A taste of a place – Bologna
May 21, 2023
Variously referred to as; “the fat one”, or “the belly of Italy” – Bologna has been firmly on our radar for a while… Events over the previous couple of years have thwarted our attempts to get there, but finally our opportunity arose at the end of our Via Francigena walk – and surely, after that, we deserved it???
Bologna has been much lauded of late in the UK; by TV chefs such as Rick Stein, US gastronauts such as Stanley Tucci and latterly, I discovered on my return, our very own BBC newscaster, Clive Myrie (check out his series on bbc iplayer).
A handsome, friendly city, home to the oldest university in the world (giving rise to another nickname “the learned”), Bologna was a comfortable 2 hour ride (including a 30 min comfort break!) from Siena, on the Flixbus
(You can also take a train, but we are proper travellers now!).
We arrived at the nondescript terminus on Easter Saturday during a downpour, quickly hotfooting it to our B&B Bentivogli, a brisk 20 mins walk away, just outside of the old city centre. The well put together B&B was a good base, with a micro kitchen where we could make our vital morning espresso.
We eased into 48 hours without too much of an agenda; just to indulge in our favourite past times; walking, eating and trying to get under the skin of a place.
Being the birthplace of ragu (it has to be served with tagliatelle) and lasagne, we were fairly confident that Bologna would offer us we the kind of egalitarian food culture we seek.
Our VF pal, Stefano was very serious about food and had made several recommendations, so we didn’t hesitate in visiting the Mercato del Erbe. Unfortunately our timing was off, hitting it at the tail end of the day, but we got the impression this would be a buzzing lunchtime spot, offering some great street food, as well as loads of atmosphere.
We enjoyed several Messina beers (with added salt crystals) at one of the bars at the back of the market; Il Tigelle. A vibrant little area with a nice indie vibe. We had taken the precaution of securing a reservation for dinner at Tony’s (thank you Stefano), a short hop away, so no panic ensued.
Whilst walking to Tonys we became aware of a long queue forming in Via Piella; people appeared to be queuing for a quick glimpse through a tiny window. We later learnt that this was for a view of the last remaining canal in Bologna (in medieval times there had been 60kms of waterways running through the city). Funny once you know that, you become faintly aware of the sound of running water.
We stopped in a very low key bar under one of the famed porticos that line the city. Our friendly hostess at Pausa Caffe provided glasses of chilled red lambrusco. We had -been surprised to read that this was a popular wine of the region. Putting aside our preconceptions we can concur with local opinion; it was really rich and tasty (not at all like the sweet, low alcohol version we had experienced in the UK in the 1980s).
At Tony’s Trattoria we sat outside, under another portico and there proceeded to eat a simple, super tasty meal. Brian tried the legendary ragu with tagliatelle; declaring it delicious. I went for pasta with another local speciality sauce; friggione. This was a rich and delicious, slow braised sweet onion and tomato sauce, which can enjoyed in a variety of ways. Really tasty and more than the sum of its parts.
Brian opted for a simple grilled steak, served in slices (which he declared the best he had eaten in years) and I had to try my favourite, aubergine parmigiana. This was the very best version of this dish I have ever tried; rich and unctuous but at the same time, very refined.
The following day, after a good night’s rest, girded by sfogliatelle pastries and coffee at a local bakery, we headed out to circumnavigate the city; a somewhat grand, yet pleasingly faded place with buzzing piazzas and pedestrianised streets. We remarked upon the presence of graffiti, which was in stark contrast to the pristine tuscan towns we had walked through. We mused on why that might be, coming up with various theories involving the tourist dollar, the right to free expression, the socialist local government etc, etc before heading on to the magnificent Piazza Maggiore and its wonderful Neptune fountain.
Just off the Piazza Maggiore, you find the Quadrilatero market place. This was thronging with people in search of an early lunch. We gazed hungrily into these amazing little specialist food “boutiques”, selling parmigiano reggiano, cold meats or tortellini, but there was no room for us on this bustling Easter Sunday.
Bologna is the home of tortellini (the small one), tortelloni (the big one). I was looking for the famous tortelloni in brodo (in broth), but kept getting distracted, usually by other favourite pastas of mine. At a street food bar, we tried deep fried tortellini with a parmesan cream – interestingly crunchy, but perhaps not one to repeat….
Moving away from the rising hum of the Quadrilatero, we returned to Il Tigelle, near the Mercato del Erbe. On our way we walked past the aforementioned canal, which interestingly we had a perfect streetside view of (not sure what the queue for the 10 second window view was about – maybe a local tradition/superstition?).
I digress, we returned to the bar as we wanted to try the local speciality of Tigelle. These are typical little round flatbreads made in a press, served warm and filled with your choice of ingredients. We opted for 3 typical bolognese fillings; the soft cheese called squacquarone, local hero mortadella and more of that delicious friggione; onion and tomato combo. These little pockets were so good, it was pretty clear why this place had been so popular the night before.
Later that day, we approached Trattoria del Rosso, that had also seemed so busy the night before. True to form, a queue was forming outside. Emboldened by our burgeoning language skills, we asked the somewhat stern looking matriarch for a table. Nothing available. We didn’t give up and probed further; asking her to put us on the list. She did and told us to return in half an hour. Which we did, not convinced our approach would work, but it did. Smiling, she showed us straight to the first available table. Result!
Another memorable meal under the porticos, enjoying the general hustle and bustle of this busy trattoria. Despite the volume of people this place ran like clockwork with charming staff and pleasing place settings, all under the watchful eye of the older woman orchestrating the entire show.
Brian opted for another tagliatelle with ragu. I opted for a tortelloni with leeks, served in a saffron sauce with crushed pistachios. When I read the menu, I thought it sounded unusual, so I decided to be adventurous. I think it was probably a good dish, just too rich for me…
However, my main did not disappoint; a more rustic version of the parmigiana I had the night before (what can I say, I am a woman of simple tastes!) Brian had an excellent cold dish of thinly sliced roasted beef served with rocket and parmesan shavings and local balsamic vinegar to dress it. Accompanied by a tasty Sangiovese Superiore, as recommended by our waiter. All in all, a most satisfying and enjoyable experience.
The following day we had time to kill before our flight so we mooched about the city enjoying the sights and sounds, which included a colourful flea market. We decided to head back to the B&B to pick up our bag, stopping along the way for something to eat. For whatever reason, nothing really took our fancy. We were fairly certain that there wouldn’t be anything near our B&B so we stopped at the very last place before leaving the old city; a very low key, some might say, basic looking bar.
First impressions of La Porta weren’t that great; the cold counter was empty and the owner described a seriously meat heavy menu of the day, which wasn’t what we were looking for. However, we were committed (& hungry) so we took a seat. What ensued was the most entertaining couple of hours.
Yes the food is important and we did enjoy a lovely mixed salad and shared a good pizza, but more importantly, we really felt like we were part of something in this down home, no frills establishment.
A customer at the next table, dining alone started chatting to us, sharing her food with us (an interesting local bread stuffed with pork) – i think she felt sorry for us as we were sharing a veggie pizza….
The couple behind us chided her lightly, telling her to leave us alone. Then they started to explain what they were having and offered us some special neapolitan easter cake. Before too long there was great craic flying about the place, the owners sending us all some local firewater and we all toasted each other Happy Easter!
Our most memorable meals have nothing to do with decor or finectable linens, it really comes down to the welcome, the cosy feeling and of course, the craic. That legendary Bolognese hospitality and friendliness were here, in spades in this ordinary, everyday eatery.
La Porta turned out to be a very fitting end to our tuscan/bolognese odyssey.
We left with both our bellies and hearts full. Not lingering to say goodbyes as we headed to the airport, knowing that now we have had a taste we will we return to beautiful Bologna before too long.