Words Andy Harris
Photography David Loftus

The first thing you need to understand when you visit Bologna is that you’re never going to find a bowl of ‘spag bol’ served in any of the city’s 300-odd restaurants. Don’t even think of asking for spaghetti Bolognese unless you want to be unceremoniously thrown out of the trattoria with a lot of theatrical gestures. Instead, if (like me) you’re happy to taste-test endless plates of tagliatelle Bolognese then you’ll find the city more than accommodating.

So seriously do the locals take this famous dish that its official recipe was decreed most solemnly by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina in 1982 and deposited in the recipe vaults of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. And if you want to make the real thing, the advice is not to stray from the ideal 8mm width for the tagliatelle and a sauce made from ground beef skirt, chopped pancetta, diced carrot, celery, a little tomato sauce, triple-concentrate tomato paste, dry red wine, milk, salt and pepper, slowly simmered for a couple of hours.

As the capital of Emilia-Romagna, Bologna is also the gastronomic hub for many other famous Italian dishes including tortellini in brodo, lasagna al ragÙ, passatelli soup, and products such as mortadella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, balsamic vinegar from nearby Modena, Prosciutto di Parma, mascarpone, cotechino and the much-maligned Lambrusco wine, a plummy, fizzy red wine that’s particularly good as a chilled aperitivo.
Appropriately for such an ancient city, there’s some impressive ecclesiastical architecture, from the sombre Gothic San Petronio cathedral to Santo Stefano, an intimate complex of four medieval churches and cloisters. Once home to over 200 towers built by warring aristocracy, only two are left standing in the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. After a lung-busting 498 steps to the top of the Torre degli Asinelli, the reward is a panoramic patchwork of red-tiled roofs below, the Apennine foothills beyond the city walls, and miles of shaded porticoes, sunlight bouncing off ochre stuccoes and frescoed roofs.

There’s also a noble academic heritage. Europe’s first university was founded here in 1088 and if you’re lucky enough to be around during major graduation days, you’ll be rewarded with the sight of students packed into Piazza Maggiore for the ritual throwing of black academic hats and laurel wreaths into the air with prosecco corks a-popping. It’s the area around this well-worn cobbled square rimmed by grand Palazzi that forms the city’s culinary heart. The tiny medieval streets of the Mercato di Mezzo, known as the Quadrilatero, with names such as Via delle Drapperie (upholsterers), Via Clavature (blacksmiths) and Via Caprarie (sheep butchers) betray their origins as an ancient Roman market. Today, they are crowded with every kind of food store. Locals buy baby moscardini (octopus) and anchovies from Pescheria Brunelli, artichokes and agretti from fruit and veg shops like Melega, cakes and bread from Paolo Atti & Figli, then stop for drinks at the city’s oldest wine bar Osteria del Sole on Vicolo Ranocchi (‘Frog Alley’) where you bring DIY picnics to the long refectory tables. ]

Tamburini is the temple to cured meats such as prized culatello (a dryer, more expensive version of Parma ham only made by 21 Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP)producers), mortadella, lardo, strolghino which uses honey as the preservative and other local salami all dangling from strings in its windows. Owner Giovanni Tamburini has also turned it into an enoteca and enterprising deli with take-away roast meats and vegetables from the wood-fired oven, parmesan and soft squacquerone cheese and homemade tortelloni and pasta. With more than 100,000 students in the city, there’s also a stuzzichini (Italian-style tapas) boom with most bars serving free snacks such as filling mortadella chunks, deep-fried vegetables and bruschetta as they discuss politics and philosophy over wine and beer.

All this learning, history and food collide in an assured and passionate mix. Sfogline (‘pasta makers’), chefs and deli dynasties like Tamburini are treated as reverently as the city’s other roster of famous inhabitants – conductor Arturo Toscanini, film directors Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci, artists Morandi and Correggio, writer Umberto Eco, composer Rossini, singer Lucio Dalla and the inventor of the radio, Guglielmo Marconi.

Chef patrons like Daniele Minarelli of All’Osteria Bottega embody the Bolognese spirit and can talk earnestly and endlessly about the provenance of their local ‘km 0’ ingredients and cured meats, such as la mora romagnola (‘Black Pig’) salami. Growing up on a farm, his father provided game for the kitchen table and he still cooks the simple regional dishes that his mother and grandmother taught him. His confident trattoria has only 15 tables, laid simply with brown butchers’ paper and some cupboards where his prized aged culatello and salami hang. “Food is a right for all of us. There’s no difference between a student and a businessman, a poor person and a rich one,” he says. “The people dining here are sharing the story of the kitchen and the emotion of the old Bolognese traditional food. The most important thing for me is to listen to them and share their happiness as they dine.” His menu is a paean to the heart and soul of seasonal, nourishing Bolognese cooking and starts with a platter of thinly sliced cured meats, classic pasta dishes such as tortellini in brodo or lasagna alla Bolognese, followed by the meat course – veal slowly braised in Sangiovese, roast rabbit ‘cacciatora’ (‘hunter-style’) with polenta or an assured bollito misto.

Not surprisingly, it’s often been said that you’ll find the best food in Italy in Bologna at some brilliant markets and shops, and for restaurant aficionados it’s the kind of place where you can always dine well. Proud of its intellectual and culinary pedigree which is never flaunted ostentatiously, it thoroughly deserves its nickname of “La Grassa’ (‘the fat one’) along with its other monikers of “La Dotta” (‘the learned’) and ‘La Rossa’ (‘the red one’) after its red porticoes and tiled roofs.

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