Not for nothing is Bologna known as ‘La Grassa’, the Fat One. A visit here is truly a foodie’s delight! The city has had the nickname since medieval times, indicating that it was already famous throughout Europe for its wonderful food and drink as far back as the 1300s.
One factor behind the development of this rich tradition is the ancient and prestigious university (another of the city’s nicknames is ‘La Dotta’, the Learned One). This attracted students from all over Europe and even further afield. You had to come from a rich family to go to university in those days; and these wealthy students brought with them servants, including cooks to provide them with the meals to which they were accustomed. Gradually foreign ingredients found their way into local Bolognese dishes, and foreign recipes were adapted to suit Bolognese tastes – all influencing what we find today in terms of regional specialities unique to this part of Italy.
And while the word ‘fat’ may be off-putting, don’t worry; grassa refers not to any fattiness in the food but to its copiousness, variety, and superior quality.
The city’s specialities include of course the famous Ragù Bolognese, which is served not on spaghetti but on tagliatelle. The rougher surface of this pasta allows a heavier sauce to cling to it, instead of collecting at the bottom of the plate as it does with slippery spaghetti. This dish is served in almost every restaurant in the city.
Mortadella di Bologna
Another regional speciality is Mortadella di Bologna. You might think from the name that this is the same sausage as the Americans know as bologna or baloney; but here in the city of its birth it is rather different and decidedly superior. It has been made in this region since the days of the Romans and in the past was considered a delicacy for the aristocracy as its heavy use of imported spices made it expensive. As with ragù you find it served everywhere, usually on a platter with other meats and maybe cheese.
All sausages labelled as Mortadella must meet very specific criteria and be free from fillers, artificial colours, flavours and preservatives. Those that follow the traditional official recipe are protected by PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) along with other regional products such as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Mortadella is usually included on the cold meats and cheeses boards offered as antipasti in many bars.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena
Talking of that famous vinegar, it’s important to note the distinction between Aceto Balsamico di Modena and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. Even before studying the labels you will know which is which, as the latter products are far more expensive.
By law (both European and Italian) they must be made the traditional way. It involves reducing pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes to make a thick syrup, known as mosto cotto; this is then aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years. As it matures it becomes thicker and shrinks in quantity, and is gradually transferred to barrels of smaller and smaller sizes. The most expensive vinegar is drawn from the smallest barrel which is then topped up with vinegar from the next largest and so on. The colour of the cap indicates its age; a white cap means the vinegar has aged for at least 12 years and a gold cap shows it has aged for 25 years or more. In contrast, regular Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is commercially produced and will lack the rich, complex flavours that come with the ageing process.
After tagliatelle, the most often-seen pasta dishes here are those made with tortellini or tortelloni. It took me a while to register what the difference is between these; or even to realise that there is a difference! Tortellini are the smaller of the two, with a meat filling (traditionally pork loin, raw ham, mortadella, Parmesan cheese, eggs and nutmeg); they are typically served in broth (Tortellini in brodo). Tortelloni are larger and their filling is usually either cheese-based such as ricotta or vegetable, maybe pumpkin or spinach. These are typically served in a butter and sage sauce with plenty of grated Parmigiano sprinkled on top.
Wines of the region
I can’t fail to also mention the wines. I tried several that I really liked. A favourite was Pignoletto, a dry white with a slight sparkle (not fizzy, but tingling on the tongue); it was both delicious and refreshing. Another surprise was the Lambrusco, as those generally sold in the UK are sweet and not at all to my taste; the one we sampled here was much drier and we both liked it a lot. And for me, no trip to Italy would be complete without an aperitivo of Aperol Spritz each evening!
Local breads include a flatbread, piadina, used to make tasty sandwiches and tigelle, small thicker round loaves often served with the cold meats and cheeses boards.
And of course this is Italy so there are some excellent gelateria with such an enormous selection I find it almost impossible to choose. The only solution is to have one every day; and even then you will only get through a fraction of them!
The Quadrilatero area of the city lies just to the east of the Piazza Maggiore, opening off it through an arch under the Palazzo dei Banchi. It is often referred to as a market but it is not perhaps what you expect when you think of such. There is no open space packed with stalls, no market hall similarly filled. Instead this is a maze of narrow streets lined with food shops, restaurants and bars.
This is the place where Bologna really lives up to its name of La Grassa, the ‘fat one’. All the many food shops sell traditional produce from the city and the surrounding region, Emilia-Romagna; and lots of them double as informal restaurants or bars so you can enjoy the delicacies on the spot. During the day the streets are thronged with shoppers, both tourists and locals; and in the evenings the narrowest of them seem to become one long thin bar as the crowds outside each establishment merge into those outside the next.
The area was first developed as a centre of trade in the city during the Middle Ages. The main craft guilds of the city such as goldsmiths, butchers, fishermen, ‘Salaroli’ (who salted meat to cure it) had their headquarters here. Many of the streets are named for these medieval occupations. Via Clavature takes its name from the key makers, who made the keys for the locks on the now-hidden canals. The origins of Via Pescherie, Via Farini and Via Drapperie are perhaps more obvious.
If you look more closely at the shops on the narrow cross streets you see that many are in fact little more than holes in the wall with a counter displaying the produce, half-way perhaps between shop and market stall. And looking closer still you see that many of these holes themselves have a hole; an opening through which stall-holders can descend to a basement area where more stock is stored so that displays can be replenished as needed.
The tourist office in the Piazza Maggiore organises a number of city tours; and although we usually prefer to explore on our own we decided to join the one they call ‘Enjoy Bologna’. This was described as ‘A tasty journey to discover the wine and food culture of Bologna, through the traditional flavours that made it world-famous.’
Our tour started with a visit to the famous chocolate shop Majani on Via de’ Carbonesi. Here we were told something of the history of this Bolognese institution and offered several of their specialities to sample.
The Osteria del Sole
Our guide took us to the Osteria del Sole. This claims to be the oldest bar in the city; and if the 1465 quoted on the website as the date of its founding, that claim may well be true. It certainly looks the part. You enter through a very unprepossessing door in the maze of streets that form the Quadrilatero. The décor is properly old, as opposed to the contrived version of old that so many bars around the world adopt. A number of interesting old pictures adorn the walls. One is of Buffalo Bill, who is said to have drunk here on a visit to Bologna.
The tour ended at a typical Quadrilatero shop-come-restaurant. There we enjoyed a glass of local wine and a plate of cold meats and cheese, all included in the tour price. There was no need to buy lunch that day!
Palazzo della Mercanzia
Built in the late 14th century to provide a base for those governing trade activities in Bologna, and still home to its Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Agriculture and Crafts, the Palazzo della Mercanzia is a pivotal part of the story of the city’s gastronomic success. It was restored 1949 after being partially destroyed in World War Two bombing; its appearance today is pretty much as it was at the end of the 15th century. Its portico is accessed through high Gothic arches, and a small statue of Justice sits above the front pair. Either side, and on the sides of the building, are six half-figures of saints; the four protectors of the city (San Domenico, San Zama, San Floriano and San Petronio) plus St. Peter and St. Anthony of Padua.
The small marble balcony high on its façade served as place of proclamation for those who sat in judgement over merchants’ disputes. Those who had committed fraud or other sins of commerce would be chained to a post placed before the central pillar of the portico below to be pilloried.
Protecting the integrity of regional dishes
This is also where the traditional recipes of such Bolognese delicacies as ragù and mortadella are held. They set out the exact ingredients and methods to be used if a food item is to bear those names. If you are interested in the dishes of this region (and surely you are, since you visit Bologna ‘the fat’!), you can get a free recipe book, available in many different languages, just by asking at the desk here. But even if you don’t want the book it’s worth going inside (weekdays only) to see the ornate lobby, staircase and the wonderful room known as the ‘Salone dell’Anagrafe’ – the room for consulting the archives. This has an ornate carved ceiling and wall paintings depicting the commercial, craft and agricultural life of the city.
And the Palazzo della Mercanzia is a good place to end our gastronomic tour of Bologna. This is my contribution to Cady’s collection of Foods from Around the World this week. After writing it, and sorting my photos, I can’t wait to get back to Italy as soon as international travel becomes possible again. With food like this, no wonder it is my favourite country in Europe!
I visited Bologna in 2015