Ask a local: what should I do, see, and eat in Modena, Italy?

by gigigriffis

Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town. The following interview was originally published in my Italy guide.


Today I’m happy to introduce you to Mirco Grandi, motorbike enthusiast and photographer, who’s here to tell us all about Modena – the home of balsamic vinegar, sports cars, and the second oldest athenaeum in Italy.

First, tell us about you.

I’m 35. I was born in Modena and always lived, studied, and worked here (I’m mechanical engineer). I have lots of interests, but my greatest passion is my motorbike (I ride in winter, too). I’m a photographer (only film cameras!) and a home-brewer, making traditional balsamic vinegar in my attic. I play soccer with friends for a local team.

If someone is visiting Modena for the first time, what do you recommend they see or do?

I recommend the cathedral, the civic tower, and Piazza Grande (the major square). They are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

There are two different Ferrari museums—one in Modena and one in Maranello (20 kilometers south). I really love both.

If you are unconventional tourists, maybe you are interested in Salse di Nirano; it is a natural park in the hill area with strange post-volcanic activity (I read somewhere that it’s the only place in the world with its particular phenomenon).

What neighborhoods or parts of town are best to stay in?

It depends on your taste. Many people love the historical center because everything’s close and it’s a pedestrian-only area (aka. not noisy). I’m a countryside man, myself, so I prefer the suburbs, specially in the south because of the views of the hills and mountains.

Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?

Bologna is very close and you can reach the coast or mountains. A little bit closer, you’ll find the Via dei Castelli, a walking path between Modena and Bologna (where you can visit Medieval castles).

You can also visit Nonantola, a little town with a very old abbey (6th century) and a pilgrim path to Rome from the Middle Ages. It was a kind of Camino de Santiago.

Tell us about the local dishes. What should people try here?

If you visit Modena, you must try tortellini in brodo (handmade pasta stuffed with meat and cheese and boiled in meat broth); this really represents our culture.

Other suggestions include zampone (pork meat boiled inside a pig’s leg) and gnocco (fried bread to eat with ham, salami, or whatever you want).

I must also suggest that you try the traditional balsamic vinegar, but it’s better to have a local guiding you, because it’s becoming very hard to find the real balsamic, even in restaurants.

If you have enough time, you can visit the town of Vignola, where there is a bakery called Café-Pasticceria Gollini (located at Via Giuseppe Garibaldi 1/n), which makes our traditional cake, the torta barozzi (which is a lot like a brownie), following the original recipe from the 17th century.

What are your top three favorite bars and restaurants?

The most famous restaurant is Osteria Francescana (at Via Stella 22); its chef, Massimo Bottura [whose interview you can find in the Plan by Interest section of this guide], was voted the best chef in the world in March 2014, so I have to suggest it (but remember it’s really expensive, at least by Italian standards).

In addition to that, I prefer the ones preparing the traditional dishes in the authentic way like Enzo (located at Via Coltellini 17) and Osteria Carducci (located at Via Canalino 73).

My favorite, for sure, would be Trattoria Ermes (located at Via Ganaceto 89). It’s the real Modena old-style tavern (50 years old and with the original owner). The owner is constantly shouting at the customers (he never speaks Italian, only local dialect, so you will need an help from other customers). You will eat sharing long tables with other people. It’s an amazing experience—trust me!

As far as bars go, I love beer, so my favorite is Goblet in Piazza Pomposa, where you can find local beers. Caffè dell’Orologio in Piazza D’Ova (named best bar in Italy few years ago) and Embassy (located at Via Bellinzona 1 and best for aperitivos) are also very good.

Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange? What can we do to better fit in with the culture?

Be patient and try to speak some of the language. Young people often speak English, but older people usually do not. We find it strange when tourists ask for tea or even cappuccino at lunch.

What is the best way to meet locals and make friends?

From 6 – 8 p.m. you can find many people at bars for aperitivo. You can find people everywhere that time, but mostly in Via Gallucci or Piazza Pomposa.

Why should people make sure to visit Modena?

There is lot of history everywhere (there is also the oldest shop in the world, Salumeria Giusti, located at Via Farini 75). You can eat very well and, if you are a car fan, it’s your place for sure (not only Ferrari, but also Maserati and Pagani are here).

What is the best place to go take beautiful photos of the city?

According to your taste, the best places can be Piazza Grande (if you walk to the top of the tower, you can take good landscape picture), or perhaps the open market days in the historical center, where you can take journalist-style photos (the most important market days are January 31st, which is Patron’s Day, and the first weekend in June, which is when we have the international markets).

Anything else you want us to know?

I really hope you meet a local and get to know our mentality. On the town’s coat of arms, it says avia pervia, which means “we make possible what is impossible.” That’s us: maybe a little arrogant, but also stubborn enough to make the impossible possible.

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