Travel /
Emilia Romagna /
Where to eat

Under the Portici: The Businesses Beneath Bologna’s Arcades

“Are you crazy? There is no way I am going to Bologna with this heat!”

According to Italians, you cannot leave the house with wet hair or you’ll get a cervicale (neck pain with a severe headache) or jump into the pool right after having lunch unless you want to have indigestione (indigestion). 

Another commonly shared opinion, contingent on climatic conditions: “Are you crazy? There is no way I am going to Bologna with this heat, I will die from an insolazione (sunstroke)!”

Warmer weekend days in Emilia Romagna usually entail packing up the car, retreating to the mountains or to the sea, or perhaps reserving the best spot in your family’s home beside the AC. 

I couldn’t quite comprehend because, when you stroll under the portici of Bologna, you always find yourself in the cool shade of the arcades, often aired by a pleasant breeze that follows you as you hop from shops to bars.  

One may describe a portico as a covered pathway with arches on one or both sides. But in Bologna, they are so much more. Typically with arches on just one side, facing the road on the exterior, Bologna’s portici were first built in 1042 as a way for private buildings to increase space without infringing on public land (the city’s streets were public, though the air space above them was not). These first portici were made out of wood, upon which new floors were built. In 1288, the city issued legislation establishing that all new builds must include portici–an attempt to create more housing for the growing influx of University of Bologna students and those moving to the city from the countryside. These arcades were built with wood until 1568, when a new ordinance required all to be rebuilt with bricks or stones: some original, wooden portici, however, can still be found on Via Marsala and in Corte Isolani. Now an architectural symbol of Bologna, portici stretch across 62km of the city and are part of Bologna’s UNESCO heritage. (The Portico of San Luca, which connects the city centre’s Porta Saragozza to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, is the world’s longest at almost four kilometres.) 

In Via Indipendenza, amidst the shopping high street, precisely at Portico #70, you will find the oldest bottega in Bologna. Since 1949, I Famosi Tortellini della Nonna has been offering typical Bolognese products, Parmigiano Reggiano, tigelle, fresh pasta, balsamic vinegar and more. 

Inside, you will meet Alessandro Citeri, an outspoken, kind-hearted Bolognese, who started working for his father at I Famosi Tortellini della Nonna almost 40 years ago, at the age of 14. After World War II, merchants filled the portici of Via Indipendenza and each opened their own family businesses: Citeri’s nonni (grandparents) started making their tortellini, doing and selling what they knew best.   

Today, even with increasing rent prices and high real estate demand in the centre, Alessandro does not want to sell the business: it is not what his nonni would have wanted. His shop is his family. 

“My handmade tortellini, la mortadella and l’aceto balsamico di Modena” are his most popular products, Citeri reveals. “Let me tell you something…I got sick from Covid and was unable to work for 7 days. And the fact is, I suffered more from not being in my shop under the portici. My shop is magic; it is enchanted. I am lucky to work in an enchanted place.”

But the magic doesn’t stop there. Under Portico 16 of Via Piella, la Finestrella has grown to become one of the main tourist attractions in Bologna and while ultimately, it is just a window, it has an undeniable appeal. When we think of Italian canals, we think of Venice, but the little waterway, surrounded by saturated palazzi and cheerful little restaurants, is worth a visit. Under these arcades, you will find yourself surrounded by both Instagram-famished tourists and strolling locals. I spot an elderly couple close to me, staring off the little bridge. With their greyhound on leash, it appears as if they are deep in a discussion–food related, of course. Before my eavesdropping becomes too evident, I politely ask them what they are doing here, which in hindsight may have come across strangely rude. On the contrary, the man smiles at me and says, “We are Bolognesi and we come here every day.” After our brief encounter, they went on to buy fresh fish at Scampo in Via Galliera, a fishmonger with a kitchen and a few tables.

Speaking of food, we’re hungry for a quick lunch. We all know what a panini is, but what about a panuozzo? Or a spianata? At Don Peppino at Via Volturno 7a, right under the sculptured head and first portico, you can choose between these two types of sandwiches, filled with savoury ingredients of your choice. The panuozzo is made out of pizza dough, while the spianata is a Romagnolo version of focaccia. The founders of Don Peppino, the Carlucci family, recommend their battle horse: a panuozzo with Mortadella IGP di Bologna, Stracciata di Bufala, Pomodorini del Piennolo and pistachio sauce. 

From Don Peppino, turn right onto Via Indipendenza and follow the portici all the way to Piazza Maggiore, the central square in the middle of Bologna’s hexagonal centre.

As you follow the walls of the Basilica di San Petronio along Via dell’Archiginnasio towards Piazza Galvani, you’ll spot what initially may just look like a piece of cement bulging out of the church. It is a walkway, or at least it was meant to become one, connecting San Petronio to the private home of the Pope, owned by the Vatican church. The Pope ordered its construction so that he could have direct access to San Petronio, however the residents of Bologna retaliated with a referendum against this bridge, claiming the Pope did not require private access. The Bolognesi were successful, the construction was interrupted and today, only this little piece is left, symbolising the strong-minded will of the city’s residents.  

Turning left on Piazza Galvani, following the arcaded sidewalk for around a 100m, you reach the portici of Piazza Cavour. Here, you’ll find the best cremeria in Bologna: Cremeria Cavour, run by brothers Stefano and Alessandro Boltim. Together they select the finest ingredients to produce their range of homemade ice creams, fruity granite, cannoli and other heavenly dolcezze. Grab yourself a cone of fior di bufala and pistachio and take a seat next to Lucio Dalla’s statue in the Garden Cavour for an afternoon merenda bliss. 

A 10-minute walk from Piazza Cavour, along Via Farini and Via Barberia all the way to the portici of Via de’ Gombruti, you will meet Francesco Tonelli and Dario Picchiotti, the proud owners of Trattoria Casamerlò

“Casamerlò is located under the portici because we think that a restaurant dealing with a traditional cuisine must have arcades to convey the international image of Bologna!” Francesco told me, “We aim to rediscover dishes from the 70s and 80s which we noticed were slowly disappearing. We want to restore an image to all the recipes mistreated all over the world such as the vodka sauce or fettuccine Alfredo.”

Francesco continues, “We’re certainly not easy hosts: our multifaceted cuisine should please everyone, but must strictly follow our rules. Our objective is to maintain the highest quality and preserve the simplicity in our tradition.” Francesco’s favourite plate par excellence is Ruote alla Vodka, a “greedy and trashy” dish as he describes it, inspired by a dish served to many Italians when they were children. The durum wheat pasta “ruote” (which translates to and resembles “wheels”) are made by the renowned pastificio Benedetto Cavalieri and are combined with a delicious, creamy pancetta and vodka sauce. 

Casamerlò has a tavern-esque atmosphere, perfect for the biassanots (Bolognese dialect which roughly translates to “people kissing the night”) who roam from trattoria to osteria, staying out as late as possible. Francesco concludes, “The secret of Casamerlò is not to have secrets … to be blunt and transparent. If there is something we don’t like, we say it and we expect the same the other way around.” 

Advice that I myself took and that ultimately led me here, sharing with you these secret spots under the portici of Bologna. 

I Famosi Tortellini della Nonna

La Finestrella

Scampo

Don Peppino

Basilica di San Petronio

Cremeria Cavour

Trattoria Casamerlò