Bologna has long been on our list of dreamed-of destinations. This is for two reasons: It’s a city of arcades, and a city of food!
It’s a great city to wander around in. Even better to be led by a resident food enthusiast. Sarah was our guide. While she’s British originally, she’s lived in Emilia Romagna (the region of which Bologna is the capital) for over 30 years. She’s married to a local Italian, and is a travel and food journalist. And full of life and good humor!
Some notes from our wander with Sarah:
The Mercato delle Erbe (vegetable market) in Via Ugo Bassi: The city built this covered market in 1910, consolidating earlier open-air markets. The market was reconstructed after the destruction of World War II. Only recently (2014) dining options have been added. The result is a lively real local market married with foodie destinations.
Formaggeria Barbieri: Local cheese producer and purveyor since 1968. It’s all about the parmesan cheese. Parma, from which the cheese gets its name, is only 87 km / 54 mi from Bologna. But parmesan cheese is made in the region between Parma, Bologna, Modena and Mantua.
Parmesan cheese must be aged for a minimum of 12 months. After 48 months, the cheese starts developing deeper more complex flavors. The terroir of the cattle (land, grass, etc) affects the taste of the cheese. What we ate was almost sweet, without much saltiness, all because of how and where the cows were raised.
No surprise: fresh pasta made right before our eyes.
A stop at the Enoteca Italiana (enoteca means literally “wine depository,” so, really a wine shop). We enjoyed a bite of mortadella and bread while learning a bit about a couple of the local wines.
Pignoletto is a local white-wine DOC. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or Controlled Designation of Origin. This is an official designation related to grape varietals, production locations, and specific processing and aging techniques.) For a long time, locals were adamant that the Pignoletto grape was unique to this region and this wine. However, in 2014, DNA testing revealed that it is the same grape as a better-known and widely used grape, Grechetto. But the locals wanted to make sure that their local production was protected against unscrupulous producers elsewhere. The tradition for defining DOCs includes focusing on place-names (think Champagne and Barolo). But there’s no town or village with the name of Pignoletto. It took some work, but they “found” a previously unmarked location between Bologna and Modena that was called Pignoletto. Perfect. The official DOC Pignoletto was born, and local production protected.
You may know about Lambrusco sparkling wines. Perhaps you recall Riunite Lambrusco. This is a soda-like red sparkling wine, mass produced, that was popular starting in the 1970s. Lots of people think that this cheap Lambrusco version is all there is to this wine. In fact, there are over 60 types of Lambrusco grape varieties, of which quite a few produce lovely refreshing sparkling wines. For 10€ a bottle, you can find really nice Lambrusco wines. To which we can attest!
Market neighborhood just off the Piazza Maggiore (the main square): Via Pescherie Vecchie (the old fishmarket street): Sarah’s husband recalls shopping for weekly produce here with his grandmother. It’s still lively today, if decidedly more upscale.
Piadine con salumi et formaggi, and a glass of Pignoletto. Piadine are a local flatbread, usually made with white flour, lard or olive oil, salt and water. Perfect accompaniment for salami and ham.
Tortellini and tagliatelli
Tortellini are the little stuffed pasta rings. It is said that the navel of Venus inspired their creation. A snoopy innkeeper caught a glimpse of the goddess of love in her bedroom (why she was there is a mystery). Naturally, he rushed to his kitchen to make a pasta inspired by her belly button.
Now, tagliatelli (flat like fettuccine) are serious business. A precise 8mm gold bar sets to rigorous standard.
The whispering corners in the Palazzo Podestá, just off the Piazza Maggiore: Tradition says that this was a place which, in the Middle Ages, allowed lepers to confess their sins — securely far from their confessors (who, apparently, weren’t very trusting in their God). Without confessions or leprosy, Sarah and I tried it out. It works. OK, that’s nice; next…
A 16th-century pope commissioned this commanding statue of Neptune. It was the pope’s message to the people of Bologna that he was in charge. That outstretched hand controls the waters of the fountain — and the people of Bologna. More interesting to us is Neptune’s trident, the shape of which you may recognize from your Maserati. The birthplace of Maserati cars is Bologna. Since 1926, this trident has been Maserati’s mark.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, Bologna was a city of towers. This illustration looks more like 1920’s Manhattan. Many important families erected rival towers, probably as demonstrations of their wealth, but also as defenses for their land. Must have been quite a contentious period.
Two of the towers remain. They are the Asinelli and Garisenda Towers, or, known with nuance, the Two Towers. Neither is vertical any more. The taller of the two, the Asinelli, is 97 m / 319 ft tall.
A few Wikipedia notes about these symbols of Bologna:
The Asinelli Tower was used by the scientists Giovanni Battista Riccioli (in 1640) and Giovanni Battista Guglielmini (in the following century) for experiments to study the motion of heavy bodies and the earth rotation. In World War II, between 1943 and 1945, it was used as a sight post: During bombing attacks, four volunteers took post at the top to direct rescue operations to places hit by Allied bombs. Later, a RAI television relay was installed on top. Architect Minoru Yamasaki is thought to have been inspired by the Towers when designing the World Trade Center during the 1960s. (source)
Finally, all these delightful arcades. There are 38 km / 24 mi of them! More than in any other city in the world. The first arcades appeared organically in the Middle Ages, probably as extensions of upper floors just to maximize floor area. At first they were constructed of wood and were simple overhangs.
In the 16th century, the papal governor decreed that they be rebuilt in bricks or stones. This revision gives us Bologna’s lovely vaulted arcades. More pragmatically, many Bolognese say they don’t need umbrellas thanks to the arcades.