As the days turn colder and we dig out our winter wardrobes, there is no dish more inviting than a steaming bowl of tortellini in brodo – a gloriously comforting bowl of delicate meat-filled pasta swimming in hearty bone broth. This dish originates from Bologna, in the centre of Italy, and so I can think of no better place to escape for an autumnal foodie weekend.
Surrounded by the rolling hills of Emilia Romagna, the ancient city of Bologna is authentic and largely unspoilt – a real gioiellino, or little gem. The historic old town which dates back to medieval times is beautifully preserved, despite heavy bombing during World War II and a series of devastating fires, with much of the original architecture still remaining. The two (slightly drunken) towers in the centre of town are still standing, providing an iconic symbol of Bologna, while the city’s many basilicas, smaller churches and palazzi remain largely unchanged since their construction. Bologna has acquired several nicknames over the years: La Rossa (the red) owing to the terracotta colour of the medieval architecture and the city’s liberal political history; La Dotta (the learned), as the city is home to the oldest university in Europe; and La Grassa (the fat), thanks to its fabulously rich cuisine and status as Italy’s gastronomic capital. Bologna is the perfect size for exploring on foot, with its famed covered portico walkways zigzagging across the city connecting its many charming piazzas.
As well as being the hometown of the great Pier Paolo Pasolini and Lucio Dalla, it is in the context of La Grassa that I came to love Bologna, as it is food that is very much the most important part of life in this city. The surrounding region of Emilia Romagna is home to delicacies including Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, balsamic vinegar and a smorgasbord of other cured meats and cheeses – vegetarians, beware… – and Bologna is legendary for its cuisine. Autumn is the best time of year to feast on the region’s fresh produce which is in season in October and November: truffles, porcini mushrooms and sweet chestnuts (best served swith whipped cream!) to name a few. Aside from the aforementioned tortellini in brodo, Bologna is famed for many other delicacies including mortadella ham, tagliatelle al ragù, lasagna and the brilliantly named squacquerone – a soft tangy cheese made from cow’s milk similar to stracchino that is fiendishly difficult to pronounce (all together now – skwa-kweh-ROW-nay). Tigelle or crescentine are also not to be missed: little round baked flatbreads similar to an English muffin that are best served hot from the oven and smeared with the local pesto – not the Genoese basil variety but a spread made from pork lard, crushed garlic and rosemary which is, quite simply, heaven.
DISHES TO TRY:
Tortellini in brodo – non-negotiable for visitors to Bologna and cures all manners of problems. The Bolognesi like to claim that the shape of the tortellini was inspired by the goddess Venus’ bellybutton.
Tagliatelle al ragù – the closest thing to what uncultured Brits would call ‘spag bol’, but far superior.
Cotoletta alla Bolognese – take the traditional Milanese fried veal cutlet in breadcrumbs and throw some prosciutto and melted cheese on top for good measure.
Gnoccho fritto – deep fried flatbreads; impossible to eat fewer than 5 in one sitting.
Tigelle or Crescentine – traditional baked flatbreads served with meat and cheese.
Gramigna alla salsiccia – a typical Bolognese dish of curly tube-shaped pasta served with sausage ragù.
Piadina Romagnola – a street food style flatbread from the east of the region, filled with cured meet and cheese.
Mortadella – ham studded with pistachios.
Lasagne alla Bolognese – The world-famous pasta dish actually originates from Bologna, where it was first recorded in 1282, made from flat sheets of pasta layered with tomato and meat ragù and bechamel sauce.
Zuppa Inglese – confusingly called ‘English Soup’, la zuppa inglese is neither English nor soup but is a traditional pudding from Emilia Romagna resembling somewhere between trifle and tiramisu: layers of sponge cake soaked with liqueur and topped with custard, chocolate and whipped cream.
Trattoria di Via Serra – hands down our favourite restaurant in Bologna. Situated slightly outside of the main city centre, this superb little trattoria is a 15-minute walk or short bus ride from the centre. Unpretentious and perfectly executed, dishes showcase the best of Bolognese cuisine at affordable prices. The tortelloni alla zucca – large pasta parcels filled with sweet roasted pumpkin, ricotta and crumbled amaretti biscuits served with sage butter – are exceptional, while the crescentine con pesto (see above) are the best I’ve had. There are only a few tables and the restaurant is full every night, so book and thank me later.
Borgo Mameli – a highly Instagrammable former army base turned open-air restaurant in the west of Bologna, Borgo Mameli’s charming courtyard with multicoloured buildings and strings of fairy lights between the trees is the perfect setting for a weekend brunch. The menu features pancakes in every guise, either loaded with homemade hazelnut cream and chocolate or topped with bacon, spinach and poached eggs alongside a punchy Bloody Mary.
Trattoria da Me – a lovely dinner option serving typical Bolognese dishes, and is particularly good for lasagna. Very popular so book ahead to avoid disappointment.
Da Fabio – a historic trattoria loved by the locals, where it’s worth ordering all the antipasti (but you won’t have room for anything else!)
Osteria del Nonno – a very good lunch spot tucked away up in the hills just outside the city, serving traditional Emilia Romagna cuisine. Don’t be fooled by the modest appearance – the platters of cured meats and cheeses alone are worth the drive.
Ristorante Pappagallo – situated right underneath le due torri, Pappagallo is one of the city’s oldest and best-loved restaurants. Don’t expect great service but the food is excellent.
Ristorante Diana – another of Bologna’s historic institutions, it doesn’t get much more traditional than Ristorante Diana, first opened in the 1920s. The décor is a little tired, but the silver cheese trolleys and waiters in bow ties give a touch of class from a bygone era.
THE BEST SPOTS FOR GELATO:
Cremeria Santo Stefano
Gelateria Stefino, Via San Vitale
Cremeria Funivia, Via Fadini
BEST FOODIE DESTINATIONS:
Tamburini – there is nowhere more iconic to pick up a bag of homemade tortellini than this legendary delicatessen. Pricey, but the best in town.
Salumeria Simoni – one of Bologna’s oldest and most famous salumerie and the best place to buy the finest local prosciutto and parmigiano.
La Baita Vecchia Malga – a fabulous cheese shop with floor to ceiling towers of parmesan wheels and a cheese counter that could rival the Harrod’s food hall.
Via Pescherie Vecchie – a gorgeous cobbled street in Bologna’s old town, full of fabulous butchers, cheesemongers and green grocers with decadent window displays that are as beautiful as they are mouth-watering. I highly recommend a wander down this street for stopping off for a bite to eat here and there, to marvel at the mountains of tortellini and for picking up a hunk of parmesan.
Mercato di Mezzo – a medieval market in the Quadrilatero area transformed into a buzzing indoor food hall with a huge variety of stalls and mini eateries. A great place to go for lunch!
Mercato delle Erbe – Bologna’s largest covered food market selling fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and cheese.
The Quadrilatero district – just off the main square Piazza Maggiore is a tangle of alleyways known as Il Quadrilatero, filled with fabulous food shops.
Fico Eataly World – an enormous food market outside Bologna set up by Italian gastronomic heavyweight Eataly.
CULTURAL SIGHTS TO VISIT:
Piazza Maggiore – at the heart of Bologna lies the main square, surrounded by grand porticoes and home to the gothic Basilica di San Petronio, Neptune’s Fountain and the 13th century Palazzo Re Enzo.
Basilica di San Luca – work up an appetite for lunch by walking under the 666 ancient porticoes – the longest covered walkway in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site – up to the San Luca basilica up on the hill, which offers fantastic views across the city. It’s just under 4km up to the top, but it’s well worth the walk.
Torre Garisenda and Torre Asinelli – the most famous of the city’s remaining medieval towers, known locally as le due torri in Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. You can climb to the top of the less tipsy taller tower, which offers excellent bird’s eye views over the terracotta rooftops of the old town.
University of Bologna – the oldest university in Europe dating back to 1088 which once hosted Dante and Petrach still stands today and many of its original buildings are open to the public. I particularly recommend the astonishing university library, where current university students offer free guided tours.
L’Archiginnasio and the Teatro Anatomico – part of the original medieval site of Bologna University which have been perfectly preserved and offer a fascinating insight into the academic setting of the world’s oldest university. The Teatro Anatomico is a beautiful wood-panelled 17th century lecture hall centred around a marble table where bodies were once dissected by medical students.
Biblioteca Salabrosa – more of a museum than a library, featuring grand Corinthian columns, a frescoed ceiling and glass floor revealing the 2,000-year-old ruins underneath.
MAMbo – Bologna’s museum of modern art whose permanent collection houses works by Bridget Riley, Giorgio Morandi and Enrico Castellani.
Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna – the city’s national art gallery home to works by Titian, Raphael and Giotto.
Ghetto Ebraico – the 16th century Jewish quarter is now Bologna’s trendiest district, where street art covers the passageways filled with wine bars, interesting boutiques and innovative restaurants.
Santo Stefano – Bologna’s most gorgeous church, in my opinion, which is in fact not one, but seven interlinking temples, basilicas and abbeys built between the 5th and 17th centuries now woven into one holy sanctuary. The complex is surrounded by cypress and olive trees and situated in a charming cobbled square filled with wine bars – the perfect spot for an aperitivo.
Drive through the hills – the famous colli di Bologna are full of picturesque winding roads that are perfect for a scenic drive to marvel at the enormous villas and admire the views over the city.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel Metropolitan – a delightful boutique hotel right in the city centre but blissfully quiet, where we spent a lovely weekend. Rooms are small but perfectly appointed with super-soft beds and rainfall showers, plus the service is exceptional. Be sure to ask for a courtyard room, which are more charming than the bigger, more modern counterparts elsewhere in the hotel, and feature private outdoor terraces complete with deck chairs and olive trees.
Elizabeth Lifestyle Hotel – a simple but elegant hotel situated just outside the city centre, with comfortable rooms filled with modern art and four poster beds.
Hotel Corona d’Oro – an upmarket hotel in the centre of town that epitomises old school glamour. The décor is a little dated, but rooms are well appointed, and the location couldn’t be more convenient for exploring the city.
Ella lives in Milan and is currently studying for a masters at SDA Bocconi business school — @ellarosephillips