Don and I took a complete day off yesterday. We started out with good intentions. But then it took three tries to find a place where I could get a pedicure. (Yes, I do realize this is an indulgence, and no, I am not giving it up.) And then by the time I was done and Don got back from the train station getting our next round of tickets, it was raining and we were grumpy and it was Monday and lots of things were closed and so we took to our bed with our books and had a lovely lazy afternoon. But we awoke refreshed and ready for our expedition to Modena.
There are three very good reasons to go to Modena, a mere 25-minute train ride away from Bologna. In any order you prefer, those are: Ferrari, Pavarotti and balsamic vinegar.
We were able to indulge in two of them, but Pavarotti’s house was just too far out of town. While it was his dream retirement home, it was not built before he died, so that also colored our planning. He was born in Modena, but that site seems to have not survived as a shrine.
So we focused on another local boy who made it big. Casa Ferrari is the birthplace of Enzo Ferrari, and it was also his father’s garage/workshop. Father was in love with the automobile, and Enzo grew up dreaming of being a race driver at just the right time in the early 20th century. You could easily know more about his story and legend than we do, but we did learn that at one point that love of race cars turned to creating luxury personal cars to finance Enzo’s racing passions.
The original house is nestled within a very modern museum space, currently dedicated to Ferrari cars which have appeared in modern films. The space is dramatic and the cars are spectacular. Lots of dedicated fans were drooling over their favorites. Enzo’s office is also shown, with the conference table where he evidently ran some very tough meetings.
You don’t have to be car nut to crave just one of these – but you’ll need multi-millions to buy one.
Before consuming some of Modena’s more affordable delicacies, we did stop into the cathedral, built in the 13th century and updated in the 16th. It is considered to be the most representative Romanesque church in Italy.
The reliefs on the front of the church tell the story of Genesis in very clear detail. (Just see that Eve emerging from Adam’s torso.) It is a real treasure house, inside and out.
While we didn’t spend much time in Modena, we got the sense of a lovely liveable city, with great pride in its world-famous products. Somehow it all made us very hungry. (Cue Don.)
Don’s Food Corner
We knew that Modena is considered one of Italy’s great food centers. It’s one part of a kind of trifecta — Bologna, Parma and Modena. Modena is the only area of Italy permitted to produce the famed Balsamic vinegar and all its variations, based on how long it is aged. It’s all controlled by strict government regulations. Since we are traveling, we didn’t buy any of the especially rare versions that apparently are not exported and only available here.
However, we walked through the market, which seemed to be one of the most well-stocked we’ve seen in Italy, with stall after stall of amazing cheeses and meats.
I knew there was one style of prosciutto I wanted to try: culatello di Zibelloe, supposedly the finest of all prosciutto. It come from a certain part of the pig’s hind legs, whereas regular prosciutto is cut from the whole leg Then it is processed in a particular manner from pigs fed in a particular way in a particular area around Parma and Modena. Because of the natural manner in which this meat is cured, it was not allowed to be exported to the United States until 2013 (although the original process was invented in the 14th century). Still, it is rare in the U.S. and I am sure very expensive. How much better could it be?
Well, I walked up to a vendor of various types of prosciutto and asked if he had it. He beamed with delight that I had asked. He presented a platter with two dark looking round pieces of meat and asked if I wanted slices from the small piece or the large. When I showed confusion, he assured me that the slices from the small portion would be better. (Unlike regular prosciutto that is cured on the bone, this version is cured as a boned piece of meat, encased in a pig’s bladder for a year and then softened in dry white wine.) I asked for four slices. He carefully sliced the four slices, lovingly laying them down on a sheet of butcher paper. Then, he wrapped them up and handed the package to me. As an added treat, he sliced a very small piece for me to taste. I did. Yum, I assured him and he beamed with pride once again. He held up the meat to be photographed.
It tasted exceedingly earthy with an almost sweet aftertaste. The cost for the four paper-thin slices? Eight dollars. And that’s at the source. I will try it again when we get to Parma for a taste comparison, but I don’t think I’ll be ordering it at Dean and DeLucca back in New York.
Moving on from that experience, we found a restaurant that had been highly recommended for serving authentic regional dishes without pretense. Perfect.
There were plenty of choices featuring balsamic vinegar and other local dishes. Too many to choose from. But for a starter we settled on ricotta filled ravioli with a Balsamic vinegar sauce. It was fantastic. The ravioli were huge. The sauce was rich and subtle, a very fine reduction of balsamic vinegar that did not overwhelm the ravioli; it was not swimming in vinegar. As we have experienced before, balsamic vinegar handled right gives a sweetness to the dish.
Then we moved on to our second courses. BEWARE: Vegetarians and animal activists should stop reading.
I had roasted suckling pig with roasted potatoes. When I saw that this was being offered as a special of the day, I jumped. I had heard this a seasonal specialty. (It’s that time of the year, you know, as it is for veal.) I wasn’t sure how it was going to be served. A little piggy served whole with an apple in its mouth? Happily not. It was a few slices of roast pork with a tiny bit of meat sauce napping the meat. Here’s what you can say about roasted suckling pig: It’s the tenderest pork I’ve ever tasted and there’s no fat.
Jo got adventuresome today. She ordered a “cutlet” with prosciutto, cheese and a Balsamic vinegar sauce. The meat used in the cutlet was pork. It was somewhat like a version of saltimbocca with pork instead of veal. What made it really special was that it was “breaded” with a thick coating of polenta and then fried. The prosciutto and cheese were layered on top, browned and drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction. A truly successful dish. Jo found it a little too rich and the portion a little to large. Fearing that we would insult the chef by leaving anything on the plate, I polished it off.
The wine was also a regional specialty. Called Lambrusco, it is a sparkling wine somewhat similar to Spumante but not as sweet. There were at least ten different types of Lambrusco reds on the menu; our helpful waiter directed us to one that he thought would go with our meal. And he was right.
The guidebook that directed us to this jewel said: “What would pass as outstanding in any other country passes as normal at Ristorante da Danilo.” We agree. It might have been the best meal we’ve had in Italy so far.
The price was right, too. Two courses, a bottle of wine and a bottle of sparkling water were $63, including tip.
To top it off, we walked a few doors down and got some ice cream. Jo went with a salted caramel confection. I had a mixture of bilberry (a cousin of blueberry) and plain cream ice cream. What was really unusual and great about these ice cream cones is that they filled the bottom of the tip with a tiny bit of melted chocolate so that when you got to the end you weren’t depressed to find an empty space but got an extra bit of joy with a little bit of chocolate.
In short, it was a great food day.