My first visit to Bologna was a bit of a flop.
I was travelling with a group of friends from my Florence study abroad program. We were on our way back from Venice and decided to stop in Bologna for the afternoon. Being mostly interested in food, I hadn’t been impressed by Venice’s culinary scene: the only thing we had eaten there were cold take-away panini, stale breakfast biscuits and one horrible seafood dinner (I’m sure there are wonderful places to eat in Venice now but we just had bad luck).
While on the train I read about Bologna in my Italy guide book. I was so excited to hear that Bologna’s nickname was ‘la grassa’ – meaning “the fat one”. I had also read that in Bologna they actually served butter with their fresh handmade pasta. Needless to say, my stomach growled as we rolled along through the flatlands of Veneto and Emilia-Romagna.
I was busy highlighting and mapping out the best restaurants of the city when we arrived at the Bologna Centrale train station. Once we got onto the platform, I informed my group of friends of the plan: we were to walk around the city, see all the important stuff, and then promptly head straight to one of the three restaurants I had circled in the book before heading back to catch our train to Florence.
I don’t really remember much about the afternoon. We walked under a the porticos, got lost while searching for a restaurant, and instead went inside the Church of San Domenico for awhile. When we did finally find one of the restaurants I wanted to eat at, I almost burst into tears when I saw a sign on the door that read Aperto 19:30-23:00. Open 7:30-11:00pm. Our train was at 7:00pm.
I had failed to take into account the typical opening hours of a restaurant in Italy. Most restaurants don’t open until 7:30pm, and even then the restaurant might not seat its first client until 8:30pm.
We trudged back to the Bologna train station, disappointed and hungry. We opted to eat a tourist restaurant near the station. They had red-and-white checkered table cloths, menus in English and a giant TV screen blaring the latest football match. I ordered tortellini with cream and prosciutto. I had no idea that that wasn’t really authentic bolognese at all. I ate it without complaint, but still felt empty inside.
My story of how I returned to Bologna is a long one, one that I’ll have to save for another blog post. Still since I’ve moved to “the fat city” three years ago ago, I can certainly say I’ve learned a lot about eating in Bologna, what to eat and how to eat it, as well as what not to eat. I’ve also learned a lot about what’s really bolognese and what’s not and that the answer can vary depending upon who you ask.
EATING IN BOLOGNA:
10 Things You Need to Know
1. Spaghetti Bolognese is not an authentic Bolognese dish at all. I strongly urge you to stay away from any restaurant that has this item on their menu. Look for tagliatelle al ragù instead – fresh egg noodles lathered in a rich meaty sauce.
2. I’m sorry vegetarians. Eating authentic bolognese food that is vegetarian is kind of impossible. That’s not to say you can’t find things on the menu that are vegetarian or even vegetarian restaurants (some very good ones I might add!), but if you want to eat “typical bolognese food” that doesn’t contain meat you’re out of luck. Almost every classic Bolognese dish contains some form of meat.
3. Real Bolognese food is comfort food. Opt for down-home cooking restaurants. The places that look like your grandmother’s kitchen with wooden chairs and old junk hanging on the wall. They might not look like much, but they have the best traditional food. Save the contemporary, modern restaurants for last.
4. In Bologna, fresh egg pasta is king. The most typical pasta dishes from Bologna are tagliatelle al ragù (tagliatelle pasta with meat sauce), tortellini in brodo (tortellini in meat broth), and lasagne bolognese (green lasagana pasta layered with meat sauce and besciamel sauce). Tortellini alla panna (tortellini with cream) is a delicious invention, but is not quite “authentic bolognese”. Tortelli alla zucca (pasta stuffed with pumpkin), is really a dish from Mantua and tortelloni con salvia e burro (tortelloni with sage and butter), is more Emilian than strictly Bolognese.
5. Don’t forget the cold cuts! Tagliere (sliced cold cuts) is a great starter, aperitivo, or even a main course. Italian cold cuts are best eaten when they are sliced at the moment. You can tell how fresh a slice of prosciutto or mortadella is by its rosy color and intense smell.
6. For the Bolognesi, mortadella is a delicacy. It deserves to be eaten on its own, either cut into cubes and served with toothpicks, or sliced thinly. At most, you may put it on top of plain bread but don’t let other flavors interfere.
7. The wine is good – not amazing – and that’s okay. Pignoletto and Sangiovese are the most typical wines of Bologna. They might not impress you like a Chianti, but they pair perfectly with Bolognese food so don’t go against tradition.
8. Save the bread for last. Bread in Bologna is usually hard and dry, sometimes shaped into a crescent roll or four-legged spider thingy. It’s kind of blah so don’t expect much. Just go with it and use to sop up that extra ragù.
9. For dessert? I’m partial to gelato. Many restaurants offer zuppa inglese (a trifle made of custard, cream, and sponge cake usually soaked in alcohol), tiramisu or mascarpone with chocolate cake, which are all pretty good (except zuppa inglese which I actually find revolting). Bologna is also famous for it’s Torta di Riso, a sweet rice cake but it’s more the sort of thing you buy for breakfast or an afternoon snack. I personally think Bologna has some of the best gelato in the world. So… go to Funivia or one of these gelaterias instead, where you can eat mascarpone gelato with chocolate sauce and have the best of both worlds.
10. Plan meal times accordingly (don’t make my same mistake!). Typical restaurant hours are from 12:00-3:00pm and 7:30-11:00pm. Many restaurants are often closed on Mondays. It’s always a good idea to call ahead of time and make a reservation.