Details: Bologna, Italy
Marino’s audience is no family affair, either: A group of 10 amateur foodies is watching his every move, hoping to imbibe some of the secrets of his trade.
The end result of his and his students’ work is a delicious three-course meal, highlighted by an appetizer of split pea soup topped by fresh squid — cut up, pureed, then put into a large syringe and squeezed into a pot of boiling water that cooks it into the shape of spaghetti — as well as sweet and sour cherry tomatoes and an extra-virgin olive oil foam.
The evening was organized by a cultural association called Il Salotto del Buongusto — or the Gourmet Parlor — and was the first stop on my recent reconnaissance tour of Bologna’s booming cooking-school scene.
Locally, this northern Italian city has long been famous for the “three Ts”: the towers (torri) that dotted its streets in the Middle Ages, the generous breasts (tette) of its women, and its two trademark egg-based pasta dishes, tagliatelle and tortellini. It’s also nicknamed La Dotta (the learned one) for its nearly 1,000-year-old university; La Rossa (the red one), for the characteristic color of its roofs and its lefty political inclinations; and La Grassa (the fat one), for its substantial culinary tradition.
The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna is home to some of Italy’s most mouthwatering food, which also includes ragu, or meat sauce, and mortadella, which Americans know better as bologna (though the American version has nothing on the original). Parmesan cheese, Parma ham and balsamic vinegar come from the area as well.
You get the gist: This has never been a place for dieting.
What’s new, though, is that this is no longer just a city of delicious homemade food whose secrets are vigilantly guarded by aging grandmas. Partly as a result of the economic crisis, which has forced many Italians to reinvent themselves, Bologna’s long-closed gastronomic culture is finally opening up, and plenty of people are now eager to coach Italian and foreign tourists in how to prepare an authentic Bolognese meal.
At last count, there were more than 20 cooking schools active in Bologna, teaching everything from traditional recipes to gluten-free gastronomy. Most are concentrated in the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood around the central intersection of the Via Ugo Bassi/Rizzoli and Via Indipendenza. This area, where most of the city’s tourist attractions are located, is flanked to the south by the vast main square of the Piazza Maggiore, which is dominated by the Basilica of San Petronio. Europe’s sixth-largest church, the basilica was originally intended to surpass even St. Peter’s in Rome. But in the mid-1500s, Pope Pius IV halted the project, resulting in a unique half-finished look to the structure, with marble covering the bottom half and exposed dark bricks at the top. To the east, the Due Torri, the two highest medieval towers still standing, soar above the glittering terra-cotta roof shingles.