Bologna has always been somewhat of a mystery to me, little more than a transit point on the train between Florence and Venice. Many had raved about it, including several family members who had lived there for months, and who kept repeating “you will love Bologna, there is a good reason it is known as la grassa“. So I did a bit of research and found out that it is also known as la dotta (the learned – due to the University of Bologna which was the first European University founded in 1088) and la rossa (the red – due to the red brick of the towers and buildings in the old centre or some say because of its communist tendencies…). But I am particularly interested in the grassa part, which literally means the “fat one” but actually refers to the bounty of food that is produced in the area. Think pasta (tortellini and lasagna), cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano), and all types of pork products – prosciutto di Parma (prosciutto or cured ham from Parma), salami and mortadella (sometimes called Bologna sausage).
“Si mangia più a Bologna in un anno che a Venezia in due, a Roma in tre, a Torino in cinque e a Genova in venti” (you eat more in Bologna in a year than in two years in Venice, three in Rome, five in Torino and 20 in Genova). So Ippolito Nievo wrote in his 1867 book, “Confessions of an Italian”. Bologna has had the grassa reputation for a long time and when I visited just before Christmas 2015, it was indeed a foodie heaven. I spent a couple of days wandering the narrow streets of the historic centre, searching for various types of street foods, mainly breads to go with the huge variety of cured and processed pork products. There was prosciutto, culatella (a cured meat made from the top of the hind leg of the pig) and a speciality of the area called salame rosa (pink salami), which looks a bit like mortadella but tastes like fragrant roast pork. A special mention goes to the mortadella, which is nothing like what you find on the shelves in Australia. The mortadella from Bologna is IGP (indicazione geografica protetta), thus meets strict European Guidelines with regards to where and how it is produced. The recipe is traditional from the time long ago when pork meat was pounded with a mortar to then be rolled into a fat sausage and cooked. Its aroma is distinctive and frankly mouth-watering, with a velvet-like texture and those distinctive lardons of white fat.
An experience not to be missed when you go to Bologna is a visit to Salumeria Simoni for a tagliere (platter) of cured meats (which were being sliced non-stop by the white-hatted worker when I went). There are several different platters but mine included mortadella IGP, salame rosa and prosciutto. I sat perched on a tall stool at a table, enjoying the platter with a glass of local red wine, watching Christmas shoppers scurry past. The mortadella was especially good – sliced thinly so that it literally melted in my mouth. It was a beautiful moment.
It’s not all about meats though, the cheeses in Bologna are also incredible. Delicatessens not only have huge wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano (aged 20, 30, 36 or 50 months), but also a selection of fresh cheeses the likes of which are rare to find outside of Italy: stracciatella, mascarpone, burrata, sheep’s milk ricotta and buffalo mozzarella, all creamy white and so, so fresh. The photo below was taken at Tamburini, a labyrinthine series of shops with a delicatessen, a restaurant and a wine bar, that has been operating in via Carprarie since 1932. Tamburini is known for its fresh pasta, often stuffed with mortadella or prosciutto; cured meats and huge selection of cheeses. Their wine bar is fabulous – and they serve platters of meats and cheeses accompanied by baskets of still warm local pan fried bread (called tigelle or crescentine).
And if savoury food isn’t your thing, Tamburini had a vast array of cakes, even ones that are contro la depressione (cure depression). Of course I am leaving out the fact that Bologna is a majestic historical town, lined with red brick towers and elegant piazze and because of its reputation as la dotta, buzzes with the energy of thousands of university students. It is also the place where famous Italian singer Lucio Dalla lived (in via d’Azelio 15) up until his passing in 2012, where the wonderful tongue-in-cheek tv series Ispettore Coliandro is set and is home to some rather fine street art. Bologna is an absolute dream to visit – and being conveniently placed on the train line connecting Florence and Venice, there is no excuse to not drop in, even if only briefly, for a tagliere of mortadella or a plate of tortellini.