Updated: Oct 21, 2021
Thoughts on Italy often lead us to Rome and Venice, perhaps to Verona or Sicily, but it would rarely be the first choice to travel to Bologna. True gastro-nomads should still know this medieval beauty, which is known all over Italy as “Bologna La Grassa” – the Fat Bologna. No wonder, as Bologna is also the capital of the Emilia Romagna region, which is widely known for the gastronomic delicacies that have made the Italian cuisine famous in all parts of the world. Emilia-Romagna, as its name suggests, consists of two parts: in the West is a prosperous Emilia province, which follows the ancient Roman road Via Emilia, while the eastern part of Romagna is a region that reaches to the Adriatic Sea, whose beaches are known around beautiful towns of Ravenna and Rimini. From this region many famous Italian foods arrive: from the city of Modena comes a far-known traditional wine vinegar acetto balsamico, as well as Cotechino, a pork sausage stuffed with seasoned mince and paired with lentils and mashed potatoes; from Bologna arrives the famous Mortadella; from Parma ham and excellent Trippa alla Parmigiano (slow-cooked tripe in a tomato sauce enlivened with Parmesan); from Piacenza salamis and Anolini in brodo (pasta pockets filled with meat, Parmesan and breadcrumbs swimming in a rich brothlike soup). Ravenna will thrill you with its Piadina, thick unleavened bread stuffed with rocket, tomato and local soft squacquerone cheese, while Rimini offers beautiful fish brodetto. And Parmesan comes from this Italian region. All in all, Emilia Romagna is the centre of Italian flavours! A word of advice – spaghetti Bolognese has nothing to do with Bologna; the name probably stayed after the misquote from the American and British soldiers in the Second World War. Bologna is place for tagliatelle and ragout!
Bologna is not only a place of good rest and rich flavours but is also the seat of the oldest university in Europe. It was founded here in 1088, and in the modern understanding of the university, it is the oldest in the world. I visited this town in midst of winter, while it is quite cold there but it gives a tremendous opportunity to dwell deeper into the gastronomic heritages. The connection between continental and Mediterranean climate, rich economic development, intellectual headquarters and the same distance from Rome, Milan and Venice are the greatest advantages of this city. For many visitors, the old town is unusually small but enthralled with its architecture and life. There are no large buildings or famous and striking places in Bologna. Bologna is recognizable by its high fortifications, and until today it has held 20 of the 180 towers that defended the city in the 12th and 13th centuries. Its towers do not stand at a special height, though the Two Towers (Due Torri, Asinelli and Garisenda) are a special sign of the city. But, as in all other places, the greatest acquaintance of Bologna is among the citizens and numerous students from all over the world. The whole old town is characterized by vaults in the old streets. Elegant and wide, these vaults stretch to 38 kilometres across the old town, and below them there are shops, restaurants, numerous cafes. On the large squares there are old churches, including the imposing Basilica of St. Peter, one of the largest basilicas in the world. St. Petronius is the patron saint of the city and its character, with its bishop's staff and the Bologna model in his hands, can be seen everywhere. Bologna is also known as the city where Dominic Guzman, the founder of the Dominican Order, died, and one of the most beautiful churches in the old town is the Basilica and the shrine of Saint Dominic.
Visitors to Bologna can enjoy the many museums of the city, from the Pinacoteque based on the paintings of Renaissance and Baroque Bologna, through the Medieval Museum, to the Museum of Italian Ice Cream and the Toy Museum. But those who came to Bologna for gastronomic pleasure should not miss the so-called "Museums of taste”. There are 19 museums in the whole region, which represent food and wine of exceptional cultural and historical significance. They find answers to how the vineyard is made and what significance has wine for our civilization; how to make cheese and what social values derive from it; how to squeeze olive oil or how to achieve the perfect taste of salami, liqueur and fruit spreads. In the very heart of Bologna, the Museum of Potatoes, which describes the way of this American produce in Italy, as well as the processing and technology used in potato flavours around Bologna. There is also a Chestnut Museum, dedicated to the so-called “food for the poor” but also a special type of maroon that is grown in the area of Castel del Rio near Imola, which raised the generations of peasants of that area and left traces in the traditional pastry of Bologna, pinza. This pinza will often be on offer at many restaurants and taverns in Bologna, and cannot be a mistake if it is taken instead of, for example, ubiquitous and well-known tiramisu.
In Bologna is also the Enacoteca di Dozza, regional wine cellar of Emilia Romagna. The region with its valleys and mild bushes is ideal for wine growing. When visiting this museum, located in an old patrician house, you can also taste the indigenous wines of the region, including Sangiovese, Lambrusco, Cagnina, Colli Piacentini and Trebbiano. Lambrusco is a sparkling sweet wine from Emilia, but the local variant is a dry wine that blends well with a rich pastry. On the other hand, the most famous wine of Romagna is Sangiovese, a robust red wine with an exquisite fruity flavour, and a little more effort has to be made with its excellent bouquets and tastes of younger wines. The wines of this region are repetitive, lively and young, just like the life of Bologna.
Apart from wines, the Bolognese dining room cannot be without the "king of all cheeses", Parmesan. It is one of the world's oldest cheeses since it started producing eight centuries ago, with the same ingredients, the same techniques and the same preservation system as it is today. It matures for at least 12 months, but to achieve its full flavour it takes 24 months. It is made exclusively in the vicinity of Parma, and consists of raw milk and natural ingredients - 16 litres of milk is needed for one kilogram of Parmesan cheese. Small slices of this cheese is an excellent appetizer, especially if a few drops of traditional vinegar and fresh celery and tomatoes are added. But the whole world already knows that grated parmesan is served as a pasta additive. In addition to the Parmesan, the Il Fossa cheese is famous too. It is produces in the village of Sogliano al Rubicone probably since the Middle Ages. This cheese matures in special underground deposits.
If you have time, be sure to visit museums in Parma. Here are the Parma Ham Museum, the Salamis di Felino Museum, the Parmesan Museum and the Tomato Museum. In Parma is a famous saying: Il maiale e' come la musica di Verdi: tutto buono, niente da buttar via (the pork is like Verdi's music: everything is good, nothing has to be thrown away). Indeed, the pork is the key food in Emilia Romagna, from prosciutto in Parma to Pancetta in Piacenza, and the culmination of the taste is the famous Bolognese mortadella, which is made from minced pork, pork fat, and sometimes with pistachios. For slightly lighter meals, one can reach the Adriatic coast and taste the famous Romagna brodettos. Brodettos are not just made of fish, but often of shells.
Polenta, gnocchi and rice are a traditional base for the Bolognese diet, but more recently, fresh pasta is served more and more. In this region, people are enthralled with tagliatelle, served with ragout. There are infinitely many variations, and each place claims to have a special ragout characteristic only to their neighbourhood. In Bologna specialty is green lasagne (Lasagne verdi), a layered pasta that is made with spinach, meat sauce and bechamel. When Bolognese people combine ragout, cheese, bread crumbs and sometimes white truffles, a pie blend is made known as the pasticcio di tortellini.
In addition, in Modena there is a Museum of Traditional Balsamico, the Togell Museum and the Borlengo Laboratory, in Ravenna Botanical Garden of A. Rinaldi Ceroni, the A. Bonvicini Fruit Museum, the Salt Museum, the Olive Oil Museum, the Ferrari Bread Museum, the Eagles Museum, and in Forlì Fossa Pelegrini and Casa Artusi cheese factory.
This immense wealth of gastronomy in Emilia Romagna deservedly ends with desserts based on fresh fruit. Quince, forest fruits and pears are specially represented, but there are also delicious recipes for sweet pasta, roasted cakes, pies. Ferrara offers its apple cake, and Bologna is proud with cerotosina, a cake enriched with spices. Modena is spreading its lemon pie tastes, and when the sweet bread is baked with raisins and nuts, the Piada dei Morti comes alive.