Dining in Modena, Italy: 7 dishes visitors should try

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Whether you’ve hit up Sicily to gorge on arancini or made a special trip to Naples to sample the world’s best pizza, no corner of Italy will leave your stomach disappointed. Yet many miss a big slice of Italian gourmet excellence in the northern city of Modena.

Modena’s location in the Po Valley (Pianura Padan) has a lot to do with its culinary stardom. This foggy, flat stretch of land produces a variety of foods that are protected by the European Union – and globally counterfeited.

Piacere Modena (Modena Pleasure) is an organization that champions the region’s culinary greatness. A consortium uniting hundreds of top food producers, it was created two years ago to raise funds after the terrible earthquake that rocked the northern region of Emilia Romagna. It now organizes gourmet tours of the region as well.

“We showcase Italy’s most popular menu,” says director Ermi Bagni. “Our food is a mix of tradition and sensations. Even foreigners will find here a taste of their homeland.”

We asked Bagni to share top local specialties every visitor to Modena should try. Here are the top seven:

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1. The King of Cheese

You'll never look at Parmesan the same way again.

Let’s call by its real name: Parmigiano-Reggiano, not Parmesan. Dubbed the King of Cheese, its big round shape, crumbly surface and strong, salty taste are best enjoyed after at least 24 months of seasoning. In other words, the older the better.

Modena is where the original is made.

Believed to have originally been imported by French monks in the Middle Ages, Parmigiano-Reggiano is still made by dairymen with religious devotion – many even skip holidays to make sure it’s perfect.

“Italian kids are weaned on Parmigiano,” says Bagni. “It’s full of calcium and good for bones.”

There are a number of dairy farms open to the public, such as Modena’s Caseificio 4 Madonne, built in 1967. It offers various tours that include cheese and wine tastings.

Caseificio 4 Madonne, Strada di Lesignana, 130, Lesignana, Modena; +39 059 849 468

2. Venus’ belly button

Venus ain't got nothing on these tiny pockets of heaven.

Tortellino, handmade pasta shaped like a knot, is Modena’s primary specialty. According to legend, a voyeuristic innkeeper, peeking through a keyhole to spy on Venus and Mars in the middle of a hot and heavy session, caught just a glimpse of the goddess’ perfect belly button and tried to reproduce it in pasta form.

Voila! Tortellino was born.

Every household has its own particular recipe, but it’s usually served in capon broth. It can be filled with many ingredients, such as Parmigiano and ham, seasoned hen or beef.

For the top tortellino experience, the Traditional Tortellino Festival is held every September in Modena. It includes live cooking events, tastings and midnight breakfasts.

3. Poets’ wine

Locals have a saying: “To drink lambrusco is like inviting a German to drink – a pleasure.” Latin poets Virgil and Cato used to sing about it.

Lambrusco, first created in Modena, is a sparkling red wine made of sweet must – freshly pressed grape juice. The fragrance evokes memories of harvest time, the bubbles offer a pleasant sensation and the alcohol content isn’t too high.

It can be one of two colors, a brilliant ruby or rosé, and is either dry or semi-dry. It has the elegance of spumante, but the beauty of red wine, making it perfect for happy hour or during meals – particularly tortellini and meats.

You’ll find lambrusco in any Modena restaurant.

4. Pig thighs

Modena prosciutto is legendary.

Modena’s prosciutto is a niche product. Only 180,000 pieces of the thinly sliced strips of pig thigh are seasoned each year.

Fresh air coming down from the Apennine Mountains is said to be the secret ingredient that makes this premium cold meat so addictive. According to legend, the locals’ love for pig thighs was inherited from the Celtics who took refuge here from the Romans. Prosciutto is an addictive finger-food but you can also slice it and throw it into a sort of pizza called tigella.

“You need to eat it in all its purity,” says Bagni.

Prosciuttificio Nini, a ham factory founded in 1910, has some of Modena’s best prosciutto.

Prosciuttificio Nini, Via Sicilia, 61, Savignano sul Panaro, Modena; +39 059 730 103

5. Zampone and Cotechino

Here’s where the calorie count rises a bit. Zampone is a pig’s trotter stuffed with various ground pork parts and cotenna – the rough outer skin. No worries, it’s all edible.

“The pig moves so his skin is very elastic. It’s divine,” says Bagni. Pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves can be added.

Meanwhile cotechino, traditionally served on New Year’s Eve with lentils, is a large boiled sausage dubbed the “plate of the poor.” It’s made with the leftovers of pork guts wrapped in a big cloth.

You can give them a try at Villani Salumi, which also features the world’s first salami museum.

Villani Salumi, Via Zanasi Eugenio 24, Castelnuovo Rangone, Modena; +39 059 534 411

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6. Gods’ nectar

Post-meal, it's the world's best digestive.

Modena is the birthplace of balsamic vinegar, famed for its dark amber color and higher density than normal vinegars.

Made of cooked grape juice seasoned in wooden barrels, the real essence of balsamic vinegar (“balsamic” refers to its soothing, healing properties) can only be captured when it’s tasted on its own.

One spoonful after dinner is the best digestive in the world. No wonder prices per bottle reach €250 ($277) – some say it’s better than wine.

For a taste of some of the best, vinegar farm Acetaia Pedroni runs a tavern that serves a number of balsamic vinegar specialties.

Acetaia Pedroni, Via Risaia 4, Rubbiara di Nonantola, Modena; +39 059 549 019

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7. Bittersweet concoctions

Another Modena specialty, black cherry jam (confettura di amarene brusche) has a unique, bittersweet taste. Locals define the flavor as “brusco” – sharp.

The low sugar content is a good excuse to finish off a whole jar, and the jam is perfect for short crust pastry pies and tarts, such as crostata. It’s a nice balance, with the pastry’s sweet flavor offsetting the bitterness of the black cherries.

The marmalade is great alone. For dessert you can gulp down two spoonfuls or use it as ice cream topping.

One of the top makers of confettura di amarene brusche in Modena is Monte Ré. On its website, buyers can trace the history of their products by entering a code on the package that gives them information on the supply chain, including the original source of the produce.

Monte Ré, Stradello Aggazzotti 90, S. Maria di Mugnano, Modena; +39 059 460 124

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Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She writes about finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of media including MNI News, Newsweek and The Guardian.