In a nation that’s renowned the world over for its food, Bologna stands out as the food capital of Italy. Eating in Bologna is more than a necessity, it’s an art form. So, what are the must eat dishes in Bologna? Here’s a local’s guide to food in Bologna, so you can eat like the Bolognese in La Grassa.
“When they discuss food, Italians are like the French on steroids”, I was once told by a French friend in Berlin. And she was right: if the French are as passionate and proud about their food as per their stereotype, we Italians are even worse. And people from ‘Bologna The Fat’ are like Italians on steroids. So, we take food seriously here, Tradition has a capital T and you can end up in the middle of a discussion about which “sfoglina” makes the best tagliatelle any time. Bologna’s most iconic dishes aren't as sophisticated as, say, elaborate Sicilian creations, but they represent the perfect comfort food and are a celebration of guilt-free joy at the table, as well as a feast of meat and saturated fats. Are you ready for it? Here’s the 5 foods you absolutely cannot leave Bologna without trying!
According to the legend, this precious little dumpling of fresh pasta filled with minced pork meat, mortadella, a hint of parmesan and a shadow of nutmeg was originally inspired by no less than the navel of Lucrezia Borgia, a seductive and controversial icon of the Italian Renaissance. During a short stay in Castel Franco, a little village halfway between Modena and Bologna, she caught the eye of the innkeeper, who one night peaked through the keyhole and was struck by the vision of her navel. Such a vision eventually came to inspire a sultry recipe and to define the ideal shape for the perfect tortellino. Despite being the most fascinating and cut-and-pasted version of the story, it obviously cannot be demonstrated nor is mentioned in the website of the “Confraternity of Tortellino”, the place to go if you look for the original recipe. However, if you just want to eat them the right way, try the pricey but excellent Osteria Bottega, classic and traditional Donatello and Leonida, and Bolognina's very own Trattoria di Via Serra. Or buy them fresh and uncooked at Da Bruno e Franco or the rétro looking Atti. Eating them in brooth is respectful of The Tradition, “alla panna” is acceptable, “al ragù” will immediately reveal that you're a tourist.
Tagliatelle al ragù
The universally acknowledged version of ‘spaghetti bolognaise’ simply does not exist. Not in Italy, and certainly not in Bologna. The reason is simple: the heavy, nourishing dish of “tagliatelle al ragù” results from the union of handmade fresh egg pasta with ragù. The latter, as you probably know, is a rich topping of minced meat slowly cooked (though not as slowly as in Naples, where they have their own very different and very respectable version of ragù) with “soffritto” (a classic mix of semi-fried little dices of carrot, onion and celery) and tomato sauce. Tagliatelle is a generous, soft kind of fresh pasta whose texture and shape is gently uneven and little rough, ad its porous surface perfectly absorbs the topping... Hungry already? Try tagliatelle al ragù at the fancy Ristorante Diana, a local institution and a true rétro experience, at the less decadent but still very famous Trattoria Anna Maria, or at locals' favorite Trattoria Della Santa.
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Tortelloni burro e salvia
Yes, they sound like tortellini and they look like them, but tortelloni are yet another dish. Bigger and with a whole different filling (ricotta cheese and spinach in the original recipe), they are a gentle, elegant alternative to their impressive little brothers. Eat them the original way, with melted butter and sage, and be happy. A light tomato sauce is also acceptable. Try them at Bottega Portici (where you can also see them being made in real time by the “sfogline” in the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana) or at Sfoglia Rina: they're both quite crowded but offer lovely fresh pasta.
This home-made comfort food par excellence is a must for any local granny and a traditional Sunday dish for big family gatherings. Layers on layers of thin egg and flour fresh pasta filled with ragù and a little amount of béchamel, cooked in the oven. Most locals prefer lasagne “verdi” (green), that has a little spinach on the dough. Lasagne are perfect on a gloomy winter day or to spend a lot of time with your friends around a big table, but remember to plan a little nap to recover for you third serving afterwards! (Despite the fact that the word “ragù” comes from the french ragoûter: “to wake up one's appetite”). Everybody swears that the best lasagne are the one “my mom/grandma/husband” does, but restaurants can serve you the real deal, too. Especially the no frills, family-owned trattorie. Try Ristorantino Il Tinello (where they also serve Bologna's own and much rarer balazoni) and Ristorante Bolognese (not the fanciest location but in front of the station: perfect for a lasagne on-the-go!) and Trattoria Baraldi on Via del Pratello, the heart of Bologna students' nightlife. Or, if you have a oven at your place, but them at fresh pasta shops (“dalle sfogline”) such as Le sfogline in front of Mercato delle Erbe.
Yes, gelato was born in Sicily, but a couple of Bologna's ice cream makers regularly figure in the top ten of Italian gelato's charts. This is partly due to local business company Carpigiani: they make the most important ice-cream makers in the world, even have their own academy and museum of gelato, and contributed to creating a gelato craze and “creamyness” competition within the city. Some of the best gelateria in Bologna work so hard (and make so much money) that they close throughout the winter, spend some lazy months in some warm beach and come back by April. However, you'll hardy be without a good gelato in Bologna in any time of the year.
My ever favourite is the boutique-gelateria Cremeria Santo Stefano, quickly followed by Galliera 49: they both are top-notch. La Funivia will always have a queue but will reward you with some very rich creams, vegan Stefino is the most ethical and exotic, and Cremeria Mascarella and Cremeria San Francesco offer great quality in the middle of the busiest, studenty parts of the city.
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