To Live and Dine in Bologna

story By ed boitano

Photographs by Deb Roskamp

Three days in the gastronomic capital of Italy

My dreams had been colored by my upcoming trip to Bologna. Nestled in north central Italy in the region of Emilia-Romagna, Bologna has long been considered the gastronomic capital of Italy. With the moniker of “La Grassa” (the fat one), it is the birthplace of mortadella di Bologna, tagliatelle al ragù, tortellini en brodo, lasagne alla Bolognese and more. Nearby in the rich agricultural Po Valley, the cities of Modena hail balsamic vinegar as its home, and Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma, which all seem to make their way onto the Bolognese table. And, yes, there would also be a number of city attractions to explore. With just three-days devoted to my exploration and culinary tour, I literally couldn’t wait to dig in.

Back story

It’s easy to get lost when wandering through Bologna’s narrow, somewhat gritty side streets lined with shops, markets, restaurants and osterias (taverns), the latter offering monumental happy hour antipasti dishes for the price of a simple glass of wine. Every little side street in the historic city center seemingly leads to a stunning piazza with remarkably preserved cathedrals and towers along with museums (there are over 50) and outdoor cafés. The city is a stunning blend of urban charm and history. Bologna boasts the Università di Bologna, the oldest university in the world (circa 1158), and is referred to as the most educated and forward-thinking city in Italy. Bologna, for example, was the first city in the world to abolish slavery. If you’re short on time, a hop on/hop off bus is the best way to begin your exploration, which offers a comprehensive overview of Bologna from the Etruscan and Roman origins to its modern culture of today.

Day 1: The Antipasto – Piazza Maggiore and mortadella di Bologna

The two leaning towers, Garisenda and Asinelli, are the most traditional symbols of Bologna. In the late 12th century, 100 towers graced the skyline, but today only 20 have survived the ravages of fire and warfare. The wealthy would live on the top floor of the tower, to avoid theft and street-fighting. From the top of the Asinelli Tower, you can admire the red roofs and the hills around the city, plus get oriented.

Piazza Maggiore is a good place for a refreshing aperol spritz and a platter of Bologna’s most important antipasto: mortadella di Bologna. Not to be confused with U.S. baloney, mortadella is a paper thin-sliced, heat-cured pork sausage, flavored with small cubes of pork fat, whole black pepper, myrtle berries, nutmeg and pistachios. Surprisingly, it is low in calories. The platter can include a dollop of a creamy soft cheese, along with a basket of pocket-sized gnocco fritto (fried bread, similar to the New Mexican sopaipilla). Watching life go by from an outdoor café, it was easy for me to see that Bologna offered a nice blend of tourists and locals, unlike the overtly touristy destinations of Venice, Rome and Florence.

Day 2: The Primo – Basilica di Santo Stefano and tagliatelle al ragù & tortellini en brodo

Considered Bologna’s most important religious site (circa 11th century), Basilica di Santo Stefano is steeped in centuries of Bolognese history. Originally it consisted of seven churches on the site, but only four remain intact today. The austere octagonal cathedral incorporates Romanesque and Lombardian architectural design. It is not to be missed.

It had been an exhausting day of exploring, and my stomach told me that a much-awaited bout with tagliatelle al ragù and tortellini en brodo were definitely in order. In Bologna, fresh egg pasta is the thing, and tagliatelle pasta is no exception. The fresh noodles are lathered in a thick ragù alla Bolognese sauce, consisting of onions, carrots, pork, veal, and with just a bit of tomato. It was splendid, but a bit more rustic than I had imagined. A Bolognese sauce in the U.S. simply means a tomato sauce with beef, and is not an authentic Bolognese dish. Tortellini en brodo (in beef broth) is the traditional first course for Christmas feasts in Bologna. The shape of the pasta dumpling (generally filled with a mixture of pork loin, prosciutto, mortadella and Parmigiano), is said to be inspired by Venus’ navel.

Day 3: The Secondo- Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca and lasagne alla Bolognese

A kiddie-like train leads up to The Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, a monumental basilica church nestled atop a forested hill, with breathtaking vistas of the city and surrounding countryside. The church existed on the hill for over ten centuries when a pilgrim from the Byzantine Empire came to Bologna with an icon of the Virgin Mary from the temple of Saint Sofia in Constantinople. Initially, the small hermitage-chapel was tendered by two holy women. The present church was constructed in 1723. Today, pilgrims from all over the world (many barefoot) join an annual pilgrimage along the path from Bologna to the sanctuary. Upon reaching the top, the sanctuary opens up in an inspiring display of Baroque architecture. The experience also had an effect on my appetite. So for my last meal in Bologna, it had to be my favorite Italian dish, the quintessential lasagne alla Bolognese. The preparation of the dish consists of layering wide green pasta with a rich ragù sauce, béchamel sauce and abundant Parmesano cheese, and then baking it in the oven. Every bite was a gift from heaven. My list, for now, was complete for the three-day culinary tour and exploration of this fascinating historical city. And yes, I will return to Bologna again for more sights and other tantalizing dishes.

Post script

Wait a second – how could I have forgotten the delicious and filling cotoletta alla Bolognese (similar to cotoletta alla Milanese, but with a slice of prosciutto and cheese on top, then a spoonful  of ragù)? Perhaps the reason it was overlooked was that this delicious dish was the last thing I ordered in Bologna, and I was tragically unable to finish it. My waitress looked down at the half-eaten dish, and asked if it was OK. I replied it was beyond tremendous, but I just couldn’t consume any more food.  She smiled and said, “Well, we are called the ‘Fat One’ for a reason.”

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