Sipping spumante near the Romanesque duomo in Modena, my friend John and I watch a pack of grandmothers in crisp linen suits feed chunks of Parmesan to a frisky black cat. Each of their granddaughters -- none older than six -- clutches a cell phone. A man who looks like a farmer pulls up in a tomato-red Ferrari.
This vision of bourgeois prosperity fits Emilia-Romagna like a Gucci glove. Synonymous with Italy's other holy trinity -- Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, and balsamic vinegar -- the cuisine of this dairy- and grain-rich northern province shares little with the ascetic lyricism of Liguria or the deluxe minimalism of Tuscany. Here the Italian middle-class table is at its richest. Think golden egg pastas and dumplings, whether floating in strong capon broth, lavished with butter and cream, or served al ragù; salumi (prosciutto, culatello, mortadella) -- the pig's proudest moments; puffy fried breads; glorious sausages (cotechino, zampone); and nutty, buttery cakes.
From our base in Bologna, we drive out to Modena, Ferrara, and Ravenna -- though the treacherous traffic codes of the historic town centers are a good excuse to take the train.
If Bologna once reigned supreme in Italian dining, now locals bemoan the disappearance of authentic cuisine. Old women who used to make pasta from scratch are dying out, long lunches have gone the way of the dodo, and "evil sanitation inspectors" have taken the soul out of the restaurants.
Perhaps. But walk around Mercato delle Erbe and inhale the scent of melons, roses, and olives. Gasp at the astonishing cheeses at La Baita dei Formaggi. Try the Berniniesque pastries at Antico Forno Piemontese on Via Drapperie, and sample the boutique jams, vinegars, and oils at Gilberto, across the street. Pause for a salad and cold cuts at the self-service cantina of Tamburini, the king of gourmet emporiums. I challenge you to find a more sophisticated and exuberant food scene.
Charmingly weathered, with crystal chandeliers and a window display dominated by a giant, dangling mortadella, Diana is what's called an "establishment." Piatti della tradizione -- tagliolini in broth, green lasagne al forno -- are dispensed by white-jacketed waiters absorbed in carving, stirring, joking, meddling (even the teenage busboys look crusty in that waiterly way). They toss a long-simmered, intense Bolognese ragù with translucent strands of tagliatelle. They apportion the textbook bollito misto (boiled-meat dinner) from a cart, and deliver a thick veal chop to a sachet vendor dressed head-to-toe in lavender lace.
Younger bolognesi scoff at their city's traditional butter-rich food. At lunch, you'll find them nibbling on trendy dress-it-yourself salads and the pasta of the day at Rosa Rose, a bohemian bistro right by the Mercato di Mezzo. In the evenings a university crowd packs the osterias -- in Bologna, the term refers to atmospheric watering holes serving light food -- on the raucous Via del Pratello (though cognoscenti recommend Cantina Bentivoglio on Via Mascarella or Osteria dei Poeti on Via dei Poeti).
The voguish set favors Drogheria della Rosa. The magnet at this 1893 drugstore stylishly cluttered with antique pharmacy jars and contemporary art is the padrone, Manuelino, who can be at once endearing and mockingly rude. Our food -- oversize ravioli with a creamy eggplant filling; cheese-stuffed pockets of eggy dough with a delicate sauce of baby zucchini flowers; a beautiful artichoke salad -- is a bit of a hodgepodge but is prepared with southern Italian flair. When the waiter brings us the wrong kind of squid, Manuelino, in a grandly apologetic gesture, schleps in a heap of huge langoustines, and then a gallon of grappa.
At I Carracci, the restaurant of the opulent Grand Hotel Baglioni, John raises his eyes from the smoked-provolone risotto, surveys the ceiling, and delivers an oration on the post-Mannerist stylization of the Bolognese school. He doesn't usually lecture at restaurants -- unless their ceilings are lavishly frescoed by the workshop of the 16th-century masters the brothers Carracci. The food here is better than one has any right to expect from such a grandiloquent setting, but look up from your carpaccio to see the putti riding a dolphin, bacchanalian grotesques careering in phaetons, and allegorical representations of the four seasons. It puts a new spin on "dining alfresco."
Wealthy and gorgeous, Modena is the hometown of Ferrari, Maserati, Pavarotti, and balsamic vinegar -- and also the reputed capital of Emilian cuisine. The legendary Osteria Giusti is closed, so we enjoy our best meal at Osteria Francescana, which combines stagecoach charm (terra-cotta floors, wood-beamed ceiling) with cosmopolitan style (contemporary art, kilims, all-American dinnerware). One of the owners, Massimo Bottura, spent time in New York and honed his skills in Monte Carlo with Alain Ducasse. But Gallic flamboyance didn't go to his head. Francescana's elegant flavors and pedigreed ingredients are everything you wish from Italian food.
Chard gnocchi look dapper on a big white plate with a toss of black and pink beans and al dente vegetables. Superb mozzarella (made by a truck driver friend of Bottura's) is layered with sliced waxy potatoes and plump tomatoes. Shavings of grainy, almost sweet Parmesan and luxurious drizzles of old balsamico wake up a dreamy risotto. The house tortellini recipe is so ancient it pre-dates the tradition of serving these dumplings in broth -- hence the light Parmesan cream sauce. For dessert, Moscato d'Asti aspic mosaicked with summer berries.
It's nice to see young Italian chefs finally recovering from a post-nouvelle hiccup and reinventing regional flavors with such style.
"Mi dispiace, the hunter is on vacation, so no hare or boar today. But we can offer an asino stew," the waiter says. Asino? Hmm . . . it's donkey we're eating, and it tastes like beef, only tougher. The flavors at Ai Tri Scalin in Ferrara are so regional they're almost ethnographic, and you couldn't ask for a sweeter trattoria. We share the place with families pampering curly-haired children who look as if they've just dropped from heaven (or from that Carracci ceiling).
The food?Imagine a fritto misto that includes fried peaches and custard (as in dessert!). Soft pappardelle cloaked in a creamy and bracing sauce of castrato (mutton, not a singer). A mixed grill tasting meatily of smoke. Cappellacci di zucca, in which the sweet pumpkin filling contrasts strikingly with a savory meat sauce. "This sweet-salty thing is very Ferrarese," explains the blond owner, Mario, who will reveal only his first name.
Luck smiles on us in Ravenna. We beat the crowds to the city's fabled mosaics, chance upon a chic new hotel -- the seven-room Albergo Cappello, with Renaissance frescoes and zany postmodern lighting -- and bluff our way into the Ravenna Festival's star-studded premiere of I Pagliacci. Luckier still is our discovery of Tre Spade. An archetypal Italian middle-class restaurant -- just outside the city limits, somewhat charmless, and crowded with cell-phone-toting patrons -- it doesn't win you over immediately.
Don't worry. Ravenna is almost on the coast, so plunder the menu for treasures from warm Adriatic waters. The fritto misto -- you instantly warm up to a kitchen that fries so well -- contains three kinds of prawns, calamaretti, and minuscule fish called uomini nudi, or "naked men" (after considerable scrutiny we fail to see the resemblance). Then comes a glorious, runny risotto alive with intense marine flavors, pasta half-moons with a delicate crab filling, and sensational spaghetti in a soupy sugo di frutti di mare. OD'd on starch, we have to pass on the healthier option: whole fish wrapped in what looks like white terry cloth but is actually a crust of salt. Well, there's always the treadmill back home.