In Italy, Bologna is known for its food, and is endearingly as ‘La Grassa’ – the fat one – due to it’s famous cuisine. (which is often full of pork fat!)
Strangely enough, outside of Italy, or even the region of Emilia-Romagna, most of the Bolognese specialties are little known. Yes, we’ve all heard of Bolognese sauce…but this is more myth than reality as you’ll soon find out.
To taste for yourself all that Bologna has to offer, not only in its food, but also the city’s monumental contribution to science, art and culture join us on our Best of Bologna – Wine, History & Food Tour! (See how we sandwiched the history between wine and food? – There’ll be no parched lips of grumbling bellies on this trip!
Meanwhile, read on to discover the best of Bologna’s food, which we hope you’ll get to taste even if you can’t pronounce them all!
Although more a Modenese tradition, given their proximity Tigelle abound in Bologna. They’re name comes from baked clay disks Appenine farmers used to cook dough balls on over the fire.
The breads themselves were called ‘Crescentine’ another name still used for tigelle. The clay bowls were sometimes decorated with an engraving and today you’ll often find them with flower patterns from the grill-pans used.
They are a great aperitivo snack with a glass of Pignoletto- as you’ll see on our Best of Bologna: Wine, History & Food Tour – and can be stuff with anything from sliced meats to cream cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes…. and even Nutella if you fancy something sweet!
Mortadella is a large fragrant Italian salami made from finely ground pork meat with 15% chunks of white pork fat. It is typically seasoned with salt, pepper, pistachios and sugar, blended so the meat absorbs their flavours.
The name ‘Mortadella’ comes from the diminuitive of ‘myrtle’ a plant with berries once thought to be used as seasoning – the latin being ‘murtatum’ and Italian, ‘mirto’.
Wondering what to put inside your tigella? Try a couple of slices of Mortadella!
These little parcels are very tiny, stuffed with ground meat and served – wait for it – in broth! It may take some getting used to but a warming bowl of steaming meat water filled, ‘brodo’ with tasty floating tortellini can be very hearty, and is a staple dish in Bologna.
If you don’t want to miss out on the typical stuffed pasta of Bologna but don’t eat meat – you can go for the equally tasty tortelloni! The ending ‘oni’ on an Italian word informs us it is a larger version. ‘ini’ on the other hand, is a diminuitive and means small.
So you’ll see that these little parcels are a bigger version of the tortellini. This are typically stuffed with ricotta, sometimes with spinach, or – my favourite – ‘ la zucca gialla‘, butternut squash! You can also notice that the root of these names ‘torta’ is the Italian for cake! While they’re certainly not anywhere close to being a dessert, you can see how how since they’re stuffed they can seem like little cakes, or it’s possible the form resembled a sweet pastry!
A piadina is a flat bread eaten in Bologna – the closest thing you might find to a sandwich. The piadina is not, as it looks, simply a tortilla wrap…and like most things in Bologna, usually contains pork fat known as ‘strutto’. Vegetarians watch out!
Heated on a hot pan it can get a little crunchy as it warms up which makes it better for folding – as opposed to rolling like a ‘wrap’. As with tigelle, you can fill it with any range of fillings, but most common is a soft white cheese called….
Squacquerone is one of my favourite things to say in Italian! In fact you might notice ‘acqua’ in the middle of the name which in Romagnolo dialect refers to the creamy nature of the cheese due to the presence of water.
This creamy, melty, dreamy cheese can be dolloped on anything from your pizza to your piadina to your tigella, and compliments salty meats or sundried tomatoes perfectly. You’ll often find wads of verdant rucola or lambs lettuce tucked inside too!
7. Ragù - "Bolognese"
Everyone’s heard of Spaghetti Bolognese – but few have heard of it’s real original name – ‘Ragù’. usually served with tagliatelle – a fresh flat pasta made with eggs.
While the idea – a sauce made with minced meat and vegetables – is the same, the result and methods of cooking are worlds apart. Once you’ve tried the real ragù in Bologna you’ll understand how what we call ‘Bolognese’ doesn’t merit the name of the city of food ‘Bologna’!
The first documented recipe of Ragù was found in an 18th Century manuscript by Alberto Alvisi, a cook for the then Cardinal of Imola. It suggested a mix of beef, veal shoulder, pork loin, or poultry giblets, browned in butter with onions, seasoned with cinnamon and black pepper before being coated in flour and covered with meat stock. This ragù was served with penne pasta – not a tomato in sight!
Even this recipe is a long way from the accepted meat sauce found and loved in Bologna today. The Accademia Italiana della Cucina – ‘the Italian Academy of Cooking’ – who we’ll take as an authority on the matter, records the recipe you’ll find in the streets and homes of Bologna today.
Firstly, allow yourself a few hours, for the meat to really stew and soften – this isn’t a dishto make in a hurry!
To start with carrot and celery are chopped very finely and sautéed in olive oil. They give the flavour but don’t form a tangible part of the ‘sauce’ – which in Italy should not be a sauce at all!
Then it is fundamental to use at least 2 types of meat, some kind of pork meat, such as belly and beef usually, roughly chopped fresh from the butcher- not processed as we’re used to finding.
The ‘sauce’ is added using red wine, sometimes a little milk and concentrated tomato. Don’t use peeled or canned tomatoes as they are full of water and this bolognese sauce is not liquidy but rich and intense!
Passatelli are a little bizarre looking – and perhaps not the most appetizing of things. I remember coming back very late one evening from teaching in the Bolognese countryside and stopping to get something to cook back home in an alimentari. Somehow I was coaxed into taking a bag of freshly made these home with me, although I’m not sure what I did with them when I did get to the kitchen is strictly traditional!
Passatelli differ from pasta because they are made from bread crumbs as well as flour which give them their funny, rough appearance. They are also served in a broth, like tortellini, and sometimes lightly seasoned with cinnamon or lemon.
Last but not least, no trip to Italy is complete without plenty of wine, and Bologna is no exception. What is a little exceptional here though is sparkling red wine. Yes – that’s right! Leave that prosecco in Venice and toast with the pink bubbles of Bologna!
Lambrusco has a long past and is one of the oldest wines, with evidence that the Etruscans were making it! It used to grow in the wildly in the hedgerows: the Romans called it ‘labrusca’ from the latin ‘labrun’ – edge and ‘ruscum’ – wild.
It’s not to everyone’s taste, but it can be found in all ranges from sweet to dry and once you’re used to it is definitely a Bologna highlight to enjoy!