Bologna - Foodie Utopia
"La Grande Festa" - The Big Feast
Bologna is brown. I know, it’s come as something of a shock but brown it be. To be fair, there is every shade of brown under it's burning brown sun to be found here, ... but indisputably, undeniably it's bright and brilliant brown. Brown doesn’t have to be a failing when first describing such an incredible city though. Brown was very much de rigour a few years back, but then again, so were Paprika Pringles, cut off shorts with their dangly pockets hanging out and … Crocs.
If you look past the brownness for a moment, what you have is one of the most brilliant, vibrant and complete cities you'll ever have the pleasure of visiting. Furthermore, if you love food - simple, unadulterated and fresh food from Italy, then it’s a complete and utter marvel. In fact, you won’t miss green at all, and the flashes of overhead azure blue will more than satisfy the more reckless amongst you. On your plate, that's where the colour is to be found. That's where you will be satisfied, replete. That's where your heart will pump with bloody red, your eyes will shine a sparkling blue (Please note that this will only happen if you have blue eyes to begin with) and your friends will fester with the bright Granny Smith green of envy.
Bologna treats food like The Vatican treats aged men in silken frocks, like the City treats money and like Fred treated Ginger. They are at one. Totally harmonious and unified, without pretence and conscience. From thinly sliced platters of mixed Mortadella to steaming bowls of Tortellini con Brodo, the place is unified in its love of food. There is more to Bologna than plates of fresh pasta however. It's unspoilt - One of its greatest pleasures is the almost complete lack of tourist icons to bring the box tickers here in their coachload droves.
The quite famous Twin Towers aren’t nearly accessible enough to warrant an endless procession of cruise ships unloading their eager cargoes into the city’s cramped alleyways and cobbled streets…. You’d have to climb the hundreds of steps to the top for one thing, and we all know the modern tourist isn’t capable of such a titanic feet of human endurance. The townsfolk wouldn’t allow too great a number up there anyway. The blessed towers certainly don’t look like they could handle the idle rich and overly buttered, leaning awkwardly as they do.... The towers that is.
The fact that Bologna is completely landlocked and hundreds of kilometres form the sea doesn’t lessen my point in any way either. The fact that it is, certainly helps maintain its perfection and underline my point. I didn’t see one tourist menu here. The restaurants did have menu’s in English and Spanish etcetera, but these came across as helpful not condescending; an aid to good dining rather than a tut and strut through the swinging kitchen doors of angry waitership. The city really benefits from the lack of Michael Angelo, His Holiness the Pope, the twin towers not leaning too much, and a bridge with tacky trinket shops built upon it. The numbers are down, making it a gloriously relaxed, amiable and genuine place to visit. And I mean genuine, unspoilt. We, the eager travellers haven’t messed it up yet, with our ridiculous Taco Bells, Starbucks and KFC's... wanting abroad what we can unfortunately get in great quantities at home. In fact, I saw only one Scottish Restaurant the whole time I was here. Even the newer chain Pasticceria’s like Imperio are immaculate, with excellent coffee, excellent service, great fresh food and spotlessly clean. Even though new, they fully encompass the ways of the old and the firm Italian traditions of coffee and cake on the go.
If you don’t like food, you could stay away. Food bores will find you, however, and will bleat on about how great it is. They will try to convert you, and why shouldn’t they? This is the place to do it. If you don’t like food after this visit, there’s nothing to be done with you anyway. It’s a great seat of learning, and has one of the oldest University’s within its midst, so it's fitting that we should and can learn about gastronomy here. The place feels like it's learned too and has a very Oxfordy air about it.
In that regard, I suppose all that's really missing are the open spaces, the riparian flashes of green and the puntable rivers themselves. Students embrace this place completely; its food, its architecture, its history and its relaxed pace too. You can tell that everything here fits. It is a substantial city, and I mean that in every meaning of the word. It is totally and utterly real. Nothing is manufactured to draw a paying crowd or the tourist dollar. There is love in everything and for everything that Bologna represents. Whilst here, the annual festivals of the Arts and Music were both taking place, giving Bologna an even greater feeling of Academia and worth. Every available space, from cobbled lane to grand piazza, had been taken over by stage and screen. Large towering billboards giving the location, time and events were scattered everywhere and it was impossible not to feel a part of it.
You would turn one corner and there would be a 'Q & A' session with a recently published author, a classical concert or an independent film screening. The seats full, crowds spilling on to the streets from adjacent cafes and restaurants that were doubling as Stalls and Circles. The cobblestone streets became the cheap seats, although it was all free anyway, and nobody was in the slightest bit concerned, perturbed or seemingly uncomfortable. It's a city that truly comes together to eat, relax, play and to enjoy and celebrate life. Although, I did come away with the feeling that everything here is only exists to enable you to build an appetite. "I can't eat another thing. I'd better go and do something so I can eat some more later." The 'Whispering Wall', to that end, although quite weird, is hardly going to stir up much of an appetite, so walking is your best best.
Everywhere you go, the kitchens are as if open to the street. From behind large viewing gallery windows, you can watch smiling chefs lovingly prepare the day's fresh filled pasta. Happy to show you how to shape Tortelloni and roll paper thin reams of sunflower yellow dough - All with a dusty smile of pride and contentment on their faces. I can only assume that the large windows are as much for their benefit in watching the world go by as much as it's for us interested onlookers. They must be there for hours at a time, after all, but I could think of worse jobs and certainly ones that are less appreciated... by me, at least.
There are many tips on restaurants, cafes and Trats to be found but you really can't go wrong here, although I was severely disappointed in the famous Trattoria Anna Maria in the student quarter. Is is always mentioned in any given Bologna restaurant guide, hotel recommendation or travel blog, but its days are well and truly over. With its famous picture gallery of happy even more famous clientele, the place has been Trip Advisored to death and I truly, truly can't let you waste a mealtime in Bologna there. The food is far too good elsewhere to bother about it.
The diners themselves were apprehensive and clearly not impressed with things and were all obviously there because of its reputation and old Trap Advisor reviews. I had been convinced to give it a go by our host but it was a mistake, although it did carry the silver linings of firstly being able to review it for myself and secondly, to have even greater faith in my own nose for such things. I have a gift for sniffing out the right place, and I don't mean this with any arrogance, it's just something that happens to me. I've long given up thinking that it's a fluke.... but more on the positive results of that obscure, rather limited talent later. As for the forlorn Anna Maria, the alarm bells started ringing when the 3 chefs were all sitting out front smoking cigarettes and in no way were representative of the photographs that adorn the walls showing the beaming hostess herself, elbow deep in ragu and fresh tortellini. It maybe out of her hands due to ... 'natural causes' but her traditions have been well and truly boiled dry ... unsalted, unstirred and stale. So, my advice is just to eat when you see a place you fancy, where you fancy and you won't be too disappointed, I assure you - I'm sure the sad tale of Anna Maria and it's dry Tortellini is rare.
My food lover's nose took me to a Trattoria off the main drag and well away from the incessant Bologna din. It can get a bit noisy here, especially if you billet in the centre near all of the action.... and when I say action, I mean all the usual Italian nocturnal stuff - mopeds, ambulances, police cars, fire engines, revelling students, locked out and bellowing husbands, shagging alley cats, bin men (Not applicable in Naples), delivery van drivers and erupting volcanoes (Naples back in with a shout there). We were lucky enough to be housed on the Via Castiglione, right in the heart of it all and adjacent to Piazza Maggiore, but the nights don't fall down quickly here. Just when you think it's all over, night gets up of its haunches and keeps on flailing away blindly into the darkness, with eyes bloodshot and Sangiovese red.
It's an important note to remember that if you are travelling to Bologna, there aren't a lot of accommodation opportunities there and you may find yourself AirBnBing it. If so, double glazing might be a help for those lighter sleepers amongst you.
Back to my 'find'. It was called Trattoria da Leonida and really had a look and feel of local knowledge about it. A smallish deck out in the alleyway itself and a traditional interior welcomes you as do several busying staff. You soon get the impression that this place is very well established indeed, with at least 3 generations working here together. Indeed, after getting to know the place, we found out that the current owner has been working there for over 61 years, and it shows, both in the way it was run, the familiarity our host has with his regulars, the complete faith in his menu and the fact that he was quite, quite old.
It is pretty much everything you want from a Trat menu and you can hardly fail to be impressed with whatever you order... Although I did see a young middle aged American couple settle on two glasses of water, a lasagne and the mushroom Tagliatelli. It took 30 minutes for them to arrive at that decision and a further 30 minutes to eat the Tagliatelli - Clearly new to the concept of long pasta, attempt after attempt was made to get it up to her desperate mouths. I was astonished. I wanted to go over, grab their knives and forks and cut it up for them, but I was told that I probably wouldn't go down too well. I promise you that I'm not being rude but it was something of a shock to see somebody struggling to eat pasta at the age of 40.... and to show my benevolence, I'm not going to even mention that you really shouldn't order Lasagne in Bologna. It has to be made in advance and is never going to be the best item on the menu here.
Moving on from my misdiagnosed cruelty - The two waiters here are a double act of sorts and are only too happy to help with your selection if you really want to know the best way to go, dishwise. I tend to read Twit Advisor after I've eaten somewhere so I can see what other people thought. To do it beforehand means almost certain disappointment. The first review I read was somebody complaining that the soup bowl was too hot, that they had severely burnt their hands on it, that they had blistered significantly and that no warning had been given to the potential dangers posed by the steaming bowl of soup by the muted, stilly waiter. This was the total review, by the way. Judging from what I read, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they didn't ask for it. My impression was that they were a complete arse and what goes around comes around. I'm being mean again, aren't? And by 'again' I mean for the first time, actually.
The second review was from a diner who quite seriously doubted the credentials of the restaurant because the menu, in his esteemed opinion, was too varied for the food to be any good, and that Restaurants that spread themselves too thinly, rarely hit the grade when it comes to serving up great food. Honestly? This place has been running since 1938 and when you consider that several of the dishes are the same perfected sauce only served with different pastas and different pastas served with different sauces, you really need understand why I dislike 'Trip Advulgar' so much? They never seem to actually enjoy themselves experiences; it' all seems far too earnest, too serious.
The staff here are superb but I can certainly see that if you act like a stuck up dolt or away-day village idiot, there might be a fare chance that you will be treated as such. I can hand on heart say here, that the service is superb and the food is something else. It isn't Michelin Starred but it's great Trat fare. I can personally vouch for the Gramigna alla Salsiccia (twice), the Tortelini con Brodo, the steak and red wine Risotto, the fresh salmon, the Ragu, the seared lamb chops, the grilled chicken, all the side dishes, the Creme Caramel, the Creme Brulee, the wine, and the truly incredible Mascapone Creme dessert which I had twice, one after the other. To which the waiter responded with "I love you. You are my new hero.", gave me a huge glass of dessert wine to go with my second helping, and then Limoncellos for the three of us.
They also looked after our luggage for the entire afternoon as we had an evening flight. Their idea not ours.... The host ordered our cab to the airport in fact, and poured me a large Amaro whilst I waited. I will dine here again and again and will fly to Bologna just to do so. Restaurants can be what you make them but Leonida does it all by itself and with merit... If other diners choose to make a pig's ear out of a silk purse, then so be it. The ones who love what they eat and appreciate the effort will reap the rewards. Genuinely it angers me that some people can't see out from behind their own enormous buttocks and give in to the pleasure that good restaurants can provide. It's churlish and ignorant to dock 2 Stars off a rating because the food wasn't quite hot enough or because the client didn't interact with the wait staff. Who's rating the reviewers? Anyway, it's a lovely, friendly, professional, rewarding and joyous place to spend a long lunch in Bologna. I ranted a bit there..... Sorry.
A more complete Bologna restaurant guide will follow shortly and will be found here.
Just to the south of Piazza Maggiore, the are various small laneways lined with grocers, fishmongers, butchers shops, bars and eateries and here are housed some excellent opportunities to taste another of Bolognas delights, Mortadella. I love the stuff. Thinly sliced and arrayed with other local ham and the exquisite Burratini cheese, for well under 10 Euros, platefuls can be had whilst casually taking in the Bologna vibe, all washed down with a glass of delicious and refreshing Pignoletto, Bologna's answer to to Prosecco. It's equally as quaffable and my rule of 'when in Rome' most definitely applies here.
It's these small touches of wanting to be a part of the Bologna food scene that help make your stay complete. The locals really react positively to those who've taken the time to find out about such things rather than those who just automatically drink and eat whatever they always eat. I did see an Australian man complain to his waiter that his plate of Mortadella wasn't cheese. The expression on the waiter's face will live me for quite some time and he really had no idea how to handle the situation without causing offence.
Although the ubiquitous Aperol Spritz's still have their place here, it's worth noting Pignoletto as an alternative evening drink and also the oft maligned Lambrusco. Not here, the overly sweet fizz that cheapskate Aunts used to bring over for Christmas lunch. Here, it's an altogether dryer and more sophisticated affair and makes a change from local red wines, especially in the warmer months. Salumeria Simoni and La Baita are two such tried and tested places to enjoy these local delicacies.
During the weekend, the compact Centro Historico is closed to traffic and the whole area becomes a pedestrianised paradise. The roads don't appear busy here at the best of times but it's a great idea, even if sometimes it's hard to know where the road begins and the pavement ends. Buses thunder down little alleyways that you could have sworn weren't wide enough, cars park on zebra crossings to enable a quick feed for its driver, and tables and chairs spill out so far on to the cobblestones that it leaves one in no doubt whatsoever as to who is in charge here. Food is most definitely King, with gracious Queen Sipsalotta sitting loyally by his side .. Princess Goodtime to the left and little Prince Nowherebettertobe kneeling obediently at their gouty feet. To this end, I am most definitely a monarchist. Long live the King. I absolutely love food, me.
As for Bologna itself, I do feel that it might just get a bit too all consuming (No pun intended).... a bit too claustrophobic, and I must admit to probably not being able to spend a whole week here... Not unless I was planning to visit Modena and Parma as part of the trip. The train station is quite centrally located, and with both equally comestible friendly cities so close by, it would be a waisted opportunity not to get out for a visit. Modena, for example, is only a short 30 minute train ride away, or you can opt for organised half or full day tours to both, with hotel pick ups; which are very easy, highly rewarding and pretty good value as well, as are the food and walking tours within the city.
Oh and another thing; I would visit in the colder months - You can eat soooo much more in the colder months. Your shivering body demands it in fact, Bologna demands it.... I demand it too.... Although it would be a shame to miss out on the wonderful Gelato at Delizie, found on the main shopping drag of Via dell'Indipendenza. It reminds me greatly of the great ice cream we get in Brisbane thanks to the Bolognese ex-pats at La Macelleria. Bologna is a place for long lunches and even longer evenings, spent dining, taking it all in and people watching. If not learning, at the very least reacquainting yourself with what good food really means and how little a Michelin Star actually matters. It's become my paradise, my Utopia... for a few hearty, giddy days here and there, ever so often.
I know what you’re thinking…… You’re thinking it’s rather more orange than brown..... and you might be right.