Bologna Restaurants Eating Report - Cooking Index
Italians known the Emilia Romagna region as 'Il Grassa' - The Fat One - for its incredible produce. Joe Saumarez reports from its capital Bologna, home of Parmesan, tortellini al brodo and spaghetti Bolognese. Check out his recommendations for the restaurants, food shops and markets of one of the world's food capitals.
Of course, no self respecting Italian would ever refer to Spaghetti Bolognese, not least because most of the time it is served with freshly made tagliatelle. Tagliatelle al ragù or ragù alla Bolognese (as you may see it on menus outside Bologna) is what you are looking for.
We only had three days in Bologna but we did our best to explore as much as possible of the city's culinary offerings in the limited time available:
Bologna Restaurant Recommendations
The best meal we had was at Caminetto d'Oro. Great Bologna specialties (tortellini al brodo, spaghetti ragu, meatballs etc), good wine suggestions (we took what was suggested which was a delicious light local white for 18 euros when many restaurants would try to sell tourists something a lot more expensive) and very friendly service. There is a small choice - perhaps 6 starters and 5 main courses - and all seemed to use the highest quality seasonal ingredients. The clientele (early October) were mainly local businessmen and rich Italian ladies who lunch.
Get there early if you want a seat outside (when it is warm enough) as we got the last one at 12.20pm. Some people won't want to sit outside because there is the constant buzz of traffic in the background and the road the restaurant is on seems to be a cut through for students driving Vespas.
For my birthday meal we went to Bitone, which came highly recommended on various food discussion forums and in food guides. I will admit was a touch disappointing. It's quite a long way out of town (we took the 20 bus and must have been Bitone's only customers all year to get there by public transport) and it has a very 80s feel. It feels like a scaled down version of the reception of the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas. The bathrooms in the basement are in shades of lurid yellow and green which I will kindly describe as an acquired taste.
We had a bad experience with the food. I ordered a soup which is a regional speciality but I cannot remember the name. It comes in a clear meat stock with 'worms' of pasta. It was advertised as coming with white truffle but when it arrived mine had no truffle. I tried to catch a waiter's attention but they were all busy and when I finally got the waitress (who admittedly had been taking an order from a table of 10 ceramic salesmen) she went off to the kitchen and came back and told me the chef had decided we wouldn't like the truffle. She could tell I was pretty peeved about this, especially as the soup was now cold.
To their credit, they then did produce a second starter of spaghetti with white truffles as way of compensation. The chef even came out of the kitchen to shave the truffles over. But I couldn't help but feel that they had a sudden panic that we were foreign restaurant reviewers or something and decided to make good and that the chef had decided that they could try and get away with serving the soup without truffles to cut costs. The spaghetti with truffles was excellent.
For the main course I had grilled shrimps wrapped in courgettes which was extremely rich and some of the shrimps were marginally overcooked. It was good but nothing spectacular.
All in all, I felt Bitone were running off their reputation and that you could do a lot better for the money (it's not cheap and I would definitely go to Caminetto d'Oro twice than Bitone once).
Less formal eating but still great quality could be found at Atti and Tamburini, both of which are on the same street in the centre of the main food shopping area. Both are delicatessens with restaurants attached and are more lunchtime stopping places than formal restaurants for a long, lingering lunch. They are great value though and it's a great way to sample all the great things on display in the shop if you're staying in a hotel and can't cook the produce for yourself. Atti is more a baker than anything else but has a restaurant round the corner while Tamburini is a full blown meat (more than 150 types of ham and sausage on offer), cheese and pasta shop. A few people complain it is a bit of a tourist trap but, given its location and fame, its hard to see how they could keep people away (unless they started serving bad food).
Tortellini display at Tamburini
Other recommendations we did not have time to check out but made our shortlist were Franco Rossi (family run restaurant serving dishes like Baked Rabbit wrapped in Swiss Chard and with an extensive wine cellar), Da Cesari and Trattoria Gianni.
One place we wanted to go which was recommended by a 23 year old architect we met on the bus from the airport was Trattoria Boni but we did not have the time and decided to leave it for the next trip - he particularly recommended the homemade pasta and others have said it has great crescentine and tigelle.
Bologna restaurant details:
Food Markets in Bologna
We only went to one food market, mainly because the dedicated food shops in Bologna are so good. The Mercato delle Erbe was fine but the quality of the food was not as good as those in and around the streets listed below, although it was the only place we found to buy 'ethnic' (ie non Italian) foods such as chili and soy sauce, rice noodles and so on. I would definitely use it often (it was much cheaper) if I lived in Bologna but it's not necessarily a 'must' see stop on your culinary tour of the city.
Opening hours: Monday to Wednesday and Friday.: 7 am to 1.15 pm and 5 pm to 7.30 pm (in winter: 4.30 pm - 7.30 pm ) Thursday and Saturday: 7 am - 1.15 pm. Closed Sunday.
Bologna Food Shops
Just off the Piazza Magiore is the main food shopping district, which is grouped around three streets - the Via Clavature, the Via Pescerie and the Via Draperie. We were lucky enough to be staying in a hotel on the Via Draperie so we came down in the morning into the midst of two fantastic fishmongers (one of which had a huge whole swordfish hanging up outside) as well as countless vegetable stalls. There were a huge range of vegetables including unusual gourds, a great variety of wild mushrooms, several types of radicchio and lots of young salad leaves. The range and quality of all the ingredients were fantastic and you could spend a couple of hours happily wandering round (I would advise between 8am and 10am) checking out everything from the honey stall to the kitchenware shop (with a great apron with a crab on it).
There are plenty of shops to choose from to buy the local specialties of Parmesan, cured hams and balsamic vinegar. If you want to buy a tiny bottle of 30 year aged balsamic for 140 euros then this is the place for you! There are of course plenty of places to buy fresh pasta, including tortellini (which are said to come from Bologna, although Modena would dispute that) and about 90 other different varieties.