The announcement was delivered via sandwich. Specifically, an Instagram photo of a crusty loaf slathered in pumpkin and piled with prosciutto. “Living in Italy for a while,” was how comedian Aziz Ansari captioned the picture for his fans in February 2016, before warning them to prepare for way more deliciousness ahead.
The piles of pasta that followed? Turns out it was all critical research for his Emmy-winning sitcom “Master of None.” Season two, which debuted on Netflix this spring, opens with church bells clanging in Modena, the very same spot where Ansari scarfed down that tasty panino. His character Dev – who’s taking a break from New York – is apprenticing at Boutique del Tortellino, befriending guys named Giorgio and repeatedly saying the word “allora.” (It translates loosely to “well” in Italian. As in, “Well, this is making me hungry.”)
For a foodie like Dev, the location makes sense. Anyone who’s ever tasted Modena’s namesake balsamic vinegar drizzled on a salad has heard of the town. And it’s known as a place to go for serious eats, including the three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana, which topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016. Spoiler alert: Its celebrity chef, Massimo Bottura, makes a cameo in episode two.
But Modena’s not an obvious Italian destination for tourists in the way that, say, Florence is. I know this because I live in Florence, which is basically an American college campus covered in Renaissance art. Tired of tripping over spring breakers, my family decided to spend a weekend following Ansari’s trail of bread crumbs and pumpkin.
The train ride to Modena, with a quick change in Bologna, took less than an hour and a half. And there we were, following Google’s instructions to turn left toward the Baroque palace built in 1634 – because, you know, we’re in Italy. (On the show, Dev jokes that it’s “the first ever McDonald’s PlayPlace.”)
In an homage to classic Italian films, that first episode in Modena was shot in black and white. I figured in real life, it couldn’t possibly feel as charming. That was wrong. The short trip to the city center is on wide, spotless sidewalks shaded by pretty porticoes. I braced myself to leap out of the way of a taxicab until I realised the driver was rolling to a lazy stop. And it was one of the only cars in sight. Everyone we passed was strolling or cycling with a smile. We could hear an accordion playing softly down the street, and it didn’t even feel cheesy.
“Can we move to Modena?” my husband asked while sipping a macchiato from a shop that lured him in with its “vasta selezione.”
Our 2-year-old daughter expressed a similar sentiment an hour later when she woke up from her nap to discover we were mid-lunch along the cobblestoned Piazza XX Settembre, and she had a prosciutto panino of her own waiting to be devoured. I opted for a bruschetta topped with Gorgonzola, cherries and balsamic. When it arrived, I felt inspired by Ansari. I had to take a photo. (There’s a reason it’s called an Instagram “feed.”)
From our table, we could peek into Mercato Albinelli, a covered market with stalls hawking every delicious morsel the Emilia-Romagna region is known for – including, of course, tortellini, the filled, ring-shaped pasta that’s said to have been inspired by Venus’s belly button.
On “Master of None,” Dev’s visit there involves a whole lot of sampling. That seems to be par for the course, especially if you happen to bring along a toddler who says “ciao.” We beelined to a display of baked goods to pick up some amaretti di Modena, traditional chewy almond cookies, and the man behind the counter also sneaked my daughter a twisted breadstick. We ventured toward crates of leafy produce, where she took an interest in the fresh peas. So a woman cracked open a pod and invited her to sample the tender bits inside. The cheesemonger across the aisle knew how to compete: He handed her a piece of chocolate.
The snacking isn’t really so naughty, I decided as we were huffing our way up the 290-foot Ghirlandina. The gleaming white-stone tower, topped with an octagonal spire, is considered the symbol of Modena, and climbers are rewarded with bird’s-eye views of the town – a sea of rust-coloured roofs and walls painted peach, lemon and tangerine. We also got to see a copy of the “stolen bucket,” a prized artifact since it was snatched from a Bologna well during a battle in 1325.
That’s fairly recent history, considering the origins of the cathedral next door. Construction started in 1099, and some of the building materials date back to Roman times when Modena was “Mutina.” Architect Lanfranco and sculptor Wiligelmo created the Romanesque masterpiece – which, along with the tower and the adjoining Piazza Grande – are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Another duo clearly appreciates their work: Ansari and co-star Eric Wareheim filmed a pasta-fueled music video to go with Kanye West’s “Famous,” and it ends with a lingering shot of them riding one of the cathedral’s column-supporting lions.
There are other important religious sights in town, including the synagogue with its celestial blue, star-covered ceiling, built beside Piazza Mazzini, which once served as the town’s Jewish ghetto.
And then there’s Museo Enzo Ferrari for folks who worship the Prancing Horse.
The complex built upon the birthplace of the race car driver turned entrepreneur is just one of several museums in Italy’s “Motor Valley” dedicated to flashy automobile brands. Also nearby are Maserati and Lamborghini collections. There’s a second Ferrari museum about 30 minutes away in the suburb of Maranello, which is also home to the Ferrari factory. Both have vast showrooms filled with cars and replicas of Enzo Ferrari’s office.
Unsure of which to visit, we signed up for Discover Ferrari & Pavarotti Land, a group tour with an intriguing motto: “Slow food, fast cars.” It promised admission and transportation via shuttle bus to both Ferrari museums, the house of the late, great tenor Luciano Pavarotti – a Modena native, who died there in 2007 – plus tastings of wines, balsamics and meats.
It seemed like a disjointed itinerary until we arrived at stop two: Gavioli Antica Cantina, which boasts 220 years of making Lambrusco, a fizzy, inexpensive varietal that you’ll get when you order the house wine in Modena. (As we are informed multiple times during our trip, it’s necessary to balance the fatty cold cuts that dominate the local diet.) On display is a large photo of Pavarotti clasping a bottle. Just beyond the tasting room is a museum that celebrates regional wine and automotive history – starting with a taxi so old-school that it was pulled by a horse.
The connection here is Modena’s extreme pride in everything it produces, whether it’s an engine, a singing voice or a slice of salami. The prevailing view is that if it’s from the area, it’s the best.
That theory was confirmed on our final morning in town, when my family cabbed over to 4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia, a dairy responsible for a sizable chunk of the world’s Parmigiano-Reggiano. Our tour group gazed through windows at workers clad entirely in white hunched over tanks, each holding 1,200 liters of milk. Our guide explained that their output is closely monitored by one person, who can determine quality through her highly developed sense of touch. Anything she deems unacceptable is sent to the pigs.
After a stop in the earthquake-resistant storeroom – where we got to hold the special hammer used to identify duds during the aging process – it was time to taste the stuff.
And, allora, it was delicious