In Italy there is a saying about Bologna, it is often labeled as ‘The Fat, the Red, the Learned.’ The red actually refers to the generous use of brick in their architecture (and not their political leanings as some believe) and the learned refers to the ancient and well-known university. The ‘fat’ though, that’s the interesting attribution and as I learned it is all too accurate. Bologna, and indeed the entire Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, is blessed with a clear overabundance of great foods, both in their natural form and man made. A brief walk through the city center, along with several great meals, proved not only how much the Bolognese love their food, but just how very good it is. It’s hard to find a bad meal in Italy, but in Bologna it is an impossibility.
1. Mortadella – Thanks to a long history of Italian immigration, we here in the United States don’t just know Italian food, we love it. But some things have clearly been lost in translation and for me, it was mortadella. I’ve never given this meat a second glance when perusing the goods in a deli, there was just something about it that didn’t appeal to me. But when confronted with the regional delicacy in Bologna, I had no choice but to taste it and as it turns out, it’s as delicious as everything else in the city. The Emilia-Romagna region is the home of mortadella, a meat made of finely hashed or ground, heat-cured pork sausage. Be careful though, Americans who call this ‘bologna’ will get a bad look or worse. The luncheon meat we Americans have named after this wonderful Italian city couldn’t be anything further from the real product.
2. Regional pastas with meat sauce – Pasta is important in Bologna, as it is throughout Italy but please do not commit the cardinal sin of asking for Spaghetti Bolognese; you will only be rewarded with a glare. This fake dish isn’t even an Italian creation and if you ask locals they will tell you that the idea of combing their delicious meat sauce with spaghetti is bizarre at best and criminal at worst. What probably happened is a bastardization of what is a regional specialty, tagliatelle with a ragu sauce. Everywhere you go heaps of tagliatelle are for sale, available for purchase by the kilo. Lasagna is also a local creation and both utilize what is the true star of the show, the ragu sauce. The ragu is a time honored tradition, usually passed down through families and is made with a variety of secret ingredients including of course meat. So please, go enjoy the delicious pastas in town, but never, ever ask for a SpagBol.
3. Tortellini in brodo – Unlike some of its neighbors, Bologna’s strength doesn’t come from being ostentatious or flashy, it comes from embracing everything that has made it great over the years. The hominess, this love of the traditional of course rewards the food lover and may best be seen in the popular restaurant Trattoria Anna Maria. This classic establishment has been creating some of the best traditional favorites for almost thirty years and while it’s hard to choose a favorite item from their menu, the tortellini in brodo is truly something I’ll never forget. This classic, belly-warming dish is as basic as it sounds, fresh tortellini in a hearty chicken broth is simplicity at its finest. But the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts and at the first bite you’ll wish you had tried this homey soup earlier in your life. I still think about that starter and Anna Maria’s, and if that’s not the hallmark of a great meal I don’t know what is.
4. Balsamic vinegar – Like most people, I’ve had what I’ve thought to be good balsamic vinegar before, usually as part of a salad. On a brief drive out of Bologna to nearby Modena though, I quickly realized that I have never, ever truly enjoyed this delicacy in its best form. When I was told that I was going to visit a vinegar factory, I envisioned large vats and lots of stainless steel. What I didn’t expect was that the ‘factory’ was actually a family home in Modena. Acetaia Di Giorgio, one of the few recognized artisanal producers of Balsamic vinegar in Italy, does things as they have always been done, strictly adhering to tradition. This means that the grapes must be locally harvested, then the juice boiled over a fire before being placed in special wooden barrels for their transformation into vinegar. The aging process can take years, even generations and this is when the precious liquid is transformed into something extraordinary. The proof is in the tasting though and after my first sip everything I thought I knew about this condiment was turned on its head. A high quality, aged balsamic vinegar is like nothing else I’ve tried. The explosion of flavors from the smallest of drops was an introduction to the rich nuances of Italian food and how something as simple as a vinegar can completely alter the flavor profile of a dish. You can go enjoy your own tour of their mansion and more importantly taste their liquid gold, just visit their site for more information.
5. Market samples – One of my favorite things to do is to walk through a city and just embrace the vibe; people watch, learn the streets and of course enjoy some snacks. The historic core of Bologna is perfect for this type of culinary sightseeing; there are many delis, market stalls and pastry shops to enjoy. We stopped at one deli and ordered a small helping of various meats and cheeses, just as a snack and to see what we did and didn’t like. Of course we liked everything. Later that evening we found a small sweet shop that sold a wide variety of confections, all traditional favorites. I’m not exactly sure what we tried, but I do know they were all delicious. For the ultimate though, try to make sure you have access to a kitchen and buy some fresh meats and vegetables to make your own Bolognese feast.