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Aperitivo and Mexican rajma in Modena

After one month in this Italian city, no one can be called a tourist

brunch Updated: Mar 24, 2018 23:25 IST
Rupali Dean
Rupali Dean
Hindustan Times
The Cathedral of Modena is considered to be a magnificent example of Romanesque art (Rupali Dean)

It’s one thing to visit Italy with sunglasses and a camera as a tourist. It’s quite another to actually live there for a month, as I did when my daughter Akanksha travelled to Modena to stage at the three-Michelin star restaurant Osteria Francescana. Living in an Airbnb house, I had a lot of free time after doing chores (oh, how I missed my household help), and that allowed me to see more of this beautiful city than I ever could as a tourist.

Friends everywhere

Cheese and Prosecco were the first things on my mind. Before leaving for Modena, I had a vision of myself walking down the cobblestone streets, dropping in at this café, and then that gelataria.

Once there, it didn’t take long before I became a regular at Menomoka (a coffee shop), where the kind and hospitable (and extremely cute) owner Matteo Arseni, not only provided free Wi-Fi but also served as a talking guide for everything I could do and see close by.

At the lively covered marketplace, the Mercato Albinelli, I got a fine display of the everyday life of a Modenesi as I bought chewy almond cookies along with my milk, eggs, fruits etc. every morning. Sometimes I also bought tortellini. Since Akanksha loves chorizo pulao, I found a shop that sells basmati.

Massimo Bottura’s balsamic vinegar in Spilambertoart (Rupali Dean)

The best thing about Modena is its people. They are politeness in action. No shoving or hostile conduct. (Well, maybe some at the cheese counter!) Greetings of ‘buongiorno’ or ‘buona sera’ depending on the time of the day every time you pass a shop or café.

Aperitivo is the most beloved Italian pastime. This communal pre-dinner sipping tradition is strong in Modena

I made an acquaintance with many Bangladeshi mini mart owners; it feels nice to speak your mother tongue in a foreign land. My favourite was a couple who called me ‘bhabhiji’, so I made it a point to buy our night-time lemonade from their shop after Akanksha’s night shift.

I also met a bartender from Chandigarh, Gurpreet, whose Italian was as fluent as his Punjabi. Between the mini mart owners, Matteo, and Gurpreet, I was never lonely.

Modena boasts of lovely cafes where one can relax with a good cup of coffee (Rupali Dean)

Cocktails and conversations

Since the Airbnb’s Wi-Fi was frustratingly slow, Caffé Concerto at Piazza Grande (Modena’s beating heart), facing the beautiful Duomo (Cathedral of Modena), became my hotspot quite literally! The waitress became my new best friend, and it pinched her to see me spend so much to just use the Internet. Since I insisted on doing so, however, she helpfully advised me to come at Aperitivo time when, with the purchase of a cocktail, I could help myself to a generous spread of light bites too.

Aperitivois one of the most beloved Italian pastimes. This communal pre-dinner sipping tradition is strong in Modena; every evening at about six pm, I’d see countless early evening gatherings of locals and tourists sipping cocktails and snacking over conversation.

This was a tradition I was very happy to partake of when Akanksha got her weekly holidays; mother and daughter bonded over a negroni (a blend of gin, vermouth and Campari), some wafers and small ham and cheese sandwiches.

One can spot beautifully designed archways in Modena (Rupali Dean)

Once a week, Akanksha and I explored Modena. We visited the Consorteria dell’Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena in Spilamberto, the only business association that endorses the ethos of traditional balsamic vinegar that takes over 25 years to properly process. The lady at the counter spoke excellent English and seemed like a character out of a Shakespeare play. After the tour, she suggested that we try a mascarpone ice cream topped with drops of balsamic vinegar. Trust me, ice cream will never taste the same for me again. Though Akanksha did promise to try her hand with a Bandel Cheese ice cream topped with Himachali apple cider vinegar once we got back home.

Batteries of balsamic vinegar on display in Spilamberto Museum, where it takes almost 25 years for it to process (Rupali Dean)

Planning to take the bus back to our temporary home, we were baffled by the schedule. Fortunately, we bumped into a bunch of girls who decided to take care of us by walking us to the stop and staying till we boarded. Now, this is Italy!

Dying for dal

Much as we love Italian food, Akanksha and I were craving for good old Indian food within two weeks. Fortunately, Churrasco, a South American restaurant, offered not only delicious steaks, but also Mexican style kidney beans with rice – in other words, rajma chawal! This was our staple for the next three dinners, till we found an Indian restaurant where the dal, aloo gobi and rotis tasted like God’s gift to mankind.

That bit of homesickness addressed, we dived right back into Italian cuisine, buying the best Amaretti cookies in the world at the tiny, crowded Antica Pasticceria San Biagio, and diningat Franceschetta 58, where the ambiencewas contemporary, very Italian, full and fun. This little sister of Osteria Francescana has Bernardo Paladini at the wheel with a staff of energetic, talented and dynamic women in the kitchen and dining room.

Mercato Albinelli, the historic food market, is worth paying a visit to (Rupali Dean)

Next, we went to an old-style Modenese kitchen, Trattoria Bianca,which has a beautiful garden exposed in the summer and serves small cushions of gnocco fritto with salumi, a delicate amarena conserve, handmade pastas such as tortellini in broth and pumpkin tortellini, and the best beef tartare I have ever eaten. And I loved Da Panino, an ‘80s style Antipasto Italiano across from Osteria,which has top-notch products, friendly and fun service, tables outside and always a surprise behind the bar

Matteo told me that Modena cheesemaker Carlo has been producingParmigiano-Reggiano for over 50 years, so we visited the Hombre Farm. As we arrived, Carlo was loading a dolly with giganticwheels of cheese preparatory for shelving them to age. We were fascinated with the Italian Friesians cows (approximately 500) in Hombre’s herd. He needs so many because approximately 500 litres of milk yield just one wheel of cheese.

Apart from cheese, one can also see these cars on display at Hombre (Rupali Dean)

I was mesmerised by the aisle of cheese wheels in the maturing cellar and loved the plateful of Parmigiano-Reggiano we were given to try. But that was the last of our adventures in Modena; we had only a few days left and all we wanted to do was to walk around, sip a cup of our favourite latte macchiato whilst people watching, lunch at one of the local trattorias, check out the history, art and architecture, and then sip an aperitivo before an Italian dinner and bid farewell to all the friends we made on the trip.

From HT Brunch, March 25, 2018

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First Published: Mar 24, 2018 21:29 IST