Fred Plotkin’s book, Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, is the ultimate food-lover’s guide to Italy. It has been my go-to guide for selecting out of the way places, and we’ve visited many of the cities that he designates as the ‘Classic Town’ of each of the 20 regions of Italy. The book is much too big to haul around, but I take copious notes from the book and put them into my iPhone for quick reference.
Plotkin’s ‘Classic Town’ of Emilia-Romagna is, of course, Bologna… arguably the food capital of Italy. The oldest university in Europe is here. Ragu was invented here. Mario Batali learned how to cook Italian here. I usually try to avoid cities when I travel, preferring to soak up the countryside and village life. But we opted to travel by train on this trip, visiting only Munich, Bolzano, Venice and Bologna – four classic, walkable cities that are not conducive to automobiles. Besides, my friend Francesca suggested that I give Bologna a look… and Francesca is never wrong.
Bologna is an architecturally beautiful city, best explored on foot – even in the rain. That’s because the sidewalks of nearly the entire old city are covered by portici. It seems to me that the portico, a massive Romanesque-style arched walkway cover extending seamlessly from the old medieval buildings of the city, must surely have been invented here.
When we arrived by train from Venice, I was in pretty bad shape. I had only managed to get about an hour of sleep the night before, and my feet and ankles were bloated like footballs from dehydration and exhaustion from the previous day of walking in the Burano sun, riding the Vaporetti for hours and staying out all night at Do Farai. Whenever I feel really bad (thankfully, not very often), I figure that I must have a serious illness... in this case, probably renal failure. It says so on WebMD.
In any case, I was ready for only one thing… a nap. I had wisely booked rooms directly across from the train station, but we had to wait a couple of hours before our rooms were ready… so we checked our bags around noon or so.
I had read that Ristorante Diana was Mario Batali’s favorite lunch spot in Bologna, so I had suggested that we give it a try. But because I was just not up for anything that day, I told the group to go ahead without me. Debra asked the woman at the desk if she would reserve a table there for the three of them, but when Debra caught her rolling her eyes at the mention of Diana, she was told that it was a tourist trap – there were much better restaurants in the area. Unfortunately, all of those were closed on Monday, so they opted to go to Diana anyway. I stayed behind and crashed in the room when it became available.
Travel Tip: Always take the advice of the local girl behind the hotel desk over that of celebrity chefs. Apparently, the food at Diana was good, but overpriced. And the waiter was a bit arrogant and condescending. So unless you get the opportunity to visit Diana with Mario Batali, have lunch at Trattoria da Pietro instead – a small, family run place with outstanding local dishes.
During our short time in Bologna, the real dining gem was Ristorante Da Nello. Recommended by our new friend at the hotel desk, it was a bustling place overflowing with atmosphere. We lucked out, getting the last available table, and we were befriended by a charismatic, bigger than life waiter named Franco.
As it turned out, under Franco’s frumpy-yet-jolly façade, there was a talented photographer and world traveler with stories that he wanted to share with us, all the while effortlessly attending to other tables. As we were finishing our dinner, he even pulled out a large canvas bag with a couple of his photographs that he had taken In Bangkok and Brazil and had blown up and mounted. Oh yeah, the food was fantastic.
Like every other food writer who has visited Bologna, Fred Plotkin lists Tamburini as the ultimate food store. That’s where we met Frederico, working behind the counter under gigantic Parma hams hanging from the ceiling.
“I love America,” he told us. “Miami is my favorite city in the world, but Key West is heaven. I didn’t rent a car in the US, because I don’t know how to drive an automatic.” He dialed a number on his phone and held it to Debra’s ear. “Listen to my ring tone.” Have you ever wondered what The Star Spangled Banner would sound like as a ring tone??
He then handed us some slices of mortadella to sample. I once fantasized about going on a mortadella-only diet… it’s that good. He also gave us a couple of big chunks of Pecorino al Tartufo to taste. We buy a couple of wheels of this unique Tuscan sheep’s milk cheese (spiked with bits of black truffle) every time we’re in Tuscany and we had just finished the last of what we had before we left home on this trip. So we bought as much as we could carry from Frederico.
Emmanuel Ax at Teatro Auditorium Manzoni
I bought tickets months ago to see the renowned pianist at the legendary opera house, Teatro Communale di Bologna. Trouble is, he wasn’t playing at the Teatro Communale, he has playing at the Teatro Auditorium Manzoni. After relaxing at a café for a couple of hours, we strolled over to the deserted theatre about 15 minutes before show time and startled a sleepy gentleman at will call.
After arguing for a while that we must have had the wrong night (the email in my hand clearly said the 7th), it occurred to him that there may be something going on at the Manzoni. He rattled off turn-by-turn directions in Italian, and we sprinted off into the rain and immediately got lost.
Incredibly, the Manzoni unexpectedly appeared before us in the mist and we made it to our seats just as the lights dimmed. It didn’t matter that we were all dripping with sweat from the mad dash (well, I was anyway), because our seats were in a box above the stage… with no one sitting beside any of us. I took off my shoes and settled in for an inspiring, virtuoso performance. Dinner was at a pizzeria at midnight.