Living large in Ferrara

Once more, we took a short train ride from Bologna to visit another piece of Italian history – Ferrara, located between Florence and Venice. This positions it very nicely for modern-day tourism, but in medieval times, its location guaranteed power plays and rivalries among the wealthy families who controlled each city.

In Ferrara, the Este family ruled the roost, in direct competition with the Medicis in Florence. And who knows what intermarriage with the Borgia clan – Lucretia, no less – did to the politics of the time. They seemed to have a healthy degree of paranoia about their vulnerability, so, starting in 1385, they built a huge castle complex – complete with moat – right in the center of the city. Today they have a statue of another hometown boy, Savonarola, right outside the door. It can’t have been too pleasant to have him in the neighborhood.

It’s an impressive exterior, but the interior has been scrubbed and sanitized, so we had to give up any hope of seeing how Lucrezia Borgia’s rooms were configured. Yes, this much maligned mother and wife (according to the guide) lived and died here while doing many charitable works in the city. See what we learned today?

At any rate, there were some remnants of majesty in the building, and many of the ornate ceilings were reflected in handy mirrors so that neck strain could be comfortably avoided. Very thoughtful. Lots of restoration work going on here.

The ever-popular dungeons – although packed with school groups and containing artistic graffiti – did give one a chill.

Even though very little is left of the 15th and 16th century ornamentation, the building itself is still an awesome edifice. There must have been quite a rich life lived there until 1597, when Alfonso II died without heirs, and the House of Este lost Ferrara to the Papal States. It seems the Pope’s people did a bit of remodeling of Castello Estense in their day too, and a lot of Este loot got scattered around Italy to the loyal faithful. Well, they had a good run.

Before they lived in the castle, the Este family occupied a more modest building very nearby and just across from the Duomo. Now the Palazzo Municipale, it must have just been a bit too small and unprotected as the family grew. These things happened. Also, they raised taxes and that caused what might be called civil unrest.

And then, of course, there is the magnificent 12th-century Duomo. A Romanesque and Gothic blend, it is worthy of study both outside and in. There are lots of lions everywhere – and some look exhausted. There is even one of those Neapolitan manger scenes where Mary gives birth in Nazareth while the people of Naples carry on eating and drinking right next door, oblivious to the momentous events a foot away. A study in realism.

Ferrara is another lovely Northern Italian town, worthy of more time than we gave it, but we wanted to leave before anything bad occured. Did you see what happened in Florence yesterday while we were there?

Here is the best news quote about the collapse of this water main pipe – so very Italian: “The collapse ‘raises the curtain on the criminal management of water resources in Florence’, said Federica Daga, a member of the anti-establishment Five Star movement, blaming not just the mayor but his predecessor, current Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.” 

I’ve stopped apologizing for our own politics – though they are quite cringe-worthy.

Don’s Food Corner

Thirty-five years ago while driving from Florence to Venice, we stopped for lunch in the town of Ferrara. I remember it as filled with blackened stone buildings lining very narrow streets. We found a place to park and walked into the nearest restaurant. I noticed an old woman (Old?  thinking back, she might have been 60!) in the back room rolling out handmade pasta and making cappelletti. We decided to have a meal of nothing else. I remember in particular the cappelletti in brodo as a soup starter and cappelletti with ragu. All in all, it was one meal I can still recall with some detail and great fondness.

Fast-forward 35 years and a return to Ferrara finds the buildings mostly cleaned of millennia of grime, making them kind of golden, and the narrow streets now mostly pedestrian-only walkways paved with picturesque, but hard to walk on, cobblestones.

I tried to remember where the restaurant was that we visited so long ago, but I couldn’t locate it.

Instead, we searched out a restaurant that promised to serve the best examples of three of Ferrara’s local signature dishes:  cappellacci di zucca (the local version of large cappelletti and here filled with pumpkin and herbs, especially sage), salama du sugo (stewed pork sausage) and pasticcio di maccheroni (an oven-baked macaroni pie topped with Parmesan).

We started with the cappellacci.  Today at the restaurant, a version of the traditional dish was a featured special of the day.  What made it special was a very generous heaping of sliced black truffle on top.  Check out the photo.  Almost vulgar, huh? I sensed that they were not going to hold back on the truffle since the price was $16, about twice as much as a usual order of pasta dishes.  While the truffle was the star of the dish, the cappellaci was otherwise simply tossed in butter and fresh sage.  The pumpkin filling in the pasta brought sweet notes to the affair while the truffle contrasted with an earthly taste.  It turned out to be rather complex.  Not the soothing comfort-food experience that the plain cappellacci di zucca in its truest form might be.

The stewed pork sausage was crumbled and obviously simmered for hours along with other ingredients that I couldn’t identify. Looking at our Italian food dictionary, I learned that salama da sugo is a Ferrara specialty that resembles haggis, consisting of pork neck, belly, throat, liver and tongue salted and seasoned, mixed with unpasteurized red wine and then packed into a pig’s bladder for aging. (Gee, I wish I had read that description before I ordered.) Obviously, the packed sausage was unmolded, broken-up and cooked further to deliver today’s dish. It was piled in the middle of some beautifully smooth and buttery mashed potatoes. Like our starter dish, this did not hit my American palate as a comfort food choice. I think it might take some getting used to — and this was before I knew what was in it.

Similarly, the macaroni pie, which did include a base of macaroni with cheese, was a long way away from anything that could resemble mac n’ cheese. It was actually almost more like a shepherd’s pie, with the macaroni on the bottom and a layer of some type of ground meat on top and then wrapped in pastry before being baked. We were served a wedge from a larger pie, not an individually prepared portion. The pastry was sweet, the meat was seasoned with herbs and garlic, and the macaroni was, I think, encased in a custard of eggs and cheese.  And, again, it was a complex dish that didn’t invite us in readily.

We’re going to assume we got a taste of the authentic thing of all three regional specialty dishes, as we won’t have the chance to try them elsewhere. Clearly, all three were carefully prepared. We appreciated the experience because that’s why we’re traveling. But I’m not going to search out recipes for any of them — if, in fact, recipes have found their way into Italian cookbooks meant for American cooks.

It wasn’t the same experience we had 35 years ago, but you can’t do the same thing every time you return to an old haunt.



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