People call Bologna by three names: Bologna the red for the color that dominates the stately cityscape; Bologna the learned for its university, the oldest in the Western Hemisphere; and last but not least, Bologna the fat. It is the food that springs from the fertile land of Emilia Romagna that we indulged in for our 12 hours in the city.
The first stop after a 2 hour train ride from Venice was naturally lunch. We found ourselves getting lost in the medieval alleys of the Quadrilateral neighborhood tucked just behind Bologna’s main square Piazza Maggiore. Here, greengrocers, fish shops and centuries-old gourmet food shops continue to rule the roost despite the fact that the city’s Apple store is only a few streets away.
In Tamburini, one of said illustrious storied gourmet stores, we joined the masses at the deli counter behind the shop, using a combination of English and gestures to order lunch. We ordered a little of each: cold cuts, pasta, hot main courses and sides and sat down to a hearty and relatively inexpensive lunch, paying about 11 euros each for the spread.
Sure, the tortellini was a little dry from sitting on the buffet table and the ragu flavor not as nuanced as the one we had for dinner, but the high energy level in the shop and value proposition of lunch do merit it a visit, if not for lunch, then to check out the produce
such as the dizzing array of stuffed pasta, each with specific sizes (tortellini = mini, tortelloni = somewhat larger etc) and fillings.
Walking through the rest of the Quadrilatero area we bought oranges at the greengrocer…
then gawked at the fat legs of prized Prosciutto di Parma in butcheries that are dime in a dozen in the tight quarters of the area.
In between meals and the city’s siesta (during which most shops were closed), we did the requisite bit of sight-seeing. We people-watched in the expansive Piazza and payed homage to the original seat of the University of Bologna, fascinated by the Teatro Anatomico starring skinless human statues and a marble operating table at its center.
After the history lesson, it was time for a gelato break at Gelatauro. In its cool interiors the ice-cream man scooped up smooth, creamy, intensely-flavored gelato under the watchful gaze of the gelateria’s mascot, a papier maché bull’s head.
I can’t remember what were the other flavors we had ordered because the seasonal pumpkin flavor was so good all my memories stopped there. Swirling it in my mouth, I willed the mild squash and peppery cinnamon flavors to linger as long as they could on the tip of my tongue, wishing I hadn’t been so greedy with choices.
With a few more hours to kill before dinner, we stuck our heads into a couple more wine and food shops. Since the Emilia Romagna region is not known for their libations, we decided to forgo bringing home a bottle of Lambrusco, the light, quaffable sparkling red of the region. But we had to bring some of that famous pasta back. And so we have now, in our pantry, 500 grams of mortadella and prosciutto stuffed dried tortellini awaiting the day I slave over a pot of chicken broth for the classic Bologna primi, tortellini en brodo.
We were into our 8th hour in Bologna when we stepped into Serghei, a small family run inn, where an Italian grandma takes the helm in the kitchen and her middle aged children run the front of house. There have been reports of brusque service, but thankfully we did not experience any of that, the server friendly and patient despite our indecisiveness.
Even before being recited the menu (they do not pass them out), P knew he was going to get the tagliatelle al ragu. After all, this was the chief reason we had elected to stop-over in Bologna, that is, bragging rights for having eaten spaghetti bolognese in its native state.
Of course, it is not called spaghetti bolognese, neither is it served with thin, round spaghetti. Instead, the slow-cooked, meaty ragu is mixed into thick, flat strands of tagliatelle, the better to soak up the limited amount of juices enhanced with a white cloud of parmigiano reggiano cheese. Truth to be said, we couldn’t attest to the superiority of tagliatelle al ragu in Bologna because our palates have been so used to the tomato-rich, sweet-sour flavors of spaghetti bolognese that the extremely beefy flavor of the rich meat sauce frankly threw us a little off.
We had no problems embracing gramigna alla salsiccia however, the squiggly hollow tubes of pasta a great vehicle for the savory and slightly herbal flavors of mild Italian sausage. Fancy never eating gramigna before! Glad I corrected that omission.
The secondis at Serghei were even more unpretentious looking and unadorned than the primi. P ate ultra-tender steaks of pork that had been indulgently slow poached in milk while my leg of guinea fowl come only with its own crisp skin. But the star of the show was clearly the gramigna.
While Bologna lacks the historic weight of Rome, the romance of Venice and the beauty of Tuscany, it should nevertheless be on the radar screen for those of us who live to eat!
Tamburini: Via Caprarie, 1, 40124 Bologna, Italy; http://www.tamburini.com/
Gelatauro: Via San Vitale, 98, 40125 Bologna, Italy; http://www.gelatauro.com/
Serghei: Via Piella, 12, 40126 Bologna, Italy
Bologna Tourism Office: Piazza Maggiore, 1/e, 40124 Bologna, Italy http://www.bolognawelcome.com/