A more intimate atmosphere is the hallmark of Il Salotto di Penelope (Penelope’s Lounge). Hidden away on the far side of a courtyard off the Via San Felice, a porticoed street that connects downtown to one of the city’s medieval gates, this large but charming professional kitchen has been in use for more than 50 years. The Simili sisters, two of Bologna’s most famous sfogline who are now well into their 90s, worked here until recently. Today, chatty friends Barbara Zaccagni and Valeria Hensemberger manage the place.
I visit them one weekday evening as they’re teaching 17 people how to make tortellini. “The secret is stretching out the dough so thin that you can see San Luca through it,” says Zaccagni. She’s referring to the salmon-colored 18th-century Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, which stands guard over Bologna from high atop a hill just outside town. On the drive to Bologna from the north, San Luca is the first thing you see from the plain, emerging from the characteristic fog and signaling to returning locals that they’re finally home.
A few days later, my mother and I visit the proverbial cherry on my cooking-school cake — the Gelato Museum, opened last year by Carpigiani, the world’s largest maker of professional gelato equipment. In the same location right outside town, Carpigiani also manages the for-profit Gelato University, catering to people who dream of opening an artisanal gelato shop.
My mom and I first take a guided tour through old artifacts and machinery with a group of Chinese high school students. Then the two of us sit down with Italy-educated Japanese teacher Makoto Irie for an hour-long gelato-making class.
Irie guides us through the rules for making a sherbet (an Arab invention from the 11th century, we learn) with fresh oranges that had come straight from the market that morning. This turns out to involve more math than I’d expected, to find the right balance between the natural sugars in the fruit and added sugars.
But we do okay in the end, and during the tasting session that follows, we’re pretty impressed with our soft, brightly colored final product. Though we’ve made the sherbet in a professional Carpigiani machine, Irie explains how to make it by hand and sends us home with amateur-appropriate instructions. My mom and I immediately replicate the experiment with a much smaller, non-professional and non-Carpigiani device that she has owned for many years. It’s a big hit with our dinner guests that evening.
“When you hear mention of Bolognese cuisine, take a bow, for it deserves such respect,” wrote Pellegrino Artusi in his 1891 cookbook, “The Science of Cookery and the Art of Eating Well,” which was the Italian housewife’s bible for decades. Today, this city’s culinary tradition no longer has to be just an obscure object of desire. Everyone’s free, even welcome, to dabble — and delight — in it.
Pasquali is a freelance journalist based in Washington who travels frequently to Italy and beyond.