Whenever Modena is mentioned and we think of food, there are always three things that come to mind and that have made it famous around the World: tortellini, balsamic vinegar, and Massimo Bottura.
But there is also much more to Modena: here is how to discover the city, through its sights and especially its traditional dishes and food trivia.
On a day trip, the best way to start is with the most traditional and at the same time “alternative” breakfast: il gnocco fritto with a cappuccino.
No, this is not a typo: the plain square of dough (made only with water, flour, lard, and brewer’s yeast) that is usually served as an appetiser along with cold meats and salami, here is generally called gnocco fritto and served hot for breakfast.
Several places serve it, one just needs to find where they fry them fresh, like La Baracchina, one of the historical places that serves them hot and crispy.
But what is there to see in Modena?
The first stop is definitely the heart of the city: the Duomo, Piazza Grande and the Ghirlandina. Declared a Unesco heritage site in 1997, these sites have a fascinating history and bold architecture and are a splendid example of Romanesque art. Moreover, a chronicle of the time narrates that the people of Modena chose the architect, Lanfranco, who lived in the year 1000, through divine enlightenment.
Next to the apse of the cathedral, the Ghirlandina tower, a symbol of the city, rises 89 metres into the air. Originally built as a bell tower (the sound of its bells marked the rhythm of the city and summoned the population in case of danger), it also had a more public function of storing official documents and the chests containing valuables.
To complete the beauty of this part of the city centre, there is Piazza Grande, once a market square and now a social corner, surrounded by the Duomo, the bell tower and, on the eastern side, the Town Hall. But the most interesting part is the north-eastern side, featuring the Preda Ringadora (which in Modenese dialect means the ”harangue stone”), a large rectangular marble boulder over three metres long that was used as a stage by orators in the Middle Ages and was the ominous corner from which death sentences were executed.
From Piazza Grande we cross Piazza XX Settembre towards the Albinelli Historical Market. Behind a very ordinary entrance, the doors open onto this old market built at the beginning of the 20th century featuring the wonder of Art Nouveau, fruit, vegetable and food stalls just as they once were.
Among the stalls and shops, look for the cheese shop Boutique del Formaggio to start immersing into the local tastes and flavours: here are the products of the Caseificio Rosola di Zocca, historic producers of traditional Parmigiano Reggiano (established in 1966 as an agricultural cooperative society) and the fine cheese made from the milk of the Modena white cow, a Slow Food presidium making the most incredible of cheeses even better.
However, they do not only produce Parmigiano Reggiano: besides ricotta and the classic caciotta, they also make Furmai (known as the ‘farmer’s cheese’, produced in the autumn and winter seasons) and Maggengo (produced only in the spring and winter seasons), with a delicate flavour and made from the milk of cows fed only on green forage. Definitely worth tasting.
After spending the morning exploring the main monuments of the centre and the charming narrow streets surrounding it, it is finally time to ‘tuck our legs under the table’.
The choice of eating places is decidedly varied, so first a thorough overview of what to eat in Modena is necessary.
Of all the starters, we would like to give gnocco fritto its place of honour, accompanied by cold cuts of all kinds, but above all by Prosciutto di Modena DOP, a sweet-tasting raw ham that owes its uniqueness to its salting method (the ham is totally sprinkled with salt and massaged by hand several times before being left to rest for months). Often overshadowed by the fame of Prosciutto di Parma, it is a goodness worth trying.
And if you really are on the hunt for unique products, you must try the prosciutto di Mora Romagnola (a type of pork with ancient and local origins, bred wild in a large, forest area) of Ca’ Lumaco, a farm that breeds and preserves for long maturation a prosciutto that is simply unique.
And then the tigelle, small discs of bread cooked inside two hot plates, are often served with the gnocco fritto.
It may seem incredible, but the main course is not the starters: the first courses are absolutely the heart of the local cuisine. One cannot avoid eating at least a plate of tortellini, small ‘navels’ of filled pasta (pork, ham, sausage and sometimes mortadella), to be enjoyed strictly immersed in meat broth.
At this point vegetarians are probably in despair, actually even in the home of pork there are some meatless dishes like tortelloni stuffed with spinach and ricotta or passatelli, a rough pasta made with egg, Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs and cooked in broth.
And if you still have room for a second course (possibly plenty of room!), cotechino with lentils or zampone are served all year round in Modena, but should you fancy a consistent lunch, you need to give in to the boiled meat trolley; as these are used to make the broth for the tortellini they need to be eaten too afterwards.
Where to enjoy a full lunch? There are many options, but if you don’t want to leave the town centre, the most popular addresses are Trattoria dall’Aldina, Il Fantino and Piccola Osteria Zemiàn.
After a morning dedicated to the streets of the centre, the afternoon offers two options: either continue with the gastronomic joys of the city of Modena and its surroundings, or indulge in the artistic ones, immersing yourself in the Palazzo dei Musei, an enormous museum complex that encloses, under one roof the Estense Gallery, the Historical Archive, the Archaeological Ethnological Museum, the Civic Art Museum and the Roman andtheEstense Lapidary Museum.
But if you are interested in another part of history, it is impossible not to add a visit to a dairy and and vinegar factory to your day.
To discover the history of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP, the most iconic place is undoubtedly Acetaia Giusti, which has been creating and producing vinegar uninterruptedly since 1605. This is where you can not only learn the art of the vinegar-making process, but also visit the Giusti Museum, which offers an extraordinary tour of historical artefacts, centuries-old barrels and ancient objects that tell the story of the famous dressing.
Modena is surrounded by cities of art and castles, so it is very difficult to dedicate only one day to the city and its surroundings. The best choice is to spend a weekend there, perhaps taking advantage of a location such as the Podere Prasiano, where you can relax and discover the area at the same time with tastings and cooking classes with a sfoglina (the traditional farmwives who ‘roll out the dough’ to make tagliatelle and tortellini).
A place to choose, to taste and to love.