Bologna, Italy

By Jessica – January 24th, 2009

Like so many fascinating cities, Bologna is a study in contrasts: a center of radical politics in one of Italy’s wealthiest regions, a city of glittering shops and graffiti, brilliant terra-cotta buildings crowded along dark alleyways, and a huge basilica half clad in ostentatious Renaissance marble, half with its rugged underlying brickwork laid bare.

Bologna doesn’t have the art galleries of Florence, the canals of Venice, or the ancient landmarks of Rome, but it does have miles of stunning arcades and striking medieval architecture, one of the oldest universities in the world, and such a lack of tourists—in the colder months, anyway—that it’s often easy to believe you’re the first outsider to discover this marvelous place.

DeliAnd the food...dear God, the food. Bologna claims to be Italy’s culinary capital, and I’m not one to argue. The list of foods originating in Bologna and the surrounding area—lasagna, tortellini, “spaghetti bolognese”, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese—reads like a what’s what of Italian cuisine. Then there’s “bologna” itself (or rather, the gargantuan but delicately flavored mortadella), along with pretty much any other cured pork products you can imagine.

The food in the Emilia-Romagna region is less about tomatoes and olive oil and more about butter and cream, which makes it a great place to visit in the cold weather; there’s nothing better than sitting down to a mountain of eggy golden pasta swathed in cheese when it’s foggy and freezing outside. Fall and winter also bring chestnuts, mushrooms, truffles and game—all perfectly accompanied by a bottle of deep purple Sangiovese di Romagna.

Jeremy and I have been to Bologna twice, once as a sort of delayed honeymoon in November 2003, once for our ninth wedding anniversary in January 2009, both times as gastronomic explorers determined to consume as much regional cuisine as possible in a very short period of time (i.e., a long weekend). The first time around, we went without much advance planning—just a little guidebook and the conviction that we’d stumble across great restaurants without really trying. For the most part, that turned out to be true, though we didn’t manage to get into one restaurant we really wanted to try (Da Gianni) because it was all booked up, we barely managed to squeeze into another one (Trattoria Anna Maria) thanks only to the hospitality of the head waiter, and getting into a third one (Trattoria Meloncello) was a surreal adventure involving bouncers, football managers and carabinieri.

The second time around, I wanted to be a bit more prepared, so I scoured the web to find out where Bologna’s foodies were eating these days. As it turned out, most of the same names kept coming up: Da Gianni, Anna Maria, Meloncello. Remembering the near misses of the last trip, it seemed prudent to make reservations, so after much debate and consideration, we decided to try Da Gianni again on our first night and the highly praised Caminetto d’Oro on our second.

Da Gianni thwarted us a second time; it was still closed for the holidays, so we found ourselves instead being drawn back to Trattoria Anna Maria and the memory of its fabulous homemade pasta and crispy roasted meats.

Tortellini in brodoOur memories, I’m happy to say, did not betray us. We started off by sharing two classic Bolognese pasta dishes: tortellini in brodo, or tortellini in broth, and tagliatelle al ragí¹, the famed tagliatelle (not spaghetti!) in meat sauce. If there’s anything more pleasing than stepping into a cozy trattoria on a cold night and being presented with a steaming bowl of tortellini bathed in a rich golden soup, I’m sure I can’t imagine what it is—particularly when each tiny handmade pasta packet encloses such a flavorful filling of mortadella, prosciutto and parmesan. The tagliatelle al ragí¹ was no less revelatory, the meat sauce lightly mixed with pasta rolled so thin it was nearly translucent.

After the pasta, we moved on to the meat course: roasted guinea fowl for Jeremy and roasted pork shank for me, both of which were tender, tasty, and covered with crispy, salty pancetta (which is always a good thing). Not knowing what they were, I succumbed to curiosity and ordered a side dish of cardoons as well. When they arrived, I realized I had seen them at some vegetable stalls earlier: they look like oversized celery, taste a bit like artichokes, and were very lovely braised in a meaty broth in Anna Maria’s. And after all the pasta, meat and cardoons, we just had room to share a luminous zuppa inglese for dessert before rolling back out into the frosty night.

MozzarellaAnother day, another opportunity to gorge ourselves. After a pastry and a super-creamy cappuccino at the Caffé Opera e Tulipani, which overlooks one of the only medieval canals still visible in Bologna, we strolled around on the frigid but beautifully sunny day to take pictures and work up a good appetite for lunch. Lunchtime found us at the quirky Drogheria della Rosa, where we were seated and promptly presented with two glasses of Prosecco and a scrumptious platter of salumi and fresh mozzarella. We splashed out and ordered a plate of mixed cheeses as well, which turned out to be a selection of hard cheeses like parmesan and pecorino.

I wish I had known what each of the cheeses were, but not speaking Italian put us at a disadvantage—in more ways than one, it seemed, since we were just given small (Italian) menus to order from, while the other customers (all of whom were Italian and most of whom seemed to be regulars) were being served things that weren’t on the menu. It was the only time on either of my trips to Bologna that I really felt like a tourist; we were clearly not “in the know”, and it left me feeling a tiny bit uncomfortable.

Cheese tortelli with artichokesHaving said that, almost every review I’ve read of Drogheria della Rosa has mentioned the warm hospitality of the outgoing proprietor, so maybe it was an off day or maybe I was misreading the situation. Anyway, it’s not like we were dissatisfied with the meal we got. My first course of oozy cheese tortelloni with tangy artichokes was outstanding, and Jeremy’s tagliatelle al ragí¹, while not reaching the sublime heights of Anna Maria’s, was rustically toothsome. Truth be told, I was already full after the pasta, but I gamely plowed through a massive filet steak, cooked to rosy red perfection, glazed with a glossy balsamic reduction and accompanied by delectably bitter endive and radicchio.

I learned an important lesson my first time in Bologna: if you attempt to eat an appetizer and a first course and a main course and a dessert at every single sitting, you will soon be incapable of doing anything but lying down and moaning. With that in mind, we skipped dessert at Drogheria della Rosa and did as much walking around as we possibly could before our reservation at Caminetto d’Oro that evening.

Culaccia ham with fig and fresh cheeseThough ostensibly a trattoria, Caminetto d’Oro feels more like an upscale restaurant, with its pristine white tablecloths and tasteful modern decor—and it’s got the prices to match. Again we were greeted with a glass of fizzy Prosecco, which was served alongside an amuse-bouche of tender, garlicky mortadella wrapped around a breadstick. Remembering the mind-blowing culatello with figs and parmesan mousse that I had at Papagallo restaurant on our first trip to Bologna, I chose an appetizer of Culaccia ham with sticky fig and fresh cheese—a combination made in heaven—while Jeremy opted for a roughly-chopped steak tartare topped with shavings of black truffle and seasoned at the table with olive oil, salt, pepper and celery seeds.

Pasta with squash is a popular winter combination in Italy, and I indulged my craving for it with a plate of handmade spinach lasagnette tossed with tiny cubes of pumpkin and topped with sweet, crunchy amaretti biscuits and parmesan cheese. And if Jeremy’s tortellini in brodo wasn’t quite as flavor-packed as Anna Maria’s, it was still warming and tasty and served, most pleasingly, with a big golden spoon.

Empty bowl

After the pasta, it was time for more meat—and, in Jeremy’s case, yet more truffle, this time atop a massive meatball (or perhaps a very tiny meatloaf), a polpette so dense and rich that Jeremy couldn’t even finish it. I opted for the baked guinea fowl in a balsamic glaze, which was cooked beautifully and presented with a scrumptious artichoke soufflé; despite all the ham and pasta that preceded it, I wiped my plate clean. We even managed dessert afterwards: Though not generally a huge fan of ice cream, my little dish of artisanal iced milk and fat, sweet-tart cherries hit all the right notes, and Jeremy’s panna cotta with seasonal chestnuts was lusciously creamy. And the post-dessert espressi and biscotti were lovely too.

Meat and cheeseThat wasn’t quite our last meal in Bologna; we just had time on Sunday to grab lunch at La Vecchia Malga, a delicatessen with three branches around the city and even one at the airport. We sat at a rustic wooden table upstairs from the shop and feasted on big plates of mixed cold cuts, cheese and marinated vegetables (olives, artichokes, sundried tomatoes).

As we ate surrounded by legs of prosciutto, hefty salamis, massive wheels of cheese and crates of Italian wine, I thought that, with all of its earthy abundance, Bologna is a city dear to my heart. It’s a city that goes about its business but takes the time to appreciate the finer things in life. It wears its history and affluence lightly, and it’s quietly confident of its culinary supremacy. It knows it’s got a lot going for it, but it doesn’t go out of its way to grab your attention—it waits for you to come to it. And when you lose yourself in the endless porticos and endless meals and the rhythm of day-to-day life there, the city opens up to you, and you think you might just never leave.


Trip notes:

Here are the restaurants we’ve eaten at in Bologna:

Added September 2012:

Added September 2014: