To ring in the New Year, my family and I rented a farmhouse for a few days on the outskirts of Ferrara. Thinking back to the trip, the timing wasn’t ideal. Ferrara was freezing and on New Year’s Eve, the fog was so thick on our drive into town to watch the fireworks over Castello Estense that we wondered if we should even go out at all.
On the other hand, the cold holiday season is the perfect time to be in Ferrara and nearby Modena. The typical flavors and dishes of Emilia- Romagna — salty pork products, stuffed pastas, hearty broths, chocolate, torrone, balsamic vinegar, and fizzy Lambrusco — are the kinds of food and drink that warm you inside and out on a cold winter’s day or night.
We did not eat out often while in Ferrara, making most of our meals ourselves at the farmhouse. But we did enjoy restaurant meals there and in Modena, which we visited on a daytrip. The Christmas market in Ferrara (on Piazza Trento e Trieste), which had numerous food stands, as well as bars, cafes, bakeries, and markets, provided the rest of our eating experiences.
Modena is a gastronomic center in its own right. Of course, there’s its world famous balsamic vinegar. But its other culinary draws include the Mercato Albinelli and the Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana headed by star chef Massimo Bottura.
So what did I love to eat and drink while in Ferrara and Modena? It was hard to whittle down the list to five. But these are a good starting point if you’re planning to visit the area.
Five Favorite Flavors of Ferrara and Modena
1. Cappellacci/Tortelloni di Zucca (Pasta Stuffed with Roasted Pumpkin)
Sweet and savory roasted pumpkin stuffed inside fresh pasta is a comfort food for me. If it’s on the menu, I usually order it. Luckily, this is a very common dish in Ferrara and Modena, so much so that some market vendors sell already roasted pumpkin for those who want to speed up their fresh pasta-making time. The pasta shapes here are typically called cappellacci (Ferrara) or tortelloni (Modena).
While I have always thought of pumpkin-stuffed pasta as a vegetarian option, here it may be served with a sausage ragù or with butter and sage.
2. Balsamic Vinegar
Modena is known worldwide for its Aceto Balsamico – balsamic vinegar. But I had never had the chance to appreciate the vinegar in its various textures. At Il Fantino, a very congenial restaurant in Modena Centro, the vinegar was thick and spreadable, almost like a jelly, and was served with our antipasto.
Ferrara at Christmas brings opportunities to sample specialty chocolates from the various vendors in Piazza Trento e Trieste. On that same square is the organic chocolatier Rizzati, which makes one of the finest, creamiest chocolate gelato that we have ever tried. (Yes, we ate gelato in December.) Rizzati is known for its chocolate covered candies and two types of cake: tenerina and pampepato.
Eating in Italy is always well-rounded. Vegetables offset meat, stringent flavors balance rich, fatty ones. My list already has salty, tart, and sweet, so radicchio provides a bit of bitterness. In addition to the beloved pumpkin and ubiquitous potato (used for gnocchi, roasted or fried), radicchio is the vegetable most common on the winter table.
At Il Mandolino, a cozy restaurant in Ferrara, we ate an antipasto of red radicchio and crunchy pancetta drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Elsewhere, we had roasted radicchio as a contorno (side dish). Yes, radicchio isn’t found only in Emilia-Romagna — the variety typically served comes via Treviso in neighboring Veneto — but it was too common and too delicious to leave off the list.
Fizzy (frizzante or gassata) is a texture, not a flavor. But the fizziness of a Lambrusco is typically what makes my heart sing the most when presented with a meal in Emilia-Romagna. In fact, I would drink Lambrusco every day if it were more socially acceptable. Lucky for me, in this region it is. Waiters at our restaurants in Ferrara and Modena suggested Lambrusco for our meals and Lambrusco was also on tap when we had aperitivi.
I loved almost everything I ate in Ferrara and Modena. Some other favorites included:
- tortellini in brodo (meat-filled tortellini in broth — such a simple dish)
- gnocco fritto — fried dough, liked a salty donut, served as an appetizer alongside salumi, balsamic vinegar, and other spreads
- Pesto Modenese — a spreadable herbed lardo
I hope I get the chance to go back and try more delicious dishes from this warm and welcoming part of Italy.
Read more about “flavor” from my colleagues of the Italy Roundtable: