No Italian city’s culinary offerings can be summed up in three dishes – believe me, I know this. But when travelers have only a limited amount of time to visit, it’s important to make sure the absolutely-can-not-miss dishes are at the tippy-top of your dining priority list.
This, therefore, is my attempt to guide you toward the quintessential dishes of Bologna.
Unless it’s your first time here, this will come as exactly no surprise – I love food in Italy. (I won’t say Italian food, because – well, because Italian food doesn’t exist. Trust me.) One of my greatest pleasures when traveling anywhere is finding out what dishes are local and unfamiliar. In Italy, a country whose cuisine we think we know so well, the variations can be especially surprising.
But in Bologna, eating out can feel like slipping into a comfy old sweater. This is food you know. Or at least you think you know it. It’s maybe a little different, but the names are the same, perhaps they’re cousins? Nevermind, it’s delicious and you’ll be forgiven for wishing you, like cows, had four stomachs. No? Just me? Hmm…
Sorry, I digress… Where were we? Ah, yes. Bologna.
The trouble with adding Bologna to my series on “Must-Eat Italy” is that limiting myself to only three things to eat in Bologna is nigh unto impossible. It’s a city with such a famous culinary reputation that one of its nicknames among other Italians is “La Grassa,” or “the fat one.” This is the region that has given us egg pasta, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma, parmigiano-reggiano – the list of edible treasures coming out of Emilia-Romagna is long. This region is foodie heaven.
So, picking just three things? That’s a fool’s errand. And yet, that’s the task I’ve given myself with this series, so that’s what I’ve done here. I’ve chosen not to include several big-ticket items that come from elsewhere in the region – including the Holy Trinity of balsamic, prosciutto, and parmigiano – though you should, by all means, eat all of them while you’re in Bologna. They just don’t originate in Bologna, so I’m trying to focus. I also decided against putting piadina on this list for the same reason, though it’s one of the things I love eating when I’m in Bologna.
At any rate, we all know that eating in Italy is like sightseeing in Italy (you can’t do it all in one trip), and we also know that you’re going to eat more than three things in Bologna. So, enjoy yourself. And with this list of three things you must try in Bologna, at least you’ll be well on your way to having three memorable culinary moments during your stay in this food-centric city.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up with Oscar Mayer Bologna (of course, we pronounce it “baloney”). So when I tell you that mortadella is the original baloney, you might balk.
True mortadella is a gorgeous blend of finely-ground lean pork, chunks of pork fat, and spices all blended together and cooked slowly in large sausage casings. Sometimes additional goodies like olives, pistachios, or myrtle berries are mixed in, too. When it’s done, it’s usually sliced very, very thin and eaten on sandwiches or cut into chunks for aperitivo plates, and sometimes it’s even turned into tortellini filling.
Unlike “baloney,” mortadella has a pedigree. A similar sausage dates back to Roman times, and mortadella produced in seven Italian regions has protected status in the European Union. One of those regions includes the city of Bologna, where mortadella comes from.
Prior to the invention of industrial meat grinders, mortadella was an expensive treat for the wealthy. Grinding machines and an entrepreneurial German immigrant named Oscar (yep, that one) brought the historic Italian sausage to America. But the only thing mortadella has in common with the processed stuff masquerading as “bologna” is its pinkish color and round shape. While “bologna” will fit on a slice of bread, however, most mortadella is huge – often the size of a dinner plate.
I love mortadella as aperitivo, but my favorite way to eat it is inside a piadina. You just can’t beat its delicate texture and subtle flavors, and I bet you’ll never look at your local deli case the same way again.
It should be clear from the name of this iconic dish that it comes from the city of Bologna, but what may not be obvious is how different this bolognese is from the one you’ve probably had at home.
The bolognese in the city where it was born is often simply called, “ragù” – which means “meat sauce” – and, unlike the stuff with the same name that you eat at home, tomatoes play a supporting role at best. The focus of a traditional ragù alla bolognese is the meat – usually a combination of ground beef, veal, or pork (though just about any ground meat will work, including poultry) with onions, celery, and carrots and a flavorful liquid (such as meat stock or wine). Tomatoes are only added sparingly, often in the form of tomato paste, and not in every iteration of the recipe.
The result is a sauce that isn’t actually very saucy – when mixed in with tagliatelle (the most common pasta used in Bologna for this ragù), it won’t coat every strand in a thick red sauce. The rich liquid in which the meat cooked will coat and flavor everything, though, and the end result is delicious.
You may also see “lasagne alla bolognese” on Bologna’s menus, which is another common dish in which this meaty sauce is used.
I’d recommend sampling a few versions of bolognese if you can, especially if you’re visiting other nearby cities in the Emilia-Romagna region. Recipes can vary enough from town to town you might wonder if you’re eating a different dish. It’s one of the many fascinating side effects of the wild patchwork quilt that is Italian cuisine.
You’re likely familiar with the tortellini pasta shape – small pockets of meat or cheese curled into a circle with a small hole at the center – as it’s become popular outside Italy. Once you hear its origin story, however, you may never look at it the same way again.
The story goes that an innkeeper near Modena was so taken by the beauty of his guest, Lucrezia Borgia (daughter of Pope Alexander VI), that he crept to her door that night to peer through the keyhole. Light not being plentiful, he wasn’t able to see much – but he caught a glimpse of her navel. He was so overcome by the sight that he immediately went into his kitchen to capture that shapely navel in pasta form (clearly the highest form of Italian flattery) – and tortellini was born.
(Oh, sure, there are other legends about where tortellini comes from, but when one is this good, regardless of veracity, why bother with the others?)
Bologna is the capital of the region for which egg pasta is famous, and tortellini is only one example of the myriad ways flour, egg, and salt can be transformed into something magical. The reason it’s on this list is that the typical way it’s served in Bologna and the surrounding area isn’t like what you’ve had anywhere else.
“Brodo” means broth, so tortellini in brodo is pasta served in a light (though richly-flavored) broth. It’s not pasta added to a thick stew, it’s a very simple dish – perfectly cooked tortellini floating in a clear meat broth – and eaten with a spoon, like soup. Simple ingredients and presentation means the flavors of all the raw ingredients take center stage – and what a stage!
Note that tortellini‘s larger cousin, tortelloni, is rarely served in a broth and is more often filled with cheese or vegetables rather than meat.
Tell me, what three things would be on your must-eat list in Bologna? What three things are you most excited about tasting when you go to Bologna?