“Don’t be afraid to hurt it,” Nonna Violante tells me jokingly as I stare, perplexed, at the ball of dough in front of me. I’m halfway through my cooking class to learn how to make some of the traditional dishes of Romagna, namely fresh pasta in the form of passatelli and strozzapreti, as well as piadina, and still have no clue what I’m doing.
I’m no “zdora” after all, despite the fact that I'm a native of Emilia-Romagna, a region famous for its tradition of making pasta by hand, exemplified by the female figure of the “zdora”, the woman who patiently kneads and rolls the dough until it achieves the perfect texture. Sweet Nonna Violante, on the other hand, is the perfect zdora, and she shares her lifelong pasta-making skills with generosity, a personality trait I’ve found is common in these terre romagnole, Romagna lands.
Nonna Violante is the cook at the family-run Hotel Eliseo in Bellaria-Igea Marina, one of a consortium of “Piccoli Alberghi di Qualità” (small, high-quality hotels), whose aim is not just to offer a place to sleep, but rather, a home away from home. I do feel at home here, welcomed as a friend, not just a traveler on an organized tour.
[Photo: The zdora Nonna Violante teaching the class her pasta-making skills.]
The tour I'm on is called "Loving Romagna", and I’m in the heart of the Riviera Romagnola, the 90-kilometer coastline facing the Adriatic Sea in Emilia-Romagna, famous for its seaside resorts and endless opportunities for entertainment catering to all types of travelers, from the youngsters to the elderly, from singles to families with children.
Although geographically separated by the mouth of the river Uso, Bellaria and Igea Marina, my base for the tour, have been united into one municipality since 1956.
The first written records of Bellaria, the larger of the two, date to 1359, referring to a fortified farm located near the Church of Santa Margherita, by the mouth of the river Uso. The property was at some point owned by the Malatesta, the powerful dynasty that ruled over these lands for three centuries, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. By the end of the 19th century, a hamlet of fishermen had developed on the left bank of the river where they moored their small boats. The bounty of seafood to be found here was practically limitless: mackerel, anchovies, sardines, mullets, soles, clams, and more. Testimony to the town’s strong connection to the sea is the Torre Saracena, one of six towers erected by the Papal States to defend the coast from Turkish pirates. Today, the tower houses the “Museo delle Conchiglie”, which displays shells from all over the world.
[The port and River Uso, separating Igea Marina from Bellaria.]
Igea Marina was born at the beginning of the 1900s, the idea of a doctor from Rimini, Vittorio Belli, who had planned to create a holiday village, with hotels and summer camps for children, on the sandy dunes between the Uso river and the Torre Pedrera, to be immersed in a pinewood he himself had created. The underlying scope was to have visitors benefit from the fresh, healthy sea air. The name Igea derives from the goddess Hygeia, daughter of Asclepius, god of medicine.
After World War II, the transformation of Bellaria-Igea Marina into full-fledged seaside resorts began, giving them the appearance they have today. Beach facilities, sports activities, shopping, open-air markets, sagre, and great cuisine – these elements all have concurred to make the area a favorite tourist destination.
Speaking of great cuisine, Romagna is a gluttonous land, offering a wide range of delicacies, from fresh pastas to grilled meats, seafood and cheeses, wine and the ever-present piadina. During the cooking class with Nonna Violante, we are shown how to make two primi piatti from the area: passatelli, which consist of parmigiano, breadcrumbs, egg, grated lemon skin, nutmeg, combined and passed through the appropriate tool to give them their elongated shape, and finally cooked in broth; and strozzapreti, or priests’ stranglers, a mix of flour, water, egg white and salt, combined to form a smooth dough, which is then rolled out in flat sheets, cut into strips and twisted between the palms of your hands to give them their characteristic shape. Sounds easy enough? It’s not.
(In case you were wondering about the name ‘strozzapreti’, according to legend, wives would make the pasta for churchmen as partial payment for land rented by the Catholic Church to local farmers - and their husbands would be so annoyed to wish the priests would choke as they ate it.)
[Photo: Making passatelli, a dish from Romagna, with Nonna Violante.]
What cannot miss from a Romagna cooking class is learning how to make piadina (or piada), a thin flatbread typical of the area, made with white flour, lard or olive oil, salt and water, cooked on a hot griddle, and usually filled with prosciutto, soft squacquerone cheese, and arugula. Going back in time to the Middle Ages, piadina was described by Giovanni Pascoli, one of Italy’s greatest poets born in San Mauro di Romagna, as the “the national food of the Romagnoli”.
At the end of class, Nonna Violante congratulates everyone. She is a proud Romagnola, who sees in food an expression of her land, and wants everybody to learn and appreciate it.
I think what keeps people coming back is the warmth of the Romagnoli and an overall sense that here you can finally slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures of life: good food, music and the company of friends, old and new.
There’s more to Romagna than seaside resorts. Stay tuned for Part Two, where we will be leaving the coast to venture inland and discover charming hamlets and artisan food and wine producers.
Where to stay in Bellaria-Igea Marina (the hotels below are all part of the Consorzio Piccoli Alberghi di Qualità):
Hotel Eliseo - Sea-front hotel, family-run since its opening in 1948, with nice garden area overlooking the beach where to enjoy an aperitivo. Fantastic Romagna cuisine.
Hotel San Salvador - Centrally located, 50 meters from the beach and from the pedestrianized shopping area. Great breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet, with lots of options, and lovely aperitivo on the terrace on Saturday night.
Hotel Cannes - 20 meters from the beach, it features a nice solarium terrace perfect for winding down at the end of the day, while sipping aperitivo. Great local cuisine with delicious lavish desserts.
Hotel Daniel - Close to the beach, it features an outside spa area designed for relaxation and offers organic, locally sourced food products.
Note by author: I was a guest on the Loving Romagna tour organized by Maria Regina Rubinetti of Hotel Eliseo. All opinions my own.