Bologna updates: December 2011 (restaurants and markets)
This thread is an addition to my already way-long Bologna from September 2011. I've included a link to that thread at the bottom of this one.
This is a much-recommended restaurant whose specialty is cured meats, either in-house or from the region's top artisan producers. I had long looked forward to eating here (it's almost always booked, but I slipped in for lunch on a Monday without a reservation.) For me, the restaurant turned out to be the kind of experience where I find myself appreciating why the restaurant enjoys such a fine reputation even though I don't much care for these tastes myself.
I had a tagliatelle with culatello and a stufato of beef cheeks in a rich sauce. Where others would thrill to the earthy, not-far-from-the-barnyard strong personality of the culatello, I didn't care for it, and the tagliatelle itself was ordinary by Bologna standards. The stufato was equally full of strong personality, with its long-cooked sauce herby and complex, but it just didn't suit my tastebuds. (I preferred the version of this dish served at Cocchi in Parma.) That said, paired with the Sangiovese the house poured by the glass, the dish was instantly transformed into a harmony of flavors that was memorable and applause-worthy. These people know what they are doing. My cup of coffee to finish was one of the better in Bologna.
I'd confidently recommend this place to people who are more interested in sampling some one-of-a-kind meats from the region than they are in eating the best Bolognese pasta. The room is homey, warm, with a touch of refinement, and the service is sincerely welcoming and caring. Prices tick upwards, and reach sky-high with culatello and aged cheeses. Let the house choose your wine.
ANTICA TRATTORIA DELLA GIGINA
I must be the last person on Chowhound to finally make the 15-minute trip beyond the city walls to eat at this lovely restaurant. I enjoyed outstanding food, in particular antipasti of carpaccio di filetto con grana e valerianella and roast-beef della “Gigina” con la sua salsa di cottura. A pasta of gramignone con salsiccia was a great, rich treat, instantly addictive, and a secondo of calves liver grilled between laurel leaves positively sang. I have sometimes read on Chowhound that calves liver is so easy to make at home that Italian restaurants can be forgiven for serving a prosaic version. This calves liver was a revelation and proof of the restaurant's commitment to top-quality and exquisite execution.
I also tasted passatelli in brodo and a boiled beef with "friggione". The first was light and refined, and would have been more satisfying as a lunch dish. The latter was squarely in the tradition of the region's classic boiled meat dishes with an onion-y sauce, and I hereby declare myself through with ever eating them again. Boiled meat just bores me. A dessert of chocolate gnocchi in a pool of pistachio sauce was disturbing to look at and was rather ordinary. Wine was a high-quality Sangiovese, and was fine.
I'd go back again and again, despite my dislike of taking taxis after dinner. (The restaurant will call one for you.)
Persuing the pan-Italia influenced menu at Scacco Matto and trying to choose among so many appealing dishes is fun. The restaurant specializes in inventive dishes that are usually quite restrained in how far out they go. Basically, they are well-thought-out rearrangements of classic elements from various regions, executed with tight discipline. Squid stuffed with the mortadella filling more commonly used to stuff zucchini in Bologna was a nice twist, served in a simple pool of pureed beans. A ravioli of "carbonara" -- where the liquid parmagiano and egg were inside the pasta -- was deeply satisfying, served in a pool of roasted garlic puree that was sweet and mild. A tomato-ey pacchieri pasta was beautifully arranged and had an extremely strong kick of 'nduja for those desperate for something spicy in Bologna. I tasted a house-made pumpkin gelato that was fine, but Il Gelatauro's just steps away is much better. Drank a pinot nero from Alta Adige. Service is cheerful and prompt. This is not wildly sensational food, but if you want something a bit more imaginative than Teresina with the same kind of reliability when it comes to quality and preparation, it's the place to go. The kitchen doesn't overreach.
RISTORANTE DA NELLO AL MONTEGRAPPA
This place has gotten mixed reviews on Chowhound, with some people delighted and others shrugging their shoulders. I slipped in for lunch for a simple plate of sliced meat and an artichoke pasta, and I join the shoulder-shruggers. I did see a plate of grilled porcini mushrooms head to another table that me wonder if I had stuck to an all-mushroom and tartufo menu, if I might have been delighted. The old-fashioned decor and very friendly smiling service made it an extremely nice place to linger. (There is shady outdoor seating as well on a pedestrianized alley.) For some reason, the restaurant is a favorite of internationally-renowned rockers, and the walls are filled with amusing photos of the owners posing with Clapton, Santana, Elvis Costello, etc.
In a previous thread I had mentioned that Tamburini had stopped selling pinza by the slice, but it is now available again. This is a strudel-like pastry filled with a rich, dark Bolognese mostarda, and Tamburini's remains the very best version I have ever tasted. On a the downside, I also purchased some pasta from Tamburini, a pumpkin-stuffed tortelloni, and it really was nowhere near as tasty as similar products from Atti & Figli down the street.
I FAMOSI TORTELLINI DELLA NONNA
This very small shop is just a stone's throw from the train station, and its window is often filled with beautiful displays of dried mushrooms, pastas and other treats that I finally couldn't resist stopping in. They sell dried tortellini stuffed with mushroom that I think is just marvelous (it lasts forever). What they claim is their own house salume also hits the spot. The owner is gregarious, so you may have to wait while he gabs with anybody ahead of you. (Closed Thursday afternoons.)
During an afternoon visit to the food market district of the centro, I wandered around doing intense window shopping while waiting for the stores to re-open after the long lunch pause. Rather abruptly, I felt I was at some risk of being pickpocketed. I have never felt that way before in old market district, but perhaps the recent increase in tourists to the market area or it being near Christmastime translates to added risk. It was only a feeling based on one odd character getting too close, but I will add the advice here to not only be careful during the crowded market hours but also when most shops are shuttered during lunch and the alleyways are fairly deserted. I felt no danger, just that, since my attention was so much elsewhere, I was a tempting target.
But I definitely still recommend shopping in the district, where quality can be outstanding, and Bologna is an exceptionally safe city. Just keep minding your purse and wallet.
Another bit of advice for food shoppers: There is a restroom in the basement of the building shared by EATALY and the Librerie Co-op. I still don't "get" EATALY and can't imagine why anyone bothers to eat or shop there, but the bookstore has a fine collection of cookbooks and some guidebooks (in English) for both Bologna and other destinations in Italy.
And a final afterthought:
On other Chowhound threads, I have sometimes seen it asserted with great authority that in Bologna's eateries, you will never see a sauce, ragu or preparation termed "bolognese" on a menu -- the idea being that such a description is only necessary outside Bologna, and that inside Bologna it is understood that dishes will be "bolognese" unless otherwise specified, and only tourists need a clue.
This is one of those academic "rules" that disappears fast on the ground. Many of the very best restaurants in Bologna will list on its menu "tortellini in i brodo di vera tradizione bolognese" or "lasagne verdi alla bolognese" or "Trippa alla bolognese" or "muscoletto di manzo bollito col friggione bolognese" -- this being in contrast to "brodo e passatelli alla casalinga" or other descriptions. All of these examples come directly from the menu of Antica Trattoria della Gigina,
Have a great visit. The extra tick of time and money is worth it for Gigina. The food is excellent and the ambience is charming. You can peruse the menu ahead of time.
It may be that when you are in Bologna in early January, the extremely hokey and pokey small Christmas market (and ice skating rink) will still be up in the piazza XX Settembre near the train station. You can get a nice porchetta sandwich there in one of the stalls that can be nice to take-away if you are headed for the train station. Other holiday treats worth espying are the exquisitely elaborate chocolate Christmas trees at Roccati on the via Claveture. They might be sold out by the New Year, but you can see a picture (one up from bottom) on this link:
Caffe Terzi on the via G. Oberdan serves exquisite warming coffee and cappucini and has a hidden room in the back. At Bologna's chocolate fair last year, I tasted hot chocolate from the gelateria La Sorbetteria Castiglione that was very rich, thick and good. Might be worth stopping by the store if you like hot chocolate in winter.
One more update from January 2012
I had been curious to try this high-end place for lunch because they won a spot in Gambero Rosso 2011 and serve a more modestly-priced "quick" lunch. I ended up eating dinner there because it was the restaurant closest to my hotel and I had injured my foot, thus was unable to walk easily to anyplace else.
I've since been told this restaurant, whose chef hails from La Pergola in Rome, has or recently had a Michelin star. If true, I find it very puzzling, although -- come to think of it -- I have no Michelin-star experiences in Italy as a basis for comparison. The food is just fine, but really not special for this price category or for Bologna. My dining partner did far better than I did ordering a fixed "menu traditionale," which is actually something of a bargain for 54e per person. My minor quibbles with his delicious food was that it wasn't truly "tradizionale" and that the pasta in the pasta course wasn't particularly good by Bologna's standards. (Okay, that second quibble is more than a quibble in Bologna).
I ordered a la carte, (considerably more expensive) and while the food was fresh, some dishes seemed overly ambitious for the skills of the kitchen and there were substitutions of ingredients in some dishes that diminished my reason for ordering them. Desserts were rich, fancy and architectural, but somehow without zing. The wine list is nice and fairly priced. I found the double-height "romantic" room, with its frescoed ceiling and swags of cloth, odd. All the round tables, set at great distances from each other, could easily seat 8 people, and it reminded me of a high school auditorium set up for a prom.
There are so many more interesting places to eat Bologna, about the only reason I can think of for trying I Portici would be if you are on the run to the train station and want a fast lunch better than the a panini from a bar.
Hi barberinibee, thank you for such a lovely and detailed article. I loved reading your post in Sep 11 as well. I noticed that you mentioned even though Bologna is regarded as the foodie paradise, it is not and if the reason is food one should consider other regions. Can you tell us what you consider is the best foodie paradise in your opinion.
With only a few exceptions, I have had a wonderful time eating in every corner of Italy, including Bologna. When I pick a travel destination for food and food alone, I look first to northern Spain, second to Belgium and third to Italy, and some of my happiest experiences in Italy have been Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and parts of Sicily, Campania and Basilicata. I actually very much enjoy the food in Liguria and Bologna, but restaurants are uneven and the basic menu in each is limited. I also enjoy the food in Rome and Torino!
I think if you are looking for happy food experiences in Italy, it is worth investing in Fred Plotkin's Italy for the Gourmet Traveler.
Thanks for your reply. I am leaving for a 3 weeks trip to Italy in a couple days so its too late for changing plans. But i am going to Bologna and read your reviews so hopefully i will have some good meals. That being said, I don't have a palette as complex as yours so i hope i am still able to appreciate the food as much as it should be.
I don't think of myself as having a complex palate. The foods I like best are pretty simple. In Bologna, pasta is good to eat. It is enjoyable to try the pastas that are served in soup as well as the ones filled with cheese and herbs. If you walk through the markets in Bologna and see vegetables and fruits that looks delicious, very often they are. If you buy fruits and cheeses and other foods at the markets, you can take your purchases to Osteria del Sole and eat them at a table there if you buy a cheap glass of wine:
If you are leaving in three weeks for Bologna, melons should be fantastic, and don't be afraid to ask for grilled vegetables as an entree after pasta. I have enjoyed big salads at Olivo and Les Pupitres (the latter serves all day long).
Olivo (for an inexpensive lunch of salad or pasta)
Les Pupitres (serves from 12 to 7pm)
Have a great time in the breezy, shady porticoes of Bologna.
On a total aside Barberinibee, the only place in our travels that we felt accosted was in the food district in the centro as well. We were approached and pushed by someone trying to get us to go with him to buy something. After a few very firm 'NOs' from my SO, we checked all our pockets/purse to see if it was a distraction. Only place in all of Italy we experienced that. It in no way deterred us from the glorious fruit and vegetable stands and food shops of that area though! I loved strolling there and taking photos.