After exploring almost every corner of Europe, we like to think we know our home continent pretty well here at House of Coco. One of our favourite destinations has always been Italy, with it’s huge amount of culture, arts and unbelievable food. When the invitation hit our mailbox for a trip to Emilia Romagna, we were incredibly excited to visit a destination that’s a little less on the beaten tourist track. Our writer Jenna spent a long weekend in this buzzing part of Italy and although she wasn’t there long, she definitely lived fast…
“I’ve always had a fascination with Italy and it’s glorious reputation. It seems that everybody either wants to eat, drive, speak or be Italian. After my first arrival to the Mediterranean hotspot in 2016, I instantly understood what everybody was talking about. The language, the people, the weather, the fashion and the architecture is all incredibly sexy – and that’s before i’ve even begun to get amorous about the food. I’d been spoilt on my first visit to Italy as I visited Venice and Milan all within the same week, it was touristy, but I was head over heels. This time, I was excited to really get under the skin of this country and explore it’s roots. Everyone has heard of the food and family values but what about the core traditions the country has built itself on? It sounds straight out of the tour guides sales pitch, but when you delve deeper into Italy – it’s anything but.
The area of Emilia Romagna is home to two cities that are drenched in not only sunshine, but a whole lotta history. The two main things that link the locations of Bologna and Modena are the long vineyard edged roads and the fast cars they drive on them, but that isn’t all.
Architecture that rivals Rome
Although Modena is less well known than it’s tourist trap cousins Sicily and Rome, the buildings and vistas are just as stunning. After a flight via Paris, I was picked up and chauffeured by who I can only describe as Emilia Romagna’s biggest fan. Originally born in Serbia, you honestly wouldn’t be able to tell – he looked, sounded and was as passionate about the land as any native Italian. He told me how he never looked back after moving to the area over 30 years ago and considered himself a true Italian citizen, even if he does own two passports. Flicking through my itinerary for the long weekend, he gave me glowing yet honest reviews about some of the local pizza joints as we made our way to my hotel. Heading into Modena, it was like driving onto the set of an Italian movie, the buildings and Piazzas were terracotta and sandstone with the sun was shining at a nice 28 degrees. Not bad for October.
Checking into my hotel Canal Grande, it was 4* but not the 4* I was used to. This was Italian grandeur without a modern print in sight. The ceilings were painted in a Michael Angelo style and the big shuttered windows opened out onto a peaceful terrace. It was like going back in time and as I’m a sucker for marble floors, I was very happy with the traditional style. Throwing myself on my bed and punching in the WIFI code I shamelessly checked in and had a quick siesta before exploring Modena more. The city of Modena has been home to many a UNESCO world heritage site since 1997, with some gorgeous churches and government buildings to explore. Wandering up the stone steps to the City Hall, I stumbled upon the Modena ‘Hall of Fire’ which is famous for it’s hand painted mural by Niccolò dell’Abbate portraying famous characters from Ancient Rome set within a typical Emilia background. It was truly stunning and I didn’t even want to Instagram it, the idea of putting something so intricate online with a filter didn’t seem quite right.
Don’t just eat the food, learn the origins
One thing I will say about Emilia Romagna is that they’re all nuts about food and even more nuts about food produced in the region. When this trip came up and I saw the words ‘Modena’ , Balsamic Vinegar instantly came to mind. Although Balsamic Vinegar can of course be made in other parts of the world, the only TRUE Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is fiercely protected – much like how the French protect Champagne. On this trip, I visited countless Balsamic Vinegar Batterias (which are basically wooden barrels in varying sizes used to age the product) and I never got bored of it. There’s something incredibly sweet about the passion Modenese people have for Balsamic Vinegar with many families passing their production down through generations and hearsay is that every family has their own secret recipe. I’ve always loved Balsamic, but true Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is next level. It’s sweet, it’s woody, it’s tart, it’s totally unique.
I’d say that one of my favourite activities on this trip was learning how to make Tortellini on a traditional Italian farm. This farm was also home to one of the most delicious Balsamic Vinegar varities I had ever tried and their family based production had now gone regional.
Sitting down at a big wooden table with the sunlight streaming in, I found that I was absolutely sh*t at making pasta. Like utterly sh*t. In the end I had a rolling pin shook at me and we joked how I would never marry any of the chef’s sons now. Thankfully, the Lambrusco and three courses of unreal home cooked food softened the blow.
Was it just me or does the word Lambrusco make you wince? I don’t know if it’s the unfortunate likeness to the name Lambrini, but I always thought that Lambrusco was something you bought from Home Bargains. Boyyyy was I wrong. Lambrusco is a huge thing in the city of Modena, and in many regions around Italy. In this particular region, they treat it as they would Champagne. The grapes are grown and harvested with care with many producers opting to make the Lambrusco in the traditional Champagne method. I got pretty merry on Lambrusco right from the first night and I grew to absolutely adore the stuff. After visiting the well known producers Gavioli and the absolutely amazing vineyard lined resort of Opera 2, it was so lovely to see exactly where the grapes are grown and of course, try the product.
So – wine (check), Balsamic Vinegar (check), Pasta (check) – now for the Cheese. It would be impossible to go to Italy and not eat your weight in dairy. Alongside eating copious amounts of Ricotta and Mascapone, Parmigiano-Reggiano is where it’s at in Modena. On my first day I actually visited one of the most well known Parmigiano-Reggiano producers in Italy – El Hombre. El Hombre is actually owned by the Panini family (Football Cards, ask ya Dad) and they’re home to a large scale Parmigiano-Reggiano production, a collection of unreal classic cars and some pretty cute baby Cows. Stepping into their on-site deli, I got my initial taste of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano – virtually straight from the Cow. These cows aren’t battery farmed as you’d imagine, they roam in large open pens and are even treated to classical music when they are milked. Boujee.
Tip: Be sure to check out the Modena Food Market Mercato Albinelli it has some of the best cured meats around and is buzzing with activity. A sure fire place to eat how the locals do.
Pasta, but not how your mama makes it
Now it’s really no surprise that there are a ton of amazing family run restaurants in Emilia Rogmana, alongside some serious fine dining. When I arrived in Modena, it was a typical Wednesday night but by the time I went out for dinner – it had a buzz about it. Sitting down at a table in the most stereotypical Italian restaurant i’d ever seen (Stallo del Pomodoro) we were surrounded by large tables full of Italian friends and families. It was a great atmosphere with really casual dining and we tried EVERYTHING from Tortellini to Pesto Modenese inside fresh Tigelle. For those who aren’t familiar with Italian delicacies – basically carbs and more carbs. Pesto Modenese is literally one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten, it’s lard mixed with pancetta and it’s spread onto flat bread muffins (Tigelle). Word on the street is that if you get a Tigelle and fill it with Mascapone and Nutella – you will never look back.
Every restaurant we went to, we were treated to variations of Tortellini – when I got back to the UK I craved it for days. What I didn’t realise until I visited Modena, is that Tortellini should only ever be served in a broth or on it’s own. I had literally been doing it so wrong for so long and when I first tried it in a meat-based broth, my stomach was in love. On this trip, I didn’t feel hungry once, which is very strange for me. It was a constant voyage of amazing tastes and pretty much a food tour. I was very lucky to have a guide (Elena) from VisitModena to show me the ropes and she almost loved food as much as me but was definitely more passionate about it! Elena showed me one of the most picturesque vistas i’d seen when we had lunch at Opera2 overlooking the vineyards used to make their famous Lambrusco. We met the owner (typical gorgeous olive skinned man) who had a serious passion for the grapes. If you ever get an opportunity to visit Emilia Rogmana, please stop by Opera2 and have dinner on the terrace, you’ll think you’re in Tuscany but with better wine. We also visited an amazing restaurant Erba del Re which was a really modern and minimalist take on Italian cuisine and was the perfect background for food shots as everything was white. If you ever go, you have to try the Zuppa Inglese, it’s trifle – but definitely not how your mama makes it.
It’s not all about the food, your boyfriend will thank you for the trip too….
Yes, it’s a super romantic place to go, but there is plenty to see if you’re not into the culinary side. Basically, one thing I wasn’t aware of before I took this trip was how much dollar is spent in Modena from wealthy visitors. These aren’t food tourists as you’d imagine, but car tourists.
Modena is home of the supercar. Everywhere you look either somebody is driving or taking a picture of the latest set of wheels. This small city is inhabited by some of the worlds most recognised car manufacturers, but most famously, Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari is almost godlike here, murals of his portrait cover the walls, he has two Museums in his honour and one location shows a video of him which is sure to bring any Modenese to tears. Their Driving with The Stars experience at the Enzo Ferrari Museum is honestly really good, you don’t have to like cars to go to it, you just have to like nice things.
The truth is, Ferrari really put Modena on the map. Most of the citizens of Modena either know somebody or is somebody who has worked for Enzo Ferrari. The factory brought thousands of jobs to this small city and millions of Euros worth of tourism. By the end of this trip I felt I knew the Ferrari brand inside out and fully understood the infatuation some people have with this brand. It’s aspirational and totally slick, it actually has the ability to make your jaw drop when you start immersing yourself in it. Not only did I get the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a Ferrari California, I also got to sit and start the engine of a Ferrari race car at Modena Track Days. I went home dreaming of driving one down the streets of Leeds, but sadly had to get an Uber back from the airport. It was a 05 plate Skoda and definitely not the same!
If you’re really interested in the origins of Ferrari (honestly it’s so worth a look) you can actually get a full guided tour of ‘Ferrari Land’ as they like to call it and find out everything about the worlds favourite supercar. This tour can also include a trip to world class Tenor Pavarotti’s house, which I did and I can confirm I have been in his bedroom and he loves Jo Malone. Pavarotti is another legend who hails from Emilia Rogmana and his house is now a shrine to his successes. If you do one thing, look at his wine cellar – it has everything you’d need for a right knees up!
If you didn’t appreciate extreme luxury before, you’re gonna leave loving it
Alongside Ferarri, Emilia Romagna is home to Lamborghini, Maserati & Pagani to name a few. Whenever I see the name Maserati it always reminds me of ‘Work B*tch’ by Britney Spears which is the song I listen to when I’m being lazy, but the brand is so much more than that. Each car is specifically made to order, and stepping into their factory was a dream for the eyes. Not only was it chock full of Mediterranean blokes, there was some pretty sexy cars rolling onto the forecourt. I never found cars at all slightly erotic until the I heard the roar of a brand new Maserati engine. It was literally the most masculine sound i’d heard – which says a lot about my exes surely. Whilst I was there, I set eyes on the most gorgeous white Maserati with tan leather interior and a convertible roof. I later found out this car was worth a cool £100K, so not one for my Christmas list quite yet.
One brand that i’d not heard of in the UK was Pagani. Pagani is probably the most exclusive supercar manufacturer in the world. Each car is custom made BY HAND in pure Carbon Fibre, which makes the cars incredibly beautiful alongside being incredibly fast. The moment I saw a brand new Pagani waiting in the wings with a UK registration plate – my goal was set. If some other person from the UK could afford such a drop-dead-gorgeous car, I was going to have one too. However, I realised I may have to wait until I make my first billion. This is as a brand new Pagani comes in at £2-£5million as standard. No fancy upgrades, no matte black paint job – standard. But it’s ok a second hand one in London is only £1.7 mill, so no biggie.
Until I visited Modena, I had never really put much thought into the expense of interiors or leather goods. Yes I have a Chanel handbag that wasn’t cheap, but £5000 for one single drivers seat? You’ve got to be kidding me. Stepping into Schedoni (the brains and hands behind supercar interiors and custom luggage around the world) the smell was intense. There’s nothing quite like the smell of freshly sewn leather, especially when it’s worth around £50 a centimetre. The Schedoni family have been making leather goods since 1880 and their clients include Rolls Royce, Pagani, Maserati, Aston Martin & Ferrari to name a few. They create the most beautiful custom interiors out of pretty much any fabric you’d like. As long as it’s sourced ethically and you’ve got the cash, they’ll make you a totally unique interior or bespoke luggage set from the rarest skins and precious metals. My personal favourite was a set created for a Rolls Royce Phantom which was approximately £45,000. Basically if you’re looking for the price, you can’t afford it, which is why most of Schedoni’s customers are on the rich list. I left the factory with a simple Schedoni leather business card holder (a gift from the owner) which I wouldn’t even want to imagine the retail price of. Not quite a Maserati driving seat, but it’ll do for now.
I’ll see you next year for supercar shopping
Emilia Romagna was for me, a really eye opening trip. Their passion for their produce and generational recipes made the region seem so humble whilst their infatuation with supercars and luxury goods reminded me I was in Italy. There’s a reason so many designers in fashion and interiors are Italian, they’ve got bloody great taste. The weather is wonderful, the food is unbelievable, the men are hot and the Lambrusco flows freely. Yes, it’s easy to get caught up in the history and quiet Piazzas and feel you’re going to have a very down-tempo break, but Emilia Romagna literally vibrates with energy. If it’s not a Ferrari speeding past you it’s a bustling restaurant serving up shots of Limoncello whilst Pavarotti sings his heart out in the background. Visit Modena, even if you don’t like cars. Because trust me, when you get to the airport, you’ll be wishing a Maserati could fly.