- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

FAENZA, Italy — The Emilia Romagna region and it’s capital city, Bologna, are well known for their cuisine, agricultural products, treasures from antiquity, the Renaissance and the world’s most desired automobiles and motorcycles.

Many claim this is the best food in Italy, so it’s quite proper to begin a visit to this gastronomic heaven with a plate of pasta. I do, and it is a memorable dish at Zingaro in Faenza: cappellacci al formaggio di fossa con pomodoro fresco e spinaci, a ravioli-like pasta filled with fresh tomatoes and spinach and a three-month-old cheese that developed in Sogliano al Rubicone. Sogliano, like Faenza, and the city of Ravenna, are in the province of Ravenna. The pasta was preceded by other great products of the region: prosciutto of Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and salami.

Aside from the food, Zingaro is a very interesting business, which advertises as a pizzeria, a bar and the scene for small jazz ensembles, singers and poetry recitations. Its home, decorated with frescoed walls and ceilings, was built about 1600.

At that time, Faenza was already famous for its tin-glazed white pottery, a type of majolica ware, and for its growing ceramics production.

Faenza’s fine faience — a word derived from the French word for Faenza — was exported throughout Europe centuries ago, and the industry still exists here, although mostly in the small studios and shops that are about as ubiquitous as the mosaic shops in Ravenna. Students still come here to learn about ceramics, and every two years the Faenza Prize is awarded in an international ceramics competition.

The prize is awarded by Faenza’s famous International Museum of Ceramics founded by Gaetano Ballardini in 1908.

That year, at the close of the international exhibition that celebrated the 300th anniversary of the invention of the barometer by Faenza-born Evangelista Torricelli, many of the ceramics exhibitors donated their exhibits.

That exhibition was held in the former Monastery of San Maglorio, a sixth-century saint who may be more familiar today as the name of a sangiovese wine produced in Campodelsole. The museum was organized in the monastery and most of the oldest items in the collection are displayed there.

The collection, displayed in 38 rooms, includes pre-Columbian items from Peru, examples of the history of ceramics in Italy, and designs from masters such as Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, as well as contemporary artists still coming to the old city.

A settlement was established in the Faenza area long before it became the Roman town Faventia on the Via Aemilia on the vast fertile plain of Emilio Romagna. Now called Via Emilia in Italy, the Roman road ran almost straight northwestward from Rimini on the Adriatic Sea to Piacenza, and later was extended to Milan to connect to a road to the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Route A14, the Autostrada Adriatica, parallels Via Emilia on the north; between A14 and Via Emilia busy railroad tracks are also parallel to the roads.

The growth of Faventia was typical of Roman expansion, in this case into Cisalpine Gaul, the area between the Apennine Mountains in the south and the Alps in the north. The Romans had a knack for redistributing land they seized from the conquered, handing it over to settlers of the new towns on the new roads. During the empire, this area was a major supplier of food products for Rome and, later, for Ravenna in the Byzantine Empire. In recent centuries, industries have thrived in the valley.

The area also produced a fine clay for making ceramics, a craft eventually produced at many sites in Italy. Faenza was known for its pottery production by the 12th century, but its fame came in the last half of the 16th century, when local potters began using a tin oxide glaze that produced bianchi, a white ware. Tin glazes had been used much earlier on Egyptian beads and figurines and later by Arabs, especially on tiles. The name “majolica” — maiolica in Italian — may have come from the island of Majorca, which could have been a transshipment center for the platters, bowls and plates on their way to Italy.

The Faenza white glaze was not shiny at first, but was a welcome departure from the darker colors that had decorated ceramics in geometric patterns.

The Faenza craftsmen learned that an additional firing could give the glaze a shine. Later they learned how to apply bright colors with depth to them, and a third firing.

The Faenza craftsmen became more original in the early 16th century, turning to — a more delicate look in design, particularly with swirls of vines and flowers and often on reticulated plates and bowls. One of Faenza’s famous patterns, the garofano — red carnations — may have been based on a design Marco Polo brought from his travels to the Orient.

Faenza became so famous for its majolica that the name “faience” came into worldwide use to describe such ceramics. It is fitting that in this city the street and road signs are ceramic.

Beside the museum and classes, Faenza’s place in ceramics continues in more than 60 handcraft workshops and many studios.

Faenza is a lively town, particularly on market days when stands are set up in the Piazza del Popolo that runs between the Palazzo del Podesta and the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, built as a residence for the governing Manfredi family — until they were defeated by Cesare Borgia.

At the end of the street, near the landmark Clock Tower, the Piazza del Popolo runs into the Piazza della Liberta, which has a famous fountain near the base of the steps to the Cathedral of Faenza, whose cornerstone was laid in 1474.

The cathedral was built on the site of an earlier church that was built over a Roman temple. The exterior of the cathedral is rough brick, for it never received its marble facing, although some was added at its base in the 16th century. Across from the cathedral is the old Portico degli Orefici, where goldsmiths worked.

Restoration has continued in the historic area on Palazzo Tozzoni, a 19th-century palace, and most of the rooms are open.

Faenza’s two main squares are the setting for the annual Palio del Niballo every fourth Sunday in June. This festival of Renaissance pageantry dates from 1164 when Barbarossa — Emperor Frederick I Hohenstaufen — came to Faenza as guest of the Manfredis.

The Piazza del Popolo also is the finish line for the 36th annual 100K (about 62 miles) Passatore Florence-Faenza. The Saturday-Sunday road race leaves Florence’s Piazza della Signoria May 31 and ends June 1 in Faenza.

SASSUOLO

Reaching the Forme factory and headquarters in Sassuolo, near Modena, is a drive through a major industrial area where there were enough vehicles to fill a truck stop. The factories remind of steel mills — without the smoke. Forme specializes in ornamental ceramics, which can be created in tiles of various sizes with designs that can be copied to match fabrics and glazed in the same colors. The designs are copied by scanners, the colors then separated for the printing process that paints the designs onto the clay tiles, which are baked, cut and stacked in another part of the complex.

Sassuolo has one of the major palaces built by the d’Este family that oversaw the region that included the city of Modena, northwest of Bologna. Much of the restoration of the palace has been completed, the frescoes refreshed and plaster work repaired.

I am amused that the Forme factory is on Via Bagni, for mineral baths and spas spring up in this area of Italy, too. One of the best known is the Terme de Savarola, where emphasis is placed on spa treatments involving the area’s favorite grape, lambrusco, which makes the frizzante — slightly fizzy — wine of the same name. A lambrusco skin treatment, though, has fizz all its own.

Relaxed on a tabletop, I’m rubbed with a combination of crushed lambrusco and yeast. Then I am wrapped in plastic and a towel is placed over most of me. Soon I hear and feel muffled pops as the yeast reacts to body heat. The popping lasts far too long, but it’s laugh-inducing. Then it is time to shower. Then I am covered in something else. Then I shower again.

All of this happens because the polyphenols from lambrusco are said to be superior to other anti-radicals that apparently fight aging skin. I should have told them they were too late. On the other hand, an alternative was a lambrusco immersion — in a barrel; this treatment is also available for couples.

This spa in the countryside is quite comfortable and has a good restaurant, a pool and plenty of health club contraptions. Soak, sweat, swim and sip your lambrusco.

IMOLA

This city, also on Via Emilia, is famous for its racetrack, the home of the San Marino Formula 1 competition, and La Rocca, a fortress the Sforza family built beginning in the 13th century. Many forts can bore easily, but La Rocca’s museum includes just enough armor and is ahead of most of the others.

Imola’s connection to the ceramics industry is historic and large. The Cooperativa Ceramica d’Imola is one of the five largest ceramics businesses in Italy, but it also was the nation’s first co-operative. This historical aspect occurred in 1874 when owner Giuseppe Bucci transferred ownership to the workers.

The company’s beginning goes back to the 15th century and a small workshop that produced traditional pottery. The cooperative added wall tiles to its products in 1913 and in 1922 bought a glassworks plant on Imola’s Via Veneto. The business now covers more than 355,000 square feet.

Besides display rooms, which show the range of the cooperative’s products, there is a small museum that is well selected, and there is a studio in which pottery is made and decorated by hand.

As it is possible to copy patterns on tiles, customers may submit designs to the cooperative workshop and commission a set of dishes. The workshop is maintained by the cooperative more to demonstrate skilled craftsmen at work than as a means of making money.

One of the items displayed is a ceramic teacup large enough to be a small bathtub, glazed in the rich yellow that for centuries has been a prominent background color of Italian ceramics. The industrious bee was adopted as the co-operative’s logo soon after it was organized.

LAMBORGHINI

Sant’Agata Bolognese, a town of almost 7,000 between Modena and Bologna, is famous for an automobile, the Lamborghini. The headquarters building of Automobili Lamborghini has a museum containing some of the famous models — including several that were the last of their model, as well as Formula 1 cars; nearby is the assembly building. The company was founded in 1963 and produces about three cars each day — except for two weeks each August when the company closes for vacation.

Esteemed for its design, quality workmanship and performance, the Lamborghini is assembled on an incredibly clean floor — clean enough for a picnic. With its limited production, each Lamborghini moves slowly during the assembly processed. The range of colors is limited, too, but the leather used inside the car can be matched to the exterior color, such as a vivid yellow, a memorable orange, a heavenly blue.

DUCATI

The home of the famous Ducati motorcycles is actually in Bologna. Painted in the traditional bright red, the Ducati bikes often are named No. 1 in polls of favorites. The assembly rooms here also are amazingly clean.

By appointment on tours, visitors can watch the assembly of the various models — the Superbike, Monster, Multistrada, SportClassic, Hypermotard and Desmosedici RR — and also visit the Ducati museum.

For fans of genuine sportswear, the Ducati apparel and gift store is across the highway — but a word of advice: go for a size larger than you think, for Italian small, medium and large are not quite the same as in the United States.

Sites, tastes and hotels in and around Faenza.

The Grand Hotel Vittoria (Corso Garibaldi 23, Faenza; visit www.hotel-vittoria.com; e-mail, [email protected], phone 39-054-621-508) is a comfortable step into the late 18th century, although the main part of the hotel is in a 16th century building and the bathrooms are up to date.

The lobby is done in Italy’s Liberty style, which came into fashion soon after the hotel opened in 1861. The rooms are large and have high ceilings. The hotel is two minutes from the International Museum of Ceramics, one minute from the Piazza del Popolo.

Zingaro, Campidori 11, Faenza; www.ristorantezingaro.com; [email protected], 39-054-621-560; in historic Faenza, in frescoed rooms of a 17th-century building. Zingaro offers a restaurant, wine bar and pizzeria; weekly performances by small jazz groups; and poetry recitations.

Trattoria La Casetta, Via G. Ugonia 6, Brisighella; 39-054-680-250; closed Tuesdays. Delicious food in a comfortable setting.

Trattoria Anna Maria; Via Belle Art 17A, Bologna; 39-051-266-894; closed Monday and Tuesday morning. Traditional Bolognese cooking, not the city’s best, but good and very popular.

Osteria de’ Poeti, Via de’ Poeti, 1B, Bologna; www.osteriadepoeti.com, 39-054-123-6166; large restaurant, good food, somewhat touristy.

Art Hotel Corona d’Oro, Via Oberdan 12, Bologna; coronaoro.hotelsbologna.it; 39-051-236-456. A stylish boutique hotel within an easy walk to the historic heart of the city.

Forme (ornamental ceramics), Via Bagnoli 3, Sassuolo; www.forme2000.com; 39-0536-806-703

Automobile Lamborghini, Via Modena 12, Sant’Agata Bolognese; www.lamborghini.com, 39-051-6817-644, about 22 miles from Bologna. Museum open from 10 a.m. to noon and 2:30 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday except holidays.

Ducati Factory and Museum, Via Cavalieri Ducati 3, Bologna; www.ducati.com, 39-051-641-3259. Guided tours by reservation only; available in English: 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Friday; 9:30 and 11 a.m. Saturday; gift shop across highway.

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