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Ferrara: The Italian town with Renaissance food on the menu

(CNN) — The signs of the Renaissance are everywhere in Italy.

Grand piazzas and palazzos. Metal-spiked doors. Looming archways. And, of course, all that ever-present art in the churches and galleries.

But in one city, you also get a taste of the Renaissance every time you enter a restaurant.

Ferrara, in the northern region of Emilia Romagna, was once home to the Estense court, or House of Este, which ruled the city from the 13th to the 18th centuries.

The court, on the bank of the River Po, was one of the most formidable cultural powers during the Renaissance. Writers including Boiardo, Ariosto and Torquato Tasso were employed by the court, and artists such as Bellini, Mantegna and Piero della Francesco worked for the Este family in their domineering, moat-surrounded castle in the center of town.

Their works have survived the centuries — but so have those of Cristoforo di Messisbugo, the court’s master of ceremonies and steward.

Messisbugo was one of two celebrity chefs of the Renaissance, and his prowess with multicourse banquets to impress visiting heads of state and fill the bellies of the Este great and good, led to him writing one of the world’s earliest cookbooks.

His tome, “Banchetti, composizioni di vivande e apparecchio generale” (“Banquets, Recipes and Table-laying”) was published in 1549, a year after he died. In it, as well as sample dinner menus and drinks pairings, he lists 300 recipes.

And it’s thanks to Messisbugo that that, nearly five centuries later, the Ferraresi are still eating the Estes’ favorite meals.

Because while every town in Italy has its signature dishes, Ferrara’s are straight from the cookbook of that 16th-century court.

Yes, these dishes are real

Salama da sugo, a centuries-old sausage and mash.

Salama da sugo, a centuries-old sausage and mash.

Archivo Fotografico Provincia di Ferrara

First things first. To enjoy Ferrara’s best known dishes, you don’t want to visit in summer. And you’ll want an elasticated waistband — because the signature food here is heavy.

The city’s best known dishes are pasticcio — effectively a pie filled with macaroni cheese, meat ragu, and bechamel sauce — salama da sugo, a centuries-old kind of sausage and mash, and cappellacci di zucca, pumpkin-stuffed pasta.

Each, though, has a twist. Pasticcio’s pie crust is sweet — yes, a meat pie in sweet pastry — while salama da sugo is a kilo-heavy salami that’s soaked in water for several days and then boiled for 10 hours to soften it into a spicy, spreadable meat that’s then served on mashed potato.

Meanwhile, that super-sweet pumpkin pasta is usually slathered with meat ragu on top.

All date back to the Renaissance. In fact, salama da sugo was said to be the favorite dish of Lucrezia Borgia — yes, that Lucrezia Borgia — who came to Ferrara in 1502 when she married the Duke, Alfonso d’Este.

In fact, her famously long, blonde, curly locks are said to be the inspiration for another of Ferrara’s famous foods: the coppia, a spiraling, four-horned bread roll, like two croissants welded together. It was supposedly created by Messisbugo for a banquet in honor of Lucrezia.

Sergio Perdonati is at work by 3 a.m. each morning to bake around 1,000 coppie per day, such is his devotion to the bread. “I think it’s one of the best breads in the world,” he says proudly.

His grandfather, Otello, started the family bakery, Panificio Perdonati, 90 years ago — Sergio’s sourdough starter is Otello’s original, which has survived the bakery’s bombing in the Second World War, and two property moves. All the rolls are formed by hand and the dough is made using vintage mixing machines.

Today, they’ve branched out into the sweet stuff — including panpepato, a cake also dating back to the Renaissance, made with chunks of almonds and orange peel, and covered in dark chocolate.

Think Renaissance cocktail flairers

Cappellacci di zucca -- pumpkin-stuffed pasta.

Cappellacci di zucca — pumpkin-stuffed pasta.

Archivo Fotografico Provincia di Ferrara

People have always come to Ferrara to eat.

“For sure, other courts had banquets, but Ferrara was particularly well known for them,” says Dr Federica Caneparo, a historian at the University of Chicago specializing in the culture of the Italian Renaissance.

“It was especially refined, and food and banquets were a demonstration of power in front of their guests, some of whom would be ambassadors from other courts.”

Italian courts had a raft of foodie professions, including the “scalco” (like Messisbugo, the supervisor), the “bottigliere” (an ancient sommelier) and the “trinciante” — the “carver”, who would put on a show for the entire table by carving meat or vegetables held in the air on a giant fork (think of a Renaissance cocktail flairer, only with knives and sides of beef instead of bottles).

“They were trusted people close to the Duke,” says Caneparo. “Usually gentiluomini [nobles] by birth, or by merit. The scalco was responsible for organizing banquets and, on ordinary days, the household. The trinciante also had to be a trusted person — after all, he was right next to the master of the house with all those big knives.”

Ferrara’s banquets were so famous, in fact, that poet Ludovico Ariosto included a description of one in his epic work “Orlando Furioso,” she says. And no wonder — she says that they were “spectacular, with music, dance, theater, and sculptures made of sugar or ice. They’d start with a play, or music, or both, and then they’d prepare the table.” And forget our single-figure tasting menus — these banquets could have well over 100 courses.

Mac and cheese with a sugary twist

Pasticcio is a pie filled with macaroni cheese, meat ragu, and bechamel sauce.

Pasticcio is a pie filled with macaroni cheese, meat ragu, and bechamel sauce.

Archivo Fotografico Provincia di Ferrara

With so much food to choose from you can be sure that the dishes to have made it into modern Ferrarese cooking are the classics.

At the modern Ca’ d’Frara restaurant, guests sit on hip mustard-colored chairs and cream banquettes to eat these centuries-old dishes.

And those used to molecular cuisine might find Renaissance gastronomy equally boundary-pushing.

“You often find this sweet-savory combination in the Estense cuisine — it’s unique,” says chef Elia Benvenuti. His pasticcio is an intriguing mix of a dense, meaty mac and cheese, wrapped in a cookie-sweet crust. You approach it with trepidation — how can this ever taste good? — but, somehow, it works. The sweet crust even seems to cut through the richness of the white ragu and bechamel sauce.

“They’re symbols of the city — part of our DNA,” says chef of the traditional dishes. “I think Lucrezia [Borgia] would be happy,” adds his maître d’ wife, Barbara.

Sweetening up the savory

italian renaissance food-6

Sweet dishes include panpepato, a cake made with chunks of almonds and orange peel, and covered in dark chocolate

Archivo Fotografico Provincia di Ferrara

A few minutes’ walk away, locals are spilling into Ristorante Raccano, in a 15th-century cloister. Some are here for meat cooked in the oh-so-21st-century Josper oven — what owner Laura Cavicchio describes as “one of the most technically advanced grilling machines.” But others? They’re here for Lucrezia’s beloved salama da sugo.

This is normally one of Ferrara’s more savory dishes — the salama is so heavily spiced, it hardly needs sugar.

But Cavicchio and her children, Gabriella and Luca Montanari, like to take it right back to its Este roots by serving it with fried custard.

The salama — made with different cuts of the pig including neck, belly, liver and tongue, with neck fat binding it all together — is seasoned with spices including cloves, cinnamon, red wine and Ferrara’s ubiquitous spice, nutmeg.

It’s then aged in a pork casing for around a year, soaked in water for three days to soften it up, and then boiled for up to 10 hours.

By that point, it’s as soft as jam, and chef Luca scoops it out, sprinkles it on top of potato mash, and adds mostarda (like a sweet chutney), plus the crowning glory: a cube of fried custard.

“This isn’t a reinterpretation — in the old recipes, you find it served with custard,” says Cavicchio, who’s combed through Renaissance recipes and history books to make it authentic.

Alongside modern dishes, they also serve “Crostino alla Messisbugo” — chicken liver and sauteed herbs pate, smeared on toasted bread. It’s another hit from the great man’s recipe book.

Meanwhile, their cappellacci di zucca — handrolled pasta pillows, like oversized tortellini, filled with sweet pumpkin and nutmeg — come drenched in meat ragu and topped with parmesan cheese. Again, it’s a combination that shouldn’t work, but does. Alone, the cappellacci are offputtingly sweet to 21st-century tastes. Douse them with meat and cheese, though, and it slices through the sweetness, while amping up the taste of the sauce.

Ferrrara was ruled by the powerful House of Este from the 13th to 18th centuries.

Ferrrara was ruled by the powerful House of Este from the 13th to 18th centuries.

Shutterstock

The Estes’ signature “agrodolce” (sweet-savory) flavor was a conservation method, says Cavicchio. “People had vinegar, wine and salt. Marco Polo used it.” And although at the restaurant they use modern techniques, including that Josper oven, they want to keep the tastes as similar as possible to their heritage.

“Over the years I’ve acquired a way of interpreting a recipe — I change the cooking techniques and some of the ingredients, but you need to know the product to do that,” says Cavicchio. Born just over the border in Veneto, where agrodolce flavors are also fundamental, she reads as many books about the Estes’ food habits as she can and experiments to keep the final product as authentic as possible.

“Messisbugo was studious,” she says. “He invented recipes with the ingredients he had and the methods available to him. He didn’t have a fridge, so he used vinegar, wine and sugar. We’re much luckier, but I think he’d still appreciate what we do. For us, [the heritage] is a richness.”

The modern day foodie courtiers

Ferrara's local bread is supposedly inspired by Lucrezia Borgia's hair.

Ferrara’s local bread is supposedly inspired by Lucrezia Borgia’s hair.

Archivo Fotografico Provincia di Ferrara

Like everywhere in Italy, restaurants and food heritage are important to the locals. Over at Da Noemi — a restaurant named after his grandmother, who opened up by herself in 1956 — 23-year-old Giovanni Matteucci has a hobby unlike many people his age. He buys antique copies of Ferrarese history and recipe books.

“Sweetness was synonymous with the food of the rich,” he explains. “They used lots of spices and sugar to show off their wealth.” Even recipes for glammed-up egg yolk, and lasagne, had sugar and cinnamon on top, he says.

And although he says it isn’t proven that Lucrezia Borgia really did love salama da sugo above all else, we do know that she adored apples — from the shopping list she compiled for her country estate. “She ordered loads of apples and different varieties,” he says. “It’s also said that she liked garlic.”

At Da Noemi, Giovanni and his mom, Maria Cristina Borgazzi, run the kitchen. Brother Luca, meanwhile, is the maître d — the modern equivalent of Messisbugo. In fact, Luca takes his role as master of ceremonies so seriously that he’s decided that their reduced pandemic seating plan will stay forever. “We can pay more attention to the client this way,” he says.

Speak to anyone in Ferrara, and they’ll wax lyrical about their pride in their food heritage. Yet, although Italians flock to the city to eat cappellacci, pasticcio, salama da sugo and coppie, the dishes have never really conquered the rest of Italy, as other regional dishes like pizza or tortellini have.

Not that the Ferraresi care.

“Ferrara is beautiful because of the Este family, and it’s the same for their dishes,” says Giovanni Matteucci. “People come to Ferrara for this, and we have to protect it.

“Italy is based on its history. We don’t have Silicon Valley — this is our richness.”

And, of course, their sweetness. Eating like Renaissance courtiers, here, is the most modern thing they can do.

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