Often overshadowed by its sister region Emilia, home to the holy trinity of Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, and aceto balsamico, Romagna has a culinary culture all its own, but little discussed. In fact, the great Italian culinary historian Pellegrino Artusi, who hailed from Forlimpopoli, neglected to include the local flatbread piadina in the original edition of his seminal work, The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well.
Romagna hugs the Adriatic Coast, and Europeans flock there during the steamy summer months to bask on the sandy beaches in towns like Cesenatico, home to the famed Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan. But a visit to the region in the off season means less time tanning and more time tasting.
Here are 10 classic foods from Romagna that you may not know but should seek out if you're ever in the region:
Romagna’s native flatbread, piadina, is ubiquitous throughout the region. Roadside stands pepper the landscape and central piazzas, serving forth hot rounds folded around slices of prosciutto, dollops of soft cheese and a hank of arugula. From town to town, the local preference may be to make it slightly thicker or thinner, on the order of millimeters. Made of the simplest ingredients, each shines through: 0-grade flour, lard from local mora pigs and Adriatic sea salt.
The soft cheese most often enjoyed in piadina is this whole-milk cheese with a soft, creamy texture and fresh, milky flavor. With its high fat and water content, the cheese is incredibly perishable, and must be eaten within two to three days of production. Consequently, you will almost never find squacquerone outside the region.
SAL DOLCE DI CERVIA
Even the salt is special in Romagna. Much like France’s fleur de sel or England’s Maldon, the sea salt in Cervia, near the Po River delta, is harvested by hand from salt ponds. The particular mineral contents of the ponds lends the salt a mild, faintly sweet flavor, hence the name sal dolce. One of the salterns, Salina Camillone, has been recognized by Slow Food International as a Presidia, worthy of preservation. Camillone’s salfiore, a fine, flaky salt like fleur de sel, has been favored by the Vatican for centuries, and so it is also called sale dei papi, or the pope’s salt. They also produce a coarser riserva.
Hand-rolled pasta is abundant throughout Emilia-Romagna, but Romagna has a few specialties. Made with a less eggy dough than standard egg pasta, strozzapreti are that are rolled between the palms, creating twisted curls that grab sauce.
The name, which translates as “strangle the priests,” reflects Romagna’s longtime anti-clerical sentiment, having been a Papal State for centuries. One of the explanations is that the action of twisting the pasta between the hands is like the action of snapping a clergyman’s neck. Another is that households would serve this to priests when they came over for dinner, hoping that they’d eat their fill of the pasta to the point of choking, so the family could reserve more precious foods, like meat, for themselves.
FORMAGGIO DI FOSSA
The tiny hill town of Sogliano sul Rubicone is built atop a mound of porous limestone. During medieval times, residents carved pits in their soft stone basements to hide their sheep's milk cheese from papal tax collectors. The pressure of packing the cheeses into the pits caused them to expel liquids, which penetrate the pit walls, and are reabsorbed over the months in storage, bringing with them minerals from the limestone. The resulting cheese has a sharp flavor and faintly chalky texture, excellent tsavorwith crisp, flinty white wines.
This autumnal conserve is made with quince, apples, pears, nuts (including almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts) and saba, the reduced grape juice that makes the base of balsamico. It’s hearty, sweet-savory, and goes very nicely with formaggio di fossa and wedges of piadina.
Unlike typical pasta, which is made from flour and eggs and/or water, passatelli are more like a dumpling made from bread crumbs, eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, flour and a touch of nutmeg. The ingredients are mixed into a thick paste, which is then extruded through a press similar to a potato ricer directly into simmering broth, forming thick, shaggy noodles. Passatelli are traditionally served in the broth, but nowadays chefs are draining the noodles and pan-frying them with other ingredients. The dough can also be rolled into a single log known as salame matto and poached in broth, then served with braised meat and boiled potatoes.
CAGNINA DE ROMAGNA
In the fall, when truffle festivals pop up in hill towns throughout the region, a popular snack is roasted chestnuts paired with Cagnina. This young red wine is soft on the palate and very low in alcohol, and its fruity aroma enhances the natural sweetness of the chestnuts.
In Emilia, the choicest cuts of the hog, the legs and shoulders, are hung for prosciutto and culatello. In Romagna, the humid climate makes it inhospitable for curing whole-muscle salumi, so the salame of Romagna contains the best, leanest cuts of pork and tiny, hand-cut lardetti of fat. Secondary, more marbled cuts are ground and used in salsiccia, and the skin, sinew and other off cuts are ground for the rustic cotechino, which is often consumed at New Year’s Day. The fat of the hog is rendered for strutto, or lard, leaving cracklins from the fat solids known as ciccioli, enjoyed as a snack.
All the seafood from this part of the Adriatic is delicious. Keep an eye out for canocchie, or grey mantis shrimp, with long tails full of soft, sweet meat; they're often baked in crusts made from sal dolce. The local clams are also extraordinary. They are no bigger than your pinky nail, but they’re huge in flavor. There’s hardly a more enjoyable meal than sitting down to a big bowl of these little bivalves, slurping the meat from the shell and dunking rustic bread in the fragrant broth.
Sean Timberlake is the founder of Punk Domestics, a site for the DIY and food preservation enthusiasts. He occasionally takes groups to Romagna to experience the local food and preserving culture. For more information, visit www.punkdomestics.com/travel.
Opening photo by Sara Remington