Bologna: La Grassa – Phenomenal food without a Spaghetti Bolognese in sight
I’m going to pardon myself inadvance of a post which will be an unapologetic engorgement upon food glorious food. Bologna is after all the city that brought us Spaghetti Bolognese, tagliatelle, tortellini and mortadella among other Italian favourites. In fact, without Bologna, half of your standard Italian restaurant menu would disappear. And true to form, the city whose third and perhaps most appropriate epithet is La Grassa – the fat – delivered, delivered and delivered again. We made no plans, instead opting to wander into restaurants randomly as they took our fancy. And yet on every occasion we were surprised, enthralled and deeply satisfied by one consistently high quality meal after another. No wonder then that Mr Artusi, great master of culinary arts once wrote, “When you hear about Bologna’s cuisine, make a bow, for it deserves it”. I could eat in Bologna for ever – it may make me grassa, but hell, it’s worth it.
So where to begin. Well, breakfast I guess, a multi-coloured kaleidoscope of colour, as fresh ingredients collided into a cocktail of fruits and meats, soft greasy breads and sweet spongey cakes, all succulently fresh, strawberries as red as La Rossa herself, and mortadella, straight from the manufacturers, limply reclining across our plate. And we didn’t have to go far either. Breakfast was served upon our little terrace at the faultlessly stylish, centrally located Art Hotel Novecento, a perfect start to each of our four days in Bologna.
Next, lunch. We stumbled upon this place, Banca del Vino (Via Mantana), on the outskirts of the rough and tumble of Bologna’s ghetto. Here the pizza was amongst the best I have had in Italy. So fresh, so thin and crispy, with a plate of soft silky parma ham served on the side, so that it could be added to the richly endorsed buffalo mozzarella pizza at will. In the meantime, my partner sampled the delights of an equally fresh, thickly cut home-smoked salmon, with a palate-pleasing glass of local white wine on the side. This was rounded off with a rich chocolate parfait with accompanying white chocolate chunks.
Our first dinner was at the stylish Trattoria Battibecco (Via Battibecco, 4), found down a tiny side street, just off the Piazza Galileo. The food was highly stylised and delicately balanced. I started with the Sformatino di ricotta con cuore di bacon e zucchine su crema di nocciole, a kind of ricotta-enrichend risotto cake, with courgette, bacon and the cream of nuts. Gamberoni rossi in padella leggermente piccanti con cous cous all’ananas was to follow for mains – lightly cooked prawns with pineapple couscous and a chilli hot sauce to balance, while for dessert, a semifreddo with cherry chocolate and a strawberry on the side foretold of the spectacular dinners which were to come.
Our second dinner was at the Ristorante Ciacco (Via San Simone), another off-street secret which we stumbled upon having escaped the more tourist-focused affairs of the central Piazzas and cheaper offerings of the university quarter. Here we were treated to an innovation of ice cream, as almost every dish was served with some form of welcomingly-cool ice cream accompaniment. With my warm foie gras, an ice cream flavoured with orange and thyme provided both a sweet and sharp contrast to the rich meaty flavour of the foie, while my partner’s starter (a prawn and scallop club sandwich) was similarly accompanied with an ice cream of wholegrain mustard. For main course, I was treated to a dish of monkfish with liquorice flavoured ice cream – while the monkfish was, inevitably, a little lacking in flavour, the liquorice gave a punch to the dish, helped out in this objective by a light salad of finely sliced fennel. Unsurprisingly, there were innovative ice creams aplenty on the dessert menu, but we instead opted for a white chocolate parfait, accompanied by a vivid green fresh-mint coulis.
Our third dinner was at the super cute Ristorante Teresina di Fuggetta Sebastiano (Via Oberdan, 4), not so much on a side street as much as in a side alleyway – the tables were artfully squeezed in between one leaning old palazzo and another, and the affect was truly cosy and unique, and the later addition of a harp player added a further garnish of romance to the air. Sadly I neglected to take any photos capable of public consumption – the wine caused significant blurring on the old camera – damn that tempting Sangiovese! However the food was super-tempting too. We started with a pea and mint garnished prawn dish, followed by a succulent steak tagliata accompanied by rosemary potatoes. Dessert was a creme caramel of sorts, which my partner declared, with some audacity (clearly bolstered by the Sangiovese) to be better than mine! He was clearly drunk.
Our final instalment of Bolognese dining (as if there was any space left in our significantly lined stomachs by now) was the Ristorante Cesarina (Via Santa Stefano), a more traditional affair, set in the heart of one of Bologna’s most beautiful squares. What this place lacked in innovation, it excelled in traditional cuisine cooked with excellence. We’re talking stuffed Zucchini flowers, faultlessly grilled seafood and all washed down with a mega-strong bottle of Sangiovese. But never mind all of that. The starter I had was simply mind-blowing. I mean, we’re talking a world-stopped-turning moment of culinary ephiphany. And we’re only talking ravioli – and a pumpkin ravioli at that (and from the photo, it doesn’t look all that much either). But OMG, I can’t even begin to explain how good that pasta was – perfectly al dente, giving way to a salty-sweet pumpkin centre topped with a buttery sauce and – the crowning glory – a kind of marzipan/ caramalised/ honeycomb crumb which just set my mouth alight. If I could get the recipe for that dish and bring it back to the UK I could retire early.
So there you go, a food explosion well worthy of all the fuss. There is no doubt in my mind that Bologna lives up to its reputation of food capital of Italy. And it’s not just the restaurants either. A short walk off the Piazza Maggiore, and you find yourself on the quaint Via Pescherie Vecchie, where a bustling food market continues to thrive and tempt passers by with the fragrant scent of ripe fruits, sea-fresh fish and sweet juicy cold meats. Meanwhile, head to any half-descent cafe, and we’re talking an affogato worth writing home about.
All this talk of food has made me hungry. I’m off to raid my nearest Italian deli. Hey, it’s not Bologna, but I will leave that crowning glory firmly where it belongs, carefully rested upon Bologna’s culinary pinnacle, amongst the perfect colonnades, the cinema under the stars and the perfectly leaning red-bricked towers. Bologna La Grassa, La Dotta, La Rossa: Te adoro.
- Bologna: La Rossa – Red hue of a left-leaning towered city (normsonline.wordpress.com)