Perhaps not as much as Mantua, but Modena is another of those Po valley cities that often gets overlooked but how can you not love a place that gave the world Luciano Pavarotti, sublime aged balsamic vinegar and of course Ferrari. All three have Italy indelibly stamped on them and let's not forget the Modena City Ramblers, an Italian left-wing folk rock group that helps to explain why so many Italians prefer to listen to American and British musicians.
I've already written a short article on Enzo Ferrari and his museum in the center of Modena which you can find here so I won't spend any time on Ferrari in this article, but as Pavarotti was coincidentally born in the same year, 1935, that Enzo built his first racing car (albeit with some Alfa Romeo bits and pieces) here's a quick video showing what a monster that car was with two engines, hence the name 'Bimotore'.
The problem is that it is easier said than done to write about Modena and not have Ferrari cropping up the whole time because on the weekend we were there as we wandered through town on a Sunday morning, there just happened to be a parade of highly polished colorful Ferraris basking in the admiration of everyone in town that day.
The Ferrari Concorso di Modena (more often held in Palm Beach) was not something we had planned for and was a three day affair where proud Ferrari owners could drive around town and display their beautifully restored cars. We passed through Modena on the final day when it was the turn of modern Ferrari cars to show themselves off in the lovely Piazza Roma in front of the Palazzo Ducale. They certainly are gorgeous cars and in a marvelous setting also.
We tend to pass through Modena on our way back to Lucca from somewhere further north rather than pick it as a destination so while we've been there a few times we haven't actually spent many days there. As a result this will be a short and incomplete article as there are places in this city like the Estense Gallery and Albinelli Market that we haven't visited yet and will have to be covered another time.
Also Massimo Bottura's famous and famously expensive 3 Michelin starred Osteria Francescana, but that would consume our dining out budget for an entire year so it's not even on our list.
To get from Modena to Lucca there's the old slow road, Via del Brennero, part of which we described here that goes over the top of Abetone. But more practically speaking, from Modena we can either go west to Parma or east to Bologna to reach an autostrada that brings us south. Which means we can stop at any of these places for lunch and a break but we always seem to choose Modena. Our reasoning is that Bologna is too big for a relaxing short stop and Parma always seems to be more crowded than Modena.
Though Modena isn't as famously associated with food as the other two cities it is in fact situated in the Parmigiano Reggiano DOP zone and close enough to the Prosciutto di Parma DOP area for the town to be just as big a foodie paradise as its more famous neighbors.
It's also an easier town to find a parking spot and reach the center quickly and we both like the more lesiurely pace and atmosphere of Modena.
It's also a city with lots of open spaces for sitting outside in the summer thanks to more pedestrianized squares than most other Italian cities.
A good lunch spot we went to a couple of times last summer that doesn't take two hours is in Piazza XX Settembre near the Albinelli market. A market that sells all the best foods of Emilia Romagna but that we have not yet been to because we're always passing through Modena on a Sunday.
Anyhow, the restaurant is one of those places that you don't often find in Italy. A place where you can eat very well but also quite quickly so it's perfect when you don't have two or more hours to spend in the usual Italian restaurant.
The menu is based around small circles of local bread called tigella stuffed with your choice of the best local meats, cheese and of course aged balsamico. I believe there may also be a vegetable or two on the menu somewhere but if you're a vegetarian you're definitely in the wrong part of Italy.
After I wrote the first draft of this article we had occasion to make a quick trip to visit Gianluca Bergianti at his vineyard a few miles north of the city in Gargallo di Carpi which you can read about here. We will henceforth upgrade Modena to a destination for us rather than a pitstop because his wines are of such quality that we will always need to have some in stock; in addition he mentioned a few places in Modena that he frequents that only locals seem to know about so now we have other reasons to spend more time here.
Perhaps the most famous food product of Modena is aged Balsamic Vinegar, which has very little in common with the cheap balsamic vinegar you will find on a supermarket shelf. Made from cooked wine must and aged typically for between 12 and 25 years, the best examples are priced like exceptionally fine wine as you can see from the price tags above on three bottles in a Modena shop window. Those prices are for bottles of only 100 ml or 3.4 ounces so the 75 cl wine bottle equivalent price of the one on the left would be 750 euros.
We have a very small amount of a 20 year old version and it truly is a remarkable product, a few drops of which can transform a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano or infuse a risotto with a heavenly touch. And while the Wimbledon crowd might think that slopping cream all over their fresh strawberries in June is gustatory heaven, it's only because they've never experienced them with the subtle pleasure of aged balsamic vinegar. Italians develop very sophisticated palates at an early age and enjoy contrasting flavors. Agrodolce is one and gelato and balsamic vinegar is another. But as ever with Italian food, the gelato has to be excellent and the balsamico has to be aged.