What Not to Do in Bologna, Italy

Bologna in Northern Italy is an ancient city, but one that sometimes gets overlooked. Even though I didn’t spend a lot of time there, I grew to love it very quickly and can’t wait to return and explore more of the city. While there’s a lot to do there, there are also a few things not to do when exploring the great culinary capital of the north.

Order Spaghetti Bolognese – Arguably one of the most popular and easy to prepare dishes found anywhere in the world, spaghetti Bolognese has burrowed its way into the culinary hearts of millions. It stands to reason then that one of the first things a visitor to the great city of Bologna does is to order this famous dish. The only problem with that is that spaghetti Bolognese has nothing to do with Bologna. Bologna is well known for its food, but specific foods and the pseudo-Italian spagbol isn’t one of them. What probably happened is a bastardization of what is a regional specialty, tagliatelle with a ragu sauce. In truth it’s the sauce that is the true star, which is a time honored recipe made with a variety of secret ingredients including of course meat. The ragu is used with tagliatelle but also with lasagna or even a penne. What it is never made with in Bologna though is spaghetti.


Ask for American style bologna – American cuisine has been crafted over generations from a variety of ethnic influences, including Italian cuisine. Immigrants brought with them recipes and traditions and a taste for certain foods, many of which made their way into the American culinary lexicon. What can only be called a massive problem in translation is what Americans call bologna. Named presumably after the Italian city, American bologna is a thinly sliced meat made of cured beef, pork, or a mixture of the two. It’s a very basic meat that is usually found in the lunch bags of school kids instead of enjoying a feature role in meals. American style bologna was originally based, very badly, on what is a true Bologna specialty mortadella sausage. Mortadella is made of finely hashed or ground, heat-cured pork sausage, pork fat and a variety of other spices. It is usually served in cubes and when I first tried it in Bologna along with some other cold cuts I was shocked. Mortadella bears no resemblance to what Americans call bologna and is actually a delicious meat. So when you’re in bologna, don’t insult the butcher and be sure to ask for the mortadella and not the bologna.

 Bologna, Italy

Spend only a day there – Bologna lives in a pretty nice neighborhood. In less than two hours you can visit Milan, Venice and even Florence. That’s stiff competition for a city that doesn’t have the draw of a Da Vinci or the allure of the canals. But not spending enough time in this Northern Italian city is a mistake no one should make. The city itself is an amazing place to visit, the energy of thousands of students continuously on the go make it fun to walk through the town’s arcades and side streets. It’s also an ancient city with a proud and robust history. As you can tell from this post though, it’s also one of the most prominent culinary centers of Italy. The Emilia-Romagna region, in which Bologna is found, produces some of the best food in the world that makes every meal in Bologna a treat. Just outside of town are easy day trips to the gelato museum, Lamborghini factory and Modena just to name a few. Bologna is also a logical home base from which to explore the rest of Northern Italy; day trips made easy by the fast and convenient train system. So when you’re planning your trip to Italy, don’t just pencil in a mere day for Bologna. Instead be sure to spend as much time as possible in this truly remarkable city.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

17 thoughts on “What Not to Do in Bologna, Italy”

  1. Oh gosh reading this post just reminded me of a story that I simply must make into a blog post sometime. Bologna was the star of this tale!

    All good tips though. Seriously some of the most amazing cuisine around, I cringe at the thought of tourists visiting and not wanting something authentic and local.

  2. People asking for spagetti bolognese make the Italians laugh. This is one of the most widespread food myth. It’s great that you came up with it! Thanks.

  3. Tell ’em what happens when you order a “pepperoni” pizza, or pasta with “alfredo” sauce….

    In the US we’ve done to Italian food the same thing we did to “Mexican” food..

  4. Great article!!! I fell in love with Bologna in 2007…but I didn’t realize until I read your post that bolognese sauce didn’t originate there. Learn something new every day :)

  5. Great tips Matt!
    if i may add one: “Don’t go in a restaurant in there’s someone on the door who stops you and ask to come in..it’s a bad sign”


  6. Hello, there is a misunderstanding about Bolognese sauce.
    There are two things: Bolognese sauce-ragù- and Spaghetti Bolognese.
    The real Bolognese sauce DID originate in Emilia-Romagna, in Italy we call it ”ragù alla bolognese”. We cook meat ragù in many different ways in Italy, the Bolognese sauce is a particular ragù made by Italians from Bologna.
    Emilia-Romagna is the only region in northern Italy where pasta is very important, its recipes don’t have durum wheat pasta as spaghetti, but egg-pasta. Emiliani and Romagnoli eat their Bolognese ragù with tagliatelle, ravioli, lasagne, fettuccine, this homemade pasta is traditional. Furthermore, they consider spaghetti to be too smooth to keep the sauce, if you eat Bolognese ragù with spaghetti you’ll lost a lot of sauce.
    You can eat this sauce with penne, maccheroni, bear in mind it’s not very Emiliano-Romagnolo’s way to eat though.
    Spaghetti Bolognese, on the other hand, is a dish invented by foreigners, although here in northern Italy there are plenty of restaurants that have it in their menu, because tourists think is a traditional dish, so they do it for them.
    If you ask Bologna’s restaurants to have tagliatelle alla bolognese, they will be happy to cook it :)

  7. Thank you Matt. Your post is very helpful. Traveling to Bologna next month and wasn’t sure if we should stay more then one day :)

  8. I’m from Bologna and I must leave a comment on this post..
    You MUST order a lasagna or tagliatelle al ragù, or tortellini (pasta with special meat inside) and tortelloni ( pasta with ricotta inside) here cause until you do it you can’t realize how good a first course can be. Try not to think in an american way about food, cause we don’t put everything in one dish, meals for us are so important, we have the first course, second course, dessert, coffee and liquor after the coffee ( please don’t ask for a cappuccino at the resteurant, it’s just for breakfast!!!) another delicious thing everyone should try is “tigelle e crescentine” for second course. Basically they are two kind of bread that are eaten with ham, salami, mortadella, squaqquerone (a soft cheese) and “pesto e forma” (which is like a cream made by meat with parmiggiano cheese on top), I know that it doesn’t sound good, but tigella with pesto it’s the best thing ever. The best dessert from Bologna are “mascarpone”, “zuppa inglese” ( not really from Bologna I think, but really good though), and “torta di riso” (rice cake). Try everything, you will be unable to eat for a week but you won’t regret it. Anothee tip, resteurants in the centre of Bologna are good, but you have to choose them, don’t go in a “tourist resteurant”, it’s a shame for us if foreign people think that that’s our cuisine, the best thinf you can do it’s take a bus and go outside the centre, in the hills, in such small town that everyone knows everyone and at the resteurant the owner calls the costumers by name, and usually stops at the table to talk with them. I hope that this comment will be useful and sorry for my english

    1. Thank you for your great information. By the way, your English is so much better than my Italian ????

  9. A typical case of annoying snobbery.

    “Traditional” or “authentic” usually just means “not learned anything since loong ago” and “not adapted to local tastes”. Which both are bad and stupid things that only exist, because some insecure losers found out, that you can shame people with them, to elevate the own underdeveloped self-confidence.

    In this case, the ragout itself is not even a northern Italy native, and an outlier for the cream-, garlic-, and egg pasta / potatoes / bread -based cuisine of anywhere between northern Italy and southern Germany.

    Spaghetti Bolognese is indeed not a Bolognese recipe anymore, but a foreign one. But frankly, it is a BETTER one. Egg-based pasta just doesn’t fit tomato-garlic combinations. It needs a pasta that is able to be firmer. And the argument that you lose sauce is nonsense in not one but /two/ ways. First of all, Italians use way less sauce than we do, so it’s only a problem to them, for using too little sauce for the pasta. And second, non-Italian Bolognese, when done properly, is usually very thick and has a lot of meat, which allows it to easily stick onto the pasta. Again, the fault is with those who use to watery sauce. And in any case, if you use proper pasta extruded through brass, the sauce sticks much better anyway. (Finally, egg-based tagiatelle is really bad at holding thin sauce too, so the argument is rather silly in any case.)

    I argue that my Spaghetti or Rigatoni or Tortigione Bolognese, with fried (in olive oil, on not too high heat, to riiight when it would start to brown) half pork half beef minced meat, onions, garlic, and a bit of oregano, to which one then adds canned tomatoes, triple-condensed tomato paste,some cream, and finally the fresh basil added only riight at the end after taking the sauce off the heat (like tea leaves), is not only quicker to make, but also far *superior* to anything similar that you can buy in Bologna.

    Unlike the Italians, I have no interest in cooking the flavor of the tomatoes, basil, etc. to death for hours, nor in eating candy from caramelizing the shit out of the tomatoes and onions like some do. The cream nicely balances out the extreme intensity of the very dense tomatoes and allows a higher tomato/umami *and* smoother taste, without ruining the non-reduced tomatoes. Something simply not achievable with just olive oil and overcooked tomatoes.

    And yes, there goes loads of arbitrary very hard/dry cheese on top, because I eat not what is “most traditonauthentic”, but what *tastes best*. And dry cheese always tastes very umami.

    So, dear snobs, *eat your hearts out*! >:D

  10. Oh, and anyone who puts carrots in tomato sauces, deserves a strangling.
    Yes, it was “traditional”. But *actual* ancient recipes came from before tomato was used at all, where *only* carrots were used. And they stopped doing that, because it tastes *shit*, and tomatoes taste a thousand times better. Leaving carrots in there is doing only one thing: Making it taste worse!

  11. After so many long years in search for non existing spaghetti Bolognese I’ve found the real one @Pasta Fabbri!! My italian grandma can now rest in peace!

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