By Jim Ferri
Bologna doesn’t have ruins as grand as Rome’s, picturesque canals as beautiful as Venice’s, or the great artistic wealth flaunted in Florence.
What it does have though, is food…wonderful, delicious, glorious food…for many the best in Italy, the reason Bologna is known as La Grassa or “The Fat One.”
I set off for Bologna to learn about its food, see its ancient markets and, perhaps, have a bite or two along the way. Desiring to be educated by one close to the source, I contacted Marcello Tori of Bluone – Wine and Cooking Tours in Italy. The company is located in Bologna and is the same organization that organized the truffle hunt I was on earlier (see Truffle Hunting in Italy).
Off to the Market
I started my quest on a rainy morning on the Piazza Maggiore, the city’s main square, where I joinied Raffaella, Marcello’s wife. She wasted no time whisking me along with a young couple from Pittsburgh into the Quadrilatero market area behind the Piazza, where we soon came to the 100+-year old Paolo Atti & Figli on Via Caprarie. There Raffaella began her cultivation of our knowledge of pasta.
She showed us pre-baked lasagna, using it as a prop to explain the importance of it in Bolognese cuisine and also how it’s made with different layers including béchamel sauce. Inside the old-fashioned shop we found walls and shelves filled with pasta and two clerks waiting on local patrons. Standing in the old store I felt I could have been standing in the exact spot a century ago.
One of Bologna’s Most Famous Food Stores
After awhile we were out the door, continuing along Via Caprarie to A. F. Tamburini, one of the city’s most famous food stores, which was founded in 1932. At first I thought it was mainly a butcher and cheese shop, and then saw they had quite a bit of pasta as well.
As Raffaella discussed things with the couple from Pittsburgh I roamed about and quickly realized the place was a lot larger than I first thought. In the rear there was an oven in which meats were roasted and an area that seemed to be a small cafeteria with many tables where one could sit and eat.
When we exited the store we ran into an Australia couple that had been on the truffle hunt with us the day before. As we chatted they told me this was the place they had raved about to me, where they had an incredible lunch. I instantly decided I’d return after the tour.
The Food Stalls in the Old, Medieval Center
We made a quick stop for a welcomed late-morning coffee at Eataly before continuing on up Via Drapperie. Part way along we stopped briefly in a little shop selling wines and aperitivos before continuing onto two fish shops, both doing a very brisk business. It was amazing to see the mix of people in the fish stalls in the medieval alleyway, with dress ranging from very casual to business suits.
We wandered down several more streets, pausing at various vegetable stalls and then a Macelleria Equina, a horsemeat butcher. As we meandered through the market Raffaella explained that there are other market areas spread out about the city that are cheaper but the Quadrilatero is the only place where everything of high quality is brought together in one spot. The number and variety of foodstuffs all around was nearly overwhelming.
At the end of the tour Raffaella wanted me to return with her and the other couple to her home to cook the things she had bought on our market foray. I had to decline, however, since I had to meet someone in a bit over an hour.
After bidding everyone Ciao, I headed back to Tamburini for a quick lunch.
Lunch at Tamburini
When I arrived the little cafeteria in the rear was in high gear. There was a line of people, mostly Bolognese, giving their orders to the counter-person who was dishing out good-sized portions.
There were many things to choose from including various pastas, salads and some meat dishes. If requested they would also bring special plates of meats (prosciutto and others) to your table straight from the butcher shop.
I opted for a large serving of Tortollini, which along with a half bottle of good Chianti Classico came to €15.50 (about $21). It was a great experience and while eating I realized that my tour with Raffaella, learning about different pastas, meats and cheeses, had greatly enhanced my dining experience.
The food was delicious and the place had all the charm of old Italy, just what I’d come to Bologna to experience. Interestingly, although one would expect Tamburini to attract a lot of students and tourists, its patrons were mostly adult Bolognese.
A Quick Afternoon Tour
After lunch I was off to the tourist office to meet Giorgia Zabbini whom I had met several years earlier at a trade show. When I had told her I would be making a short visit to Bologna for a market tour she offered to also give me a tour of places she felt were also special, and that I likely wouldn’t see otherwise. Who could refuse such an offer?
After I met her at the tourist office she immediately had us off to Osteria del Sole, the oldest tavern in Bologna dating from 1465. “You’d have a hard time finding it unless you knew where it was since there’s no sign outside advertising it,” she said. She was right; when we arrived after a few minutes walk all I saw was a little sign over the non-descript door saying “Vino.”
The inside, with its wooden tables and faded photos on the walls, looked more like an old social club. Its little bar (“they only serve wine, not water or Coca-Cola,” Giorgia told me) offers about 20 different wines either by the glass or by the bottle. At one table a smart couple was having an impromptu picnic with food bought in the marketplace, while all around them groups of men sat drinking and talking.
Bologna’s Chocolate Fantastico
We were then off to Zanarina, the premier chocolate gourmet store and bar in Bologna. I’ve been in many chocolate shops but had never seen anything quite like this.
Inside was an incredible array of things made of chocolate including a replica of one of Bologna’s famous towers, chocolate iPhones and Nanos and everything else. Off to the side was an aperitivo bar, something “almost sacred to the Bolognese,” said Giorgia.
Our final stop was at the Chamber of Commerce building where in a safe they keep a piece of Tagliatelle in gold, which shows the exact size the pasta must be to be authentic. We weren’t allowed inside, unfortunately, but Giorgia was able to provide me with the official Chamber booklet of Bolognese recipes “The Old Market – a travel through tortellini, tagliatelle and much more.”
While returning to her office she told me she also had to give me two other pieces of information about Bologna.
“It is important to remember,” she said, “spaghetti Bolognese does not exist – it is tagliatelle Bolognese.”
And the other important thing I should remember?
“One never has cappuccino after 10 o’clock in the morning.”
If you go:
Bluone – Wine & Cooking Tours in Italy
Via Parigi, 11
40121 Bologna, Italy
Tel: (+39) 051 263546
Tel: (888) 438-RAIL (7245)
Paolo Atti & Figli
Via Caprarie, 7
40124 Bologna, Italy
Tel: +39 051 220425
Via Caprarie, 1
Tel: +39 051 234726
Osteria del Sole