There’s no doubt I have Rick Stein to thank for discovering Bologna, the foodie capital of the Emilia Romagna region, otherwise known as Italy’s ‘food valley’. His long weekend inspired our trip there and in following the route of a Taste Bologna food tour we realised we were literally following in Rick’s footsteps as he’d clearly done the very same tour.
We did consider booking the Classic Bologna Food Tour but we could see there would be a lot of meat on the menu – not ideal for a couple of semi-vegetarians (don’t worry Rick, we do eat fish). So instead we did a DIY version meaning we could swap the meaty elements for cheese – which became the signature food of our stay in the city – and see a few sights along the way too.
The first stop on the tour is gourmet coffee shop Aroma in Via Porta Nova. Our walk there from Hotel Touring took us past Santissimo Salvatore, the church for English students in Bologna that dates back to 1136 though was rebuilt in 1623. The unusual interior was inspired by the baths of ancient Rome and is framed by white Corinthian columns. One of the highlights is a painting of the Madonna in a gem-studded frame on the right of the altar.
On to the Aroma cafe and though it’s a small place it packs a big punch, serving up what they describe as Coffee Desserts. The helpful menu explains a bit about each traditional treat to help you choose. I don’t usually drink coffee so went for the Torinese which comes from Turin and is a blend of chocolate and coffee topped off with thick cream. I could easily have had another one. My friend’s choice was the Zabaione, a sweet concoction made with with egg yolk, sugar and Marsala wine. An excellent start to our morning.
Next stop on the food tour is the Mercato delle Erbe but we decided to detour via the nearby San Francesco church. There are a lot of impressive churches to see in Bologna, many filled with amazing pieces of art and we found it best to pop in and tick one off the list whenever we were the right neighbourood. San Fransecso has a gothic inspired exterior and a stunning marble scuplture on the high altar.
Back to the food tour and the Mercato delle Erbe is a wonderful place to visit. The glass and iron building is less touristy than the main Mercato di Mezzo in the city centre and is a shrine to all food. Lots of local Emilia Romagna produce is for sale and there’s a great food court where we came back to have lunch a few days later at Vini & Sapuri.
There’s also the fab Banco 42 fish restaurant where we came for dinner the following evening. It’s right opposite a fish counter so serves up the freshest catch you can get. At lunchtime the menu is main meals, but in the evening it’s tapas style with delicious small dishes like swordfish carpaccio and creamed salted cod. So good!
In the street behind the Mercato delle Erbe is the next stop on the food tour, Le Sfogline. It’s a tiny pasta shop specialising in tortellini and tortelloni which originated in Bologna. The shop is run by three ladies who make the pasta by hand. We watched them meticulously cutting out, filling and folding the tiny parcels.
Even though their main clientele are locals they’re obviously very used to visitors too and were so friendly and gracious, happily chatting to us while they worked. They told us how much they’d enjoyed Rick Stein’s visit and that he’d been to one of their homes to eat some of the delicious Le Sfogline pasta.
After that real highlight of our DIY food tour we headed to Il Quadrilatero, well known as Bologna’s food quarter and beating heart of the city’s foodie culture. Narrow streets are packed with meat, cheese and produce shops as well as a stack of cafes, bars and restaurants. It was where we ended up spending most of our eating and drinking time in Bologna. There are more recommendations on places to go in my second post, Bologna: Porticoes, Piazzas and Pasta.
The Taste Bologna tour takes you into Salumeria Simoni, a small cheese and salami shop, to pick-up lunch. We popped in but it was really dominated by cooked meats so we decided to head straight to the next stop on the tour, a pub where you can take in your own food.
Osteria del Sole in Vicolo Ranocchi is the oldest pub in the city and a brilliant place. The signage isn’t too obvious when it’s open but we recce’d it when in the area the day before and spotted the painted shutter. Inside there’s a small bar in the corner and a mishmash of wooden tables, benches and chairs. So not designed for great comfort, but has atmosphere in spades and glasses of Pignoletto for 2 euros. We’d heard that Pignoletto, which comes from Emilia Romagna, is the new Prosecco and we liked it a lot, so it quickly became the signature drink of our trip.
We decided to just have our Pignoletto and then get lunch in one of the cafes in the area. So we settled in to watch what other people brought in and were quickly captivated by the large group next to us. They were opening piles of food and setting up what seemed to be a celebration of some sort, centered on a young guy who arrived wearing a laurel wreath crown.
After a while I asked the elderly Italian man sitting closest to us what it was for, but didn’t understand his answer. We later discovered it was a graduation party and started seeing lots of Bologna University’s graduates around the city wearing their crowns. The best part for us at Osteria del Sole that day was that the elderly man I spoke to had a quiet word with the the graduate’s girlfriend and the next thing we knew she was giving us some of their food. So kind and an excellent pre lunch appetiser, so of course we had to stay for another glass of Pignoletto!
After that we were very ready for lunch and headed back to Via Pescherie Vecchia, one of the Quadrilatero’s main streets which is lined with eating places. We opted for La Baita Vecchia Malga, an amazing deli with high tables and chairs outside that quickly became a favourite spot that we went back to many times for food or just drinks. There’s also a mezzanine with tables inside if the weather is colder.
Needless to say the menu includes lots of cold cuts of meat but also great cheese choices. We ordered a sharing board with five different cheeses, sun dried tomatoes and honey served with fresh bread in a fabric bread basket. The cheeses included buffalo mozzarella, a tangy cream cheese called Squacquerone and of course Parmigiano Reggiano, which is local to the Emilia Romagna region. It was so good we came back and had it another day and again at the airport when we discovered Vecchia Malga has a couples of branches there.
The final stop on the food tour is ice cream at the Cremeria Santo Stefano, but it was a bit out of our way and we were already pretty full from all the cheese and bread. We didn’t actually have any ice cream until we’d been in Italy for four or five days, which is a testament to how much other great food there is in Emilia Romagna. When we did it was from Cremeria Cavour in Piazza Cavour, which is a lovely shady square to sit and eat it in.
But that day we headed back to Hotel Touring to chill out on our terrace and reflect on the food we’d seen, the tastes we’d experienced and the ones still to come. The following day we’d booked a Taste Bologna food tour of nearby Modena and I’ll be writing about that one very soon. You can also read more about what else Bologna has to offer in my second post about the city – Bologna: Porticoes, Piazzas and Pasta.
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