June 20-23, 2018.
Oh, Bologna, gastropub paradise of Italy and hidden foodie destination. Having been twice before, we almost skipped over Italy all together on our trip until we were convinced by friends from Bologna that if we like food, we should stop here. I was skeptical, and like most tourists flocking to Italy during the summer, wanted to visit the far more popular Venice or the Italian Rivera to take fabulous looking photos on the rocky beaches of Cinque Terre. Instead, the allure of the Emilia-Romana region with its tortellini in brodo, mortadella and tagliatelle alla Bolognese won (and we’re not even carb lovers!) because we have our priorities straight.
We spent three short days in Bologna at the tail end of our Greece vacation, and if our clothes were starting to get tight in Greece, then Bologna squashed any remaining hopes for zipping up our jeans for a long while. We had decided that after running nearly all of Santorini and having been overwhelmed by ancient history and spectacular engineering in Greece, we’d focus only on thinking about food, finding food, eating food, and then digesting food in Bologna.
It’s easy to feel lost in the myriad of dining decisions (trattoria, osteria or ristorante?) in Italy given that – quite frankly – everything is so delicious and you only have so much stomach space (and budget). So we decided that instead of pizza and spaghetti, which you’d only find in a tourist heavy area of Bologna, we’d search for the traditional dishes (with the exception of the fiorentina) such as mortadella, tortellini in brodo (in broth), tagliatelli, parmagiano reggiano, lasgna verde, and balsamic di modena to name a few. We also avoided higher end restaurants (i.e., anything with a white table cloth) in exchange for local, family run diners or gastropubs.
After 3 days, we managed to try nearly everything traditional, except for the cotoletta petroniana (or bologna schnitzel). Full disclosure? I licked a plate in public in Bologna. At a restaurant. I looked around and when no one was watching, put the plate to my face and licked it (to the great embarrassment of my Company). And it wasn’t even dessert! It was balsamic vinegar. Really unusually tasty balsamic vinegar from Modena. For some reason, when I think of balsamic vinegar, I think of low sugar, low fat diets, which is really just another form of torture. But Modena balsamic vinegar, aged in oaken kegs (some for 100 years) after being boiled and pressed from white Trebbiano grapes was sticky, sweet, flavorful and an art akin to wine making in the Emilia-Romana region.
We also worked ourselves up into a fiorentina hunting frenzy and looked up dozens of places. We decided on La Bassianot, which was close to our hotel and known for its appetizer sampler below. The find was a success, and we made a lot of friends at the restaurant given our confidence that we could handle an entire fiorentina, cooked rare, between the two of us. We can also confirm that it was, indeed, three fingers thick.
Pro-tip, if you’re in Bologna, you must absolutely save up enough room to order a panna cotta for dessert. For those who know me well, I’m not a dessert person. If you told me I had to skip dessert for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t even blink. I’d take that greasy, salty, pile of fries any day over cake (actually, I’d take two greasy piles of fries). I kept telling our waiter at La Bassianot this, but he was obviously smarter than us and reason won. The panna cotta pictured below was the lightest, most magical dessert I have ever had. Truly, I think I had a religious moment eating it, and I’m feeling emotional just writing this. After our dinner, we told our waiter that we would need to spend the rest of our trip in bed, comatose in food heaven. He replied, “Well, you should make sure you get some panna cotta, so you can eat it in bed.” My biggest regret is not getting his business card, because we would obviously be great friends.
We spent a third of our time resting, a third eating, and the rest walking as Bologna is incredibly walkable. In the summer, the 30-plus-kilometers of famous red and orange Bologna porticoes shielded us from the heat (which is important because heat is an appetite suppressant). We ambled our way through market places and plazas (because we needed to build up our appetite effectively), absorbing the smells of local cheese and meats in the university town.
Food & Drink
Note to reader: as you can probably guess at this point, I usually include my favorite Asian food finds in this list. Since we were only in Bologna for 3 days, I held out (yes, miracles can happen). But, there were lots of Chinese and Japanese restaurants across the city. If I’m there longer next time, I’ll report back.
- La Bassianot: This is a sit down kind of place, but it’s not stuffy or overly formal at all. I would categorize it as more of a gastropub. Great for a dinner out and make sure you get dessert!
- Osteria dell’Orsa: No fuss, local’s favorite (with local’s prices) serving just a few very traditional dishes.
- Mercato Delle Erbe: market with lots of restaurants, cafes and bars. The selection of food was truly excellent.
- Marsalino for tapas and Aperol Spritz: don’t make the mistake we did – they serve tapas to everyone, and don’t confuse that with your main dish!
At $100/night (including tax and fees), Bologna (a college town) is more expensive during the summer because of foreign student exchanges compared to other Southern European cities like Greece, Spain, or Portugal. But, it is a far less expensive city compared to Venice or Florence.
We stayed in Residenza Ariosto which had a full working kitchen and washer dryer. We were in desperate need to do laundry after Greece and wanted the option of making coffee or snacks in the house.
I didn’t have a bike on this trip, and the cycling routes just outside of Bologna looked incredible. Instead, I ran to and around the Park Giardini Margherita (you can do 4-5 miles easily) just outside the old city. Just be careful of the cars that sneak up on you in those narrow streets (or even crossing what looks like a drive-way). Cars have the right of way, or at least act like it, and being hit isn’t on the list for a fun vacation.
Transit: We enjoyed the cheaper option of taking the bus in Bologna (versus taxi or renting a car), and it was really easy to buy a ticket at the airport to find our way to our hotel. The only warning here is that you have to go to the train station to get your bus ticket back to the airport. This was our only negative experience in Bologna. Out of the entire train station, there were only 2 ticket machines (outside) that sold the shuttle tickets, and only one that worked. The one that worked was surrounded by folks who were (somewhat illegally) trying to make some money off the tourists by offering “help” or “change” at the ticket machines which are incredibly easy to use. If this happens to you, unless you want to give a tip for this “help”, just say you don’t need help and make sure you have exact change, as you can only buy 1 ticket at time which is incredibly stupid.