustic Italian architecture and these immaculate lights. Just amazing.
This is the Piazza Grande in downtown Modena, Il Duomo del Modena. I have never been to the leaning tower of Pisa, but this cathedral was LEANING if I ever saw it. Just seeing this majestic building lean to the side spoke to how old and established this place is in the world, something that as Americans we are not used to since mostly everything man made is ~200 years old max.
We window shopped to our hearts content (which for Mike was about 3 minutes), and then we headed to my most anticipated attraction, the Mercato Albinelli. This place is a foodie's dream. It's like a farmers market where everyone cooks like that one friend's Italian grandma who has made fresh pasta every day for 60 years. There were truffle, balsamic, cheese, cured meat, pasta, bread, and fresh produce vendors, and multiple of each at that. I could have truly spent hours roaming by each stand and looking at all of the different foods and learning my Italian food vocabulary and sampling fresh focaccia and prosciutto.
So - we bought focaccia, prosciutto, parmesan, and aged balsamic and took it back to our airbnb and ate it in the sun on our rooftop patio. It was perfect - one of my favorite memories from the whole trip.
Next on the docket: a nap. A true Recachinas trip would not be complete with at least one small siesta per day (not in Spain, but we fully embrace the nap culture!).
After that, we headed to the Ferrari museum! We are not normally museum people, but since my husband loves nice cars, looking at them (hopefully never buying one), we of course had to go.
Ferraris were created and first made in Modena as racing cars. The coolest part of the exhibit featuring historical and modern cars. Probably the most money I'll ever be close to in my life. If we were to do a little more planning next time, I definitely would have sprung for the road test experience, where Mike would get to drive one around for an hour. I would probably pop off to a wine bar and pray until he gets home, but that's besides the point.
The main attraction of our stop in Modena was, of course, Osteria Francescana. We originally found this place while watching Chef's Table, the Netflix series on impactful chefs. The episode on Massimo Bottura was truly inspiring, and I cannot recommend watching it enough. My favorite story (other than his adorable love story with his wife) is about the earthquake in 2012. This earthquake struck and threatened to put the parmesan industry under because of the damages caused (the parmesan that was aging and getting ready for production fell and broke, which made it unsellable at the price it was worth). Bottura developed a recipe for a parmesan broth risotto that was revolutionary and encouraged restaurant and trattoria owners around Italy to follow suit to support the parmesan industry during the chaotic time. I could spend a whole post talking about our fabulous meal there, but I will keep it short but I cannot WAIT to go back one day!!
The normal start of champagne and bread, paired with lovely olive oil
"Bread, Butter, and Anchovies"
Parmesan Crisps & Rabbit Mousse Macarons
Mediterranean Sole in Salt Paper, this was meant to comment on how we can always find food no matter what the state of the water is, we will adapt and culinary minds will find a way to make things delicious.
Insalata di Mare - this was the most intricate "salad" sprinkled with textures and flavors of the sea.
Rice: Green over Brown over Black - looked like camouflage, and the focus was all on the flavors of the sauces the risotto is cooked in. Spinach, mushroom, and squid ink.
Civet, game, snails, herbs, and ravioli
Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures (THIS WAS SO AMAZING) - 50 month old parmesan foam is one of those things you didn't know you needed
Crunchy part of the lasagne with the most amazing ragout under the crunchy pieces
Autumn in New York - inspired by the "big apple" as a melting pot of cultures. Dashi broth, vegetables, potatoes
Millefoglie di mellefoglie
Oops! I dropped the lemon tart
All in all, our Modena trip was out of this world. We cannot wait to go back and explore all the little osterias and gelato shops!