Stefano Secchi is the head chef at Rezdôra, an Italian restaurant highlighting the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna in Manhattan's Flatiron neighborhood. Rezdôra, which means grandmother in Modenese, is influenced by Secchi's Italian roots and his time spent honing his cooking skills in Modena at Osteria Francescana under legendary chef Massimo Bottura.
Though he grew up in Dallas, Secchi's Italian roots have always heavily influenced his identity. His father was a Sardinian immigrant and he spent four months every year in Sardegna. He can trace his love affair with the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna to a single dish: tortellini en brodo, one of the region's most famous dishes. As a young boy he watched a nonna making al matarello pasta dough by hand with a large rolling pin, instead of a machine, and he recalls the rich capon broth simmering all day with lots of Parmigiano-Reggiano and tortellini stuffed with prosciutto, mortadella and nutmeg.
Many first-time travelers to Italy will head to the popular cities of Venice, Rome or Florence, but in-the-know epicureans like Secchi will point you toward Emilia-Romagna for some of the country's best food. This Northern Italian region includes the cities of Bologna, Modena and Parma, and it's where you'll find the so-called holy trinity of Italian ingredients: Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano and aceto balsamico, three flavors that are at the core of the region's cuisine.
If you ask Secchi what characterizes the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, he'll tell you it's the pasta: pasta all'uovo, tortellini, tortelloni, tortelli, garganelli, maccheroni al pettine and strozzapretti, just to name a few. At Rezdôra, Secchi makes them from scratch, like his iconic dish of "grandma walking through forest in Emilia," a plate of spinach cappelletti stuffed with a savory and rich combination of roasted and baby leeks and black mushroom purée.
"The perfect travel experience for me involves food all day," says Secchi. And those visiting Emilia and Modena in particular would be wise to plan their days in terms of meals. For a classic, Modenese meal, Secchi loves Hosteria Giusti. "This is of the best traditional meals I've ever had in Italia, period," he says. If you go, don't miss the chance to try cotechino, a regional sausage that is breaded and fried, then served with a Lambrusco zabaglione, a dish Hosteria Giusti does well. He also recommends Al Nocetto, just outside of Modena in Piumazza, to sample some of Emilia's most traditional dishes including gnocco fritto, a light as air dough that is fried and topped with prosciutto, mortadella, lardo or pancetta, and tigelle, small round breads that are topped with cured meats or Nutella for dessert. "You go here to eat gnocco fritto, salumi, fresh pastas and drink Lambrusco and Nocino until you can't move anymore. it's pretty incredible," Secchi recalls.
For pizza, there's La Smorfia, set just outside Modena. "This is the spot for Neopolitan-style pizza," he says. For another local and casual option, Trattoria Bianca is a classic, refined trattoria where a typical meal begins with fried, puffed crackers alongside plates of prosciutto, coppa di testa, cotechino sausage and big chunks of Parmesan cheese. This is also a great place to sample the pastas that Emilia is famous for. You'll find the classic tortellini en brodo, but also larger spinach, butter and sage tortelloni or thick, flat maccheroni with savory ragu.
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Of course, it's difficult to discuss food in Modena without mentioning Osteria Francescana, which holds a much-coveted three MICHELIN stars. According to Secchi, Massimo Bottura's "five ages and textures of Parmigiano" is one stand-out dish, as is the "crunchy part of the lasagna," made with Parmigiano-Reggiano wafers and crunchy spinach pasta chips. "It takes me back to the first lasagna I ate in Emilia, but with a more contemporary approach," he says. Secchi also suggests trying Franceschetta 58, Bottura's more affordable dining option.
Modena and the surrounding Emilia-Romagna area is undoubtedly a destination for food lovers, so even when you're not eating at a restaurant, you'll want to explore the region's culinary scene. Start the day with a Parmesan making tour at Bio-Hombre, a biological Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese maker just outside of Modena. From there, make your way to Acetaia Pedroni for a tour of the best aceto balsamico in all of Modena. Before you leave, stop for lunch at the osteria attached to the factory. "There's no menu and they just serve the pasta they feel like making that day," Secchi explains, but hopefully they'll be serving the ricotta tortelli topped with 50-year-old aceto balsamico. And since every day should end with something sweet, make sure to round out your trip to Modena at Gelateria Bloom, which, according to Secchi, is the best gelato in the city.
Photo of Stefano Secchi (right) and Massimo Bottura courtesy of Secchi.