The new order We meet the Bolognese chefs putting a modern spin on the city’s cuisine
While Bologna’s culinary scene is still rooted in the classic pasta dishes of northern Italy, a new generation of chefs is taking a more contemporary approach, discovering ways to further enhance the cuisine that defines the country
Bologna is the proverbial land of plenty, where locals rest on top of mountains made from Parmigiano Reggiano shavings, tumbling pasta down for the masses to enjoy – or so claimed Giovanni Boccaccio in The Decameron, which he penned between 1349 and 1353. The capital of the region of Emilia-Romagna has since gained many guises – La Dotta (the learned one), La Rossa (the red, for its left-wing politics and terracotta rooftops) and, perhaps most appropriate, La Grassa (the fat lady). A dynamic counterpoint to the likes of Rome and Florence, dishes in this friendly city are large and luscious, with many of Italy’s culinary heavyweights – tortellini, tagliatelle al ragu, mortadella, and lasagne alla Bolognese – originating and at their finest here. The merger of Mediterranean and northern European traditions make this Italy’s cradle of classic cooking, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar flanked by fresh pasta, cheese and meats. But while the classics still have pride of place, a new wave of cooking has been infiltrating the dining scene, with restaurateur Lorenzo Costa illuminating the path.
Oltre, close to the lively Mercato delle Erbe, appears more akin to a record shop than a restaurant, its black painted door a canvas for copious colourful stickers collected from across the globe. Inside, Costa is perched on a pink velvet bench. ‘We have strong food traditions,’ he says with a shrug. ‘Eighty per cent of people here want these plates: they eat and cook what they know and love. Of course, we can’t destroy those traditions, it’s part of our history and only right that we pay homage to that. However, we have to innovate and use modern techniques to produce refined food where you can taste every single ingredient.’ Here, dishes dance happily between traditional trattoria and contemporary: fresh tortellini and tagliatelle rolled by Bologna-born sisters Daniela and Monica Zappoli from nearby pocket-sized artisanal laboratory Le Sfogline (you can also buy pasta from them to take home) sit alongside semolina cookies sandwiched together with creamy, salty cheese, rolled in crumbled hazelnuts and pepped up with drops of balsamic vinegar. ‘My chefs and I are curious about the flavours of other countries – we want and need to take Bologna into Europe.’
Europe’s oldest university town (it was founded in 1088) has been a refuge for intellectuals and creative types since Dante, Copernicus and Carducci passed through from the 15th century. While cultural capitals have a penchant for becoming stagnant with time, the constant stream of young people pulsing through Bologna has kept the city lively. Come evening, cafés are bustling with those having aperitivo, an Aperol spritz in hand, while music plays on almost every corner. Head to Giardini Margherita, named after the wife of King Umberto I and the most popular and largest park in the city, and follow the shady avenues lined with trees until you reach an enchanting greenhouse complete with hanging succulents and surrounded by vegetable patches and rustic tables. Inside, a hugely cool vegetarian restaurant-cumworking space, Vetro with an emphasis on sustainability gives a glimpse into the changes happening on the food scene here.
Hedonistic pleasures can be found in Bologna’s thriving markets: Mercato delle Erbe,
the historic indoor market used by locals, Mercato della Terra farmers’ market (complete with loud music, dancing and sprawling tables for aperitivo), Mercato di Mezzo, and the labyrinth of medieval cobblestone walkways known as Quadrilatero, where market stalls spill out onto the street offering a bounty of fruit and vegetables piled into colourful pyramids, fresh fish laid out on crates, and wedges of parmesan in epic proportions. However, it’s worth delving into the Aladdin’s caves that are their delis. Tamburini opened in 1932 and is a mecca for vast swinging hams and pungent cheeses; Drogheria Gilberto boasts a selection of 8-, 12- and 25-year-old balsamic vinegars and beautifully packaged Majani chocolate; Paolo Atti & Figli are justly lauded for their tortellini – locals joke that the secret to their perfect pasta is rolling it out thin enough that you can see San Luca through the light yellow dough – and sweets including torta Bolognesi di tagliatelle (a classic Emilia frangipane tart topped with tagliatelle), rice cakes and mini pesche cakes steeped in sweet Alchermes liqueur.
If you hadn’t gathered, the people of this gastronomically wealthy region are quite particular about their food – and with good reason. Pigro, a hole in the wall off the main Maggiore square, is a shrine to the mortadella sandwich. Satirical artwork and pictures of David Bowie and The Clash dominate this small and quirky space, but don’t let the sign emblazoned with the words ‘I don’t have a menu. No coffee. No bathroom. I don’t take advice. No Wi-Fi. No Wi-Fi talk’ deter you. Owner Luca Spuri Zampetti, who looks like an Eighties rock star, decides when to open and close, and refuses to serve anything other than sparkling wine or beer to pair with his famed street-food offering. ‘I don’t believe in water, it makes you crusty,’ he says mischievously before adding, ‘mortadella is quite greasy, so you do need something to cut through that and cleanse your palate’. While Zampetti refuses to reveal the secret to his recipe (it’s all in the spicing apparently), he emphasises some key rules for panino greatness: ‘Use a lot of thinly cut slices of mortadella, and always play rock music when eating.’
Chefs would rightly argue that Bologna is one of the world’s greatest gastronomic gifts, and none as much as local legend Anna Maria – as one regular puts it, a meal at her restaurant is ‘like going to granny’s’. Outside the traditional trattoria in the university district is a red chair with a sign reading, ‘Throne reserved for Anna Maria, the queen of tagliatelle’. Serving the Bolognese the food they revere since 1985, the genial patron shows no sign of slowing down.
‘I love everything about the food of this city. When you eat well, you are open to good things – when you go out with a handsome man, if you don’t eat well, then he’s no longer so handsome,’ Anna Maria says. Her tortelloni and passatelli (made from parmesan) in the ubiquitous broth everyone should try are the stuff of local legend. Anna Maria can still be found in the kitchen every day. ‘These are the dishes my family would make on a Sunday when I was a child, but why shouldn’t we have them every day?’ she adds.
Bologna’s food culture has survived untouched for centuries, where the lasagne is green, spaghetti Bolognese is a myth (it’s all about the ragu) and, when it comes to eating, sometimes more really is more. While the city has an authenticity that’s impossible to fake, a handful of young chefs are breathing new life into plates, while protecting those foods that have been carefully perfected over the course of time.
This page: exploring someof Bologna’s historic archedcolonades. Opposite page: a bird’s eye view of the Italian city’s terracotta roofs
This page, from top: Oltre co-owners Daniele Bendanti (left) and Lorenzo Costa;a cocktail bar at agri-food park FICO. Opposite page, clockwise from top left: Tamburini deli; Ragù’s lemon creamcrostata; cards from happy customers; chef Marco Munari; a Ragù panini; shoppers outside the restaurant and takeaway; dessert at Oltre; passatelli in broth at Ragù; Oltre’s dining room; a Ragùpanna cotta; street food; lunch on the go
This page, from top: sun-dappled porticoes; a Unesco-listed street. Opposite page, clockwise from top left: the Archiginnasio building, detail; aperitivo; Bolognese architecture; exploring by bike; the Garisenda tower; bread for sale; the Fountain of Neptune; a shortcut; porticoes; the Canale delle Moline; a trattoria stop; café culture
This page, from top: alfresco dining at Osteria Bartolini; tortellini at Paolo Atti & Figli. Opposite page, clockwise from top left: spritz time; cocktail hour; dining at Le Stanze; cured meat with bread and cheese; preserves for sale at Drogheria Gilberto; Trattoria Anna Maria; chef Andrea Serra; tortellini broth; a sfoglina at work; the entrance to Pigro, famed for its mortadella; traditionally ring shaped, tortellini are supposedly inspired by Venus’s navel; an assistant holds a round of parmesan in La Baita deli