Bologna is more than Porticos and Parmesan

When you think about Bologna, you may conjure images of porticos and Parmesan. But what’s missing in that imagery is how much porticos and Parmesan elevate a city. Because even when you aren’t staring at a portico or nibbling a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, when a city is infused with them, they flavor your whole experience.

I figured the porticos would add visual interest like a pretty postcard, but I hadn’t considered that porticos make every few steps a new textured frame around a cityscape. Their shelter and cool make for more comfortable travel days (especially, Keith would want me to add, for bald people), but they also offer a sense of intimacy. Since I am a traveler who grooves on contrast, that sense of intimacy combined with the giant scale of the doors and windows, left me perpetually aware and in awe.

Also, I didn’t know that originally, those porticos were extensions of workshops. Every one was different (but all had to be at least seven feet high to accommodate a rider on horseback), like every workshop was different. But wandering through them, I got that sense even before reading about the history, because some porticos have their ceilings lined with terra cotta bas reliefs, some with paintings, some with woodwork… so as you walk from one place to another, looking up becomes a shifting treat.

Same with the Parmesan. Yes, It’s enthralling to walk into shops stacked with enormous wheels of storied cheese. But more than that, that cheese adds a subtle umami depth to the dishes emerging from kitchens, raised high in triumph.

Bologna is known as la dotta, la grassa, la rossa, and I believe this is a singularly apt description of the city.

“La dotta” means, “the learned.” Bologna prides itself on its University, the oldest university that is still matriculating students. There are plaques and statues all over the city honoring professors and scholarship. Bologna is the seat of much inquiry, a lot of thought, and it’s easy for that quest for learning to trickle down even to passing tourists. I saw a statue commemorating a professor that discovered bioelectrical currents in animals. I never even thought about the bioelectrical currents in animals. The professor displaying a frog on a book,  made me wonder about those early experiments. How did the knowledge change the understanding about medicine? At every corner, there was something new to wonder.

Alongside Piazza Maggiore (where they show subtitled movies on enormous screens in the summertime—great fun!), you may wonder at why the edifice of the Basilica di San Petronio seems only half-completed. Is it being renovated? No, there just wasn’t money for both the creation of the university (which was originally spread across the city in different city buildings) and the completion of a basilica that was slated to be even grander than St. Peter’s in Rome. Bologna chose civic advancement over a religious edifice and it makes the basilica even more beloved.

 The university itself makes for a gorgeous passeggiata. Yes, there’s quite a bit of graffiti, which makes some tourists feel uncomfortable. I don’t mind it though. It’s a reminder that we’re not walking through a museum, but a living, breathing center of young people living their lives.

As an aside: those young people give the whole city a different vibe. There was so much energy, so much fashion and style, without pretension. Bologna is one of those rare hip places where I didn’t feel uncomfortable being tragically unhip. And Nicolas loved the shopping. Plus discovering new ways to cuff pants (no seriously; college has transformed the “mom-just-pick-me-up-the-same-jeans-and-t-shirts” lad he used to be).

La grossa” or “the fat” is a reference to the tremendous food culture in Bologna. You’ve no doubt heard that the food in Bologna is superb, revered, quintessentially Italian. I had my doubts. After all, I’ve eaten my share of transcendent meals. As it turns out, Bologna is indeed all that.

I’m used to central Italy, which has its culinary roots in cucina povera, or the cuisine of the poor. Sounds like I’m throwing shade, but I’m not. In central Italy, people didn’t have the time or resources to refine their cuisine, but they did learn how to make the most with what they had. So my Umbrian food is based on humble roots, sure, but the flavors soar because Umbrians notice how a pig’s diet influences the flavor of prosciutto and how to harvest wild asparagus at just the right moment. The food is simply prepared, but of such extraordinary quality basic trattoria meals sing of earth and roots and olive leaves waving like silver flags in the gentle breeze.

 Bologna is different. Bologna has long prided itself for being the central jewel in the breadbox of Italy. The culinary tradition has been heightened with effort and experimentation. Think about this: In 1972, the Academy of Italian cuisine mandated that in order for pasta to be designated true tagliatelle, the width of the cooked strand must measure 1/1,270th of the height of Bologna’s Asinelli tower. What Umbrian farmer has time for such nit-picking?

It may be frippery, but it does suggest how seriously the Bolognese take the details of their cuisine. For instance, the pasta is far yellower than I’m used to because it is enriched with egg yolks (rather than the more practical use of whole eggs in Umbria). This doesn’t sound interesting until you taste it and wonder how pasta can possibly be so light. That light pasta is often filled or layered, leading to a bounty of flavors. We posit the green pasta is actually made from nettle, which leads to a clean tasting pasta with almost lemon-notes, unlike our green pasta in the states which is usually spinach, and therefore heavy and a little metallic.

Here’s the easiest way I can say it. On our first day in Bologna I ordered the iconic tagliatelle al ragu (the sauce is what you may think of as Bolognese, but in Bologna, it’s just ragu). I put one bite in my mouth, then put my fork down and sat back with my eyes closed. Finally I opened my eyes and said, “THAT’S what it’s supposed to taste like.” I’d never known. I had always heard that sauce is secondary to pasta, but that hadn’t made sense to me. I’d heard the sauce should be not very liquid, and that hadn’t made sense to me. Until I ate the pasta and sauce together in Bologna. The pasta was so delicate, so tender that it would have been suffocated by a pour-over of sauce. The sauce itself was creamy, savory, hitting every single taste note. The pasta and sauce propelled each other.

Bliss.

One other food note before I allow my sense of propriety to drag me away from this most interesting of topics. Bologna is in a region known for its cured meats (prosciutto is from the region, and Bologna itself is famous for mortadella and a special—and difficult to import—variant of prosciutto called culatello), and so in true Bologna fashion they’ve invented elegant ways to showcase their specialty. Two such are gnocco fritto and tigelle. Gnoccho fritto are like pillows of fried dough. If you’ve read Il Bel Centro, you may remember this as the fried dough that Nicolas’s best friend’s family made for us, to be wrapped in prosciutto. The Bolognese version is shaped more like a ravioli, so they really do look like little fluffy fried pillows. You take your gnocco and you plunk your choice of meat atop it and scarf it down. The light shatter of the gnocco against the silky meat is exquisite.

An alternative is tigelle, which are like Italian English muffins cooked in a decorative iron that browns an elegant pattern on the top. Break them open and fill with some of that cured meat and a dab of squaquerone cheese (I’ve yet to find this in the States, I think it’s shelf life is too short to import, but it’s like a cross between crème fraiche and mascarpone…I use a fresh goat cheese at home to substitute), it’s creamy, savory, with a little tang from the cheese.

Alternatively, you can fill tigelle with pesto alla modenese (also known as cunza) which is not what you think of when think of pesto. No nuts, no basil, no oil. Pesto alla modenese is chopped pork fat with salt and garlic and sometimes Parmesan and rosemary.  That may sound weird, but I’m a girl who loves her lardo, so to me this was incredible (in fact, I loved it so much I scoured websites when I got home to figure out how to make tigelle and pesto—divine, I’ll post the recipe for both if there’s interest). Both gnocco fritto and tigelle go down beautifully with a nice, cold Lambrusco. Which, incidentally, is a wine I’ve never liked but wound up adoring in Bologna. I’m beginning to suspect that like culatello, it doesn’t transport well. In Bologna, Lambrusco’s slightly sweet and chilled bubbles cut through the fat of the cured meats.

Final food note. You thought I was done. Nope! Bologna has a vibrant aperitivo culture…. Everywhere you go, you’ll notice tables out and people sipping Aperol spritzes or negronis or even just prosecco while they nibble on the treats that are provided free with drinks. Some places you could practically make a meal from those nibbles, which is great if you overindulged at lunchtime. Not that I would ever do such a thing.

Finally, “la rossa,” or the red. This one is layered. It’s partly referencing the widespread use of brick, partly for Bologna’s communist leanings, and partly for its use of warm hued tones. The city is a constant sunset, glowing and blushing and soothing away the sun’s hot rays. The curtains are all red drapes. I won’t tell you how I know this, but napping in a room with drawn red drapes after a meal of pumpkin ravioli is pretty extraordinary.

In my next post, I’ll share with you my recommended walking tours of Bologna. We were there for five days, which was just barely long enough. A week would be better so we could have walked through the Portico San Luca that runs 3.5 kilometers into the hills and also have found Santa Maria della Vita available for touring, as I’ve heard astonishing things about lifesize terra cotta art installation. Frankly, I’d happily stay in Bologna forever if someone wanted to spot me their apartment. Anybody? Anybody?

(Sigh.)

Slideshow note: We stayed in Bologna while Siena, our 16-year-old was at language school in Arezzo. You can read about that here, but that’s why she’s not pictured…