What to eat in Bologna

A short food guide to decipher a Bologna menu and to discover what to eat in Bologna, beyond Pizza and spaghetti

Bologna (and all the Emilia Romagna region!) is world wide known for its amazing cuisine and “Spaghetti alla Bolognese” are just like “Pizza” the most famous Italian dish in the world (actually, you will never find “spaghetti alla Bolognese” in Bologna, but this is a different story…).

Like in many other Italian regions, the traditional cooking can vary a lot among the different towns of Emilia Romagna, and you are likely to find rather different menus in Modena, Ferrara or Bologna. In this post I will talk mostly of Bologna dishes, leaving you the pleasure to discover the food peculiarities of the other Emilia Romagna cities.

Tortellini, Tagliatelle, Lasagne: undoubtedly the core of traditional cuisine in Bologna is “Fresh Pasta” (made with eggs and flour and not dried like spaghetti, hence “fresh”), either plain, like Tagliatelle, or stuffed, like Tortellini. Also famous specialties are cured meat pork (with excellencies such as Culatello) .

Antipasti (starters):

Affettati misti e formaggi con crescentine e crescenta

Visit Bologna_Tamburini_tagliere misto

Local cheeses, “affettati misti” (mixed cold cuts), Crescentine, delicious stuffed oven-cooked bread, and Crescenta, a sort of local crunchy bread stuffed with little pieces of ham, are the typical starter you will be offered in most restaurants (and wine bars, as a side dish of a glass of wine).  Here are the ones you must definitely taste:

Parma ham (also known as prosciutto crudo di Parma) it’s a delicious ham that’s been salted for several weeks, rather than cooked, and that is left ageing at least for 12-18 months. It has a melt-in-your-mouth texture, and it’s made — of course! — in Parma.

Mortadella is an oversized Italian sausage made of finely hashed or ground, heat-cured pork sausage, which incorporates at least 15% small cubes of pork fat (principally the hard fat from the neck of the pig). It is flavored with spices, including whole or ground black pepper, myrtle berries, nutmeg and pistachios.

Culatello is the ‘king’ of Italian cured meats.  Made from the highly prized “rump” of the same rear hind leg of pork as normally chosen for the best Parma ham.  Culatello is salted, massaged and carefully cured and airdried for a minimum of 1 year. Culatello offers a finer, more intense flavour than prosciutto and it really needs to be tried in order to understand just how superb it is.

Parmigiano Reggiano: everybody knows the Parmigiano (called Parmesan in English after the French name for it)!  It’s a hard,  granular cheese, cooked but not pressed, named after the producing areas near Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna. You can eat it grated on your pasta or in small pieces or as in ingredient of your risotto (“risotto alla Parmigiana”). It’s a real delicacy when served  with some drops of balsamic vinegar.

Balsamic vinegar of Modena is one of the region’s most world-famous foodstuffs. Sweet white Trebbiano grape pressings are boiled down to a dark syrup and then aged under rigid restrictions. The syrup is placed into oaken kegs, along with a vinegar “mother,” and begins the aging process. Over the years it graduates to smaller and smaller kegs made of chestnut, cherrywood, ash, mulberry, and juniper until it is ready for sale. All of these woods progressively add character to the vinegar. As it ages, moisture evaporates out, further thickening the vinegar and concentrating the flavor. Some balsamic vinegars have been aged for over 100 years. It is this aging process that makes true balsamic vinegar from Modena in Northern Italy so expensive.

Spuma di mortadella

Bologna foode guide_Spuma di mortadella

Spuma di Mortadella (“Mortadella foam”) it a delicious though simple starter, made of mortadella, Parmesa, ricotta cheese and fresh cream mixed all together, that is spread on hot toasts, Crescentine or Crescenta.

Primi piatti (first courses)

Tagliatelle al ragù

Bologna Foode Guide_Tagliatelle al Ragu

Not exactly what tourists think of when they ask for “Bolognese sauce,” this is a thick ragu of onions, carrots, pork, veal, and a little bit of tomato (it’s not at all a tomato sauce!). Ragu is not eaten with spaghetti (contrary to wherever else in Italy), but with Tagliatelle, a tasty fresh Pasta made of flour and eggs, which is “stretched” in 7 mm wide strips.

Tortellini in brodo

Bologna Food Guide_Tortellini in brodo

The pasta that has become a favorite worldwide, Tortellini (pronounced tor-teh-LEE-nee) are small pieces of  ring-shaped pasta that have been wrapped around a filling, usually a mix of meat (pork loin, Parma ham)  or cheese. As legend has it, an innkeeper in Bologna viewed Lucretia Borgia through the keyhole in a door. All he would make out was her navel, so he created this pasta in commemoration. Tortellini are usually served with the broth from Bollito, but could also be cooked with ragù or panna (milk cream). A similar pasta, tortelloni, are larger versions of tortellini.

Lasagne al forno

Bologna Food Guide_Lasagne al forno

Another worldwide favorite, lasagne are a wide, flat pasta shape, and possibly one of the oldest types of pasta. Traditional lasagne are made by interleaving layers of pasta with layers of sauce, made with ragù, bechamel and Parmigiano. 

Gramigna alla salsiccia

Bologna Food Guide_Gramigna con Salsiccia

Gramigna alla salsiccia is short curlt pasta topped with sausage ragu. Much less famous than tagliatelle, tortellini and lasagne, it is a savoury dish from Modena.

Secondi piatti (second courses: fish / meat dishes)

Bollito misto

Bologna food guide_Bollito misto

Bollito misto is a typicall Bologna dish, made of vegetables and various meats, such as chicken, beef, and sausage, simmered together and usually served with an anchovy-garlic sauce. The particularity of the Bologna recipe is the usage of Cotechino (typical large cooked pork sausage) and Zampone (pig’s trotters stuffed with sausage meet). Bolito misto is often served with Purè di patate (mashed potatos) as a side dish.

Cotoletta alla bolognese

Bologna Food Guide_Cotoletta alla bolognese

This is a richer version of the famous Cotoletta alla Milanese (also known as “Wiener Shnietzel”). Veal cutlets are dip in beaten egg, dredged in bread crumbs, and fried in butter until golden. While the Milanese version would be now ready to be eaten, Bologna cooks add a slice of prosciutto and one of cheese on each, heat in the oven until the cheese melts, add a little spoon of tomato sauce over each and serve them hot.


Bologna Food Guide_Friggione

It’s a savoury sauce, made of white onions, olive oil and tomatos and used with bread and to top pork meat or polenta. It’s an historical Bologna dish and the original recipe is jealously kept in the local chamber of commerce, along with the tortellini and Tagliatelle ones.

Polpette alla bolognese

Bologna Food Guide_Polpette alla Bolognese

These are special meat balls, made with veal meat, Mortadella, Parmigiano, eggs, bread and milk. They can be cooked in tomato sauce (sometimes with potatoes and pees, everybody has his own recipe, which is, of course “the original”) or deep fried

Dolci (Desserts)

Zuppa Inglese

Bologna Food Guide_Zuppa Inglese

One of the most famous Bologna desserts, it’s a very old dish also served also in other Emilia Romagna towns and similar to Tiramisù.  It is made with liquor (Rosolio or Marsala) soaked sponge cake,  custard and cocoa powder. It takes its name from an ancient Elizabethan recipe.

Raviole and Pinza

Food Guide Bologna_raviole e pinza

Raviole are  typical hoven cooked short crust pastry cakes from Bologna, that you may find everywhere, from Panetterie (bakeries) to Pasticcierie (sweet shops)  and restaurants. Their name derives from the fact that they are prepared and look like very close to “ravioli”: you take a small dish of Raviole sweet pasta, stuff it with plums jam, fold it in two (thus obtaining a moon shaped cake), cook it in oven, et voila!, your raviola is ready to be eaten either dipped in red wine or liquor (alchermes).

The Pinza is a  short crust pastry recipe similar to Raviole, but the stuffing is made with “Mostarda Bolognese” (a delicious sort of marmalade made of apples, peers, plums, almonds and raisins and a little bit of mustard – hence the name “mostarda”). Pinza is oval shapes, bigger than Raviole, and is oven cooked before being eaten plain or dipped in a cup of milk for breakfast.

Buon appetito!

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