A few days ago I couldn’t help but overhear two young American girls trying to ask a shop owner for some directions. After one of the girls tried her best to mumble a few words in Italian “uhm place for….vino….”, I simply had to intervene. I felt it my expat duty.
When I asked them what exactly they were looking for, they explained they had been searching for this old bar in Bologna for days but couldn’t find it. A lightbulb immediately went on in my head – “OH! Osteria del Sole!”, I exclaimed. I think they were a little bit overwhelmed at my enthusiasm, but I offered to take them there nonetheless – not just because I felt like being a good samaritan either (if it had been the train station, I would have simply given them directions and gone on my way), but because I am seriously, passionately crazy when it comes to things that deal with Italian cuisine. And well, Osteria del Sole just happens to be one cool place.
So to the shop owners dismay (she was clearly confused and probably a bit pissed off that I suddenly stole away all her customers), we left and and I took the two girls to the osteria. They were happy to have found it, I was happy to show it to them and brag about the fact that I live in Italy, we were all happy. Yay.
I left them there to their own devices (Who knows they probably got drunk on cheap wine and went out with all the university students on via Zamboni that night, thanks to me, the good samaritan). Of course their curiosity got me thinking…how many other tourists are searching for Osteria del Sole and are unable to find it? And how many people actually understand the history of Osteria del Sole and the history of the ‘osteria’ in general for that matter? Enter…new blog post about the coolness of l’osterie. You’re welcome.
Osteria del Sole: The Oldest Pub in Town (and…ahem…in Italy)
Osteria del Sole is one of the oldest standing osterias alive today. Dating back to 1465, everything in the place, including the walls, the courtyard, the garden, the stairs that lead to the cantina, are over 500 years old. How they have not curmbled to pieces is beyond me, but Italy seems to be pretty darn good at keeping old things alive. Supposedly the walls did have to be painted within the last century due to overabsorption of nicotine, which had subsequently stained them brown, but everything else in the place is as old as dirt or at least is preserved in a manner that gives off that older-than-dirt appearance – and I mean that in the best way possible.
If you’re trying to find Osteria del Sole, the first thing you’ll notice is the complete lack of signage. There isn’t a sign outside the door that says Osteria del Sole or any indication that there is an osteria there (that would be too easy!), so it can be pretty tricky to find. It’s situated on via Ranocchi (in between via Orefici and via Pescherie, not too far from Piazza Maggiore) so once you’re on the street, just look for a rectangular hole in the wall. That’s it. Just a hole in the wall!
Once you’re inside, immediately to your right you’ll see the bar counter, stocked with a variety of wine, both red and white, beer on tap, and other Italian liquers and digestives such as grappa or the famous locally produced Montenegro. There is not really a hostess so you have to get the attention of the the barman or barwoman in order to be seated.
Contrary to what you might think when you hear the term ‘osteria’, you actually can’t order any food here. The only thing you can order is wine, beer, or other strange Italian digestives and amari. You can however bring your own food (BYOF). It’s a popular hangout for lunch time, where students, workers, professors, and other locals come with their “sack” lunch – usually some taglieri (sliced deli meats), cheese, and bread purchased from the local food shops. Some people even bring in food they made at home, or pizza from a nearby pizzeria. You might even spot some take-out Chinese given the nearby Chinese restaurant. It’s an easy, cheap and fun way to get together with friends and socialize in true Bolognese fashion.
According to Margherita Bianchini, author of ‘101 Cose da Fare a Bologna alemno una volta nella vita’, “The right moment to come to Oseria del Sole, if you want to fully appreciate the spirit of the place, is in the afternoon”. Bianchini argues that that’s when the real bolognesi come – when you’ll find the old men gathered around playing cards, chating about politics, or smoking cigarettes in the garden. Of course, there really isn’t a wrong time to go, but the afternoon certainly is calmer and probably when you’ll catch more of the locals.
Osteria del Sole is open Monday – Saturday from 10:30am to 9:30pm. Reservations are recommended(call at 347 968 0171), especially around mealtimes and at the weekends. Via Ranocchi 1/d.
The Story behind the ‘Osterie’
The name ‘osteria’ comes from the Italian word ‘oste’ meaning ‘host’. The first osterias used to be places whose primary function was just that – to host guests (mostly men since women didn’t have the same social status), providing them with food, wine, social life, and perhaps even a place to crash for the night. These taverns were an integral part of medieval life providing rest points for weary vagabonds, travelers, students, professors, performers, craftsmen, writers, and so on.
In Bologna espeically osterias have always been important points of interest. In the 13th century there were more than 150 osterias operating in Bologna. One reason for this is the university (Bologna is home to the oldest univsersity in Europe, established in 1088). Students and professors would gather at osterias in order to share ideas or take a break from studies. Another reason for Bologna’s numerous osterias is it’s geografical location. Located in the central Italy, it has always been a rest stop for those traveling between the north and central part of Italy.
Their location was often a signal of their reputation: osterias situated near where the coppersmiths worked were often known as cheap pubs, as well those located outside the city walls since most travellers didn’t have enough money to enter into the city. Others were located in parts of the city that were infamous for raudy nightlife and prostitution. Osterias located here were obviously serving up the same kind of ‘menu’. Nevertheless, none of the osterias were particularly elegant nor expensive, since the whole purpose of the osteria was to provide simple nourishment to the common people. Many people even died there.
The Osteria Board Game
During the early 1700’s, a little board game was invented regarding all of the osterias in Bologna. The board consisted of 59 squares, each square with the symbole of the osteria and it’s street name. To play, one simply rolls the die and moves to the square corresponding to the number on the die. If the square (the “osteria”) is already occupied by someone, the player in the osteria must move back to the space they were previously. The first person to reach the end, wins all the money or the other players must buy the winner dinner.
The ‘Osteria’ Today
Today the focus of the osteria is much more about the food than before, although the spirit of the osteria is still very much alive. If you have ever travelled in Italy before you probably noticed that there are a few different ways to indicate an ‘eatery’ in Italy. A ‘ristorante’ is often a more elegant, formal dining experience with a printed menu, more expensive plates, and wine served only by the bottle. A ‘trattoria’ is somewhere in between a ‘ristorante’ and an ‘osteria’ – it’s casual, there may or may not be a printed menu, house wine is served in a decanter and the food is modest. An ‘osteria’ is probably the closest thing Italians have to a ‘pub’ or a ‘tavern’ – it’s primarily a place for drinking wine, food may or may not be present (although today there is usually food) and if there is food, it’s simple, local and cheap. Osterias are no-frills, hole-in-the-wall kinds of places.
With the uprise in tourism in Italy over the last century or so, Italians have found a way to turn osterias into something a bit more snazzy and tourist-friendly. Nowadays you’ll find that osterias offer a full menu, wine by the bottle in addition to the house wine, and pay a little more attention to the atmosphere and quality of food.
Osterias in Bologna: Where to go to have a good time (and good wine)
If you’re looking for a casual night out in Bologna with simple food and cheap wine, then an osteria is just the place for you. I recommend the following:
Osteria al 15 – Super casual, hidden place. You wouldn’t know where it existed from the outside as you have to ring the doorbell and wait for someone to let you in! The place is decked with funky owls and the waiters are truly eclectic (in a good way). By far the best thing on their menu is their Tortelloni ai carciofi –(creamy artichoke tortelloni). Reservations recommended. Open Monday-Saturday 7:30pm-1:00am, closed Sunday. Via Mirasole 13.
Osteria dell’Orsa – Popular among students, this place fills up quickly so be sure to get there early or be prepared to wait. They have an expansive menu serving up everything from piadina (flatbread sandwiches), traditional bolognese pasta, and meat with patate fritte (french fries). The food is not toptop quality, but it’s simple, good and cheap. Open everyday 12:00pm-12:00am. Via Mentana, 1.
Osteria L’Infedele – Here you can eat and drink late into the night (It’s name is pretty indicative of where the night might lead you ;)) Well-hidden and super small, perfect for a more intimate setting with friends. The food is simple but good, just don’t expect much from the service. ;) Open from Monday-Saturday 12:00pm-3:00am. Closed Sunday. Via Gerusalemme 5.
Osteria Broccaindosso – Here you will eat until you literally can’t eat anymore! They basically bring a variety of appetizers that are big enough to be a meal, plus a variety of desserts. It’s a great place if you want to try a lot of different things. Open everyday 12:00-2:30pm and 7:30pm-1:00am. Via Broccaindosso 7.
Osteria Rovescio – Traditional bolognese but with organic and local 0km ingredients. They also have some more innovative and vegetarian dishes on the menu. Open everyday 12:30-3:00pm and 7:00pm-1:00am. Via Pietralata 75.
Osteria del Sole – Not really a restaurant, but rather a really old bar – in fact its the OLDEST bar in Bologna (open since the 1400’s) – where you bring what you want to eat and they provide the wine. A must for anyone visiting Bologna. I recommend picking up some sliced mortadella/prosciutto and bread from one of the surrounding delis before going. Reservations recommended, especially at the weekend. Open Monday – Saturday 10:30-9:30pm. Closed Sunday. Reservations recommended. Via Ranocchi 1/d.