Bologna is where I learned to make gelato. I studied under Gianni Figliomeni at Gelatauro – the finest gelateria in the city. Bologna has three names: La Rossa (the red, in architecture and politics), La Dotta (the learned) and La Grassa (the fat). The latter refers more to the abundance of food in a city wealthy since the Middle Ages, than to calories. It is the foodie city.
The world outside of Emilia-Romagna (the region of which Bologna is capital) seems divided between those who love mortadella (the giant, emulsified, decadently fatty sausage), those who detest it, and those who can’t eat it for religious reasons. In Bologna, the debate is restricted to which the finest mortadella is. Bolognese cuisine is brutally rich and delicious – rich eggy pastas, creamy and buttery sauces, myriad cheeses, breads fried in lard. Emilian products are Italian food’s greatest successes – parma ham, parmesan and balsamic vinegar have conquered the world and rigorously upheld their standards, whereas mortadella has wheedled its way into national cuisines – in America, every deli counter has ‘bologna’ or ‘baloney’, and in South Africa, ‘polony’. The original is fine-textured, silky, delicate and nutmeg-scented, studded with fat from the jowl, and emerald pistachios. Sliced thin into sandwiches, with crescentine or in piadine – or cut into generous cubes to snack on, it is a revelation. Try it at Salumeria Simoni in the old market, Mercato di Mezzo.
Piadine are Italian flatbreads, from Emilia-Romagna and especially the Romagnolo coastline. The piadina is a close cousin of the flour tortilla and is filled with delights such as prosciutto or mortadella, rocket, and stracchino or squacquerone cheese. It is the thing to eat before heading out on the razzle, the thing to grab when the club closes its doors, and the hangover breakfast that will see you through till you have another one at lunch.
Bologna’s university is the oldest in the world, a place of learning since 1088. The energy of its students underpins what could otherwise be a town of the old – in what is certainly a very old place (one of the largest surviving medieval cities). Students worldwide are united, above all, by their poverty, sense of fun and appetite for drink. The aperitivo – giant fishbowl glasses of lurid spritz, accompanied by little plates of starchy nibbles or groaning banquet tables (depending on your budget) – is perfect student fodder. Aperitivo time (evening, before dinner), is not to be missed.
4) Fizzy wine (pignoletto and lambrusco)
The two sparkling wines of the region are pignoletto (a delicate, quaffable white – think even-easier-drinking prosecco), and lambrusco (joyous, aromatic, fruity, cheeky sparkling red made from lambrusco grapes). Both are drunk at the start of – or throughout – a meal (not after other wines), and both are particularly good with salumi: you can make a very, very long evening out of cured meats and fizz. There are at least six varieties and subregional styles of lambrusco – look out particularly for lambrusco grasparossa (rich, dark, plush, fruity) and lambrusco di sorbara (pale, dryer, floral, spritely – akin to drinking a darker rosé). If served properly, you will not drink lambrusco from glasses but fojete – small ceramic bowls – and somehow lambrusco tastes (even) better in them.
5) Pasta in broth
Both the coarsest and the finest of Emilian pastas come swimming in a limpid pool of comforting broth – chicken soup for the Italian soul. Passatelli are very coarse pasta made from breadcrumbs, egg and parmesan, perhaps 4-5mm wide, forced through a press directly into boiling broth or water – a delicious reminder that pasta is, in fact, a species of dumpling. Tortellini are the height of the art of fine pasta: egg dough rolled by hand until almost transparent, cut into tiny squares, filled with morsels of pork, prosciutto, mortadella, parmesan and nutmeg. It is okay to have parmesan on pasta in broth – and also to have pasta in broth before, instead of or after another course of pasta. The general aim in Emilia-Romagna might be to have two courses of pasta at each meal, as it is such a focus of the cuisine.
6) Golden tagliatelle and lasagne verdi
The established philosophy, in Bologna at least, is that ragu must be served on egg pasta, and that egg pasta should be rolled by hand. In Bologna’s chamber of commerce, on Piazza della Mercanzia, you will find a solid gold tagliatelle, the unit against which all other tagliatelle can be judged. The key dimension is a width of 7mm. Essential to serving pasta, across Italy, is that it is pasta with sauce so that you can still taste the pasta. This is particularly important with tagliatelle al ragu – it takes a small amount of unctuous, milk-enriched bolognese to anoint the delicate ribbons of hand-rolled and hand-cut tagliatelle. While noodles are golden, in Bologna the best lasagnes are green with spinach – lasagne verdi.
7) Ragu bolognese
Bologna is the capital of egg pasta – and ragu bolognese, the source of eponymous bol (from the English spag bol). Ragu bolognese is the forefather of bol – and they do share a basic identity of being a braised tomatoey meat sauce intended for pasta. But there are differences – the original is made with a mixture of younger beef and pork, a lot of dairy, white wine and much less tomato. This last results in a pinker sauce, as opposed to the enveloping red of bol. While it is possible other pastas might sometimes be offered with ragu, if you’re a purist it should be eaten only with tagliatelle or in lasagne.
8) Torta di riso and zuppa inglese
Two of the most emblematic local desserts are, in one way or another, best of British. Torta di riso is also called torta degli addobbi (cake of the decorations) – there’s nothing British about it, save that it is basically our rice pudding. In Bologna, they perfume it with cinnamon, lemon and clove, stud it with candied citron and amaretti, bake it till it forms a golden crust, then let it cool, soak it in almond liqueur and serve it in little diamonds. Zuppa inglese – ‘English soup’ – is a layered confection of sponge cake soaked in alchermes (a lurid cochineal-red spiced liqueur), pastry cream, chocolate cream and whipped cream. It’s so ubiquitous in homes that many restaurants no longer make it. Gelaterie, worldwide, will often offer an ice cream made, and named, after zuppa inglese.
9) Crescentine and squacquerone
Across the region perhaps the most delicious thing is a puffed-up flatbread fried in lard, cut in different forms and known by different names according to the town you’re in. But in Bologna it is diamond-shaped crescentine. These should be freshly fried and served hot, with a soft cheese and cured meat. For the cheese, you might get stracchino (a spoonable lactic delection) or squacquerone (a rarer, softer, tangier delicacy, known only around Bologna). The salumi could be culatello di zibello (cured hind leg), parma ham or bolognese mortadella. Eat the bread with a dab of the cheese and slice of the cured meat either on it or tucked into the pocket.
Bologna has become the very capital of gelato. Carpigiani is the most important manufacturer of gelato-making equipment and is headquartered in Bologna. So entrenched are each in the other (Carpigiani, gelato and Bologna), that the company built the world’s only gelato museum and the world’s only gelato university just outside, in Anzola dell’Emilia.