Known for its thousand year old university and lively intellectual scene, its gastronomical delicacies and gourmet cuisine, and its left-wing political stance, the northern Italian medieval city of Bologna is often referred to as Bologna ‘La Dotta’ (the Learned), Bologna ‘La Grassa’ (the Fat), and Bologna ‘La Rossa’ (the Red). Reading this little tidbit in my guidebook before our plane set down at Marconi International Airport last Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think this might just be the perfect city for me.
For the last year and a half I had been planning to return to Italy with my mom . Traveling here together for the first time 13 years ago was one of my first and fondest international travel memories and I hoped to relive some of that magic with another mother-daughter bonding trip. I had originally planned for us to travel to Sicily before I came across Netflix’ Master of None series, where the main character, in an attempt to temporarily escape his life at home, moves to Italy to learn how to make fresh pasta. After a quick google search, I discovered that the show was filmed in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, known as the bread basket of the nation because of all the food products that originate from here. The deal was sealed when I found a cheap flight to the region’s capital city of Bologna for my February break.
Although I had originally planned to rent a car and drive through the surrounding towns and cities sampling the meats, cheeses, and home-made pastas the region is famous for, I ultimately decided against this due to the perhaps obvious realization that I would want to wash all of that down with the local wine. Consequently, we booked a room for four nights at Albergo Centrale, a basic hotel that has nothing to boast of other than a great location within the old city, giving us just enough time to take a food and wine tour of the surrounding area, learn how to make freshly made egg pasta, and explore the ancient alleyways and piazzas a few steps from our room. Let’s be clear though, we were really only here for one thing… the food.
Bologna ‘la Grossa‘
A short drive from Parma; a city known for its production of prosciutto crudo (Parma ham) and Parmigiana-Reggiano, and the city of Modena, known for its traditional production of Balsamic Vinegar, Bologna is crammed with delightful trattorias, osterias, restaurants, delicatessens, open-air food markets, and gourmet gift shops teeming with mouth-watering plates of cured meat, large wheels of cheeses, and piles of home-made pastas waiting to be washed down with a local Sangiovese or crisp Labrusco. After getting settled into our room, we walked about 300 meters till we reached the Piazza Maggiore, the center of the historic Roman city. Stemming off of the east side of the Piazza, we ducked into the narrow lanes of the Quadrelito through the Market de Mezzo, breeding with small delicatessens boasting hanging meats and cheeses and welcoming tables. With the weather dark and rainy, we ducked into Zerocinquantino, a tiny brick-walled wine cafe specializing in prosciutto, mortadella, and parma, all served on delicious tigelle (fried bread). After perusing the menu for a few minutes, we went with the meat and cheese sampler, a basket of local fried bread referred to as tigelle, and a bottle of local wine from the hills surrounding Bologna. Taking my cue from the young patrons at the table next to us, we piled slices of mortadella onto the warm soft tigelle to make a bologna sandwich of the likes I’ve never had before.
After we finished the meal, we ordered a plate of tortelloni covered in a tomato and butter sauce (burro e oro) and washed it all down with the local red.
After a long nap at the hotel, we set our alarms basically so we could wake up and eat (la Grossa!). Luckily for us, the highly recommended and rated Rodrigo’s Resturante was located right outside our front door. When we walked in at 8pm we were a little taken back by the fact that we were the only patrons for the evening. Sensing our trepidation, the waiter assured us that it was because of the bad weather outside (it was cold and raining) and began to translate the menu for us. He recommended the local pasta specialties made in house; tortellini, tagliatelle, and tortelloni. Of the three egg pastas, tortellini is perhaps the most famous, and its origins are linked to a tale about a servant cook who allegedly made the pasta in the shape of his master’s wife’s perfect navel. I ordered the tagliatelle and my mom, the tortelloni. As we were the only two patrons, when the food came out, both the waiter and the owner’s (Rodrigo) son (Rodrigo Jr) came over to serve us. Rodrigo Jr. asked if we would like some Parmesan. Without giving us time to answer, the other waiter replied for us “its a must”, cutting off large chunks of cheese blocks onto the table.
After our meal we treated ourselves to dessert; vanilla gelato covered in a berry sauce.
Washing it all down with a glass of grappa, I knew I needed to take a walk to help digest and headed for the Piazza Maggiore after dropping my mom at the hotel. With light rain coming drizzling onto the piazza, and a slight buzz from the wine and grappa, I slipped into a delightful food coma, imagining what the city must have been like during the 14th and 15th century.
Although I would have been completely content sampling our way across the city, I thought we should at least try to learn how to cook the fresh egg-pasta the Emilia Romagna is known for. Before we arrived I had signed us up to take a pasta making coooking course with the Culinary Institute of Bologna (CIBO). There are over 25 cooking schools in the city, as well as many tour operators who offer the option of taking classes in locals’ homes or in villas just outside the city. After much research, I went with the culinary institute because it was one of the few places which allows you hands on practice, as well as being highly recommended.
After hailing a cab from the hotel we arrived at the Trattoria Del Rosso; the restuarant in front of the school. A few minutes early, we decided to walk to the corner bar/cafe and grab a quick cappuccino before we set off on our adventure throught the traditional techniques of making homemade egg pasta.
The Culinary Institute of Bologna offers a wide variety of cooking courses one can sign up for. Month-long, week-long, half and full day courses. Wanting to have enough time to explore the city and also do a food and wine tour of the surrounding region, I opted for the morning pasta making class followed by lunch in the Trattoria. When we walked in we were fast greeted by one of the chefs who introduced us to Stefano, the lead chef and teacher. Charming and gregarious, Stefano directed us downstairs to a vaulted room sparcely furnished with about 6 preparation tables, rolling pins, and chairs. Joining my mom and I was a young man from Milan, who was probably frustrated by our ability (or lack their of) to roll the pasta into a perfect ball quite to the speed and precision that he was. Each one of us was assigned a table that was already equipped with a rolling pin, a pile of flour, and a small white bowl with two eggs. Stefano walked us through each step of making the pasta, and how to prepare them. When we were done, we made our way up to the restuarant where we feasted on our own creations; Taglietelle served with vegetables and tagliatelle Ragu.
What we call Bolognese sauce in the states is really referred to as “Ragu” in Bologna. It is a reddish brown sauce made with chunks of beef in it…and it is outstanding.
In the evening, I had secured us a reservation at All Osteria Bottega, a highly sought out place that I had read on many “must do” lists of Bolognese restuarants. A small and chicque room with around 8 tables is home to some of the finest prosciutto, as well as tortellini in brodo (tortellini in broth).
Another must try place to eat is the fancy covered food hall Mercado de Mezzo where you can choose from a wide variety of stalls specializing in wine, pasta, piadinas (sandwhiches), pizza, espresso and dessert. On the one free day I had reserved for exploring the Piazza Maggiore and the surrounding alleyways, we were able to grab lunch here offering us a respite from the cold rain.
As the day went on the weather continued to deteriorate and the thought of going anywhere seemed unappealing. We mustered enough energy however to take the elevator down to the lobby and walk the 6 steps to the left to eat, once again, at Rodrigos. Unlike Wednesday night however, the place was packed. The same waiters greeted us enthusiastically and showed us to our table. Once again, Rodrigos did not dissapoint with its incredible homemade pastas, friendly waiters, and excellent service.
For our last day in Bologna I had reserved a full day culinary tour with Amazing Italy to the cities of Parma and Modena to see how the local cheese and meats are produced, as well as learn more about the process of making Balsamic Vinegar. After driving about 45 minutes out of Bologna, our first stop was the cheese factory where we were instructed to put on plastic covering, head caps, and foot bags as we entered the floor where the magic happens. Unfortunately, that magic stinks like pungent feet as it spins around in giant metal pots.
Once the process of mixing the cows milk is completed, workers “bag” the cheese and hang it on a metal conveyer belt to bring it to the next room where it is branded for authenticity.
After the balls of cheese milk leave, they are branded in the next room so that merchants know these are authentic Parmesan reggiano cheeses, not the imitation Parmesan that comes from other parts of Italy. It is branded in a way so that each cut of the cheese will say “Parmesan Reggiano” on it, ascertaining its authencity. If you can’t read it, it’s probably a fake. After this explanation, our tour guide Maximo led us to the greatest room known to mankind. The room where the cheese ages.
Piled from floor to ceiling are over 40,000 barrels of Parmesan-Reggiano cheese ready to be shipped throughout Italy and abroad.
At the end of the tour, we were taken to a small shed outside, where they had set up a giant spread of breads and the two different types of Parmesan Reggianos; 12 months and 36 months served with a Labrusco wine.
After the Parmesan factory we drove a little out of the way until we came across a small deli along the road. When the van pulled in I realized that underneath this small deli was a prosciutto factory. We spent the next hour walking our way through the process of how the meat is cured, preserved, salted and packaged. Fortunately the tour begins after “Babe” has already turned into a hanging pig hoof in the factory.
The process of curing the ham takes months and requires patience and care for the meat. First the meat is salted.
Then the part of the meat that has no skin needs to be preserved. In the states this is done using seasoning and preservatives, in Parma this is done by brushing the exposed meat with lard. Of course it is.
Throughout the whole process, both Maximo and the deli’s owner proudly shared the process of preparing prosciutto the traditional way.
After the prosciutto factory we traveled to the Etruscan city of Modena to learn about how Aceto Balsamico Di Modena (Balsamic Vinegar) was produced. Much like the process of wine, grapes must ferment in barrels over long periods of time in order to produce the true Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. The stuff we often see in the supermarkets here is often not true balsamic vinegar because it is not aged long enough. In order for Balsamic Vinegar to be considered authentic it must be aged for at least 12 years. In the Modena region, families are given a set of barrels to ferment grapes when a child is born. After 12 years, their first batch of Balsamic is ready and they can then shift the remnants of the larger barrels to the smallest. The older the barrel, the better the balsamic.
Originally used for medicine (and still is), Balsamic Vinegar is now used for everything from salad dressing to a topping for gelato.
In the afternoon, the majority of the group we were traveling with had signed up to visit the Ferrari factory. My mom and I, along with a young woman from South Korea and a girl from San Diego were taken instead to a local winery. Although we coulnd’t walk through the vineyards, the daughter of the family-run Cleo Chiarli Vineyard enthusiastically shared the story of her family’s chateau and how the wine is made. Cleo Chiarli was the first wine producing company in the Emilia Romagna region, dating back to 1860. Since then, the vineyard has been producing the local Labrusco wine for five generations. For about an hour the four of us, plus our new guide sat in an old room adorned with pictures of the family dating back to the 1800s sipping and tasting for different types of wine.
As if we didn’t have enough food and drink for the day, when the wine tour was over we were to meet the rest of the group at a local restuarant for a six course lunch. Six courses! The first course started with what they call fried gnocchi, which is a lightly and doughy pastry bread (not pasta) covered with prosciutto. This was followed by three past dishes; tortelloni (filled with ricotta and spinach) in a butter sauce, tortellini (smaller and filled with beef) in butter and parmesan sauce, and spinach tagliatelle ragu.
After the primi dishes, the waitress brought out fried potatoes, vegetables, and sliced beef, which was followed by a dessert of vanilla gelato covered in a sauce made from local berries.
Finally, the waitress asked us if we wanted any coffee, cappuccino, or expresso. Italians consider it a cardinal sin to drink cappuccino any time after 10:30 in the morning, particularly after a heavy meal. But as an American who rarely gets the opportunity to drink a really good cappuccino, I threw the local customs to the wayside and welcomed the frothy delight to sip and savor before we departed for Bologna.
Prior to the tour and not realizing how much food we would be “tasting”, we had booked a reservation at Pappagallo for our last evening; a highly rated restuarant where the likes of Sophia Lauren and Frank Sinatra used to hang out. Although we were completely stuffed from eating and drinking all day, we decided we would still go to the restuarant and split our last meal. Needing a rest from the long day, my mom was going to relax for an hour at the hotel, while I was going to explore the old city and try to walk to the University. When I made a right out of our hotel’s entrance onto the wide-laned Via Ugo Bassi, I noticed that the road was blocked by barriers and the Italians were participating in La Passegiatta (little walk). If you have ever been to Italy you have likely witnessed this family friendly evening stroll where Italians take to the main drag of the town or city in which they live and walk leisurely up and down the road, chatting with relatives and friends, enjoying gelato and sipping apertivos along the way. With the twilight sky finally not covered in clouds and no snow or rain falling down, I decided to go get my mom so she too could enjoy this Italian ritual before heading to the restaurant for dinner. I found Pappagallo on a map and realized that if we walked straight down Via Ugo Bassi we could get there. Not sure how long it would take, I gave us an hour and a half to stroll the lovely La Passegiatta complete with street musicians, cute Italian dogs dressed in designer clothes, and young tenneagers making out under the dimly lit porticos lining the streets. We arrived at the end of Via Ugo Bassi within half an hour. The barricaded street ends at the intersection of Via Santa Stefano, the home of the Torri Degli Asinelli e Garisenda; the two medieval twin towers that have become the symbol of the city’s skyline.
In the shadow of towers lies Piazza Mercanzia, where Pappagallo is located in an ancient 13th century palace. Walking towards the restuarant felt like walking through 14th century Italy, with medieval churches and palaces dotting the tiny Piazza.
When we arrived a good hour before our reservation the friendly hostess kindly gave us a table near the front (so my mom could sit) and told us we could relax, order a drink and wait if we wanted to order food. After ordering a bottle of wine and informing our waitress we were not yet hungry, the hostess again came over to inform us that the table was ours for the night and to feel no rush, sit back and relax. For our last meal in Bologna we ordered a mixed cheese plate (I could no longer eat cured meat) to start, and each ordered the local pasta specialities; my mom – tortellini in a cream Parmesan sauce, me- tortelloni in a butter and tomato sauce. So much for not wanting to eat too much after the tour.
Set inside vaulted ceilings with stain-glassed windows high up the walls, the setting of Pappagallo makes one feel as if they have entered the Middle Ages. The restuarant is a lively mix of locals and tourists, serving great food and an outstanding wine selection. After washing our pasta down with the house red, we opted to split a dessert (we had been ordering our own up until this point) of a flourless brownie served with Mascarpone cheese (Insert Pig-faced emoji here:) )
Although the culinary traditions and specialties are certainly the highlight of Bologna (for us), the history of Bologna and its intellectual and political traditions make it one of the more interesting European cities I have visited.
Bologna ‘la Dotta‘
In addition to the founding of the oldest University in the western world, Bologna’s intellectual traditions can be traced back to its power struggles with the papacy. As a center of learning and fine arts, Bologna had become one of the richest cities in Italy during the Renaissance. Consequently, the pope saw the city as a threat and annexed it in 1506. In 1530 Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and his coronation took place at the Basilica of San Petronio, the towering cathedral on the south side of Piazza Maggiore.
You will notice the the upper half of the facade of the church was left unfinished. We learned from our informative waiter at Rodrigos that had the church’s construction and facade been completed it would have been larger than St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Not to be outdone or shown up, Pope Pius IV shifted the funds for San Petronio to build the first University building in the city in 1562. Before this, the city’s university consisted mostly of lectures and classes given in public.
Two days before he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V was crowned the King of Italy across the piazza in the Palazzo Comunale.
Reknown for its history of art and culture, one of the architectural delights of the city that traveler’s have been admiring for centuries are the almost 25 miles of porticoes that protect one from the elements, be it rain or snow in the winter, or stifling heat in the summer.
Although Florence gets all the accolades today as being Italy’s center of Renaissance art and culture, Bologna was equally engaged in the intellectual and creative wave that swept through Europe in the 15th century. Perhaps the best example of Renaissance art in the city can be found in Santa Maria Della Vita; a small church that sits adjacent to the food market in the Quadrelito. The church is home to Niccolo dell’Arca’s “Lamentation of Christ”; a terracotta potrayal of the grieving of Christ. The expressive faces of the Mother Mary, John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalena are one of the most impressive pieces of Renaissance sculpture I have yet to see.
Another classic example of Renaissance art is the city’s beloved fountain of Neptune. Completed in 1563 by Flemish sculptor Jean de Boulogne who seeked approval from the Pope, the sculpture is notorious for Neptune’s rather large buttocks and nudity. Not wanting to offend the other more conservative Italian cities, the Pope gave permission for the fountain to be built in Bologna, demonstrating the city’s liberal attitudes early on.
Bologna ‘la Rossa”
Bologna’s reputation as a liberal city can be traced back to the founding of its University. A hotspot for leftist ideas, Bologna was the communist center of Italy and the University still draws progressive intellectuals from all over the world. On our last morning, I set out early to find the University section of the city. Although the city was just waking up from the night before, as I strolled along Via Zamboni I came across long porticos covered with radical street art and leftist propaganda. Pure joy!
Initially, we came here mainly for the food, but the history and ambiance of Bologna wound up being equally as alluring. Although many Europeans know about this culinary capital of Northern Europe, it seems as if there are not too many Americans who have ventured away from Florence or Milan to explore this delightful medieval city. You can easily do a day trip from either city, but I would strongly recommend spending a few days here exploring the porticoed roads, the old Roman town, and the local delicacies of food and wine. The Fat, The Learned, The Red; a perfect trifecture of history, politics, and gourmet food. Molto bene!