Thinking about all the places on my Italian itinerary, I can articulate a specific reason or two that made me add each stop to my trip: I wanted to relax in Lake Como, I wanted to explore the tiny, winding streets of Venice, I wanted to revisit places I hold near and dear in Florence, and so forth.
Why did I come to Bologna, then? I came to eat.
Bologna, you see, is known as the gastronomic capital of Italy – and in a country with so much good food, that is saying something. Food is celebrated in Bologna, plain and simple. To some extent, that’s true wherever you go in Italy – but I could not help but feel that there was something particularly special here. Perhaps it was this: Bolognese cuisine is simple, unpretentious comfort food (like your nonna might cook), but it is incredibly flavorful, and perfect in its very simplicity.
To start, then, a few dishes that exemplified this simplistic perfection. I stopped at Osteria dell’Orsa for lunch, and right away I noticed one thing: the place was packed, and pretty much with all Italians. Until midway through my meal – when a few Brits sat down next to me – I did not hear one lick of English. The menu too was all in Italian, which was a refreshing change after touristy Venice, where menus often come printed super-sized, with pages and pages of different languages.
At that first lunch, I was itching to try the classic Bolognese dish, tagliatelle ragu, which is basically noodles, sauce, and beef (plus a sprinkling of cheese, if you so desire). In keeping with the Bolognese theme, this was a simple dish but packed with flavor. Another plus? It was cheap! The dish was only 6 euro, making it by far the cheapest pasta I ate in Italy (and perhaps the best tasting too!)
At Trattoria Anna Maria, I found another dish perfect in its simplicity: tortellini en brodo, or tortellini in broth. Here, the name says it all: this was nothing more than a completely unpretentious, ungarnished bowl of noodles in broth. There might not have been anything fancy about it, but it was so, so satisfying. If I lived in Bologna, this would be my go-to comfort food for the winter months.
I headed to La Mela for another dish that initially appeared unassuming: lasagna. I must ask: is there any food that photographs uglier than lasagna? I’m hard-pressed to name one if there is, but don’t be fooled by its appearance. This slice of lasagna was damn good; it was perfectly cooked and flavorful.
Another favorite Bologna find was Marsalino. Here, I wanted to order the 15 euro meat and cheese plate, but my server warned me about its large size, so he gave me the “small” version for 8 euro. As it turns out, the small version was still HUGE; I didn’t even eat a fraction of it, much as I enjoyed the prosciutto di parma, the parmigiano reggiano, and the like (and I enjoyed them a lot). Marsalino also gives out tons of free snacks during happy hour – they gave me chips, two types of flatbread (spinach and mushroom), and bread – and they did something that I have rarely seen in Europe: they give out water for free (and they proudly advertise this fact on their menu). I adored Marsalino for its amazing combination of high quality and high value.
Bologna’s Quadrilatero neighborhood is a must for any foodie (or anyone with taste buds at all, really). It’s home to Mercato di Mezzo, which was filled with stalls selling foods I was dying to try. When I visited, I was pretty full and only in the market for a snack: I grabbed a spritz Aperol and perfectly salted calamari.
After my snack, I set out to explore more of the Quadrilatero. Every shop I poked into was filled with treasures – colorful produce, fresh fish, gigantic blocks of parmigiana reggiano, chunks of meat hanging from the ceilings, pasta sold in all shapes and sizes, and chocolates shaped like tortellini. It was a mark of the area’s quality that Bologna’s own Eataly outpost – a place I generally consider foodie heaven in New York – was the least exciting shop here!
With all these amazing savory options, it was no surprise that Bologna killed it in the gelato arena as well. Though there was no shortage of options, I found one place so excellent that I stuck with it for the duration of my stay in Bologna: Gelateria Gianni. This shop was incredible: unique flavors and some of the thickest, richest, and creamiest gelato I had ever tasted. Heaven in a cone.
Bologna is known for its three nicknames: la dotta (the learned one, for its university), la grassa (the fat one, for its cuisine), and la rossa (the red one, for the color of its buildings). And while I could see where la dotta and la rossa came from during my time in the city, it was la grassa that seemed most fitting. The food in Bologna was truly something to savor. La grassa, indeed.