Awaiting the train to Bologna in Rome's Termini station.

Bologna was high on the list of cities we wanted to visit this year. It is a city known for its food; indeed, many consider the cuisine of Reggio-Emilia to be the best in Italy (high praise indeed)! But it is also known for its red-walled buildings, gothic architecture, the porticos lining the streets (once providing more living space, and now useful in protecting pedestrians from the rain), and the oldest university in continental Europe (founded in 1088 or thereabouts). Despite all of these draws, Bologna is off the tourist beaten path. Like most visitors to Italy, the only part of Bologna I’d seen before was the train station.

The Statue of Neptune in the main square.

So with our Madison friends Jonathan, Stacy, Zach, and Samantha in town for the week, we decided to take an overnight trip together from Rome to explore Bologna. Not only did we want to explore the city and the cuisine, but we thought that the kids would enjoy the chance to ride the Italian trains together. Even better, they’d have a chance to share a hotel room without grownups.

Playing in the piazza.

Bologna totally exceeded our expectations. Indeed, several of us are actively fantasizing about future sabbaticals Bolognese-style. The city has a student presence that provides a great youthful energy. At the same time, it is relatively tourist-free, especially in contrast to Rome during Easter week. And the food was really amazing. While the cuisine is heavily oriented towards meat and our group was largely vegetarian, the cheese and pasta dishes were absolutely stunning, and the vegetables in the market positively glowed.

The raised tomb of a famous law professor.

With a local guide, Daniela, we spent the first afternoon wandering the city focusing on the architecture, the university, and the food. The university’s classic area of strength was law and medicine. In the original building of the university, we saw hundreds of plaques on the walls and ceilings depicting the family crests of student attendees – including students from as far away as Germany and Poland. We also toured the original anatomy teaching studio, which still has the marble table used for demonstrative dissections. Outside, we saw statues of famous professors (including Dr. Galvani, for whom the galvanic skin response was named). We also saw raised sarcophagi honoring the most famous professors (usually of law). A little different that what we are used to as academics these days, especially in the United States.

Tasting aged balsamic vinegars.

The food culture is really interesting. We had a tasting of aged balsamic vinegars and learned about different varieties of parmaggiano cheese. Alas, none of us eat the mortadella salami that is famous in Bologna. But we made up for that with the pastas. Indeed, they were the richest we’ve had in Italy; the cooking tends to use butter rather than olive oil, and is particularly filling.

For our first lunch, we ate at Trattoria Gianni, which our guide Daniela had recommended. It’s on a tiny side street off the main piazza. On the blackboard showing the dishes of the day, we spied gnocchi di zucca (pumpkin). Half of us ordered it… and a few minutes later, it was erased from the board. We worried that that meant they had run out before filling our order, and were delighted by the steaming bowls that emerged from the kitchen a few minutes later. Others enjoyed rich cheese ravioli, and we all shared fantastic desserts – the strawberries are in season and are unbelievable, and Eli declared the creme caramel to be the best he’d ever had (high praise indeed – though we’ll see what he thinks after we visit Barcelona later this month). After our coffees, we were served a house-made blueberry digestivo (after-meal drink, which the Italians believe promotes digestion; I’m not so sure). We practically had to roll out the door to go on our tour.

Bakery window, with a local speciality: Torta di riso (rice cake)

Our dinner was at ‘da Cesari, a restaurant beloved by locals and foodies in Bologna. The menu consists of the waiter listing the items that were prepared that day. A menu is limited and meat-oriented, but this is perhaps due to that fact that the chef exclusively uses produce from the “Umberto Cesari” farm and the offerings change daily. But the kitchen prepared for us a sampling of vegetarian starters and pasta dishes for us to share. Seth thought that the food was excellent, and offered an authentic sampling of the local cuisine and wine. But I was unhappy with the slow pace of the service. We enjoyed many games while waiting for our food, including am amusing few rounds of the game “telephone” — made all the more entertaining against the din of a small, bustling Italian restaurant!

At Trattoria del Rosso.

Fortunately, our final meal the next day was perfect. Our lunch restaurant was recommended by Eli’s teacher in Rome, whose daughter attends university in Bologna. Trattoria del Rosso is the oldest restaurant in Bologna and it is named Rosso after the red walls of the buildings of the city. More gnocchi and raviolis were happily consumed, along with bacalao (stewed cod), salads, polenta fritta e Squaquerone (fried polenta with a local fresh cheese), and gelato at a nearby stand to follow.

While dining around Bologna we also enjoyed some truly wonderful bottles of a local favorite wine. Sangiovese is a medium bodied red with a fruity flavour that is produced nearby. Seth also embarked on a successful mission to find a wedge of 60-month-old Parmigiano-Reggiano. After much inquiry, he found a small shop, the Casa delle Forma, on via Oberdam. The small store consisted only of long dark wooden shelves holding huge wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano, with a variety of different ages for sale.

We rolled onto the train filled with the tastes and sights of Bologna. It is a truly underrated city, and I, for one, hope to spend lots of time there in the future.

– Jenny


Trattoria da Gianni

Via Clavature, 18

Tel 39 051 22 94 34

Trattoria Del Rosso

Via Augusto Righi 30

Tel 39 051 236730

Da Cesari

Via de’ Carbonesi, 8
051 237710