A Gelato Adventure in Modena

Gelato - Coppette

Gelato – Coppette

Going back home is never easy for me: I dread the procession of relatives dropping in and talking nonsense non-stop for interminable hours; worry about the long-lost friends whom I have grown apart from and don’t know how to be with anymore; I am scared of the local drivers, who behave like space invaders in a videogame, plays chicken with the rest of the traffic and misses you by a split hair at the very last moment… or not, as it often happens; and I hate the ubiquitous commercial radio, which machine-guns ads at you in every common space on the land: shops, car parks, cafes, the pool, toilets, gyms, pizzerias, romantic restaurants… My countrymen seem frightened of silence and chase it away with sheer determination.

But then there is gelato, and all of a sudden thirty hours on a plane spent entertaining my toddler son seem worth it. If you ever find yourself in uncharted waters and need to test an ice cream parlour, order a scoop of “stracciatella”, you’ll be able to assess whether the place uses the best quality cream and whether or not it bestows chocolate chips with largesse, which are what – to my mind – makes or breaks a “gelateria”. When in Modena, thankfully I know where to go: I might have been away for twenty years but when it comes to gelato, I am still a local. I grew up in suburban Casinalbo, eight kilometers out of town and one of the happiest memories from my youth was getting a driving license and finally being able to drive away from the goddamn place. It is an unremarkable sleepy village that can drive a teenager up the wall but it does have one key attraction: the best gelato I have ever tasted. My wife calls it: “Terminal Illness Gelato” because, if she ever gets diagnosed with a terminal illness, she wants to be wheeled there and spend the last months of her life happily gorging herself. The business trades under the somewhat less dramatic and to the point name of:  “Gelateria Ice Cream” and is the main reason why the town’s shopping arcade is always buzzing. It opens at 8.30 in the morning and shuts at around 1am and it is so busy that they have recently installed a crowd management system to keep the happy customers flowing smoothly in and out of the place. During our visit, we went there at least once a day and on Sundays we bought an extra kilo to stock the freezer up (Monday is their rest day). Hot flavours during this trip were: “mandorla tostata”, “torta di riso”, “bensone” (a local eggy cake), “mascarpone” (think tiramisu without coffee, liqueur or Pavesini biscuits). Apricots and cherries were in season so “yoghurt with albicocche” and “yoghurt with amarene” (sour cherries) where both particularly delicious and so was “lampone” (raspberries): wonderfully refreshing in the heat of summer. Classics like “bacio” (chocolate and hazelnut), stracciatella and chocolate were as good as ever.

The other gelato outfit worth sampling is K2 in Corso Canalgrande: right in the heart of Modena. It is an institution and – before “Terminal Illness Gelato” opened – it sold the best ice cream in town. On this visit, the flavour-sensation from K2 was “granellato all’amarena”: vanilla ice cream with sour cherries and crushed caramelized nuts, perhaps an homage to the historic “cornetto Algida” and definitely an inspired addition to the menu.

Modena - Rua Pioppa

Modena – Rua Pioppa

Quite apart from gelato, if you happen to be in Modena eating out can also be a rather rewarding occupation. Whenever I go, I conveniently forget my vegetarian tendencies and order from the traditional menu, which is based on pork, parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar and homemade pasta. Here is my personal Summer 2010 directory of where to eat in and around the city, the result of three weeks of intense research:

My favorite café in town is “Caffe’ dell’Orologio”, whose tables take over the tiny Piazzetta delle Ova between Via Emilia and Piazza Grande. Whether for a morning coffee or a late afternoon aperitif, the service is consistently courteous and the drinks just perfect. I have a soft spot for Caffe’ dell’Orologio because our wedding guests gathered there the day after the ceremony for a communal brunch. We had such a lovely and relaxed time that twelve years later I still remember the place with a warm heart. For an aperitif accompanied by a buffet of canapés, Caffe’ Concerto, in Piazza Grande has become quite popular. The location is spectacular and the nibbles are not bad but service can be spotty so have a feel for the atmosphere before you sit down and decide if Caffe’ Concerto is right for you.

Two other excellent cafes in the centre of town are the Bar Pasticceria Remondini, an old fashioned, proper and very good patisserie right in front of Palazzo Ducale (or Accademia, how it has been called ever since it became home to the Italian army’s cadet school); and the more modern and excellently run Mon Café in Corso Canalchiaro, whose air-conditioned welcoming rooms gave us much needed reprise from the dreaded “afa”: a nasty combination of heat and humidity that dogs many a Modenese summer day.

Modena – Portici

Our most scrumptious meal in the city was at Zelmira’s, which we booked after much deliberation for a welcome dinner for friends visiting from England. We considered but shunned the El-Bulli-lookalike La Francescana, which sounded like an over-processed and expensive fad and opted instead for Zelmira, which is a local culinary institution, set in a small – almost private – square in the historic centre of town and is known for the consistent high quality of its fare. When the waitress came with the specials, she recited the long list of ingredients so fast that it was impossible to translate them all. It all got a bit confusing so we pretty much stuck with the printed menu, which was lovely and enticing. I stayed on the “cucina creativa” (nouvelle cuisine) side of the menu not because I didn’t trust their Modenese dishes but because I had been dining at mum’s for a week already and I needed a break from the traditional stuff. We ordered Culatello e fichi (cured ham and figs) and pancetta-wrapped capesante (scallops) for starters and Argentinean steak with black summer truffle and pork fillet on a bed of celeriac mash as mains with sides of “tropea al balsmico” (sweet and sour onions caramelized in balsamic vinegar). It was all pretty delicious and the inexpensive bottle of extra dry Prosecco proved so drinkable that we ordered a second one of the same. The evening was boiling hot but the fans (and the bubbly) made dining al fresco in San Giacomo’s square a rather civilized experience. We skipped dessert and opted for a stroll through town designed to take us to K2, the aforementioned second-best ice cream parlor in the province. Our friend Anna shouted us a few generous “coppette” which proved the perfect ending to our evening (dinner for two: approximately 120 euro + tip).

In an attempt to escape the heat of summer, we ran to the hills often. One of our favorite destinations was Castelvetro, the medieval village surrounded by vineyards where my mum was born and where my wife and I got married. Castelvetro is only 20Km away and only marginally fresher than Modena but it is a lovely spot and offers a few notable foody options, which makes it is an appealing destination in all weather conditions.

Castelvetro – Piazza

The best place in the old settlement is the Locanda del Feudo, a charming boutique hotel (six suites only) whose restaurant is open to the public. We dined there (al fresco again, which meant on a cobbled street closed to the traffic) and enjoyed delicious food and impeccable service. We had “carpaccio di filetto di manzo con tartufo e salsa all’aglio ghiacciata” (beef carpaccio with black truffle) and “tortino di pecorino di Fossa e pepe bianco su crema di salsiccia e cicoria croccante” (sheep milk cheese and white pepper savory cake with sausage sauce and chicory) for starters and “bistecca di vitello impanata con marmellata di tropea e saba” (veal schnitzel with onions caramelized in reduced grape juice) and “tortelli ripieni di salame rosa e patate su crema di parmigiano e tartufo nero scorzone” (parcel pasta filled with salami and potatoes dressed with cream, Parmesan cheese and black truffle –not even mum can make them that good…yum!). For dessert, we had rum baba and coffee ice cream cannoli. We thoroughly enjoyed their basket of homemade breads (especially the grissini and Parmesan cheese snails) and we loved the bottle of local “champagne”: spumante classico metodo tradizionale Francesco Bellei from Bomporto made with Pinot Noir grapes from Serra Mazzoni (dinner for two: 100 euros + tip).

Castelvetro – Chiesa Parrocchiale

If you find yourself in Castelvetro and Locanda del Feudo is fully booked, don’t be tempted by the charming garden setting of La Mandragola: the chef is unconfident, the service is not that obliging, the mosquitoes are vicious and despite all that, dinner for two will set you back 93 euros + tip! Go instead to L’Eglise Café, which is a newly opened excellent café by day and an unpretentious restaurant by night whose tables by the church square (as the name might have given away) attract many a group of locals in the market for an informal dinner. Your other option is Villabianca, a trattoria perched on one of the hills around Castelvetro (Villabianca is on Google Maps and is only five Kilometers away): the décor is Spartan, the view lovely and the menu as traditional as it gets: homemade parcel pasta (the nettle tortelloni in sausage and cream ragout that we had were excellent!), gnocco, tigelle and borlenghi with a selection of hams, salami and fried cheese. “Gnocco” being a deep fried thin bread served still hot from the frying pan, “tigelle” being a crumpet-looking bread once cooked under the fireplace’s hot ashes – now on more practical hot plates – and “borlenghi” being a wafer-thin sort of crepe served smeared with pork lard, rosemary and grated Parmesan cheese. Homemade cakes and a series of variations on the tiramisu’ theme (plain, with chocolate, with coffee, …) complete the menu. Nocino and limoncello (digestive liqueurs) are complimentary and much needed by the end of the meal (a generous lunch for two with a chilled bottle of local lambrusco: 60 euros + tip).

Castelvetro – Via Cavedoni

If – like us – you find yourself in Castelvetro in between meals, you might want to consider a short (10km) drive to Vignola to visit its medieval fortress and sample a slice of Barozzi cake (locally renowned chocolate and coffee brownie). I rather like Vignola’s Castle: it has an impressive set of defensive walls, a moat, turrets… It simply looks the part. The visit does not take long: there are a few modestly frescoed rooms, jails, a charming chapel and a nice view from the top of the walls. The recently installed multimedia stuff though is ghastly! Throughout the castle, some ill-advised museum designer has installed loudspeakers linked to infrared sensors, which basically hunt visitors: as soon as they detect movement, they set off screechy and condescending little lessons on what is important to know and remember about the place. I found it enormously irritating and my two-year old son grew so frightened of these booming voices coming out of nowhere that we had to flee, chased away by techno-ghosts. Thankfully, by the time we left, the Pasticceria Gollini (home of Torta Barozzi) had reopened after their lunch break and all was well again…

Riolunato – Ponte della Fola

The Apennini mountains offer another opportunity to escape the soupy hot weather of the Padana plain. The mountains are fresh but require a longer drive than Castelvetro and Vignola do. We set off one morning for Riolunato, a medieval mountain village perched above the Scoltenna river. The drive was pleasant and – past Pavullo – scenic but it did take us two hours to get there and is advisable only if one enjoys a bit of mountain driving. Riolunato was the old stomping ground of Obizzo da Montegarullo, a rather belligerent feudal lord who took on more than he could chew and in 1400 ended up murdered by the Estensi Dukes of Modena. Not much remains of his castles but we managed to lunch and dine in the shadow of two of his towers. In Riolunato, we strolled the narrow village pathways and enjoyed the feel of the ancient stonewalls; we went to the river to see the old Ponte della Fola bridge and we sipped coffee in Piazza del Trebbo; had lunch at the Bar  Trattoria there, which was unpretentious and pleasant (their grilled sausage and fried sheep milk cheese wrapped in pancetta was hearty and good). In the afternoon, we drove back to the outskirts of Pavullo and dined in the wonderfully atmospheric Azienda Agrituristica Viecave set in a fortified house that dates back to the 1450s (our second Montegarullo stop), where the walls are so thick that the fireplaces inside had a few ambers burning to keep the guests from shivering.

Viecave – The Tower

At Viecave there is no menu: the food is seasonal, the style is traditional and the courses just keep coming. We had gnocco fritto, tigelle, erbazzone (spinach and ricotta savory cake) and panzerotti (deep fried cheese stuffed parcels) as starters; tortelloni di zucca (parcel pasta stuffed with baked pumpkin, grated parmesan and nutmeg) and tagliatelle al sugo di coniglio (ribbon pasta in rabbit ragout: my favourite!) as first courses and barbecued meat as second. Dessert was a selection of homemade cakes (crostata al cioccolato, all’amaretto e torta di riso) that came accompanied by a tray of ristretto coffees and nocino liqueur (made out of green walnuts macerated in alcohol and sugar and aged in oak barrels)… It was another wonderful feast. If you decide to go there make sure you book (the restaurant caters only for its booked guests) and that you arrive there when it is still light: a stroll in the garden offers a delightful view of the valley and of the village of Iddiano below, which you should try not to miss (dinner for two: approximately 50 euros + tip).

Viecave – View

An hour drive on comfortable roads took us back to Modena and an interminable plane ride delivered us back to Australia, jetlagged, delighted to be back and full of determination to rejoin the gym to work off our eating safari. If I have managed to whet your appetite and you fancy a visit to my hometown check out the cathedral, which is a Romanic jewel covered in bass relieves by Wiligelmo from 1100 and consider booking into the Hotel Canalgrande, which is La Grand Dame of Modena’s hotels. It is perfectly located in the historic centre of town, has grand but somber fresco painted reception, bar and breakfast areas. Its grandeur though does not extend to the bedrooms, which are in need of some TLC… Unless you book the suite, which is a pink extravaganza affectionately named by the staff “the Claudia Schiffer suite”, after its most famous guest.

Maurizio Viani

Riolunato – Tabernacolo

Name Address Phone Weekly closing Website Email
Gelateria Ice Cream Via Pietro Nenni, 13, Centro Commerciale, Casinalbo (MO) +39.059.551301 Monday
Gelateria K2 Corso Canalgrande, 67, Modena +39.059.219181
Caffe’ dell’Orologio Piazzetta delle Ova +39.335.5352025 Tuesday
Caffe’ Concerto Piazza Grande, 26, Modena +39.059.222232 www.caffeconcertomodena.com
Bar Pasticceria A. Remondini Piazzale S. Giorgio, 99, Modena +39.059.222353
Mon Café Corso Canalchiaro, 128, Modena +39.059.223257 www.mon-café.it caffetteria@mon-café.it
Ristorante Zelmira Piazzetta San Giacomo, 17, Modena +39.059.222351 Lunchtime Thursday and Friday ristorantezelmira@hotmail.it
La Locanda del Feudo Via Trasversale, 2, Castelvetro (MO) +39.059.708711 Sunday evening and Monday all day www.locandadelfeudo.it info@locandadelfeudo.it
L’Eglise Café Via Tasso, 9/11, Castelvetro (MO) +39.059.790489 Tuesday www.eglisecafe.com info@eglise.com
Osteria Bar Villabianca Villabianca di Marano Sul Panaro +39.059.793311 Monday www.trattoriavillabianca.it

www.villabiancadimodena.org La Rocca di VignolaPiazza dei Contrari, 4, Vignola+39.059.775246Mondaywww.fondazionedivignola.itrocca@fondazionedivignola.itPasticceria GolliniVia Garibaldi, 1, Vignola+39.059.771079 www.tortabarozzi.itinfo@tortabarozzi.itAzienda Agrituristica ViecaveLocalita’ Viecave (near Crocette and Benedello), Pavullo nel Frignano (MO)+39.0536.20836

+39.0536.22511Booking essential!  Hotel CanalgrandeCorso Canalgrande, 6, Modena+39.059.217160 www.canalgrandehotel.itinfo@canalgrandehotel.it

This was such a lovely feedback that I had to put it on. Thank you so much Jas:
Message Body:
I read your article on culinary pleasures in Modena.I traveled to Modena with my family purely because of your article and loved zemira restaurant. Probably the best meal we had in Italy… We had the modern menu. The highlight of my three weeks was gelateria ice cream…it took me an hour to find but I was so blown away with the gelato and we had tasted a lot during our travels! I sat there for a hour eating gelato with my two sons and wife.Without doubt the best gelato in the world… I will go back before I die! I shared how I had found the gelateria with the lady running the show and expressed how impressed I was with her product. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us and creating a life time experience for my family and I. If you are ever in Vegas let me know and I can try to show you a special experience here.