THIS IS A FOOD ARTICLE! Continue at your own risk.
After Trieste and our day in Venice, we made our way to Bologna for the food. Many people we have met on our travels have mentioned how lovely Bologna Italy is and how much there is to do in the area. Hearing about a place from multiple people is a good enough reason for us to visit. Our expected three weeks didn’t turn out as planned, but we tried to make the most of our time there by trying as much of the food as possible.
The Food Capitol of Italy
Bologna didn’t arise as a stop for our tour of Italy until we visited friends in Grenoble in February, en route to Trois Vallées. Joe and Jane extolled the virtues of their native Bologna and pointed out its proximity to Parma (cheese and ham) and Modena (balsamic and horsey cars). Even Venice and Florence were viable day trips from Bologna.
As we traveled through lower Italy over the summer, we mentioned our plans to visit Bologna. Most everyone swooned over the thought; many people called it the Food Capitol of Italy. That’s a strong statement. The Reggio Emilia episode of Stanley Tucci’s seductive Searching For Italy series only heightened our interest. We were excited to arrive and we were not disappointed.
The Pasta in Bologna
Pasta is a major force in Italy and Bologna is its seat of power. We learned so much about pasta during our short time in this lovely town. Fresh pasta is everywhere, even if it doesn’t actually grow on trees. Styles range from simple spaghetti and fettuccini to stuffed ravioli and tortelloni to lasagna. All of it perfectly cooked, al dente. Not sorry for making your mouth water, it may get worse.
My friend Joe noted: “While many people like to prepare their own, there are a number of small, family-run pasta shops that are in the business of just making fresh pasta (to take home and cook). Sfoglina is the name of the ladies that make the pasta and comes from ‘sfoglia’, which is the name of the fresh dough before it’s turned into the actual pasta.” We took advantage of a sfoglina around the corner from our flat and their pasta was delicious.
I learned that sauce pairing matters. A chunky sauce like Bolognese should only go with unstuffed pasta, i.e. not ravioli or tortellini. For stuffed pasta, smoother sauces like marinara or perhaps just oil or herb butter are preferred. Warning, asking for grated cheese on top is sometimes considered insulting to the chef, who has prepared the dish as it is meant to be consumed.
Although jamón ibérico may be revered in Spain, we prefer the softer texture and milder flavor of prosciutto di Parma. It is produced in the province of Parma, about an hour by train from Bologna. There is a fabulous touristy food alley in Bologna, Via Pescherie Vecchie. Packed with shops and restaurants selling fresh pasta, cheese, and salumi. Walking down the alley, you see scores of patrons, us included, happily devouring plates of prosciutto and burrata followed by delectable pasta. I told you it would get worse.
Interestingly, Stanley related in his show that the cured meat world was rocked by scandal in 2017. The scandal happened because prosciutto di Parma can only be produced from the hind legs of specially selected heritage breed pigs. Some producers were “charged with importing pig sperm from Denmark in an attempt to breed leaner pigs – which would, in turn, provide a more lucrative meat.” Things have settled down now.
The Reggio Emilia Tour
We chose to go to the source for more taste testing via a food tour of Reggio Emilia. After a 50-minute ride by rail, we were picked up and headed out to sample the local wares.
Our visit to the caseificio (cheese maker) was awesome. We went into their production area and watched them gather the curd to make Parmigiano Reggiano, aka real parmesan cheese. The milk for parmesan cheese is very tightly controlled and can only come from local cows fed on locally grown forage, nothing man-made. It takes 550 liters of milk to make each wheel of parmesan cheese.
We saw them cut the 180-pound curd in two and then transfer the 90-pound curd ball into molds to begin the minimum 12-month process to create this wonderful cheese. After the wheels of cheese are imprinted with the manufacturer and date information, it is time to go for a swim. The wheels are placed into a huge salt bath for about 25 days. From there, they go to the aging room to give off their water and become Parmigiano Reggiano.
Walking into their storage room, our noses were presented with a strong smell of aged cheese. We were blown away by the number of wheels inside. Each of the 16000 wheels gets brushed and flipped twice a week by a very tall, forklift-like robot. Totally worth a trip to see. Tasting the cheese of various ages was not too shabby, either.
Basking in Balsamic Vinegar
Our tour then moved to Modena, where we met with an artisan balsamic vinegar maker. His organization certifies the local producers. Balsamic vinegar is traditionally made in a battery of 4-6 open barrels that decrease in size. The battery of barrels always stays together, sometimes for more than 100 years. Each barrel has an opening in the top covered with a linen cloth that allows evaporation and fermentation of the vinegar.
The process for making balsamic is similar to the sherry process in Jerez. The product is removed for sale from the final barrel of a battery and is replaced with vinegar from the prior barrel, which in turn is replaced from a prior barrel. The final product is thereby a mix of newer and older vinegar. To be certified, the vinegar in a battery has to be aged a minimum of 12 years before any is withdrawn. Apparently, cheaper balsamic can be made in as little as 3 days, but you get what you pay for.
As it happened, the building with the balsamic vinegar also housed a wonderful, old, weight-driven clock. I was particularly interested because my family has a 150+-year-old grandfather clock that works in a similar manner. It was cool to see this larger version up close and personal to compare and contrast.
And some wine…
Our final tour stop was at a local winery. Lambrusco is a local red sparkling wine. We had seen it on restaurant menus and so we were eager to try some. Our tour included a sampling of three of the vintner’s wines. I guess we should have read more into the fact that the winemaker tried to finish the tasting without serving us Lambrusco. Frankly, neither of us cared much for it. Now we know.
The Pasta Making Class
We opted for a pasta-making class around the corner from our flat. A former chef, Chef Dennis, now gives 2 classes a day for up to 4 people in his rather small kitchen. So small, in fact, he left some of our pasta out to dry on his 3rd story window ledge.
Making the Dough and Filling
We started by making dough using flour and egg, which is used in Bologna. Our pasta class in Sicily didn’t use eggs because it’s too hot there. After making dough balls, we let them rest in the fridge while we made the filling. Our choices for filling were spinach with ricotta or spinach with potato or both ricotta and potato. We chose spinach and ricotta; our classmates chose both potato and a mix of potato and ricotta. They were all good, but I think the mix with potato was probably the best. We were then able to flavor our filling with various herbs and flavored oils and we had to taste test each addition, yum.
Putting It All Together
Once the filling was done, we ran our rested dough through a hand-cranked pasta machine. Some of the pasta sheets were cut into fettuccine ribbons and set out to dry. Other sheets were used to cut out circles of dough for tortellini and larger tortelloni.
Both kinds of stuffed pasta are formed the same way, and I can tell you it isn’t as easy as it looks. First, you put the filling on the dough circle and fold the dough over, then you have to curl the ends around and pinch for the characteristic shape of tortellini or tortelloni. Next, we made stuffed ravioli with a pasta cutter, which was way easier than the tortellini.
Finally, the chef cooked our pasta in boiling water and then sauteed it briefly with butter and sage. One of us was better at making the stuffed pasta (ahem), but it all tasted great and I left with a sense it would be fun to try again sometime.
Other Comments on the Food in Bologna
The food in Bologna was wonderful. Their specialty is stuffed pasta, like tortellini baked in a cream sauce with prosciutto. When we dined in the little alleyway mentioned above we had tortellini, but right next to us the people had the most beautiful-looking lasagna so a few days later we tried some. Definitely, as good as it looks.
Another specialty in the alley is a salumi platter served with small biscuits and sometimes cheese. Don’t forget the wine. People will make a special trip across town to get some of the smoked and aged pork products from this alley.
Gramigna pasta with ground sausage and a very light sauce is another regional specialty. Finally, there is Veal or Pork Cotoletta Alla Bolognese, which is a veal or pork schnitzel with ham and mozzarella served with potatoes.
Which dish would you try first?