milia-Romagna is often overlooked by visitors, and that’s a shame because its many smaller cities are an absolute treat. And for those who enjoy building their trips around a narrative thread, there’s the Via Emilia, an ancient Roman road that connected Piacenza in the north to Rimini on the Adriatic coast.
Start in Piacenza, on the Po just south of Lombardy. Despite being bombed, it’s an attractive mix of romanesque, baroque and gothic architecture in a grid of narrow, cobbled streets. There are plenty of churches, palaces and museums, but that’s not what Piacenza is famous for. You come here for the cold cuts and the wines of the Colli Piacentini, Piacenza’s hills, known for perfumed malvasia and gutturnio wines, made with a mix of barbera and croatina grapes to produce sparkling tipples and heady riservas.
As for food, the pig is king. There are plenty of hearty pasta and rice dishes on menus in Piacenza, but the city is renowned for its cured meat. Locals prize coppa piacentina, made from pork shoulder and neck and aged for up to a year. But there’s a wealth of salumi to explore here, so swap a traditional dinner for boards of affettati, sliced meats, with cheese and mostarda condiment. Pair them with another regional staple, gnocchi fritti, fried golden pillows of bread.
A few minutes on foot from the city’s 12th-century cathedral, Osteria Santo Stefano has a relaxed, neighbourhood atmosphere and serves local specialities, with pastas from €8. The nearby Grande Albergo Roma (doubles from €92 room-only) is on the kitsch side, but the views from its rooftop terrace and bar more than make up for the décor.
Called the autostrada del sole because it connects northern Italy to the sunny south, the A1 motorway roughly traces the Via Emilia from Piacenza, taking you south-east to Parma in around an hour through the pan-flat Po valley. The slower, toll-free SS9 takes a similar route.
The next stop needs little introduction for lovers of Italian food. Prosciutto di Parma and parmigiano reggiano cheese both bear the city’s name: the latter was this year named Italy’s second-most recognisable food brand, behind Nutella. Much like the ham, this unpasteurised cheese is so commonplace it is often undervalued, but there are few things more delicious than the proper stuff.
Every wheel of parmesan is inspected after a year’s ageing by a man with a well-trained ear and a little hammer, searching for undesirable cracks and bubbles inside. Nothing beats finding an entire wheel of three-year-old cheese on a table, lid sliced off, innards exposed, ready to be hacked at with a little tagliagrana cheese knife.
Pepèn sandwich shop is a local institution: the owners will tell you they’ve fed half of Parma. At the other end of the scale, Parizzi is worth a visit, even with its Michelin-star pretension. Try the selection of aged cured meats (€18). Around 15 minutes north of the city, Locanda Abbazia (doubles from €100 B&B) has turned 10 monks’ cells into comfortable bedrooms, with all mod cons.
Modena, another hour east, is the birthplace of Enzo Ferrari and Luciano Pavarotti, and known for the balsamic vinegar made all around. Modena is also home to Massimo Bottura and his Osteria Francescana (10-course tasting menu €250), twice voted the world’s best restaurant. For more proletarian budgets, countless trattorias offer tortellini, hand-rolled egg pasta dumplings with meat, vegetables or cheese, usually served in broth. There’s also zampone, cured stuffed trotter, and cotechino, made with intestines.
Bottura’s top tip for eating in Modena is Trattoria Bianca , on an unremarkable street north of the station. Who would argue with Italy’s top chef? Pasta dishes start at €12. A short walk from the main Piazza Grande, Hotel Cervetta 5 (doubles from €125 B&B) has smart, understated rooms.
From Modena, it’s another 45km to Bologna, capital of Emilia-Romagna. A city of students, it has a rich history and fantastic eateries under its famous porticoes. On the menu here are tagliatelle with ragù, lasagne, tortelloni with butter and sage, veal cutlets with ham and cheese, and polpettone (meatloaf) with friggione, a tomato and onion stew. According to a study last year, there’s a bar or restaurant in the historical centre for every 37 inhabitants.
As ever when driving in Italy, avoid a hefty fine by keeping an eye out for the dreaded ZTL – limited traffic zone – sign. If your hotel is inside the ZTL, they should be able to clear your registration plate without any hassle, but call ahead and make sure. Art Hotel Orologio (doubles from €176 B&B) is right in the centre, with comfortable, slightly old-fashioned rooms.
End of the road is seaside Rimini, famous for long summers, gaudy beach bars – and freshly caught fish. For cooler evenings, try coniglio in porchetta, stuffed, rolled and boned rabbit, or cappelletti pasta stuffed with cheese. Down on the promenade, piadina romagnola flatbreads can be found on almost every street. Nud e Crud , beside the famous Tiberius Bridge, does an excellent selection from €6, and Italian craft beers. Stay right on the water in Villa Adriatica (doubles from €90 B&B), an 1880s palace with a pool.