I woke to sun and the promise of a good day for my first proper exploration of Bologna. After breakfast I went to talk to the lovely Monica at reception who has been so helpful. She told me it was a national holiday today – May Day – and she was concerned that I would find many places closed. Well, there was nothing I could do about it so I would just go and see. Monica gave me a better map than the one I had and marked off the Quadrilatero district that runs off the East side of Piazza Maggiore and is famous for its food shops and cafes. We talked food for a while: where I’d eaten yesterday in Modena, another excellent and famous restaurant in Imola she had been to; she told me about a food guide, Alessandro, who I might enjoy doing a tour with another time I was here; and she told me where she buys her mortadella mousse, a version of which I had at Osteria Francescana yesterday. I’m really going to have to come back because three days just isn’t long enough!
I think I have fallen a little in love with Bologna, if one can fall in love with a city. Of course, as regular readers will know, I have a great weakness for all things Italian but there’s something about the accessibility and beauty of Bologna that is special. I’m still in awe – after a couple of days – of the beautiful long covered walkways that line many roads. It’s said there are 40km of them: gorgeous curves that stretch away into the distance or around bends; honey and pink coloured marble; some ceilings covered in beautiful frescoes.
The city is sometimes known as La citta rossa – the red city – because of its colourful and scorched terracotta buildings. The ‘red’ also reflects its left-wing political history. It has always been a progressive city and is home to the oldest university in the western world.
But of course it has to be admitted that The Single Gourmet Traveller really came for the food. Even if you’re not much of a foodie you have to know that Bologna is one of the world’s food destinations, even if it’s only because everyone has heard of Spaghetti Bolognese. But you would be advised not to mention this ubiquitous dish to a Bolognese. You won’t find it on a menu here. You will find tagliatelle with ragu but you won’t find ragu (a meat sauce) served with spaghetti. For the Italian, spaghetti is simply the wrong shape for a ragu! Such things matter here. And at shops like Paolo Atti & Figli they will even cut their homemade pasta to the size you want, depending on what you are cooking. This is why pasta comes in all shapes and sizes: it’s about the perfect match between pasta and sauce.
The true pasta highlight in Bolgona is tortellini. Its navel shape is said by some to represent Bologna being the navel of Emilgia-Romagna, the gastronomic belly of Italy. Others say the shape represents Venus’s navel. Whatever the truth, you will find tortellini everywhere, most popularly cooked and served in broth made from a capon.
You will also see mortadella everywhere: that sweetish pork sausage flavoured with pistachios and other things, and it is traditionally used in the meat filling for tortellini in Bologna. Just a few doors down the road from Atti there is another famous deli: Tamburini. You can buy wonderful food or eat at the back.
All the Italians I know take food very seriously. They are very knowledgeable and will differentiate between similar food from different regions. But food is so much part of the people of Bologna that the city is nicknamed La Grassa – the fat one.
I had a snack lunch and then went in search of one of Bologna’s best gelaterias – La Sorbetteria Castiglione. Here I indulged in a cup of three flavours – an overflowing cup that cost just €2.80. You couldn’t buy one scoop of good ice cream in London for that! It was truly wonderful ice cream.