Chef Angela Hartnett's guide to eating in Emilia-Romagna
From Bologna to Modena, Emilia-Romagna is arguably the Italian region most synonymous with fine food. Chef Angela Hartnett selects her favourite local dishes and shares her recipe for spinach and ricotta tortelli.
What sets Emilia-Romagna apart is the quality of its ingredients; balsamic vinegar, parmesan and Parma ham all come from here, as does culatello (‘little butt’) cured pork rump, which is extraordinarily expensive, but so worth seeking out. This is the land of pork, but, since we’re in the Po Valley, a lot of risotto rice is also grown here, and durum wheat. It’s fertile country, wet at times, and great for mushrooms come autumn. My mother’s family are from Bardi, in the Province of Parma, and we visited often from our home in Wales, eating fantastic pasta dishes and great bread, all made by my grandmother. We were sent home with suitcases stuffed with cheeses, salumi, breads and bakes of phenomenal quality. At the village’s one restaurant — now defunct — I’d always eat the same thing: anolini (otherwise known as cappelletti) in brodo [broth]. It could be the height of summer, but I’d always have that steaming hot pasta in broth; so delicious.
1. Anolini in brodo
Comforting but not comfort food, these small, filled pasta parcels in broth take real skill to make. They’re classic cucina povera (‘poor kitchen’, meaning nothing goes to waste), using braised meat, broth, breadcrumbs, pasta, and can’t be rushed. Once, I made some in a hurry and I added too many breadcrumbs. My sister, one of the loveliest people in the world but by no means a cook, tasted it and knew it wasn’t good. You must get the balance in the filling just right, and the chicken broth needs to be light, not a heavy consommé. My husband made it one Christmas — it’s a dish for the holidays — and my mum pushed it away: far too rich.
Where to try it: Trattoria Città D’Umbria, in Tosca di Varsi, just outside Bardi, or with tortellini at Trattoria Anna Maria, in Bologna.
2. Tagliatelle alla Bolognese
The dish’s eponymous home is Bologna, but in nearby Modena you’ll find Salumeria Hosteria Giusti, where the mum cooks and her son and daughter serve. What makes the dish special here — like any great tagliatelle alla Bolognese — is the use of tomatoes, or lack of. The sauce may have a small teaspoon of conserva (tomato purée), but you certainly won’t find tinned tomatoes or mushrooms, and the meat (veal, beef and pork) is diced by hand rather than minced. The soffritto — the carrot, celery and onion base — is really finely chopped, to the point that it’s unidentifiable, and the sauce is cooked slowly, for three or four hours, with a touch of milk added at the end for creaminess and richness. And, of course, it’s never served with spaghetti, only tagliatelle.
Where to try it: Salumeria Hosteria Giusti, Modena.
3. Torta di spinaci o patate
Found at most local bakeries, these spinach or potato tarts are a bit like quiche, but with no eggs. The pastry base (made with extra virgin olive oil, flour and water) is filled with potato, bacon, leek and parmesan; and for torta di spinaci, with chopped spinach (or more likely, local Swiss chard), nutmeg and salt, cooked down. You’ll find them in bakeries across the region, and each place has its own variation, some with more bacon, leeks or onions; I like mine really nicely cooked underneath. My great auntie Giovanna made the best torta di patate, with polenta flour underneath for a perfectly cooked base, and tiny sprinkling of sugar on top, so it slightly caramelised. My mum’s sister, Viviana, makes torta di spinaci, cooling it — as I do — covered on top, before flipping it onto a wire mesh to finish the underside.
Where to try it: Borgo in Tavola bakery. 9, Via Nazionale, in Borgo val di Taro
4. Torta fritta, or gnoccho fritto
This is really worth trying because of the quality of the salumi — various types of local cured pork, which might include spalla cotta and cruda (a more delicate prosciutto di Parma), coppa, and the prized culatello. The pasta, often gnocchi, is made with flour, yeast and water, and when fried expands like a pillow. You could say it’s like a fried doughnut — only not sweet, and a different dough, but it gives you the picture. It’s served hot with freshly sliced cold charcuterie: lardo (cured, seasoned fatback), mortadella or similar. The hot, saltiness is just delicious.
Where to try it: Restaurant Cocchi, a Parma establishment where bottles of wine line the walls.
Emilia-Romagna is associated with umami flavours — braised meat, pasta, parmesan and cured pork — but there are also a few desserts people don’t immediately think of that are worth seeking out. A local favourite is crostata: a jam tart often made with seasonal fruit, such as cherries from Vignola, a small town just south of Modena. Also, don’t miss walnut cake (if you can find it, as it’s a classic home-bake; restaurants are more likely to serve a plate of fruit for dessert). It’s made with egg whites, so really light and fluffy, and Emilia-Romagna produces excellent walnuts. Unripe green ones, picked in early summer make the local digestif, nocino.
Where to try it: Local homes, if you can, or at Vignola’s annual cherry festival in June.
6. Spinach & ricotta tortelli
This dish epitomises Emilia-Romagna, thanks to the combination of pasta and spinach, or rather Swiss chard, which is what’s used here, although it’s called spinach. It seems so simple, and it’s just served with melted butter, freshly grated parmesan and grated pepper but it comes down to quality ingredients. Only the best parmesan and the freshest ricotta go into the filling.
Where to try it: Sorelle Picchi, in Parma’s cobbled centre.
How to make it: Angela Hartnett’s spinach and ricotta tortelli recipe
This dish epitomises Emilia-Romagna. It’s the combination of pasta and spinach, or rather, Swiss chard, which is what’s used there. It’s a dish everyone knows but it’s often done badly: that pre-made packet you find in any supermarket. Nothing like the real thing.
Takes: 1 hr, plus 1 hr to rest the dough
For the pasta dough
400g ‘00’ pasta flour
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
For the filling
pinch of grated nutmeg
50g fresh breadcrumbs
75g parmesan, freshly grated, plus extra to serve
olive oil, for drizzling
1. To make the pasta dough, mix the flour and salt together, then tip them onto a work surface and make a well in the middle. Mix together the eggs and olive oil, then pour two-thirds of this into the well, reserving the rest.
2. Starting from the outside, work the flour into the liquid until it forms a dough. Knead until the dough is smooth, firm and elastic (around 5-10 mins). You may need to add more of the egg mixture if the dough doesn’t come together. Wrap the dough in cling-film and refrigerate for around 1 hr.
3. To make the filling, heat the spinach in a large saucepan with 2 tbsp of water until it wilts down (around 3 mins), then set aside to cool. Once cold, squeeze out the excess moisture, then finely chop and place in a bowl. Tip in the ricotta and mix together, then add the nutmeg, breadcrumbs and parmesan, and season with a little salt and black pepper to taste. Refrigerate until you’re ready to fill the pasta parcels.
4. To make the tortelli, cut the dough into four pieces and use a rolling pin or the palm of your hand to flatten a piece to the width of your pasta machine. Starting at the widest setting, run the pasta dough through twice. Reduce the setting by one notch and run it through twice again. If the dough feels sticky, add a little flour, but not enough to dry it out. Run it through the machine twice on each notch until you get to the narrowest notch. Repeat with the remaining sections of dough. (If you don’t have a pasta machine, use a rolling pin, and work until the dough is paper thin.)
5. Use a serrated pastry wheel to cut the dough into long, 10cm-wide strips. Set the first strip in front of you, with the long side facing you. Put a heaped teaspoon of filling at intervals along the strip, about 2.5cm apart and about a third of the way from the side of the strip nearest to you. Brush in between each mound of filling with egg wash. Fold over the third of pasta nearest to you and carefully press it down around each mound to get the air out. Brush the top third of the strip with egg wash and fold it down over the mounds, pressing down with your cupped hand. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
6. Use a serrated pastry wheel to cut out individual tortelli. Boil in salted water for 3 mins, then drain and serve immediately with a drizzle of olive oil and extra parmesan.
Angela Hartnett is executive chef and proprietor of several restaurants including Murano and Cafe Murano in London.
Published in Issue 12 (summer 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food
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