• Piadina is a popular Italian street food found in the striped kiosks of Emilia-Romagna. (Piadina Queen)Source: Piadina Queen
After trying hundreds of ingredients, Piadina Queen's Michele Testi has nailed this Italian street food from his childhood.
Lee Tran Lam

31 Aug 2020 - 11:41 AM  UPDATED 31 Aug 2020 - 11:44 AM

Michele Testi grew up in Ravenna, an Italian town famous for its piadina and the striped kiosks that sold the aforementioned flatbread stuffed with cheese, prosciutto or a sweet swipe of Nutella.

"It is probably one of the more popular street foods in the region," he says. Ravenna is located in Emilia-Romagna, in the country's north-west, and every street corner has a stripe-filled stall selling toasted flatbread.

Romagnan flatbread with prosciutto (piadina romagnola con prosciutto crudo)

"When I go home, the first thing I want to eat is piadina with prosciutto. Luckily, there’s a shop about 50 metres from my place. You can eat the breads with rocket and all kinds of cheeses," says Matteo.

"It's almost like a version of a taqueria in Mexico," he says. "In terms of taste, there's nothing like it. It's different from the standard tacos that you would've had. It has a biscuity sensation and it's crispy on the outside and soft on the inside."

It's a street food that Testi loved growing up: he'd grab piadina on the way to the beach, or while walking into Ravenna's city centre with friends.

"My all-time favourite is the one with prosciutto di parma, rocket and a local cheese called squacquerone," he says. "This is a very famous regional cheese in the Emilia-Romagna region."

In fact, piadina acts like a carb-filled showcase for local ingredients, such as Pecorino cheese (which melts when enveloped in toasted bread with sausage and caramelised onions).  

"There's the Caprese with mozzarella and tomatoes…that is quite nice to have in summer," adds Testi. "There's a vegetarian one you'd have with grilled vegetables and all sorts of different options, like caramelised onions."

At age 19, Testi moved to Sydney to study accounting at Macquarie University, which led to a full-time job crunching numbers. But after six years of auditing and scanning spreadsheets, he couldn't stop thinking about the piadina kiosks of his childhood – the way the vendors would leave the dough to rest overnight, then shape the dough into flat discs. They way they'd toast them on a hot grill and fill them with local cheeses, cold cuts and vegetables. So he looked for the "right moment" to start reducing his office hours, so he could eventually pursue making piadina full-time.

That moment was October last year, when he set up his first market stall under the name Piadina Queen, with help from fiancé Amanda. On the menu: Piadina toasted with mozzarella, tomatoes, rocket and a balsamic glaze on top (Emilia-Romagna, after all, is famous for its balsamic vinegar).

"I wanted to give the people of Sydney a real taste of Emilia-Romagna, so for me, it was really important to go back to Italy and learn about piadina – the right way it's made, according to our standards back in Italy," he says.

And that's what he did. "I started working for one of my favourite piadineria back in Ravenna," he says. Testi would prep, toast and fill the dough during the piadina stall's quieter periods, which gave him time to quiz the vendors about mastering the regional speciality. His training period was a piadina-making blur: he "lost count" of how many flatbreads he produced, but suspects he created 1,000 serves before he was happy with his piadina skills.

When he returned to Australia, he set out recreating a local version. He tested hundreds of ingredients – different flours and oils, across various brands – before producing a version that recalled the piadina of his childhood.

“We'd eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

At one point, his kitchen was essentially a wheat-dusted lab, with flour endlessly coating his clothes. His fridge was stacked with one hundred kinds of piadina he'd made. "There was no space for anything else," Testi says. 

"We'd eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It became part of our diet, from morning to evening," he says. "We had to get creative with the way we were using them."

He also had to get creative with Piadina Queen. Originally, it started as a market stall across Sydney, but as COVID-19 restrictions affected gatherings, it was clear that Testi needed to transform his business. So in March, he began researching packaging and labels, so he could sell his piadina as a retail product. He liked the idea of offering it in stores that already sell the Italian cheeses and cold cuts often served with piadina. So you can now find Piadina Queen's flatbread in speciality grocers like Forestway Fresh in Terrey Hills and Fourth Village in Mosman, or cheese shops like Haberfield's Paesanella, and delicatessens like Balgowlah Heights Deli.

Testi has spent a long time ensuring the piadina would stay fresh in the fridge for a month. "They're preservative-free," he says. "They’re kept the same way you would find them in Ravenna."

As for the business name, he explains that there's an Italian legend about a "Piadina Queen" who started selling countryside piadina to city dwellers. "She soon started filling the product with local produce, from cheese to prosciutto, then it soon became a street food option," he says. And now striped piadineria kiosks are everywhere in Emilia-Romagna.

Like the original Piadina Queen, Testi has become quite an ambassador for ways to enjoy the flatbread. For instance, you can toast it in a frypan for a minute on each side, until it’s biscuit-crisp, and add a good knife-swipe of Nutella on top. "That would be one of the most eaten desserts on Italy in the streets," he says.

Italian flatbread with prosciutto and fontina (piadina)

Hailing from the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, this simple flatbread filled with a selection of herbs, meat and cheeses was once the poor-man’s bread, but has since become one of the country’s most popular street snacks. It has been described as the bread of the Romagnoli people and is so strongly linked with its region that it now has Protected Geographical Indication status.

If you prefer to deploy your kitchen's sandwich press, piadina translates nicely under the heat of its grill. Just cut the bread in half, to ensure any cheese filling can reaching its melting point.

Testi has also engineered Australian twists on serving piadina, especially as he was dealing with a massive glut of experimental leftovers at one stage.

"Instead of using the bread as in Italy, we started filling it with avocado," he says. "With feta, as a brunch option, it's very good." He's also regularly posting serving suggestions on Piadina Queen's Instagram account, in case you need more carb-loading inspiration.

"There's not a day where I don't have a bite of piadina," he says.

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