Karin Engelbrecht explains why Bologna is Italy’s unofficial culinary capital
Forget tourist-riddled Rome, modish Milan or frou-frou Florence; if you’re looking for authenticity on a plate, Bologna is where it’s at. The capital of the Emilia Romagna region is home to specialities such as lasagne, tortellini and mortadella sausage. Parma ham, Parmesan and balsamic vinegar are produced just up the road, which partly explains the city’s nickname, ‘La Grassa’ (‘the fat one’). The name is actually a by-product of the city’s prosperity: it was long fabled as a land of plenty by Italy’s poor.
Bologna boasts the oldest university in the world, where Europe’s lawmakers were once taught how to rule. Visiting academics and elite alumni helped to spread the city’s reputation for hospitality and good eating around the globe. Bologna was also Italy’s first city to legislate the defence of a local speciality, passing a law in 1661 to protect the reputation of Bolognese mortadella-makers.
With its proud tradition for good food, it’s not surprising Bologna was voted Italy’s best place to live in 2004 in the annual Qualità della Vita (quality of life) poll in an Italian national daily business newspaper. Bologna is the ideal weekend break destination for foodies.
The city hasn’t fallen victim to mass tourism (yet) and still feels authentically Italian. A walk through its almost perfectly preserved medieval centre reveals crumbling towers and proud palaces in shades of terracotta and ochre, as well as ancient churches, abandoned city gates and even a few hidden canals. Its enduring wealth means that shopping is not limited to tourist tat. Instead, there are many interesting little boutiques and shops selling local luxury brands.
While some formal restaurants can be found (Ristorante Diana and Ristorante Pappagallo are famous Bologna institutions) there’s no need to splurge here. In fact, the best local dishes can be sampled at casual trattorias and simple taverns called osterias. These eateries meander into marbled medieval porticoes, where diners can feast under frescoed ceilings. Terraces pile playfully into palazzi – framed piazzas, perfect for people-watching.
Where to eat
The tastiest sugar-encrusted and often custard-filled sweet breakfast pastries in Bologna are to be found at the smart Caffe Pasticceria Zanarini (Piazza Galvani 1, +39 051 275 0041). These are washed down with an espresso while standing at the bar, of course. Fantastic sandwiches and espressi can be sampled for a song (a wholegrain prosciutto and brie croissant, espresso and water for Dhs10) at locals’ favourite Pasticceria Caffetteria Santo Stefano (Via Santo Stefano 3, +39 051 224 160), near the must-see ancient church complex.
For those whose idea of breakfast is all about the caffeine, there’s Aroma Caffé (www.ilpiaceredelcaffe.it, +39 051 225 895 ), near the city’s main square. Its single source espresso (Dhs8) is about as naturally sweet as this beverage can be. Clean, serene Vanilia (Via del Pratello 100, +39 051 587 9865), opposite a handsome clay-coloured sanctuary, is an ideal, bright spot to read a morning paper alone over a cappuccino (Dhs6).
An almost ridiculously authentic lunch experience (red-chequered table cloths included) can be found just 15 minutes from the city centre at Da Vito (Via Musolesi 9, +39 051 349 809). Okay, the service is dire and the decor dingy, but the local specialities are ridiculously cheap and taste lovingly homemade. The tortellini in brodo (tortellini filled with mortadella, prosciutto and Parmesan in a capon broth) is a classically Bolognese choice for a starter. Here, it tastes surprisingly delicate and deliciously light, considering those rich ingredients. Follow it with stinco al forno (roasted pork shank, served on the bone) and you’ll have sampled the very embodiment of Bolognese ‘fatness’. Imagine your mum’s very best Sunday roast – crispy skin, juicy interior, delicately flavoured with herbs. Now imagine your mum is Italian. A three-course meal with drinks averages Dhs102.
The elegant Bistro 18 (Via Clavature 18/b, www.bistrot18.com, +39 051 273 014), situated near the main shopping drag, is a good option for a leisurely lunch or dinner. The lasagne (Dhs50) is a shining example of how this traditional Bolognese dish should taste. Its depth of flavour suggests that the meat sauce was given at least a day to reach perfection.
With its charming outdoor terrace, Restaurant Teresina (Via Oberdan 4, www.ristoranteteresinabologna.it, +39 051 228 985) gets top marks in the romantic category. The tasty squid-ink pasta and terrific tagliata (thinly sliced seared beef) are just a couple of the house specialities. But at Dhs308 for two courses, drinks and water, it’s on the pricier side for Bologna.
Sorbetteria Castiglione (Via Castiglione 44, www.lasorbetteria.it, +39 051 233 257) is the city’s best pick for gelato (personal preference, of course, but how could we not love a place that has a white chocolate ice-cream with hazelnut crunchies called ‘Dolce Karin’?). The range of refreshing sorbets (mandarin or bilberry, for examples) are excellent too. Equally beloved by Bolognese is Cremeria Funivia (Piazza Cavour 1, www.cremeriafunivia.com, +39 051614 5062). The pistachio flavour is a delicate shade of green – a good indication of its all-too-rare, all-natural origins – and has that authentic pistachio taste you simply can’t mimic with flavourings.
Need to know
Getting there Alitalia (www.alitalia.com) flies from Dubai to Bologna for Dhs2,336 return, with one stop in Jordan.
Where to stay For an alternative to a hotel, I masCa’ Residence offers luxuriously renovated ‘sustainable’ designer apartments in an old medieval building in the historic centre of Bologna. There’s even a nifty little kitchen to cook up those market finds. Prices range from Dhs260 to Dhs960 a night per apartment (for up to four people), with a minimum stay of three nights. Via Mascarella 51, www.mascaresidence.it (+39 051 587 4677)
Food shopping • East of Piazza Maggiore, the city’s central square, is a warren of ancient Roman streets packed with edible treasures. Fruit stalls are overflowing with grapes and aubergines of every shape, size and colour in Via Pescherie Vecchie, an outdoor produce market. The Chiari family’s shop is a must-visit, with 120 types of cheese, including their own Sua Maestà il Nero Parmesan. Via Pecherie 3A, www.famigliachiari.it/index_eng.htm (+39 051 223 940)
• At the end of the street, next to the well-stocked fishmongers, is Paolo Atti & Figli, offering the ultimate in fresh pasta, bread and yummy jam-filled pastries. Via Caprarie 7, www.paoloatti.com(+39 051 220 425)
• Find the finest Italian breakfast biscuits at Drogheria Gilberto. These almond-studded cantuccini (Dhs23) beg to be dunked into your coffee. Via Drapperie 5 (+39 051 223 925)
• Next door, Salumeria Simoni is renowned for its salami, mortadella and prosciutto. Via Drapperie 5 (+39 051 231 880)
• Locals love the hidden Mercato delle Erbe, a covered produce market with some 70 stalls and 38 food shops. Via Ugo Bassi 25, www.mercatodelleerbe.it
• Enoteca Italiana, the best-stocked vine merchant in town, has a stunning array of grape-based beverages. Samples are offered at aperitivo time. Via Marsala 2b (+39 051 235 989)