A Glorious Week of Eating Our Way Through Northern Italy
With kids in tow, we enjoyed strolling through charming towns and indulging in Italian cuisine.
I was 42 years old the first time I went to Europe. I know many Americans haven’t traveled beyond our borders because of the expense, limited vacation time, or lack of interest. For me, it’s been a combination of the first two factors as lack of interest was never the problem. As someone who loves to eat, I have long wanted to visit Italy and savor freshly made pasta; Parmigiano Reggiano cheese; Mortadella, Prosciutto, and other Italian meats; Italian truffles; gelato; and Balsamic vinegar from the source. So when we finally had the opportunity to plan a trip in 2018, I lunged for it.
Fortunately, my husband and daughters also love to eat. We plan our vacations around food and pick our destinations accordingly. Sometimes we end up in locales not known for food (e.g., when we rent a houseboat on Shasta Lake), but then we bring delicious food with us. Most of the time, we think about what we want to eat and prioritize accordingly. We like to avoid crowds and we don’t try to pack a schedule full of sightseeing. Thus, it seemed natural to target Bologna rather than Rome, Venice, or Florence (the three more tourist-centered destinations in Italy). The Emilia-Romagna region of Italy is known for its food and Bologna, the capital of the region, is known as La Grassa (“The Fat One”).
The four of us had many incredible meals on this trip. Some were at charming restaurants we stumbled into off the street. Some were TripAdvisor and Michelin favorites, like Trattoria di Via Serra (although I see it’s no longer the #1 restaurant for Bologna) and Hosteria Giusti in Modena.
Yet a surprising number were meals in our vacation rental off Strada Maggiore, cooked by my husband from groceries purchased from small markets (including fresh tortellini from the neighborhood bakery, Forno Palma, where a customer had to translate for me as the shop staff didn’t speak English). We had most dinners at home since Italians eat dinner quite late and I didn’t want to keep my 9-year-old up past her bedtime.
Notable dishes that I particularly enjoyed include tortellini en brodo (tortellini in broth), tagliatelle en ragu (pasta in meat sauce), truffle and white bean bruschetta, suckling pig, mille-feuille aubergine with foie gras, and rabbit wrapped in pancetta.
One of our favorite meals was a picnic-style dinner composed of Italian cured meats and cheese from Salumeria Simoni (plus a bottle of Lambrusco for the adults). We have always loved Mortadella, but there’s something about having Mortadella while in Bologna that just made it taste better!
On a side note: the one disappointment of our culinary adventures in Italy is that we disliked the bread options in Italy. We love a crusty baguette with cured meats but couldn’t find any baguettes in Bologna. We picked up a fresh baked Ciabatta from Palo Atti and Sons bakery to go with the meats and cheeses for that picnic-at-home meal but the texture just wasn’t what we’re accustomed to eating with cured meats. The complimentary bread at restaurants was also very disappointing, so we stuck to pasta.
We also loved to sample gelato from various gelaterias. Cremeria Santo Stefano was a favorite that we returned to repeatedly. Venchi has a more convenient location right near Piazza Maggiore, but that also meant it had higher prices and more foot traffic. We think it’s worth walking out of your way to go to Cremeria Santo Stefano.
One of our favorite things to do on vacation is to take a cooking class and learn more about local specialties. We found Il Salotto di Penelope and made hand-made tortelloni in a sage butter sauce, Tagliatelle en ragu, and gnocchi in tomato sauce. It was such a fun and delicious experience. My 9-year-old ate as much pasta as the other adults in the class!
Finally, I can’t end our list of culinary experiences in Bologna without mentioning the beverages. In the morning we would stop by Misterlino Cafe for an espresso. In the afternoon, the same cafe had a Happy Hour special where we tried an Aperol Spritz and a Negroni. Plus we really liked Lambrusco, a local Emilia-Romagna region red wine we had never tried before.
Let me add one note. There is one food-oriented activity I considered, but then skipped: a tour of the family-owned companies producing Parmagiano Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar, and Prosciutto di Parma. They require early morning departures from Bologna and I figured my family prefers sleeping in and eating the food more than seeing how it’s made.
During our week-long stay in Bologna, we took the train to two other cities for day trips: one to Florence and one to Modena. Florence is quite close to Bologna and I figured we could spend a day there. After a few days in Bologna, where we didn’t see many tourists and felt like we stuck out as Asian Americans, it was jarring to arrive in Florence and be surrounded by English-speaking tourists. The city had far heavier foot traffic as tourists surged to various markets, restaurants, and stores. We also saw tourists from Asia (with their flag-waving guides).
We browsed the stalls inside Mercato Centrale, picking up a few snacks like arancini with prosciutto, a lampredetto sandwich (the fourth and final stomach of a cow that is a Florentine specialty), and gelato. We also walked past various stalls outside the market lining the streets with lots of tourist trinkets and leather goods. However, we didn’t buy anything from there as I was focused on finding a highly recommended leather goods store, Michelangelo Florentine Leather, that I learned about on TripAdvisor. The owner, Lapo Michelangelo, was so charming and helpful that we ended up buying far more than planned. I picked up a structured shoulder bag for me, a leather backpack for my eldest (then 12), a cross-body purse for my youngest (then 9), and a wallet for my husband.
Pro Tip: Skip any leather goods in the outdoor stalls that line the main thoroughfare (San Lorenzo Market area) as they often use cheaper imported leather rather than Florentine leather. Lapo also asked that we keep our purchases hidden inside the paper shopping bags until we were on the train, as otherwise, the stall owners would take photos of his designs to copy them.
Lapo then directed us to a small restaurant, Trattoria Antellesi, for lunch. It was a lovely recommendation as the food was delicious, the service friendly and helpful, and it wasn’t crowded at all. The girls each ordered the pici (thick hand-rolled pasta like fat spaghetti) in tomato sauce, while I had the porcini ravioli and my husband had the sea bass. We laughed and chatted about the morning as we ate.
As we walked back to the train station, we found a small shop selling hand-made ceramics and picked up a cheerful lemon yellow and blue set of olive oil and vinegar cruets. It makes me smile every time I see them in our kitchen.
I know we missed some incredible Florentine experiences. We never went to any of the museums. We didn’t see the Basilica of Santa Croce, the Duomo, or Ponte Vecchio. I only know these names from seeing them on the front page of TripAdvisor’s Florence page. But that’s not how my family travels. We prefer a leisurely pace, exploring local foods and perhaps doing an activity or two.
The next day, we took the train to Modena. We absolutely loved the town. It’s a beautiful place with gorgeous architecture, yet not overwhelmed with crowds like in Florence. We strolled to its Mercato Albinelli, admiring the produce and trying a few pastries and Modenese cookies (amaretti di Modena) from the stalls in the back of the market. It was full of locals shopping for the day, calling out to one another in Italian. I think the only time we saw tourists was at lunch when we heard other diners speaking in English.
After a morning of strolling and browsing, we had an incredible lunch at Hosteria Giusti in Modena. I had made the reservation via email months earlier and was thrilled to get it after failing to get a reservation at the three Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana nearby. I think Hosteria Giusti is a better fit for our style since we had our daughters with us anyway, so it all worked out for the best. My husband and I greatly enjoyed the tasting menu while the girls selected items a la carte.
After lunch, on the way to the train, we stopped and bought panini from Bar Schiavoni to take home to Bologna for dinner (which we paired with a local Lambrusco). We had 2 Cotechino (an Italian pork sausage), 2 Parma ham with figs, and 1 with shrimp, pumpkin, and porcini mushrooms. It was hard to resist eating them before we got home, but fortunately, we were still full from lunch.
I would absolutely love to return to Italy, particularly to Modena. Its slow pace, gorgeous architecture, lack of tourist crowds, and incredible food make it an ideal place for a leisurely food-centered vacation. We had a wonderful time sampling Italian cuisine and highly recommend a trip to Emila-Romagna for any other foodies.