Eat & Drink Your Way Through Italy’s Epicurean Dreamland

When in Emilia-Romagna, think cheese tours, balsamic vinegar tastings, vineyards, and so much ham.

Whether you’re gorging on Neapolitan pizza or twirling strands of tomato-coated spaghetti, there’s no doubt about it: Italy’s food is unmatched when it comes to heartiness and comfort. But if you’re looking for a true epicurean dreamland within the country’s many food-filled regions, one can argue that a trip to the Emilia-Romagna region is in order.

The cities within this region include Parma (of Parma ham fame), Bologna, Modena, and Reggio-Emilia. Together, they link together a land of aged cheese and cured meat, of thick, sweet balsamic vinegar and a sparkling red wine that’s known for being one of Italy’s most exported varieties.

Emilia-Romagna isn’t just a place to eat and drink to excess (though it’s definitely that), but also a necessary pilgrimage for anyone who wants to learn more about how their favorite foods are made. From vineyards to museums, the opportunities to learn are as ample as the eating.

Here are all the food and drink activities to indulge in while you’re there.

man holding large cheese wheel
True parmigiano reggiano is only made in one place: Emilia-Romagna. | Photo courtesy of Parmigiano Reggiano

Witness the salty miracle of Parmigiano Reggiano

One of the biggest draws of Emilia-Romagna is the chance to see how Parmigiano Reggiano is made. Parmesan is often misrepresented stateside; to get the seal of approval to be called Parmigiano Reggiano, the cheese must be made in this region following very strict guidelines (it’s kind of like how champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France—everything else is just sparkling white wine). These rules ensure that Emilia-Romagna’s Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is nothing short of perfection.

To see for yourself, don a flattering hairnet and elastic shoe covers and watch cheese masters transform copper vats of warmed fresh milk into 80-pound wheels of cheese. Their work is impressively faultless; they can tell when the cheese is warm enough to break up with a sweep of their hand in the milk, and when the curds are just the right size. You’ll also witness a few more dramatic events in the lifespan of the cheese, watching as a literal rind stamp of approval is added to every verified wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano and making eyes at what’s cheekily known as the “cheese cathedral”—the room where all the wheels are stacked sky high and left to age for at least a year.

Every tour, of course, ends with a cheese tasting of different aged Parmesans, allowing you to really appreciate each morsel. This experience can’t be missed if you find yourself in this part of Italy.

Guided tours with the official Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium can be booked here.

Lambrusco vineyards
Vineyards in Modena, Reggio-Emilia, and Parma produce lambrusco grapes (and wine). | Stefano Termanini/Shutterstock

Drink bottles of sun-drenched lambrusco

Yes, having an Aperol spritz is highly recommended during any excursion to Italy. But to break up that sweet, summery vibe, try lambrusco, a sparkling red wine made from grapes of the same name. It’s the drink of choice in the Emilia-Romagna region and comes in sweet and dry varieties, both of which are commonly served with fatty strips of prosciutto and hunks of hard cheese. Lambrusco is also one of Italy’s most exported wines, and it’s easy to see why; it’s an ideal foil to rich foods both regional and otherwise (Food and Wine calls it the “perfect Thanksgiving red wine,” and we’re inclined to agree).

To get the full lambrusco experience, you can visit a number of vineyards in Modena, Reggio-Emilia, and Parma, where grapevines hang heavy with fruit. There, you can see the process of pressing grapes, check out the barrels where the wine is aged, and taste the resulting wine.

And if you’re still missing the joyful feeling a spritz provides, you could always try a lambrusco spritz.

people in deli shop
Emilia-Romagna is known for cured meats like Prosciutto di Parma and Culatello di Zibello. | Photo courtesy of Parmigiano Reggiano

Cure yourself from the inside out with so much dry aged ham

The process of making Parmigiano Reggiano results in hundreds of gallons of leftover whey. Instead of simply dumping the lactose-rich liquid, the whey is fed to pigs that will eventually become Parma ham. This gives the ham a unique and rich flavor that can only be achieved in Emilia-Romagna, where the dairy facilities are located. Parma ham is so treasured that there is even a food festival devoted to it every September.

Then there’s Culatello di Zibello, another Italian product that possesses a PDO, or protected designation of origin (much like Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma). Culatello is slightly different to prosciutto in that it uses mostly thigh muscle meat, whereas Prosciutto di Parma is streaked with fat and cures with the leg bone inside it. Culatello is also aged inside the pig’s bladder, while prosciutto is not. Both, however, are dried by Emilia-Romagna’s temperate climate, which allows the Culatello and Prosciutto di Parma to concentrate their salty, porky flavor.

During your time in Emilia-Romagna, you can visit Culatello and prosciutto facilities to marvel at the hundreds of pork legs knotted and stored in their basements, knowing that with time the cured meat will make the finest charcuterie. At these facilities, you can also taste different ages of the thinly sliced ham and appreciate this centuries-long tradition.

barrels of wine and vinegar
Modena’s barrel-aged balsamic vinegar will ruin the grocery store varieties for you. | barmalini/Shutterstock

Indulge in balsamic vinegar unlike anything you've tasted before

Balsamic vinegar from Modena will ruin thin and runny grocery store varieties for you. Tasting balsamic vinegar in its truest form is truly a religious experience, and therefore a visit to a Modena balsamic vinegar maker is a must. We’d recommend Acetaia di Giorgio, where you can explore a mansion filled with hundreds of wooden barrels of the stuff.

Acetaia di Giorgio is run by three generations of balsamic vinegar producers who still follow traditions from hundreds of years ago, including cooking and reducing whole grapes and fermenting the product for a minimum of 12 years. The resulting vinegar is more comparable to a syrup: thick, sticky, and wildly aromatic. Each barrel varies in flavor, depending on age and the type of wood that the vinegar has been encased in. A visit to the house allows for a tasting of vinegars, where it’s easy to understand how balsamico used to be a digestif; it can easily be consumed by the spoonful, thanks to its smooth and sweet flavor.

aerial view of city center
Look for duchess cake in Parma. | Photo courtesy of Parmigiano Reggiano

Feast on desserts like royalty

Parma is famous for its duchess cake, which features a glistening chocolate ganache that enshrouds layers of hazelnut cake and zabaglione, a velvety Italian-style pastry cream crafted with marsala wine. The cake is decorated with cherries and an avalanche of powdered sugar, and strikes a balance between sweet and bitter, delicate and unctuous.

This dessert is named after Marie Louise, Napoleon’s second wife and the beloved Austrian archduchess who oversaw Parma for 33 years. You can find duchess cakes at bakeries throughout Parma; just look for shiny chocolate, candied cherries, and crushed hazelnut in pastry display cases. Don’t forget to pair it with a cappuccino.

dual tomato and pasta museum
You can find a dual tomato and pasta museum just outside of Collecchio. | francesco de marco/Shutterstock

Tie it all together at Casa Artusi and other food museums

Emilia-Romagna is home to Casa Artusi, a center of Italian food culture and home cooking. It is here that you can take private cooking classes, visit the library devoted to culinary wisdom, or simply have a meal at the foundation’s restaurant.

You can also find a museum devoted to gelato in Bologna, and a dual tomato and pasta museum just outside of Collecchio. What better way to end your food-themed excursion in Italy?

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter.