Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Learned, fat, and red: part I

I've been meaning to post for ages about Bologna. I do miss it a bit, though mostly for the food. The title of the post is because Bologna is renowned for being learned, fat, and red: learned because of the university, the oldest in the West; fat because of its wonderful food; and red partly for the bricks it's built from, but also because it's famously socialist/communist.
Why go to Bologna?
1. Because it is a very nice city. It may not match up to Venice in the amazingness stakes, and I suppose Florence has more obvious things, but it has a very major advantage over those two places in that it is not packed full of tourists. It has far fewer tourists than Cambridge, for example, and at least as much nice stuff to look at. In Venice and Florence you have to book everything you want to see in advance, but there is nothing that needs booking in Bologna. You can get a seat outside at one of the cafes under the portici of beautiful Piazza S. Stefano with no trouble no matter what the weather; your competition will not be other foreigners but Italians. (Probably some will be having graduaton parties, wearing the Dante-style laurel leaf of the laureate.)
2. Also, it is the major railway hub for the north of Italy so a very good place to go to on the way from one city to another.
3. Plus even in Italy people think the food of Emilia Romagna is something pretty special.
What to do there
1. Eat good stuff. Parma ham and Parmigiano cheese are from nearby Parma (nice town) but Bologna is famous for doing things with them. In particular tortellini. (Tortelloni are the bigger ones, usually with vegetarian filling.) I saw a recipe for old-style Bolognese tortellini that had five or six different local meats in the filling. One was mortadella, for which Bologna is famous; it's pleasant enough but not as good as much other Bolognese food. (It's where the term 'baloney' comes from.) It's essentially luncheon meat, or what my mother always called boiled baby, though it's a high-class garlicky boiled baby. You won't find spaghetti Bolognese, but you will get tagliatelle al ragu, which is the closest thing, and very good.
2. Admire the portici. The story goes that townspeople wanted to get in on the lucrative student room-rentals market but didn't have a room to spare, so they would build one onto the first floor over the road, leaving the space beneath as a covered walkway with arches separating it from the traffic. This is now the official Bolognese style of architecture, and it's not only attractive but a real blessing when the sun is very hot or when it's raining. Plus the pavements beneath the portici are usually a little higher than the road so it makes busy streets more pleasant to walk down. In the sixteenth or seventeenth century the Bolognese went slightly mad and decided to build portici all the way out to San Luca, a round church built on a hill outside Bologna. There are 666 portici from the city gate, and twice a year the communist citizens go up there and bring an image of the virgin all the way down into the city. The sanctuary of San Luca is not that exciting inside, but if you get a bus out it's a lovely walk back down into the city. The walk out I would not recommend; in places it's essentially as steep as a staircase, and you feel it in your calves just from walking down.
3. Have lunch at Tamburini's. This is right in the middle of the city, about half-way between the two towers and the main square. It's essentially a delicatessen but at lunch-time it serves its own produce in a canteen style. Hopefully they'll have tortellini on and you can get a great plate for about six euros. Otherwise you can buy raw tortellini to cook yourself; this is where my Bolognese friend buys pasta when she has a dinner party.
4. Have lunch or dinner at Fantoni's on via del Pratello. This has apparently been just the same since the fifties. The roasted vegetables are always fantastic. A Bolognese friend told me that this is an excellent place for a) horse and b) zuppa inglese (literally "English soup", a type of trifle). I know it's a tad wet of me but I have counted horses as friends and I don't feel up to eating them; and I never tried the plain zuppa inglese either. (I did have some orange zuppa inglese somewhere not long before I left, and it was amazing.) This was partly because when I was lecturing on codicology years ago Melvin the lovely conservation man lent me a lot of props to make things more interesting for the youth. The one he was really emphatic about needing back intact was a little plastic bag full of costly imported kermes, the shells of insects which were used to dye alum-tawed skins pink for medieval bindings -- some of those bindings still survive on Bury books, for example, and I handled some while working on my PhD. Apparently the red liqueur used to make zuppa inglese comes from the very same insects, and this rather put me off it as a dessert. (See the wikipedia entry here which explains that the liqueur declined in popularity when people began to realise what it was made of.)
5. Also Tony's has very good, old-style cheap excellent food; popular with the Bolognese. It's on Via Righi, very close to the corner with Via dell'Independenza.
6. You have to do aperitivo. This was explained to me by locals as a very Bolognese thing, but other Italian cities seem to do something similar, like cicchetti in Venice. It comes down to the attitude to food whereby people will happily spend all day at work and all evening on the evening meal, which might explain why their TV is so bad. (They really take food seriously; if you want to make someone from Bologna cry try telling them how you cook spaghetti.) In the evening, at a time too early to start your full evening meal of antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci -- say 7.30 - 8.30 -- the bars all put out buffets of little bits and pieces to eat with your drinks. Some of these are really substantial and could easily stand in for your whole meal. They may charge a minimum for drinks in this period, e.g. when I first arrived and didn't know about the aperitivo tradition I was surprised that I couldn't get a half pint of beer at 7.30 in an Irish pub one time but had to buy a whole pint. (It was a carefully reconstructed "Irish" pub with wall tat placed inside a Renaissance building with frescoed vaulted ceilings.) In my last week there I went to Boa Vista in Via Cesare Battisti, which had really good stuff. It had a very dark black-and-mirrors decor and was playing electro music very loud, in a way which was so 80s and incredibly dated that it seemed really stylish for not caring that even 80s revival is now passé. Eddie Izzard used to do a very good routine about the progression "quite cool, cool, very cool, extremely cool, looking like an idiot" but I don't think that really holds in Italy; it doesn't seem like there's a sense that you can go Too Far. In some ways this is admirable and rather fun, though all those flamboyant young Italian men are a bit disconcerting. Anyway, I thought Boa Vista was great, and just the sort of thing that seemed the epitome of coolness when I was 13, but I'm not sure my companion liked it so much. Then we went on to Tamburini again, which turned out to be just as good in the evening as at lunchtime. Here the food isn't free but an amazing plate of sliced meats and such was only ten euros and the drinks were much cheaper. We ate all the meats even though we were already full from Boa Vista. The problem with aperitivo is that you're unlikely to want dinner as well, and it's a shame to waste a dining opportunity in Bologna if you're not there for long. Still you really should make time. One of the first things my flatmate Federica said to me when I moved in, looking at me very gravely, was "Sai il modo di Bologna?". Aperitivo is the mode of Bologna.
7. Gelati! Where to start? Where to end is also difficult. When the Parker people came out to visit me we were having four or five a day. The only not-excellent icecream I had in my whole time in Italy was at Pisa. (Pisa is a bit of a mess. It has three fantastic things to look at, all close together, and the area around them is filled with tat-selling stalls of a nature that even Rome cannot match. It's a sort of tourist black hole in an otherwise unremarkable Italian town. Walk a few hundred yards away and you're OK, but we went for icecream too close to the tower because we really wanted some.) Still Italians are able to distinguish gradations in icecream quality which escape me, and the two top places in Bologna are Gianni's, which has several outlets but with a particularly famous one just by the two towers, and the Sorbetteria Castiglione on Via Castiglione, not far from the Dominican church. Gianni's is lighthearted and has flavours called things like "Where is Gianni?" or "Beast in the City" (which is chocolate based, and which the Gaylord Donnelly librarian helpfully compared to dog poo -- there are a lot of dogs in Bologna, and therefore quite a lot of dog poo). Their pistachio is truly fantastic. The Sorbetteria Castiglione is a bit more serious, and has leaflets telling you the nutritional values of all its products, which seems to me to be spoiling the fun a bit, but I get the impression that it's the top one for the locals. Walking towards it either way at any time (I first went with some Bolognese friends on a very cold day in February) the streets are full of people eating icecream walking the other way.

I think that's most of the eating things. At some point I will try to get round to posting about the art. There are some fantastic art things to see and I have notes on them somewhere.

No comments:

Post a Comment