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Oh, Bologna… what a happy accident you were.
You see, I was never planning on going to Bologna. I was just trying to make my way from Switzerland to Bulgaria, only that flights leaving Switzerland were outrageously priced. So, travel hacker that I am, I used Kiwi’s radius search function and found a 20 euro flight leaving Bologna. Just like that, I was booking train tickets to Italy for 72 hours, determined to try as much food in Bologna as I could fit in my stomach in that time frame.
My Italian grandmother was from Piemonte, but she always had a special love in her heart for the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna. Her homemade gnocchi con ragú alla bolognese is and forever will be my favorite dish of all time (but only when she makes it, naturally, although my American-born dad does a close second).
Rich in dairy and egg pastas, the food of Emilia-Romagna is humble, filling, and proud. And there’s no better place to start exploring the variety of Northern Italian cuisine than by sampling the food in Bologna.
I went on two food tours while in Bologna; one with Italian Days Food Experience, which runs a small group food tour that’ll check off all the boxes on your Emilia Romagna foodie bucket list, and other with Yummy Italy, which organizes bespoke custom tours centered on your particular interests.
Both are excellent but appeal to different audiences. Italian Days is great if you want to be a part of a small group tour and learn about all the major foods of the region and leave with a solid overview of what food in Bologna is like.
You’ll go to a Parmesan factory, a prosciutto factory, a small balsamic operation, and a delicious vineyard restaurant for lunch where you’ll try a variety of traditional Bolognese pastas and wines. Everything is organized for you, which is perfect if you don’t know what you want to see but want an overview of the region and to eat some amazing food.
Yummy Italy is more specialized, as Helena custom organizes each tour to appeal to what her clients want to experience. Having done the Italian Days food tour first and having seen all the major D.O.P. products that make food in Bologna so famous, I asked Helena to organize a custom wine tour for me.
I’m a huge fan of Lambrusco and Italian wine in general, and wanted to see some wineries in the region. She set up an amazing tasting for me where I got to sample some lesser-known varietals in the house of one of the region’s best small winemakers, followed by a Lambrusco pairing with lunch. It was an amazing day and I learned so much about winemaking in the region – she’s a sommelier, so if you’re at all into wine, I highly recommend contacting her if in Bologna!
Must-Eat Food in Bologna
Parmigiano Reggiano (D.O.P)
Italy’s most famous cheese for a reason: a sprinkling of this delicious, flavorful cheese will brighten up any dish it garnishes. Aged a minimum of twelve months, Grade 1 Parmigiano can be aged indefinitely. As it ages, it develops crystals with a sharper, more concentrated cheese flavor. On my Italian Days tour, we got to sample three separate ages of cheese: one year, two year, and five year cheese.
We also got to tour the organic farm where the cheese was made, which was a fascinating insight into just how much love goes into these cheeses. The farm places a premium on animal welfare, milking the cows only once per day to increase their quality of life and lifespan (a normal dairy cow only lives 6-8 years; their cows live to be up to 15).
It’s a small operation, with a maximum of 24 wheels of cheese in one day – though that all depends on how much milk the cows have to give.
We watched pretty much the whole process of heating, straining, and stirring the cheese, and it was pretty magical to see the enormous pile of curds — Parmigiano-to-be — get lifted out of the vat with incredible coordination.
We also got to see a hall of over 7,000 wheels of cheese, aka where I want to get married one day.
Prosciutto di Parma (D.O.P.) and other cured meats
Food in Bologna is very pork-centric. I’m obsessed with pork products, so I was super thrilled to see a real live prosciutto factory in Parma! You’ll see proscuitto on the menu of virtually every Bologna restaurant, so it’s cool to see its source.
Prosciutto di Parma refers only to one specific cut of pork (the leg), so this factory also produces meats from the other parts of the pork as well, including some of my personal favorites: culatello (which is actually rarer and more expensive than prosciutto di parma, go figure!), guanciale (the fatty pork cheek), and pancetta (pork belly).
We got to try pretty much every kind of pork product they make at the factory at a little makeshift picnic in the parking lot.
The charcuteries paired perfectly with some Lambrusco and Pignoletto — a sparkling red and white, respectively.
What we think of as bologna, Bolognans think of as mortadella. A far cry from what passes for mortadella or bologna in the United States, true Italian mortadella is rich and smooth, dotted with circles of creamy, melty lard. I wish I could make it sound better than that, but it tastes outrageously good, especially with some white wine.
On my tour with Helena of Yummy Italy, we paired some funky wine varietals few people ever get to try, let alone hear of – an Alionza, which is a cousin of the more famous Pignoletto grape, and a Negretto, a temperamental and obscure grape that dedicated winemakers like Erioli are nurturing out of near-obsolescence.
She told me how mortadella is made: the loin, shoulder, and cheek are boiled together for 24 hours, then ground and mixed together with spices. Fat from the neck is added at the end before being put in their cases, then sliced thin to order. That’s how the sausage gets made.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (D.O.P.)
Again, what we think of as balsamic vinegar is a far cry from the real deal. Food in Bologna is often this way; there’s a real version, and then the bastardized American version (see: Kraft parmesan). The truth is in the numbers: balsamic vinegar of Modena (IGP) that you buy at the grocery store is aged two months; traditional balsamic (DOP), 12 years (or more!). 98 million liters of balsamic vinegar are produced annually versus a mere 10,000 liters of traditional balsamic vinegar.
The real deal is dense, sweet, and syrupy; a condiment rather than an ingredient. It’s delicious drizzled over fresh ricotta or on tortelloni with cream.
Gramigna alla salsiccia
Lest you think I forwent the pasta… HAHAHA never. One of my favorite things about food in Bologna is that true Italian pasta has a dizzying number of shapes and sizes. Each pasta shape is specifically suited for the sauce it goes with.
Gramigna, with its nooks and crannies, is perfect for a creamy sausage-based sauce, as little bites of the sausage get swept up with every bite.
Maccheroncini con pesto
Pesto is a Genovese creation, but it’s made its way throughout all of Italy with good reason. Served with maccheroncini (little macaroni, essentially), basil pesto, fresh tomatoes, and pine nuts, it’s a delicious summer dish.
I tasted some when eating with Helena of Yummy Italy and I must say, it went absolutely perfectly with a cold glass of Lambrusco!
Tortellini en brodo
This dish is so simple, it’s genius. A capon (a castrated rooster) is made into a rich, simple broth, in which perfectly shaped meat-filled tortellini float delicately.
It is traditional to offer parmesan on the side, but my waiter requested that I not add the parmesan – that the dish is more pure and delicious without it. Even this cheese-lover had nothing to complain about: each bite of the tortellini burst with meat flavor, enhanced by the subtle capon broth. No cheese necessary.
Helena told me that the tortellini should fit seven to one spoon: I’m happy to report that this place hit the mark exactly!
Tortelloni (with sage or cream sauce)
Tortellini with an i are small; tortelloni with an o are big. Tortelloni are typically stuffed with fresh ricotta and served with a simple sauce, such as a butter and sage sauce or a light cream sauce with balsamic drizzle.
The richness of the egg pasta mixed with the softness of the ricotta and the simple sauces…. Italian food, why are you just consistently the best?
Tagliatelle al ragu bolognese
Forget spaghetti bolognese — if you spend your time eating that in Bologna, you may well get deported. Kidding, but maybe you should.
The real deal is served with tagliatelle, not spaghetti: a hand-made ribbon cut egg pasta that catches little bites of minced (not ground!) meat on each forkful.
Grigliata mista di carne
Mixed grill – because only Italians are crazy enough to think that pasta is a starter.
When you’ve eaten enough to make your stomach whimper, be prepared, because in all likelihood another course is coming right at you. A mixed meat grill (mercifully served with some grilled vegetables as well) is delicious and common at large events or gatherings. Not heavily spiced or sauced like American barbecue, Italian grilled meats are done simply so that the char of the meats and the meat flavor can shine through.
Salsiccia con friggione
This was one of my favorite dishes — a freeform, caseless sausage served with a side of a simple Bolognese classic made of tomatoes and onions cooked until melty soft and sweet.
The presentation isn’t the most elegant, but when it tastes so good, who freaking cares?
DUH. You don’t go to Italy without eating gelato, unless you’re vegan, allergic to dairy, or have some other horrible affliction. And even then, you better double up on the sorbet to make up for all the creamy goodness you’re missing.
My favorite gelateria was recommended to me by Helena of Yummy Italy: Gelateria Galliera 49. All the flavors are incredible, trust me: I tried six different ones in my time in Bologna… Standouts were the salted caramel, pistachio, and mascarpone.
Fact: Italians don’t drink cappuccinos after breakfast, and doing so will get you some serious side-eye.
Instead, finish your meal with an espresso – it settles the stomach, encourages digestion, and will lift you out the serious food coma you just got yourself into.
Must-Try Wine in Bologna
Part of the reason I was so excited to come to Emilia-Romagna was to try all the different wines, particularly as I’m a huge fan of Lambrusco. Lambrusco is an Italian red grape served cold and frizzante, which is not quite as bubbly as champagne but definitely fizzy. There are four different grapes which make up the general “Lambrusco” category: Sorbara, Reggiano, Grasparosso, and Salomino. I coudn’t tell you the differences between them, but I do know that most I’ve tried are the Reggiano variety, and they’ve all been delicious.
Lambrusco goes perfectly with Italian meats and is lovely with lunch outside on a hot summer day. The flavors vary, but typically it’s very fruity and rich, sometimes earthy, with all the red fruit flavors undercut by the nice punch of bubbles.
Pignoletto is the yin to Lambrusco’s yang: a tangy, fruity sparkling white that also goes perfectly with cold cuts and cured meats. When done properly, Pignoletto has great tartness and acidity to balance out all the aromatics and fruit.
Pignoletto is a bit thicker-skinned than a lot of grapes, which lends it more tannic structure – making it hold up to food as well as an interesting wine to enjoy on its own.
Alionza is a cousin of Pignoletto that’s fallen a bit out of fashion, as winemakers everywhere rush to produce more Chardonnays and Cabernets. The good news is that those who do grow Alionza do so not because it’s a gold mine, but because it’s a passion for them.
Erioli is one such winemaker. He’s famous for his Pignolettos but when given the choice I opted to try Alionza, as it was such a rare opportunity. It was absolutely delightful: smelling of tropical fruit and honey with some pleasant oxidative notes, great acidity, and some minerality for good measure.
Another rare varietal slowly coming back into fashion, negretto is considered one of Italy’s secret wines as only a handful of winemakers, all in the Emilia Romagna region, make it. It’s quite tannic, fickle when it comes to the heat, and it’s fussy — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You gamble a bit when you vinify Negretto.
But oh, do I wish more people did. Erioli’s Negretto was a masterpiece: chocolate, blackberry, coffee, olives, all swirling together on the nose and changing as the wine opened up. It was silky smooth, the tannins tamed by the hand of a master winemaker.
Where to Stay in Bologna
If you’re planning a trip to Bologna, Hotel Novecento is one of the best four star hotels in town. My single room was spacious and comfortable, with thoughtful amenities like cookies, coffees, and teas refreshed daily (not that I ever needed to eat any with all the food I gorged on). I appreciated the artful details like the funky pillows, floor-length curtains and stylish lamps.
Plus, the fact that it had a proper workspace was a huge bonus for me! More and more as I blog, I find myself needing a place where I can sit down with my laptop and bang out some work. The great workspace plus excellent wifi made it a perfect mini home office for the time.
The rooms are not huge (most rooms in the historic centers in Italy aren’t), but my single was comfortable and plenty of space for one. They also have double rooms if you’re traveling with a partner or just want extra space to stretch out in.
Note: Thank you to Yummy Italy and Italian Days Food Experience for providing me with complimentary tours during my stay, and to Hotel Novecento for hosting me for two nights. As always, all opinions are my own.