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Forget Tuscany Forget Sicily The Best Food in Italy Comes From Emilia--Romagna : EMILIA-ROMAGNA: Paradise Found

October 15, 1992|LYNNE ROSSETTO KASPER | Kasper is the author of "The Splendid Table: Recipes From Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food."

For lovers of Italian food, Emilia-Romagna is Paradise. Sprawling across the Po River plain between Tuscany and Venice, it may be well off the usual American tourist routes in northern Italy, but connoisseurs have been making pilgrimages there for centuries.

The Emiliani and Romagnoli know this--they are almost smug about it. It would be difficult for them not to be. In a country where personal identity is inseparable from geographic origins, and where how you eat often defines where you are from (and, therefore, who you are), there is immeasurable pride in being born in the region that has given Italy some of her most famous foods. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, prosciutto di Parma and true balsamic vinegar can be produced legally only in Emilia-Romagna. Bologna's tortellini and the region's tradition of handmade pastas are admired throughout the country.

And there is a deep pride in doing things well. A Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese maker boasts of his 10 to 14 years of apprenticeship and of the fact that he will make cheese every day of his life until retirement--no vacations, no holidays. "The cows do not know it is Christmas," he explains.

But underlying these internationally acclaimed foods is a fascinating regional cuisine of lesser-known dishes that changes from one province to the next, from mountain to plain, from the kitchens of peasants to the kitchens of noblemen.

Nearly every restaurant in Emilia-Romagna has its sfoglina or pasta-maker, who each morning pours out a mound of flour, kneads in eggs and then hand-rolls and cuts every piece of tortellini, cappelletti, tagliatelle, lasagne, ravioli-like tortelli, strozzapreti ("priest stranglers"), garganelli and fine-cut tagliarini.

Fewer home cooks have time to make the traditional fresh pasta for the midday meal these days, but although it frequently comes from shops now, it will always be handmade. Mass production in these places only means more women making more pasta by hand. People in Emilia-Romagna may speak tolerantly of machine-made pastas, but no one they know ever actually eats them.

Balancing Emilia-Romagna's leaning toward smugness is an inborn graciousness. The Romagnoli and Emiliani sincerely delight in strangers, and almost everyone in Emilia-Romagna loves to talk food.

Go to Parma and visit the second-hand bookshop of Gugliemo Capacchi on a Sunday morning. Listen in on the gathering of old friends who meet each week after church for what they call the Capacchi Club. There will be Capacchi himself, an elderly linguistics professor and authority on Parma history and food ways, along with several lawyers, the local druggist, some businessmen and a doctor. Politics and the week's events take a second seat to cinnamon's impact on Renaissance Venice, the origins of Parma hill food, the validity of Parma's latest food book or the evolution of Parmesan cooking and eating since Maria Luigia of Austria--former wife of Napoleon and empress of France--became the duchess of Parma in 1814. The past is just beyond a doorway; they speak of a dinner from five centuries ago as we speak of eating out last week.

In a Piacenza village, I once muttered about high food prices while a gas station attendant was filling my car. He nodded sympathetically, then broke into a broad grin and proudly described his solution to the problem--his garden. All summer, he boasted, his wife scarcely bought any vegetables at the market. He tended the garden every evening and sauteed his peppers in old Piacenza style. On Sundays the entire family ate amid the pole beans, tomatoes and pepper plants. This weekend they were harvesting the first zucchini flowers; could I join them for dinner? Regrettably, I had to be 100 miles to the south by dinner time.

And in Italy, 100 miles south (or east, or west, or north) is a long way--it means a whole new collection of dishes. A bread called borlengo is made in a handful of mountain villages in the hills above Modena; 20 miles away it is scarcely heard of, and never tasted. Considering the distinctiveness of borlengo --it's a thin (almost transparent), crisp yet chewy fried bread, served hot with a topping of fried pancetta, garlic, rosemary and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese . . . and it's literally as big as a cart wheel--you'd imagine it would have gained some sort of widespread reputation.

The reason it hasn't has to do with the very concept of what is foreign. Each province of Emilia-Romagna sees itself as a entity separate from its neighbors. Each may have a separate history as a duchy, papal commune or fiefdom. A hundred miles east of borlengo country, for instance, you're in piadina country. Colorful piadina stands sell the round, griddle-cooked flat bread that dot Romagna's countryside.

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