John Brunton indulges in old-fashioned home cooking and fresh pasta on a gourmet tour of the northern Italian city.
Culinary journeys: a banquet in Bologna
I have left my home in Venice on a mission, taking the train to nearby Bologna to discover if la cucina casalinga, old-fashioned Italian home cooking, really does still exist. This is a magnificent medieval city, home of one of the world's oldest and most respected universities, but visitors come here more for the wonderful food than the sightseeing.
Bologna is known as "La Grassa", or "the Fat One", the undisputed home of fresh pasta and the origin of the famous Bolognese sauce - a genuine foodie's paradise. And all my Italian friends have told me that if I am going to find authentic trattorie - where the archetypal "mamma" is still standing over her bubbling pots and pans, straining perfectly al dente spaghetti out of the boiling water - then it is going to be here, in the capital of the Emilia Romagna region.
I begin my investigations by plunging into the narrow side streets of the Mercato di Mezzo at the heart of the old Roman town centre, which has been the site of Bologna's market for more than 2,000 years. Little has changed today. The Bolognese spurn air-conditioned supermarkets, preferring to do their shopping at these hole-in-the-wall vendors who display a cornucopia of fresh fish, meat and vegetables.
In the heart of the Mercato, I start talking to a group of grizzled locals playing cards inside Osteria del Sole, a locale that dates back to 1465, and allows clients to bring in food from the market and eat at one of the long communal tables. Farther down the alley where the market peters out, I stand outside a grandiose Gothic building, the Palazzo della Mercanzia (the Merchants's Palace), which has been the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce since the Middle Ages, and still takes the initiative today in protecting the traditions of Bologna's culinary heritage.
The Chamber of Commerce has officially registered the historic recipes of the city's most famous dishes (27 in all), including what should be in the stuffing of the tortellino, exactly how this minuscule pasta should be prepared, the ingredients and cooking process of the Bolognese ragu, and the exact dimensions of a tagliatella, with a sample created in gold. In fact, few visitors to Bologna realise that the world's most famous Italian dish - spaghetti Bolognese - is pure invention. The authentic dish is tagliatelle con ragu, so don't ever expect to see spaghetti Bolognese on a menu in Bologna, and should you dare to ask for it, prepare to be outcast.
Writing down recipes in stone is all very well but, as the English proverb says, the real proof of the pudding is in the eating. What makes Bologna unique is that the city's traditional trattorie continue to cook these recipes in the same manner today.
I begin my gourmet tour at Biagi, where Signora Dina Carbone has been cooking for almost 50 years, and where all the pasta is made by hand every day. Standing like an orchestra conductor in her tiny kitchen, she keeps a watchful eye on the bubbling cauldron of meat, vegetables and a whole capon that will produce the unforgettable brodo, or broth, that accompanies tortellini, while regularly tasting the ragu, which slowly simmers in a vast pot for hours, to see when is the perfect moment to add the surprising secret ingredient - a glass of milk. She proudly shows me that her tortellini are smaller than a 10-cent coin, and then pulls the capon out of the brodo pot to prove that it is the whole bird that must be boiled, not just cuts.
There is the same commitment to excellence when I meet the genial Signora Annamaria, who opened her Trattoria Annamaria nearly 30 years ago and describes it as a sanctuary of Bolognese cooking. She looks and acts the ebullient Italian mamma, telling me off for not eating enough and trying to get me to taste half the dishes on the menu. She gets straight to the point when I ask her about her wonderful plump tortelloni stuffed with Gorgonzola. "I have never bought ready-made pasta in my life,"she says. "Fresh pasta is what we are born with here in Bologna. You have to come and eat in the trattoria to try my pasta. I won't sell to take away because the hygiene laws here would make me put in preservatives and I'm not having them in my tortelloni."
Over at the Trattoria Danio, which has the sort of faded decor that would be perfect for a scene in The Godfather, I am enthusiastically greeted by the young, energetic owner, Fabio Gelfusa. When I ask how his kitchen manages to make the most perfect tagliatelle I have tasted, it turns out it is his aged papa who is the real boss, coming in early each morning to check that everything is being prepared according to the family recipes. The trattoria is full day and night, and this is another reason behind the success of Bolognese cuisine - it remains eminently affordable. Bologna is one of the few cities in Italy where it is almost impossible to pay a lot of money for a hearty meal.
That said, the city does have several grand gourmet restaurants, and I quickly discover that the standards and quality of cuisine are just as high there, too.
Ristorante Diana is a legend, the favourite address to see and be seen for sharp-suited businessmen, politicians, lawyers and journalists. The decor - and the waiters - haven't changed here in decades, and for once I pass on the pasta and order just a main course, another local speciality, the bollito misto. The waiter, impeccably dressed in white jacket and black tie, wheels up an enormous trolley filled with half-a-dozen different cuts of boiled meat - beef, tongue, calf's head, chicken - all accompanied by an array of savoury sauces, from horseradish and parsley to candied fruit. When American celebrity chef Mario Batali ate here, he said the bollito "brought him to tears". Memorable is the only word I can use to describe the meal.
My last stop is the elegant Caminetto d'Oro, which started out as a simple trattoria and has slowly transformed into a gastronomic dining room with a stellar list of wines. But the owner, Paolo Carati, confides that, despite their brigade of talented young chefs, the secret of their success is that his mamma has never given up control of her kitchen. A spry 75-year-old, Signora Maria di Giandomenico refuses to go into retirement.
"I started cooking in our family trattoria when I was 13," she says. "What am I going to do sitting at home? Watch TV? My home is here in the kitchen."
Her husband is in his eighties but he still comes in every morning because the fresh pasta is his responsibility. La Signora keeps her eye on everything else and is still here at midnight when the last guest finally goes home. By now I am totally convinced that cucina casalinga is alive and flourishing in Bologna. Paolo tells me that Bologna does not have world-famous museums displaying masterpieces by Titian and Canaletto. "Here," he says instead, "our culture is food and our 'works of art' are hand-crafted pasta, Parmigiano cheese, balsamic vinegar."
As I leave, Paolo urges me to visit the city's most historic pasta maker, and I find myself back in the Mercato di Mezzo. Entering the grand food hall of Paolo Atti & Figli is more like walking into a museum than a store.
For 130 years, through five generations, it has had an unrivalled reputation for making the finest tortellini in Bologna. The prices are quite frightening. When I ask a local if this is reasonable, he gives me a wry look: "You really have no idea how much time and expertise goes into making these marvels."
There is even the same pursuit of perfection at Majani, which has been creating irresistible chocolate temptations since 1796. The brand is known throughout Italy because of an association with the Fiat motor company which goes back a century. Italians have grown up buying Majani's trademark Fiat chocolates.
Cheese in Bologna means Parmigiano Reggiano, which is produced in the surrounding countryside, and the place to buy formaggi in town is La Baita, a dairy that makes its own Parmigiano with a black crust on the outside due to its unique ageing process. Its long counter is decked with formaggi from the whole of Italy, precious aged balsamic vinegars, truffles and tasty smoked meats.
All that is left is to discover how to make the perfect pasta myself, and there are a host of excellent cooking schools in Bologna. But that will have to wait until my next trip.
If you go
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Biagi, 9 Via Savenella (www.ristorantebiagi.it; 00 39 051 4070 049)
Trattoria Annamaria, Via delle Belle Arti 17 (www.trattoriannamaria.com; 00 39 051 266 894)
Trattoria Danio, Via San Felice 50 (00 39 051 555 202)
Ristorante Diana, Via Independenza 24 (www.ristorantedianabologna.com; 00 39 051 231 302)
Caminetto D'Oro, Via Falegnami 4 (www.caminettodoro.it; 00 39 051 263 494)
Paolo Atti & Figli, Via Caprarie 7 (www.paoloatti.com)
Majani, Via Carbonesi 5 (www.majani.com)
La Baita Formaggi, 3 Via Pescherie Vecchie (00 39 051 223 940)