Bologna. Most of us know it as an alternative spelling of baloney, the meat product, not the expression of disgust. But to Italians Bologna means cuisine, seriously good food that is not too serious.
This is our third visit to Bologna, none, however, lasting more than a day. Through those visits we have only scratched the surface, like the grating of parmigiano cheese, which is much beloved in this, its home region. Once again we are only passing through, spending less than twenty four hours in this center of Emilia-Romagna and center of the culinary world. We will try to make the most of our time here.
Despite the beautiful, historic city, the unbelievable food and the luxury hotel, this will not be easy. After ten days in Italy we have hit the wall. It happens in all endeavors, when you think you cannot go on. It happened on our bike trip to Fiesole, it happened while straining to stay awake for the Red Sox’ game seven come from behind victory and it is happening now, on a larger scale, with our trip. At some point you begin to doubt your ability to go on, despite your desire. We have reached that point, that wall. Today will test whether we can break on through to the other side.
Too much food. Too much wine. Too much grappa. Hard to imagine.
Too many late nights. Too many early mornings. Too many things to do. Too many things undone.
In short, too much of a good time.
This is the time that really tests your mettle. Today we will see what we are made of.
* * *
We actually arrive in Bologna the night before, having taken part in an orgy of truffles on our way out of Umbria. The weather had turned dismal – dark and rainy – and the two hour drive from Citta di Castello to Bologna, despite being on modern highway, is a bit, as they say, nerve wracking. While Italy’s autostradas, their principal highways, are generally wide and nearly equivalent to U.S. highways, their minor highways are typically narrower and when it rains the darkness makes it very difficult to see the road surface. This task is made easier by the fact that traffic is bunched so tightly together, with cars overtaking you at 160 km/hr (or 100 mph), others driving up right behind you and flashing their lights and lorries bumper on bumper as far as the eye can see so that they seem to be one enormous convoy (until one decides to make a break for it by lurching unannounced into the left hand lane, causing everyone else to slam on brakes and dig down deep for the most obscene hand gesture in one’s repertoire. The Italians are very good at this.)
We arrive in Bologna several hours behind our anticipated ETA, the rain continuing to fall, making navigating to the city center difficult. Traffic is horrible, as it is nearly seven o’clock, and pedestrians dart in front of us, oblivious to the possibility that we might just run them down. At this point, purposely. We drive down all of the main streets, ignoring the “authorized traffic only” signs, as guests of the hotels in city centers can generally drive with impunity, the hotel calling the local police station to annul any tickets that would otherwise have resulted from traffic cameras recording the violation. Our route to the Grand Hotel Baglione is completely contorted this evening, however, and we at last arrive in front of the hotel after having traversed every sacred, historic and traffic limited avenue in the city. When I speak with the bellman to request that he take down our license plate and register our car with the police, explaining the route we have taken, a horrified look comes over his face. The Baglione, despite being the best hotel in Bologna, can only take care of tickets on one specific route, of which we had been completely unaware and which, of course, we have not at all followed. The fine we likely will face is upwards of €70.
We check into our room and ask the concierge to arrange a dinner reservation for us, declining his kind offer of eating in the hotel dining room (“that would not be our preference”) and within an hour we are out the door and on our way to our evening’s destination, the Ristorante al Montegrappa (Via Montegrappa, 2, Bologna, tel. 051.236331). Even the name sounds good.
From the outside Montegrappa appears to be nothing special, and Suzy suspects from the outset that it is a tourist restaurant, a trap for unsuspecting travelers arranged by a concierge who gets a kickback. Within a few moments, however, we realize our fears have been unfounded. We are seated in an impossibly narrow room, about three bodies wide from the wall to a waiter’s station behind which our waiter and the cashier/hostess are constantly preparing antipasti plates and other small plates for diners in our room and in the other dining rooms of the restaurant. The four tables in our room are two diners wide, and each table is separated by a padded bench. Diners sit next to one another, facing their table and the backs of the party in front of them. Although it is quite comfortable, it is sort of like sitting on a bus.
The food is, as we have come to expect in Bologna, awesome. Awesome but simple. We start with an affetato misto, mixed sliced meats that include salamis, cured meats and a few types of head cheese (to make this “food,” you basically put an animal in a cuisinart, pour the liquefied remains in a casing, slice and serve. Just set it and forget it.) We do not intend to try the head cheese, but are strangely drawn to it. It is delicious. If you can stop yourself from thinking about what it is. Suzy follows this up with a hearty vegetable soup and I have a tagliatelle bolognese, a flat pasta with the traditional meat sauce that originated in this town. Several days earlier, at our cooking class in Assisi, our teacher Letizia implored us never to cut our pasta. This proves to be quite difficult as each strand of tagliatelle is about thirty feet long. The pasta is so long, in fact, that it appears that the entire plate might very well be comprised of a single noodle. I struggle as best I can, twirling a single noodle on my fork, but the resulting skein is like a bowling ball, entirely too big to fit in my mouth. After a while I cut the tagliatelle into smaller pieces, spying around the room to make sure no one is watching.
Next comes the main course, which will live forever in our memories, in our private pantheon of dinner lore. This dining hall of fame is already populated with such great courses as the risotto with rooster testicles, gelatinized cow brain and our nephew’s look of disgust when his Florentine zampa was served, a cow foot replete with chewy tendon and gelatinous grey gravy. Tonight Suzy wants to be adventurous and orders the bollito misto, mixed boiled meats that she knows will be a challenge. She assure me that she is up for the challenge.
Our waiter applauds her courage and some moments later a white plate with four unidentifiable masses that we imagine are some sort of meat, is arrayed before her. The waiter points to each and indentifies them, like a medical student describing the parts of a cadaver, which, frankly would probably be more appetizing than the carnage on her plate. Tongue, presumably from a cow. Zampa, our old friend, but this time just a cross section from the foot, rather than the entire foot in all its glory. The Emilia variety is red, rather than the Tuscan gray. We are not sure whether this is an improvement. A flattened gray flesh the waiter simply calls “meat.” Perhaps on the dark, rainy drive to Bologna we have run this over with our car. We strongly suspect so and consider asking for a discount. And everyone’s favorite, muso di vitello, the lovable veal snout. This gray cross section of inedible meat surrounded by a gelatinous fat and ringed with a layer of gray skin, complete with occasional whisker is so foul even Suzy cannot eat it. She is a real trooper, finishing nearly everything as I look on with tears streaming down my face, making it difficult to see my scaloppini with porcini mushrooms. Sometimes you just gotta break the rules.
* * *
The next morning we are met in our hotel lobby by Rita Mattioli, a local Bolognese woman who among other things runs a cooking school. Our concierge has arranged this, our third cooking class in a span of four days, and we are looking forward to the class, particularly a trip to the local produce market.
Along the way to the market Rita shows us some of the sites of this historic city. It is overcast and occasionally drizzling, but we are kept dry by the porticos that cover the city’s sidewalks. In fact Bologna has, according to Rita, over 40 kilometers of porticos, which give the city center a unique character as well as being very practical in this rainy city. Along the way we pass through the city’s main piazza and immediately recognize a caffe where nearly two decades ago Suzy, my father and I had wandered to get a coffee and sit outside, leaving my mother behind in our hotel and taking in the sights and smells of the city. There we were entertained by a couple of old Italian men who argued with one another in such animated fashion, hands flying in one gesture after another and the drama so thick that they should have been awarded an Oscar. After all of this arguing and gesticulating they embraced, the best of friends despite the nearness of coming to blows just moments before. As I recall this scene it reminds me of our real estate negations only a few days ago.
The market is a magical experience. For Suzy, ever the foodie, this is really the raison d’etre of the cooking class, a chance to visit the best food market in the best food city in the world. We enter the collection of outdoor stalls and open shops from a small alleyway and are underwhelmed by the size of the market. We have visited larger indoor markets and more impressive outdoor markets in our travels throughout Italy. But as we move from stall to stall, shop to shop, discovering a strange item of produce here, which Rita describes to us and talks about possible uses, an unusual fruit there, we can tell that she is sizing us up, evaluating our interest and talent level. Although she has prepared a menu in advance, she buys additional foods, responding to our interests, and speaks of how we will add this or that to our meal. When I see zucchini flowers and tell her how much I adore them, she vows that she will teach us how to fry them. I am very excited now.
We end up with several bags of exotic produce which we will examine or add to our menu and then we head toward Rita’s apartment. Along the way she asks us which wines we would like to drink with our meal and we reply “anything other than wines from here,” an acknowledgement that despite being the food capital of Italy, Emilia-Romagna produces no wines of distinction. Most of their grape production is, thankfully, allocated to the production of balsamic vinegar. Despite being a booster of the region, Rita agrees with us and we decide to select a couple of wines from some of Italy’s better wine producing areas. We then stop for a glass of prosecco at the Antica Drogheria Calzolari (Via G. Petroni, 9, Bologna, tel. 051.22.28.58), described by Rita as one of the country’s best enotecas, or wine shops. When we tell the brothers who run the enoteca that we would like a white and red wine from another region, which they have in abundance, because we do not believe there are any good Emilia wines, they rise to the occasion and suggest two wines, which later turn out to be quite good.
A few minutes later we are inside Rita’s spacious, beautifully appointed apartment. Her kitchen is, like the other kitchens we have cooked in on this trip, outfitted with professional equipment, but has the feel and character of a family kitchen. We begin preparing for the class and within moments later we are learning the secrets of making pasta by hand. Unlike our class in Assisi, in which Letizia taught us how to achieve a great result with little work, Rita will teach us how to make pasta with soul, for here in Bologna, pasta is a religion. She starts by laying two enormous boards on a table for us to work the dough. We measure out our flour and hollow out a well in the middle, adding an egg. Working the egg into the flour with a fork, Rita then shows us how to work the dough with the heels of our hands, imploring us to use our whole body, rhythmically stretching and rolling the dough as we sway from side to side, not isolating the activity in our hands or arms or trunks, but working it with our entire bodies. She goes into the next room and turns on some rhythmic music, pulsing, steamy and with sensual beat, and shows us how to sway and work the dough. This is Dirty Dancing meets Molto Mario, and as Rita sidles up to show me the proper hip contortions I am thinking Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost. I don’t care if the pasta tastes like dirt. This is fun.
We finish making pasta and light up a cigarette (just kidding) and head back to the kitchen where we will learn the secrets of Bolognese meat sauce. The secret is that there is no single recipe, but a process which allows and actually calls for innovation and change, depending upon what is available in your kitchen and what is fresh. There is a definite order to things and Rita proves very adept at explaining the theory behind the process.
A tiramisu follows. Not at all a fan of tiramisu, Suzy goes through the motions as we separately beat egg whites with chocolate and egg yolks with vanilla sugar, adding to both concoctions a goodly amount of mascarpone cheese. I can see Suzy’s interest pique when we begin to assemble the dessert, as the possibilities are becoming evident.
Next, Rita shows me how to make a simple pastella, a batter for frying our zucchini flowers. It is really quite simple although not at all enticing looking. The proof will be, as they say, in the pudding. Or at least the fried zucchini flowers.
Before retiring to the table we slice some interesting veggies that are related to mushrooms, which we spotted at the market. Rita chops some celery and adds parmigiano and the result is spectacular. For the next nearly two hours we eat, drink, talk and get to know this wonderful woman whose love of her native cuisine is matched by her love of so many different aspects of her native culture. She speaks effortlessly on countless subjects as we down tortellini, which is made from our pasta dough and tossed in a sage butter sauce, tagliatelle with our Bolognese sauce, fried zucchini flowers, a salad of mushrooms, plates of cured meats that we had selected from the market just hours ago, and, of course, parmigiano reggiano cheese served with aged balsamico tradizionale. All this is washed down with very drinkable red and white wines from Emilia-Romagna and finished off with the most remarkable tiramisu imaginable. This dessert is simply heavenly.
We have now finished our cooking itinerary on this trip. Three classes in four days. During those classes we have found friendship and fellowship, tasted good food and good wine. We have learned much and been much entertained. Each class has been different. Each class has stood well on its own. Each one has left us thinking in a particular way, the collective result of which is an even greater appreciation for food and wine. We are indeed fortunate to have had this experience. Unfortunately, after all of this, our pants are now very tight. Perhaps it is just the humidity.
* * *
We say our goodbyes to Rita, having fallen for her charms and smarts. But now we must leave Emilia-Romagna and begin a three hour drive toward Alba in northwest Italy, a trip that will have us leave central Italy and enter a very different world, northern Italy. Our time in Bologna, while too short, has been memorable, but we have, as alluded to earlier, hit a wall. Three more hours in a car, driving in darkness and a driving rain, is not a prospect to which we look forward. What keeps us going is that our destination is the Osteria dell’Arco in Alba, sister restaurant to the restaurant where the Slow Food movement was reputedly born and that we are to meet our friends from Washington, Dick and Edy Lasner. We press on through the gloom of night and arrive at the restaurant ahead of schedule.
The osteria is a Slow Food restaurant, one that subscribes to the principles of that organization – the right to pleasure and a commitment to the joy of eating. Walking into the osteria, with its inviting décor, tables full of groups engaged in conversation, laughing and smiling, and the smell and sights of good food, we know that we have come home. Dick and Edy are at the table and within minutes we are deep in conversation about their trip, ours, and our mutual love of the Red Sox. We each order a tasting menu, which takes the difficulty out of ordering different courses and which comes with a number of glasses of different wines and after three hours the restaurant is empty, save for the four of us. Once again, it is food to the rescue.
It is amazing how the pleasures of the table can fortify not just the body, but also the spirit. On this day in the region in which Slow Food was founded, our friends from Washington, along with a wonderful new friend from Bologna, helped sustain us and helped us break on through to the other side. Getting to the finish line should be easy.
Bill and Suzy