When we started planning to go back to Italy, we looked at our long (and lengthening) list of places we really wanted to visit but hadn't yet seen. Top on our "need to go there" list for Italy was Bologna. Why? Because we'd heard from at least a half-dozen people that Bologna was not only a "hidden gem" but it's also the food capital of Italy.
And, when you consider that Bologna is the food capital of Italy, and Italy is the food capital of everywhere else, that pretty much means that we simply had to go to Italy.
Bologna did not disappoint. First of all, it's beautiful and charming. It's home to the oldest university in Europe, most of the sidewalks are covered by porticos, and it's got an incredible town square, and lots of fantastic old churches.
And the food. Oh, the food!
What to Eat.
Bologna is known for a few things in particular. First off, is the mortadella. It's a long way from Oscar Meyer Bologna, though you might notice a slight similarity in texture. But it's sliced very thinly, and often with pistachios or peppercorns embedded. And it's incredible.
Bologna is also world-famous for Bolognese--the tomato meat sauce that is most frequently served with pappardelle or tagliatelle. At least, in Bologna, that's how you'll find it. Here in America, you might just think of it as "spaghetti with meat sauce." But in Bologna, it's "Bolognese," and it's nothing like garden variety meat sauce.
Tortellini is also a big thing in Bologna. Specifically "Tortellini en Brodo"--tortellini in broth. So, just know this is actually a big dish at Christmas. We did get a bit of a sideways look from our server when we ordered it in the middle of May, but hey--you put it on the menu and it's traditional to this part of Italy, so we're not going to skip it. Stop rolling your eyes!
Bologna is also very near two other towns with significant food legacies. Modena (or, as I like to call it, the Funky Cold Modena) is where balsamic vinegar originates, and a little further up the road toward Milan, you'll find Parma, which is known for its incredible prosciutto, as well as parmesan cheese. If you want the real deal, before you start your meal, order the salumi, and you'll get an assortment of cured meats that will almost certainly include mortadella and parma ham, along with other local delicacies like guanciale.
Where to Find It.
One of the things that always frustrates us about being on vacation is that we wind up wandering around all of these incredible food markets, and yet, since we don't live there, we don't really have the opportunity to buy groceries to make amazing meals with local ingredients.
Well, if you think like we do, you're just going to have to make your peace with the fact that Bologna will be mildly frustrating. But that's no reason to ignore the incredible markets and food shops.
Where to Eat.
We had more than a few incredible meals in Bologna, but we'd like to give a shout-out to a few of our favorites.
Ristorante Da Cesari
We arrived early, and without a reservation, and oh, man, oh, man did we luck out to get a table! This is a classic, straight-up-the-middle old-school Bolognese restaurant. All of the classics are on the menu, and all of the classics are done exceptionally well. The place has been run by the same family for decades, so if, walking into the place, you feel like you'll be eating at a restaurant run by someone's Italian grandparents, it's because you're going to be eating at a restaurant run by someone's Italian grandparents. Via de' Carbonesi, 8. website.
Sette Tavoli Bottigliaria con Cucina is a tiny restaurant. Sette tavoli is Italian for "seven tables," and that's all they've got, unless the weather will allow you to eat outside on the sidewalk, beneath one of those iconic porticos, in which case, the size of the restaurant doubles. This is more of an upscale, but affordable foodie choice in Bologna. The ingredients are seasonal and local, and the preparation focuses on different regions of Italy, as the menu changes. You can order one of the chef's tasting menus, which we did, and were delighted by the fact that as long as everyone at the table orders a tasting menu, one of you can get the "land" tasting menu, and the other can order the seafood menu. The wine list is formidable and affordable, and the staff knows their stuff, so don't hesitate to let them choose for you. Via Cartoleria 15/2 website.
If you're looking for a quick meal, and you want no-frills deliciousness, you should check out Bottega Portici. It's essentially a food shop with a few tables upstairs, including a balcony that overlooks the piazza and Bologna's leaning tower. You can order salumi or fresh pasta at the counter and they'll buzz you when it's ready to take upstairs. They make all of the pasta on site, and it's absolutely yummy. Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, 2. website.
Okay, are you convinced that you need to visit Bologna? Because if you're not yet sold on the proposition of spending at least a few days there, click that button at the bottom of this post, send us a note, and we'll try to convince you further. Because this is the one time in your life that you'll want to be full of Bologna.