ER On Tour: Bologna

Bologna is the city where I ran out of superlatives.

I’m used to picking city breaks on food and drink alone, doing plenty of research, booking restaurants and planning exactly where I’ll eat. I love traipsing round a cathedral, I like a gallery and I don’t mind a museum, but the food’s the thing I really make a pilgrimage for. And many of the cities still on my to do list are famous for their gastronomy – Lyon, for example, or San Sebastián. Bologna is in the same league, I think, and is a truly extraordinary place to eat and drink.

It’s beautiful, too. Miles of porticoes run throughout the city – some grand, some tatty but all offering shade when it’s sunny and shelter when it’s raining. The colour palette is like nowhere else I’ve visited – all reds, burnt oranges and dusky pinks. It’s a ridiculously photogenic place, but not picture-perfect and not remotely interested in being so pristine. It has far too much incredible life to it for that.

Bologna has many nicknames – la rossa, the red one, because of its red rooftops and communist history. La dotta, the learned one, because of its university, older even than Oxford. But more importantly, it’s called la grassa, the fat one, because it’s widely thought to be the gastronomic capital of Italy.

It’s in Emilia Romagna, the province of northern Italy responsible for Parma ham, Parmesan and balsamic vinegar. Bologna is also the place for pasta, whether that’s tagliatelle (never spaghetti) with rich ragu or tortellini in broth. And then there’s the local cheese, the mortadella, the wine, the growing craft beer scene; I’ve never been anywhere where food felt quite so front and centre in daily life, or anywhere where it was quite so easy to eat well.

It’s a real challenge to describe it without lurching into hyperbole, but what else can you do when you’ve eaten so many of your desert island dishes on one holiday? The best gelato, the best pasta, the best coffee… you come home feeling a little like you’ve gone from Technicolor to monochrome.

It’s not – at the moment, at least – a huge tourist destination: Rome, Florence and Venice are all far more fêted. But I loved it so much when I went last year that I went again this summer, and I loved it so much when I went this summer that I’m going again before the end of the year. If you’re considering a trip, I hope this list gives you some inspiration. Of course, once I come back from my next visit I might just have to add to it.

Where to eat and drink

1. Drogheria Della Rosa

I visited Drogheria Della Rosa on both my visits to Bologna and loved it both times although, on paper, it’s the kind of restaurant that could give buttoned-up Brits a panic attack. It’s a converted pharmacy, although generally you sit outside in the street enjoying the food, the buzz and the people-watching. The proprietor still stops at your table and asks what you want and – this is the bit which I found unnerving the first time – there’s no printed menu, wine list or prices anywhere to be seen.

Anyway, you soon get past that and everything I had there was terrific, from the ubiquitous tagliatelle al ragu to a veal dish my friend Al and I still rhapsodise over two years later (it wasn’t on offer on my second visit, to my eternal disappointment).

When you ask for a dessert wine they just bring over a bottle of Marsala and some glasses and leave you to it, another experience which is more fun the second time when you have a good idea how much the bill is going to be. But perhaps the best thing about Drogheria Della Rosa was the dessert – one of the simplest and cleanest I’ve ever eaten, a shallow bowl of pure, fresh mascarpone topped with top-quality grated chocolate. I daydream about that from time to time. I was having far too much fun to remember the size of the bill either time, but with a bottle of wine I don’t think it was far north of fifty Euros.

Drogheria Della Rosa, Via Cartoleria 10

2. Osteria Bottega

Osteria Bottega was probably the best of the many old-school restaurants I’ve tried in Bologna. I felt less likely to run into a group of Americans at an adjacent table (and they only had one person on the wait staff who spoke English) but if anything that made the whole thing more of a treat. It’s a nice, tasteful, reasonably basic room but the food is what stayed with me about my visit.

I picked this restaurant after a writeup on Andy Hayler’s blog. He’s an idiosyncratic reviewer – I always feel like he’s auditing rather than reviewing a restaurant – but he indisputably knows his onions and Osteria Bottega didn’t let me down. We started with a plate of aged culatello which could have matched any jamon iberico in Spain, served with slices of apple (a revelation) and plenty of Parmesan, because Parmesan is in plentiful supply in Bologna.

They just leave the bowl at your table, in fact – so unlike the stinginess here in Blighty – which enables you to finally work out the answer to the question how much Parmesan is too much Parmesan? (not that I ever reached a conclusive view on that).

It comes in especially handy with the tagliatelle al ragu, which was the best I had in Bologna – so intensely savoury, so rich, over so soon. Hayler says it’s a mixture of beef and pork leg that’s been cooked over an open fire, and he is the kind of man to check that sort of thing. Either way, I thought it was magnificent. The rest of the meal, for me, was marred by veal envy – my dining companion committed the unpardonable sin of ordering better than I did – but my rabbit porchetta was still a beautiful thing, even if it didn’t quite live up to the promise of the juxtaposition of those two words.

Osteria Bottega, Via Santa Caterina 51

3. La Verace

Another tip from Andy Hayler, La Verace is right on the edge of the city centre, not far from MAMbo, the modern art gallery. The gallery, like so many modern art galleries I’ve experienced on my trips to European cities, puts the f into art and isn’t necessarily worth visiting. La Verace, on the other hand, is well worth a detour.

I came for the pizza and it truly was one of the finest I’ve had, with a perfect crust and a rich, almost fragrant tomato sauce. But actually, all the other dishes were even better – especially shedloads of tender squid served on a deep, earthy chickpea purée. I still occasionally go on – to anybody who will listen – about the oven roasted potatoes, salty and fatty with a slightly medicinal tinge of rosemary: one of the cheapest things I ate in Bologna and easily one of the most memorable.

Next time I’ll keep away from the pizzas and explore the rest of the menu: I suspect there are more works of art in it than you’ll find round the corner.

La Verace, Via Cairoli 10

4. Scacco Matto

It’s very difficult to have a bad meal in Bologna (I never managed it), and the majority of restaurants I ate in were brilliant and accomplished but resolutely unshowy. There’s an awful lot to be said for that, but if you do want to try something more cheffy and ambitious Scacco Matto is the place for you.

I went there after watching Rick Stein, on his Long Weekends programme, eating Scacco Matto’s plin, ravioli filled with sweet onion and Parmesan, glossy with butter and served with thick slices of wild mushroom and hazelnuts. I’ve ordered it on both my visits to Scacco Matto and it’s a death row dream of a dish, a dish with a half-life where you eventually keep eating half of what’s left, hoping you can somehow cheat the laws of the universe and make it last forever.

But other dishes are available, and they’re every bit as good. On my last visit I ate a single squid, scattered with peas and broad beans, resting on a thick slab of pork, in the same breathless rapture. I finished off with two beautifully rare tranches of tuna with ginger and mange tout, a dish with roots a long way from Emilia Romagna but somehow completely at home here.

When my friends and I all ordered the plin the waiter smiled and said “Rick Stein?” and I thought how nice it was to take someone else’s restaurant advice for a change. It’s hard to imagine a visit to Bologna where I didn’t eat at this restaurant – and if you want a pre or post-dinner drink Birra Cerqua, one of Bologna’s preeminent craft beer brewpubs, is two minutes down the road.

Scacco Matto, Via Brocaindosso 63

5. Sette Tavoli

I heard lots of recommendations for Sette Tavoli but, shamefully, the main reason I chose it was that it could be booked online (not all Bologna restaurants have embraced the Internet). It gets its name from only having seven tables inside, although on the day I ate there it was hot as balls (during mini heatwave at the end of June) so we were out on the portico, trying to look unruffled, John Lewis portable fans whirring away like billy-o.

It has an attractive, short a la carte menu or you can pick one of two tasting menus centred around meat or fish. We went for the latter, accompanied with a very cold and crisp local white wine, and it was a properly lovely meal.

I enjoyed the fish encrusted in pistachio, served with a sweet and crunchy fennel salad, a clever bit of cooking on a dish delivered with minimum fuss or fannying about. But my absolute favourite was smoked salmon with ultra-caramelised onions and spuma di patate – the texture of creme fraiche but the distilled taste of spud at its most elemental. Nothing especially Italian about it, but who cares? It was nothing short of a magic trick, and yet another dish (Bologna is packed with them) that we talked about for days.

Sette Tavoli, Via Cartoleria 15/2

6. Simoni

One of the best things in Bologna is the Quadrilatero, the grid of streets just off Piazza Maggiore full of stalls selling pasta, cheese, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. And, for me, one of the best things in the Quadrilatero is Simoni – if you get there early enough at lunchtime you can grab one of the tables outside, order a bottle of Lambrusco (the local wine which is red, chilled and therefore nothing like any Lambrusco you might have experienced at home) and make inroads into a menu full of cheese, charcuterie and bread. It truly is a happy place for me.

On a previous visit my friends and I demolished a selection of charcuterie and cheese – salami, Parma ham, a bunch of delicious cheeses whose names escape me and mortadella, the signature meat of Bologna which you have to try even if, like me, you have a vague suspicion of unreally-pink mystery meat. But on my most recent trip it was all about bread – first, squares of focaccia filled with beautiful scquacquerone, a gooey fresh local cheese a bit like the shapeless heart of burrata.

Even better was the porchetta panino, a beautiful thing stuffed with salty, fatty pork and studded with caperberries adding just enough acidity for contrast. Panini in the U.K. are just the way our awful coffee chains flog you a gooey, unremarkable toasted sandwich: having the real thing in Bologna was a true revelation. Either way, make sure you keep room for the tasting selection of Parmesan so you can try it aged for 18, 24 and 36 months: if nothing else, it will help you decide which kind to buy and cram into your suitcase on the way home.

Simoni, Via Pescherie Vecchie, 3/b

7. Cremeria Cavour

Pretty much any of the gelato you can eat in Bologna will ruin most U.K. ice cream for you for life (although I still have a soft spot for Jude’s salted caramel – available at Fidget & Bob and Nirvana Spa, fact fans). I made it a personal crusade to try as many places as I could: I loved Sorbetti Castiglione, just up the road from my Airbnb which did a fantastic gianduja gelato. I adored Il Gelatauro, where I managed to eat gelato and then follow it up with an affogato which was both enormous and itself 90% gelato – either a career best or a new low, depending on how you feel about gluttony.

But my favourite was the chi-chi Cremeria Cavour (which, confusingly, had changed its name since my first visit last year). Every single flavour I had was beautiful, from pistachio to fior di panna – pure cream, unadultered with vanilla or anything else. On my last visit I developed a serious addiction to their rum and chocolate gelato, one which can only be managed with further visits to Bologna. Sitting on a bench in Piazza Cavour eating gelato would, in most cities, be the standout gastronomic experience of a holiday but in Bologna, it has to settle for being first among equals.

Cremeria Cavour, Piazza Cavour 1D

8. Aroma

You’re not going to struggle for good coffee in Bologna, wherever you go. My weakness – which I was introduced to by my friend Al – is caffè al ginseng, which is hot, sweet, milky, comes out of a machine and would probably offend coffee purists everywhere.

Personally I often think the most fun you can have with a purist comes from irritating them. But if you are in the mood to try a more rarified coffee, head to Aroma. The interior is dark and, dare I say it, a tad dated, but the staff are fantastic and friendly, speak brilliant English and serve possibly the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. My friend Al sipped his espresso, gave a sigh which was 50% whispered prayer and 50% happy finish, and immediately ordered a latte so he could check whether it was as good. It was.

Aroma, Via Porta Nova 12/b

9. Camera A Sud

Pubs are wonderful things, but there is something about a properly great bar that is truly transcendental. I’m always on the lookout for them on the continent and some of my favourites – Ghent’s Gitane, Granada’s Potemkin, Porto’s Café Candelabro – are, to my mind, reason enough to visit their parent cities.

A truly great bar is a little scruffy and bohemian but never dirty. It has a hangdog charm that you simply can’t manufacture or fake, and we aficionados can always sniff out a fake (we get lots of practice in Britain, which so rarely gets bars right). It feels like a place you could nurse a coffee in the morning, enjoy lunch, drink before dinner or booze late into the night.

In Bologna, Camera A Sud was that bar. It was perfect for aperitivi, whether that was a perfectly cold beer, a glass of white or countless day-glo Aperol spritzes. The inside was scuzzy but uncalculated but sitting outside, as the shadows lengthened and people wandered past, was the perfect place to be.

Not only that, but the food was brilliant. Not a lot of cooking was involved, but the selection of salumi and mortadella wasn’t a million of miles from the quality at Simoni. The bruschetta – mozzarella and anchovy elevated by the genius addition of orange zest – was the kind of bar snack only a bar in Bologna would think of: I sent a picture to my friend Al and he recreated it at home the very next day.

The area around Camera A Sud is full of street art and intimidatingly fashionable, dishevelled people, beautifully boho and worth a wander, either with a camera or just with your eyes wide open. Just round the corner is another terrific-looking place called Caffè Rubik: I’ve made a note of it and I’ll try it next time, just in case it’s even closer to the Platonic ideal of the perfect bar.

Camera A Sud, Via Valdonica 5

10. Astral Beers

Both times I’ve visited Bologna I have been in the company of craft beer enthusiasts: Bologna is also at the centre of Italy’s burgeoning craft beer scene, and so there are plenty of places to try. More, in truth, than I have the stomach for, so I slightly lost interest in sitting on the pavement outside a place called Beer For Bunnies surrounded by the bearded and tattooed drinking something expensive and agricultural when I’d rather have been enjoying a really good glass of wine.

That said, some places were more my kind of thing. Birra Cerqua, which I mentioned earlier, was very nice indeed and Birra Baladin (which has a bar inside the Mercato Di Mezzo) makes some beautiful and unusual stuff. But my favourite was Astral Beers, not far from the famous towers, which felt a bit more grown up, a little less chin-strokingly post-rock and a lot more interested in being a bar where everybody could find something to enjoy.

The staff at Astral Beers have more than enough enthusiasm for their stuff to bridge any language gap, and I really liked all of the Italian beers I had there, whether they were more conventional Pilsners or some very striking sours. It has some tables outside but the inside feels more grown up than many craft beer places I’ve been to – which, like craft coffee places, can sometimes feel like a temple to chipboard. They also did some lovely, affordable and in some cases biodynamic wines.

I never ate there, but the dishes I watched arriving at other tables looked good enough to give me pre-dinner food envy. Happily, it only ever lasted as long as my walk to the next restaurant.

Astral Beers, Via Castiglione 13/B

11. Osteria Del Sole

Confusingly, Osteria Del Sole isn’t really an osteria and doesn’t do any food. What it is, quite magnificently, is Bologna’s most venerable bar and dangerously close to an Italian take on an old man pub. The wine by the glass is perfectly pleasant – it’s a good place to try Pignoletto, the local sparkling white – and the Menebrea by the bottle is also serviceable, but really the atmosphere is the thing here. There’s also a little courtyard, although it lacks the battered grandeur of the interior.

Every time I’ve been, confusingly, many of the tables have been reserved (something which would never catch on in a British pub), but you can usually find some space. It has to be done, if just the once, and makes for a nice early afternoon pit stop before returning to the bustle, sights and sounds of the Quadrilatero.

Osteria Del Sole, Vicolo Ranocchi 1/D

12. Mercato di Mezzo and Mercato delle Erbe

A bit of a cheat lumping both these markets in the same entry, but both are absolutely worth a visit.

Mercato di Mezzo, in the Quadrilatero, is more like Market Halls Victoria (or what Reading’s own Market House desperately wishes it was), an indoor market with food vendors along both sides and communal tables in the middle. Everything I’ve eaten from there has been brilliant, whether it’s pasta accompanied with a local beer from Baladin, a slice of pizza grabbed on the run to munch on the way through the streets or a caffè al ginseng and a croissant packed with indulgent pistachio cream first thing in the morning. Visit, if only to see how far Reading has to go to even attempt to recapture the buzz of such a place done well.

By contrast, the Mercato delle Erbe – on the splendidly named Via Ugo Bassi – has a conventional market at its heart selling all sorts of wonderful fruit, vegetables fish and what have you (I picked up some fantastic truffle sauce on my first visit) and then, around the edges, there are lots of little restaurants with their own seating. I enjoyed a fantastic range of bruschetta on one visit, on another I went to Polpette E Crescentine, which does exactly what it says on the tin.

There are also some lovely bars where you can sit with a pre-dinner spritz, wondering whether snaffling a square of pizza would ruin your appetite and, just as importantly, whether it would be worth it (on balance, probably not, but you usually work that out the hard way).

Finally, it wouldn’t be a holiday without a souvenir. I always make sure I head to Formaggeria Barbieri in the Mercato delle Erbe, where they are wonderfully helpful and will vacuum-pack you massive pieces of Parmesan for your flight home. I managed to bring back two and a half kilos on my last trip (twenty-four month aged for everyday grating and forty month aged for best) and they even gave me a snazzy red tote bag which I prize far more than I probably should.

Mercato di Mezzo, Via Clavature 12
Mercato delle Erbe, Via Ugo Bassi 25

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3 thoughts on “ER On Tour: Bologna

  1. Janet

    Wow – it sounds amazing! I must bookmark this article to make sure I remember all those wonderful places for my own trip to Emilia Romagna in Spring 2019. Not sure we’ll be there for long enough to eat at all of them …
    I didn’t think I was a huge gelato fan until I sampled Sicilian gelati earlier this year – you’ve thrown down the gauntlet and I look forward to making my own comparisons.

  2. SophieIbbotson

    That’s sorted then: Bologna for 2020. Any suggestions on time of year to visit? Will line up a long weekend and the eat my way through as many of your suggestions as will fit into the days.

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