Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: First tastes of Emilia Romagna

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This smiling whole hog symbolically welcomed us to the wealth of the traditional foods of Emilia Romagna. He seemed comfortably perched atop the counter of a booth set up for Il Cibo e Chi lo Fa Mercato del Gusto Italiano set up for the weekend on a plaza adjacent to the Cathedral. Although he continued to shrink as slices of him sold throughout the day.

This region of Italy produces some of its best-known cheeses, meats and vinegar. Think of parmiggiano and numerous goat cheeses, cured thinly-sliced Parma ham and aged balsamic vinegar from Modena. Ferrara was an ideal place to dive into some of the regional classics.

Virtually no menu is without cappellacci di zucca, a plump pasta filled with spiced pumpkin puree. It is served primarily two ways, either al ragu, with meat, or in a butter and sage sauce. The best, and most artfully presented, version we encountered was al ragu at Cibo. The meat sauce was flavorful without overpowering the comforting pumpkin. Lebanese were lurking in the kitchen, though, and I broke from the traditional for a chance to order kibbeh, a meat dish I’d wanted to revisit ever since a nephew’s mother-in-law generously contributed it to a Thanksgiving dinner several years ago.

Our go-to pizzeria proved to be Pizzeria Ristorante Este Bar, but the kitchen at the always bustling restaurant is capable of more than a great pie. We had two incredibly good octopus dishes there. One was a rich regional version in which the extremely tender chunks of pulpo topped a bowl filled with pureed cannellini beans and crisped guanciale. Guanciale is cured pork cheek or jowl that is regarded as a much more tender and flavorful ingredient than the pancetta commonly used in dishes at home. Our favorite preparation of octopus here, though, was Sicilian in style, with chunks of potatoes.

Spaghetti here bears little resemblance to the American version of the pasta. Freshly made, it emerges from the kitchen in a thicker, squiggly, more satisfying form. The best we sampled was in a casual, off-the-beaten-path, neighborhood spot, diCibo, that a tourist probably only would find if trying to locate a self-service laundry mat. The perfectly cooked pasta was topped with a bountiful array of fresh seafood.

Both the lasagna and the risotto – aged parmesan makes everything taste better – were great at Trattoria da Noemi. We tried a pasta new for us, passatelli, at Osteria del Babbuino, where a nice blend of jazz is on the soundtrack. With a texture midway between regular pasta and gnocchi, passatelli is formed from bread crumbs, egg and parmesan and cooked in broth. Babbuino’s was offered alle cozze vivaci in crema di cannellini, with mussels in a sauce made from cannellini beans.

Salads in Ferrara tend to be generous but rather basic, so we drifted often to the healthiest other option, grilled vegetables. Sides of grilled eggplant, peppers and zucchini are found on menus almost everywhere, and we were happy to quickly throw salads together at our apartment from prewashed arugula and watercress readily available. I keep longing for watercress to be offered this way in grocery stores at home.

Many of the restaurants in Ferrara still follow the hospitable tradition of providing diners with a complimentary glass of house-made limoncello at the end of the meal. DiCibo instead gave us a refreshing orange version, arancello, and Babbuino offered a choice of limoncello and liquore di liquirizia, my downfall. The bottles were placed on the table with rather large glasses for us to self-administer our servings. A licorice-lover, I poured myself a conservative helping, leaving my glass at least one-quarter empty. Every sip of the deep black liqueur was luscious, but then bedtime came. I was totally wired for most of the sleepless night.

Think the Mister has placed liquore di liquirizia on my off-limits list.

Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: Cathedral honors the dragon-slayer

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Saint George is the patron saint of Ferrara, so, first, here’s a wandering tale about the saint.

Collecting water for the day was a major chore, but a fierce dragon guarding your water supply really complicates matters. The wise villagers in a kingdom somewhere, perhaps Lebanon or Libya, placated the beast by releasing two sheep to it before fetching pails of water. But the dragon consumed sheep faster than the villagers could raise them, so soon their supply was exhausted.

Some “wise” person, obviously a male, determined the best way to appease the dragon was to feed him young women. A lottery was held to see which young woman would become his supper first, and the beautiful daughter of the king drew the short straw.

The villagers took her to meet her fate, tying her near the dragon’s lair. Fortunately, just in the nick of time, along came a brave Roman soldier who heard the princess cry out for help. The brave soldier slew the dangerous beast and freed the princess.

This tale was one picked up during the Crusades and embellished by soldiers returning home. The hero was reputed to be Saint George, a patron saint of soldiers, a saint who helped protect them not only during warfare but also from diseases they might pick up along the way, such as the plague or syphilis.

The legend of Saint George and the dragon has persisted through thousands of years, mainly because it is such a fairy-tale-type story. Although to truly fit into the Disney-type mold by which many of us were shaped, shouldn’t George then have married the beautiful princess and lived happily ever after?

There are lots of hard-to-believe stories of saints, but this one is considered more legend than fact. As one early pope purportedly said, George was included in the group of saints “whose names are justly revered among men, but whose actions are known only to God.”

But George did earn his sainthood. He became a valued officer serving in the guard of Emperor Diocletian. The emperor, however, demanded all his soldiers renounce Christianity. George steadfastly resisted. The emperor sentenced him to death via several brutal methods we will not describe, but, somehow, George was revived three times. Finally, he was beheaded in April of the year 303.

The grand Duomo is dedicated to Saint George. The façade was begun in the 12th century but took another century or so to complete. Some of its treasures have been moved to the Museo della Cattedrale nearby.

The cathedral with its spacious plazas in front and on one side is an integral part of daily interactions among citizens in Ferrara constantly crisscrossing them. At some point long ago, a shopping arcade of inferior architecture was attached to one side. Fortunately, the arcade is only one story high, so much of the cathedral’s details are preserved for viewing, including the wonderfully funky pairs of wave-like columns running along the side.

These photos are of the Cathedral and some of the contents of its museum.

Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: Bicyclists rule both streets and sidewalks

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How stereotypical to post photos of bicycles in Italy.

But Ferrara is different. It seems almost as though everyone has a bicycle, whether young or old. In contrast to many Italian cities, there were few motorcycles and Vespas zipping around.

The bike traffic is constant, and pedestrians, particularly distracted tourists gazing at the architecture, need to be wary. If automobile traffic laws apply to bicyclists, no one seems to have notified them in Ferrara. While cars yield to “walk” lights, bicyclists rarely do.

There are riders crisscrossing plazas running errands to pick up groceries, flowers or laundry. Parents ride to collect children from school or daycare, the children perched on seats attached to the front, back or both. A young adult talks her mother into sitting on the crossbar after lunch. Silver-haired gangs of retirees pedal to gather in the squares. Suits ride to work on bikes tricked out with handsome leather seats and matching saddlebags, and women dressed to the nines wearing spiked heels somehow manage to maneuver astride bikes as well.

From a pedestrian point of view, bicyclists reading texts were particularly scary. And, observing one ancient woman (meaning even older than this blogger who once had some kid start humming the Wicked Witch of the East theme song when I pedaled through downtown San Antonio) weaving obliviously in the middle of several lanes of traffic, I wondered: Do children in Italy struggle with the dilemma of at what age do you take away your parents’ bicycles?

Self-driving automobiles appear to be arriving in time to offer many in my generation an opportunity to remain behind the wheel a few extra years, but is anyone developing a self-driving bike for Italian seniors?