Good Eating in the E-R

One of the aspects of Italian food that I hadn’t really appreciated before coming to Italy is that the cuisine is very local. Such that the restaurants in each city have super similar menus, which vary slightly from the menus in the next area (which are also super similar to each other). For example, everywhere in Montepulciano there were truffles, bistecca fiorentina and pici (the local pasta shape). Everywhere in Rome there was pasta carbonara and cacio e pepe. And everywhere in Bologna there is tortellini and Bolognese (ragu).

We came to Bologna largely for the food. Emilia-Romagna, Bologna’s home region, is widely respected for its cuisine. A number of quintessential Italian staples hail from this region, and we took a wonderful tour to learn more about how they are made (and of course to taste them!).

Our tour took us first to Modena, where we visited a family of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese makers (Nuova Martignana). The process is remarkably more involved than I’d realized. I also didn’t appreciate that Parmigiano-Reggiano is a controlled name, much in the way Champagne is a regulated term. So that “parmesan” cheese you’re used to eating, likely ain’t no Parmigiano-Reggiano, folks.

This cheese making process has been refined for 800 years, when it was first invented by Benedictine monks. It takes a whopping 1200 liters of milk to produce two wheels. Granted, these are some big cheese wheels, but that’s a lot of dairy. We got to see a lot of the steps in action. Most impressive, we watched them lift a really heavy (100kg!) hunk of cheese curd out of a giant copper vat of whey. We also marveled the “Hollywood movie set” of beautiful cheese in their aging room. I doubt I will ever see this much Parmigiano-Reggiano in one place again. Not so long ago, all these cheese wheels had to be flipped by hand weekly. Now there is a machine for that. It was tempting to stock up because the 30 month old cheese costs only €15/kg onsite, but there are too many meat and cheese shops everywhere.

Next stop was a 4th generation family run maker of balsamico tradizionale (named Boni). All of their balsamic vinegar is aged a minimum of 12 years (they have a family cask that is 144 years old). The process was somewhat confusing, since they use a multiple barrel system that involves transferring some of the aged grape juice from the larger barrels into the smaller ones each year. I was pretty surprised to learn that they use a white grape to make the stuff, and the color comes solely from the wood barrels. The variety of woods used was also surprising, i.e. different barrels are made of cherry, oak, chestnut, apple, etc. I was more impressed that it tasted so good atop ricotta cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and gelato (separately, but all together probably works too!). Apparently, whenever a child is born in this region, the family starts a balsamic barrel so it’s ready at his/her wedding. The balsamico tradizionale is very expensive and intensely flavored, so this is the kind of stuff where you use a few drops, and it is very different from the balsamic vinegar you typically find in the States.

In between the food stops, our guide surprised us with a quick photo op outside the Ferrari factory where all the men drooled over the Renzo Piano-designed wind tunnel and the dozens of roaring cars being test driven around us. From there we went on to more food, and ate a full multi course lunch at La Ca Bianca. I kind of lost count, but I think we tried four different pastas. And then they came out with Acqua di Cedro (like limoncello) and a mascarpone and “chocolate sausage” for dessert. (Anyone who has been doubting how much we ate in Italy, take note.)

Our last stop had us landing at what appeared on the outside to be an apartment building. Upon entering, however, we discovered that it’s much more of a serial killer’s fantasy, which in a way, is what it is. A serial killer of pigs, who uses only the rear legs. Row after row after row of metal shelves held leg after leg after leg of prosciutto in various stages of the aging process. We had our final tasting of the day (with more Lambrusco…I neglected to mention above that Lambrusco, another Emilia-Romagna staple, accompanied each and every eating stop on this tour!) and promptly fell into a food coma/Lambrusco induced sleep on the drive home.

I was so disgusted with myself by the end of this day that I skipped dinner at the nice restaurant we had made a reservation for, because I knew that if I didn’t there was a serious chance I could eat enough to require medical attention. Alan and Kenny, however, ventured out. They passed through Piazza Verdi, which is filled with local university students drinking and mingling. In general, it was impressive how many people were hanging out and partying the whole walk to Piazza Maggiore. A never-ending stream of porticoed, cobblestone streets with abundant cafes and bars.

Our one free day in town we set off on foot to explore the city. Our neighborhood was a cool one, just a block away from Via dei Falegnami, where there were lots of lovely restaurants with outdoor seating and Bolognese dishes. We tried the Bolognese sauce at two, and they were not disappointing in the slightest. Though I should note there is much less tomato in the sauce than most of the Bolognese you are served in the States; here it’s almost pure meat. And it’s often served over a meat stuffed tortellini. I have to note that here (as well as in Rome, and I would presume Florence) there are often men walking around to al fresco diners trying to sell their wares by flashing green lasers on your table and showing you kitschy items like toilet shaped lighters. It was such a peculiar sight to us since the wares they peddled and the potential customers they targeted seemed so incongruous. Case in point: the guy that came by multiple times trying to sell a singing, dancing stuffed animal to a group of six women aged 50+. I have to wonder how many sales they successfully make.

Right by Trattoria dal Biassanot there is a very random and very cool “peep hole” with views to a hidden canal. Neato.

Just across the street from all this wonderful pasta is the Piazza VIII Agosto, which turned into a market for the days we were there. We did a little shopping and I caved and bought a pair of Italian shoes. Oh, and after a wine-y lunch the three of us bought matching sunnies from a street vendor. Tripletsies!

The main square, Piazza Maggiore, and the surrounding area was also lots of fun to walk around.

This city has a very young, liberal and “Occupy” vibe. There is a ton of graffiti, and even more college-aged people.

Though for some reason, all of the younger boys here look like Justin Bieber.

The boys climbed up the taller and straighter standing of the Two Towers of Bologna for some sweet views of the red rooftops, and we all shared a ridiculously good slice of pizza just outside.

I tried, I really tried to do my body some good and eat a salad one night, but you guys, this was what I got when I ordered the insalate:

To be fair, there was a sprig of parsley, so I did eat some greens while in Italy.

Practical Info

Bologna is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, a region many assert has Italy’s best cuisine. And certainly its finest motor-works. Among other things, this area is home to Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, Balsamic Vinegar Tradizionale di Modena, Bolognese sauce (ragu), Lambrusco, Ducati, Maserati, Lamborghini, Pagani (maker of the $1.3MM Huayra) and Ferrari.

The city also holds Europe’s oldest university and is famous for its extensive porticoes. While Bologna can’t match Rome, Florence or Venice for big-name attractions, this also means that it’s far less touristy. The vibe is part professorial, part art student, part Occupy Wall Street and all epicurean delight. I have never seen more cured meat and cheese shops.

Transportation: We arrived by rental car from Florence, and getting out of there was a nightmare. Once here, we parked in the underground lot at Piazza VIII Agosto (€20/day) and didn’t touch our car until we departed for Cinque Terre. We walked around the city, and our day tour included transportation.

Accommodation: We stayed at an Airbnb apartment on Via Galliera near Piazza VIII Agosto. You might want to be closer to Piazza Maggiore, but if you don’t mind walking then our area is more than sufficient. There are more than enough bars and restaurants nearby, and every Friday and Saturday Piazza VIII Agosto is filled with a market.

Food and Drinks: The main reason we came to Bologna, and we were not disappointed. In addition to items mentioned above, Bologna is known for its stuffed pasta (mainly tortellini or tortelloni, sometimes in broth). Via Pescherie Vecchie and surrounding streets have a particularly high concentration of meat, cheese and wine shops.

We liked Trattoria dal Biassanot a lot, especially since it has an option to create your own plate with three different types of pasta. Lunch at Caffe/Trattoria del Rosso was very good. Pizzeria Due Torri has excellent slices. Dinner at Twinside was good though the pasta was maybe not as good as others. Its burger was delicious.

Kenny and I had a more high-end meal at Trattoria Battibecco, which was excellent. I had never heard of canocchie (the same as mantis shrimp?), but they sure imparted a rich shellfish flavor to the broth coating our rigatoni. It was nice to take a break from wine and enjoy a Laphroaig 15 year and Mortlach 10 year, both cask strength and from Wilson & Morgan (independent bottlers based in Italy). The meal was quite reasonable at €102, including fancy whisky, a foie gras starter, that canocchie pasta and some monkfish in bread crumbs with bacon.

Afterwards we bought a bottle of wine (only €12) at some bar on Vicolo Ranocchi and enjoyed it at a table outside. This little alley and many others hold plenty of revelers. There were also some places with outdoor live music in this central area.

A crepe filled with mascarpone, nutella and strawberries was about as good as street sweets get. Find it at Bombocrep. We tried to go to Ristorante Donatello for dinner but it was full; it looked like the place to be.

Activities: The highlight was definitely our all day Amazing Italy food tour (€120 each, covered above). In the city, we walked around and enjoyed the architecture, never-ending food shops, Via Zamboni (where the college kids hang), Piazza Maggiore, etc. Kenny and I climbed the 498 steps of the Tower of Asinelli (€3 each) for great views. The Portico of San Luca, leading up to the Madonna of San Luca Sanctuary, is reportedly one of the longest arcades in the world.

September 10-13, 2014 (Wednesday-Saturday)

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