Bologna: Good Any Way You Slice It

Rows of hand-massaged, pampered proscuitto di Parma hang from the ceiling of a Bologna delicatessen.
Rows of hand-massaged, pampered proscuitto di Parma hang from the ceiling of a Bologna delicatessen. (By Barbara Bradlyn Morris)
Sunday, April 20, 2008

When my husband and I went to northern Italy, we were determined to eat like the gods. We were, after all, visiting Emilia-Romagna, a roughly triangular region between Milan, Venice and Florence, where an association of tortellini makers sets strict standards: noodle dough must be as "soft as a caress" before master pasta chefs gently hand-mold it into the shape of the navel of Venus, goddess of love.

Hence the idea to eat like gods.

Upon arriving in Bologna, Emilia-Romagna's capital, we dashed off to explore the city's elegantly arcaded streets and cobblestoned piazzas. Licking some of the creamiest gelato imaginable, we meandered through open-air food markets where rows of fat, reddish-brown hams hung overhead like bulging saddlebags and beds of shimmering fish nestled in crushed ice.

Greedily we inhaled the heady aromas of hundreds of white, cream-colored and yellow cheeses, as well as fresh scents wafting from pyramids of fruit and vegetables. Primary colors dazzled our eyes: tomato reds, sunburst yellows and spring greens. When I shyly tried out my new Italian phrase, "Lo posso assaggiare?" (May I taste it?), I was rewarded with broad smiles, a torrent of Italian and generous offerings of salami and cheese.

Over the next three days we had a chance to eat a variety of regional delicacies in a variety of restaurants. The rewards kept on coming.

At the lively, popular Tamburini deli (Via Caprarie, 1), a hundred kinds of sausages hung from the ceiling above mountains of cheeses and overflowing piles of pasta of every shape and size. Our lunch included grilled, stuffed tomatoes crowned with freshly grated parmesan, eggplant gratinee, a slab of dandelion-yellow quiche, herb-flecked grilled zucchini shimmering with olive oil, and a five-inch-high mound of lasagna, a house specialty made from layers of paper-thin sheets of spinach pasta, bechamel sauce, cheese and Bologna's famed ragu (minced meat sauce). Firm but delicate, it changed our whole concept of lasagna.

That evening at Restaurant Diana (Via Indipendenza, 24), a lively bistro atmosphere prevailed despite the eatery's crystal chandeliers and red velvet drapes: A potbellied chef wheeled a trolley of roasted and boiled meats from table to table while the headwaiter bossed around a covey of black-and-white-clad underlings.

Everyone, ourselves included, ordered steaming bowls of tortellini en brodo. Filled with a delicate mixture of pork, cured ham, parmesan and mortadella, these tortellini were indeed as soft as a caress.

Mortadella -- absolutely nothing like American bologna -- turned out to be a salami of minced pork and lard that had been ground to a light, pinkish paste, stuffed into casings and dotted sparingly with pea-size globules of lustrous, mousselike fat. Ours was so thinly sliced it was almost translucent.

On Sunday, at the recommendation of a museum receptionist, we found ourselves amid large, laughing, pasta-eating Bolognese families at Trattoria Anna Maria (Via Belle Arti, 17/A), a neighborhood haunt near the Teatro Comunale whose walls are papered with photos of performing artists.

My tagliatelli -- very long, very thin ribbons of tender, saffron-colored pasta -- was napped with a zesty ragu. My husband's gnocchi -- tiny, tender potato dumplings -- were lightly touched with a tangy gorgonzola sauce. We quaffed Sangiovese wine as if it were water.

Could we squeeze in dessert? Of course! It was incredible: panna cotta, a simple dish of flavored, cooked cream on which the chef had worked magic. Molded into a cup shape, it was as smooth, cool and white as marble and draped in a glistening caramel sauce.

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