It’s impossible to sum up all the culinary delights of an Italian city in just three dishes. But when travelers have only a limited amount of time to visit, it’s important to make sure the absolutely-can-not-miss dishes are at the tippy-top of your dining priority list.
This is my attempt at guiding you to the most essential Bologna dishes.
This will not surprise you if it is your first visit to Italy. (I won’t even say Italian food because Italian food isn’t available. Trust me. It is always a pleasure to discover new dishes and local cuisines while traveling. Even though we may be familiar with the Italian cuisine, there are many variations.
Bologna can be like wearing a sweater every day when you eat out. This is food that you already know. You think you know this food. Although the names may be slightly different, they are all the same. It’s delicious, and you’ll be forgiven if you wish you had four stomachs like cows. No? No? Hmm…
Sorry, I’m going off-topic… Ah, yes. Bologna.
Bologna was added to my series “Must-Eat Italy”. This is because it is difficult to limit myself to three meals in Bologna. It is a city that is so well-known for its culinary excellence that it is called “La Grassa,” or the fat one. This region is home to egg pasta, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto de Parma, and parmigiano-reggiano – there are many edible treasures that come out of Emilia Romagna. This is a foodie paradise.
What if you could pick just three? This is a fool’s game. But that’s what I have done with this series. I have chosen to not include many big-ticket items from other regions, including the Holy Trinity, balsamic, prosciutto and parmigiano. However, you should eat them all while you are in Bologna. These items don’t come from Bologna so I am trying to keep my focus. It’s also why I decided not to include piadina in this list, even though it’s something I enjoy eating when I visit Bologna.
We all know that eating out in Italy is like visiting Italy on a single trip. And we also know that Bologna will offer more than three meals. So, enjoy yourself. With this list of three must-try things in Bologna you will be on your way to three unforgettable culinary moments in this city.
I don’t know if you remember Oscar Mayer Bologna, but it was Oscar Mayer Bologna that I grew up with (of course, we pronounce “baloney”). You might balk when I tell that mortadella was the original baloney.
True mortadella is a beautiful blend of lean pork, chunks from pork fat and spices. It’s slow-cooked in large sausage casings. Additional goodies such as olives, pistachios or myrtleberries may be added to the mortadella. It’s typically sliced thinly and used as a sandwich or aperitivo plate filling.
Mortadella is not like “baloney” in that it has a pedigree. Similar sausages date back to Roman times. Mortadella from seven Italian regions is protected under the European Union. Bologna is one of these regions, which is where mortadella originates.
Before the invention of industrial meat grinders mortadella was a luxury treat reserved for the rich. Oscar, a German immigrant who started grinding machines, brought the iconic Italian sausage to America. The only thing mortadella shares with “bologna”, the processed stuff that is disguised as it, is its pinkish color. It also has a round shape. Although “bologna”, can fit on a slice, most mortadella will be too big for a slice of bread.
Mortadella is a great aperitivo. But, I prefer to eat it in a piadina. It’s delicate texture and subtle flavor are unbeatable, and you will never look at your local supermarket the same way again.
Tagliatelle alla Bolognese
Bologna is the home of this famous dish. But what you may not know is the difference between this and the one you might have had at home.
In the town where it was first made, the bolognese is commonly called “ragu”, which simply means “meat sauce”. Tomatoes, however, play an important role in this dish. Traditional ragu alla Bolognese consists of meat, usually ground beef, pork, or veal (though any meat can be used), along with onions, celery and carrots, and a flavorful liquid such as wine or meat stock. Tomatoes should be added sparingly. Often, they are in the form tomato paste.
It produces a sauce that isn’t very saucy, but it will coat all the pasta in a thick red sauce when combined with tagliatelle. It will flavor and coat everything with the rich liquid that the meat is cooked in. The end result is delicious.
Bologna may also have “lasagne ala bolognese”, which is another popular dish that uses this meaty sauce.
If you are visiting Emilia Romagna, I recommend trying a variety of bolognese. There are many different recipes, so it might be hard to tell if you are eating the same dish. This is one of many amazing side effects of Italian cuisine’s wild patchwork quilt.
Tortellini in Brodo
The tortellini shape is a pasta made of small pieces of cheese or meat that are rolled into a circle and have become very popular in Italy. You may not look at it the exact same way after hearing its story.
According to legend, an innkeeper living near Modena became so fascinated by Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, that he slipped into her bedroom at night to see through the keyhole. He couldn’t see much because of the lack of light, but he did catch a glimpse at her navel. He was so taken by the sight, he ran into his kitchen to grab the shapely navel in pasta form (clearly the best form of Italian flattery).
There are many legends out there about the origin of tortellini, but one that is so good, it’s worth noting all.
Bologna, the capital of the region that is known for egg pasta, is home to tortellini. This is just one of many ways that flour, egg and salt can be combined into something extraordinary. It’s unique because it’s not the same as what you might have had elsewhere.
Brodo means broth. Tortellini in brodo are pastas served in light, but richly-flavored broth. It’s not pasta mixed with a thick stew. This is a simple dish: perfectly cooked tortellini in clear broth. The tortellini are served with a spoon like soup. Simple ingredients and presentation allow the flavors of all the ingredients to take center stage. And what a stage!
Notably, tortellini’s bigger cousin, tortelloni is rarely served in broth. Instead, it is often filled with cheese and vegetables.
It’s your turn now!
Tell me: What three must-eat Bologna dishes would you recommend? Which three things do you look forward to most when you visit Bologna?