Window-shopping in any large Italian city can be one long torment. One window shows the latest in Italy’s chic and lovely fashions. Lose ten pounds and you too could look like the svelte mannequin in the Armani outfit.
But the next window artfully displays delicate pink prosciutto and spicy mortadella, crusty loaves of golden bread and fragrant apple fagottini, great rounds of parmesan, provolone and torta di gorgonzola in mascarpone. Tempting, seductive – irresistible.
In Bologna, in the heart of the rich rolling countryside of Emilia-Romagna in north central Italy, the battle is over; the war is lost. Food wins, hands down.
Called La Dotta – the learned one – because of its great university, the oldest in Europe, Bologna is also nicknamed La Grassa – the fat one – because of its rich cuisine.
“Rich” is an understatement. The classic Ragu Bolognese includes all the usual suspects _olive oil, tomato paste, onions, carrots, celery and wine. But it also calls for butter, bacon, pork, beef, sausage, chicken livers and liberal dollops of cream.
All Italians think the cuisine of their own hometown is the best in the country. But they all agree that Bologna’s comes next. Gourmands among them will drive for hours to enjoy a leisurely meal of lasagna, veal cutlets and torta di zucchini4 (all of them all Bolognese) in one of the city’s renowned restaurants.
Walk along any of the broad streets that radiate out from the town’s central square Piazza Maggiore. Try Via Rizzoli, for instance, on a pleasant sunny morning in late winter. Already cafÈ tables are set out under the high portico that covers the sidewalks. White-coated waiters deftly balancing trays of espresso and slender glasses of liqueur thread their way through the throngs of well-dressed customers. Hanging over all is a mélange of scents: strong dark coffee and cigarettes, perfume and Amaretto. Mix in the aromatic smell of roasting chestnuts from the open-air charcoal brazier on the corner, and the mÈlange becomes intoxicating.
Posters plaster the ancient walls, announcing jazz sessions,
rock concerts, lectures, yoga courses, religious ceremonies,
This city of 500,000 is off the beaten tourist track for North Americans. But Bologna is famous across Europe for more than its rich cuisine. It’s also known for its medieval architecture, left-leaning politics, well-run public services, its dynamic economy and the mellow, relaxed, democratic style of life enjoyed by its prosperous citizens.
Itís a lifestyle that can be soaked up merely by strolling the streets on a mild winter morning, browsing in one of the city’s many bookstores or stopping for a cappuccino at a crowded bar in the lively university district. Posters plaster the ancient walls, announcing jazz sessions, rock concerts, lectures, yoga courses, religious ceremonies, political demonstrations. Scholars walk briskly along carrying bulging briefcases and sporting the inevitable berets. Black-clad students sit in a circle on the limestone steps, listening to a bearded young man in a Mexican serape strumming a guitar and singing Italian folk songs.
But it’s in Bologna’s restaurants where it all comes together, the great food, wealth, sophistication and camaraderie – that sense of social solidarity that is so pervasive in Bologna, and unusual in a country where birth, money, profession and appearance still count for a lot.
Guidebooks can always tell you where to find a good meal in Bologna. But I had my own method – follow the fat man. At noon the second day in the city, I followed one such chubby fellow, well dressed and prosperous looking, down a narrow street just off Via Rizzoli, through an even narrower lane between two medieval buildings, and then down a dark, twisting alley past scaffolding and overhauling balconies to the door of the Antico Ristorante Benso (Old Benso Restaurant).
There I was in a room of pink and white tablecloths, sparkling wine glasses and gleaming silver, with a roaring fire, flagstone floor, vaulted ceilings and dark medieval beams. I chose the lasagne alla Bolognese over the pasta with four kinds of mushrooms, skipped through the main course, and went straight to dessert. There the choice was more difficult. Seeing my hesitation, the waiter insisted on bringing a plate with a little bit of everything: torta di riso, créme caramel, glazed apple crostata and Saccher torte, along with a little bowl of warm roast chestnuts and a cup of espresso to end the meal.
I followed one such chubby fellow to the Antico Ristorante Benso
Later that week, riding a crowded early morning train to Rome to catch my flight back to Canada, I could hear two men and a woman in the adjoining seat talking heatedly about something. I remembered how I longed to learn the language when I first rode the trains of Italy, sure that these intense conversations were full of stories of love and death, politics and intrigue. Now I could understand the language and I knew what these passionate conversations were all about. One of the men, his hand cupped before him, was saying, “First you take the tomato and you slice it very thinly.”
Mortadella: a type of Italian smoked sausage.
Fagottini: small turnovers.
Torta di gorgonzala in mascarpone: cake made of gorgonzola and mascarpone cheese.
Torta di zucchini: zucchini cake.
Torta di riso: rice cake.
About the Author: Liz Guccione is a Toronto-based freelance journalist who has written for CBC Television and Radio, and for many Canadian magazines, including Chatelaine, Homemakers, Maclean’s, and the Financial Post Magazine.