Bologna: a guide to the gastronomic scene

7 August 2023
Written by
Teresa Cremona

An itinerary for the foodies

Bologna has long been named “La Grassa” or, the “fat one” for the voluptuousness of the traditional dishes – yet this adjective doesn’t reflect the effervescent, exciting and radiating energy transmitted by the traditional dishes that still today retain their authenticity in the purest form. Starting with crescentine, sort of fried pasta pillows to fill with mortadella or squacquerone as they do in Trattoria di Via Serra. These are perfect for an aperitif with a sparkling pignoletto, as is the stecco petroniano, made with meat, mortadella and cheese, revisited in a mousse at I Portici restaurant who is also famed for the revisitation of the imperial soup. Impeccable at Al Cambio are the tagliatelle and the lasagna. 

They say that Venus’ belly button inspired the shape of tortellini, which, in order to reach perfection must be big enough to fit six on a spoon. On a larger scale there are the balanzoni, green pasta made from spinach and filled with ricotta and mortadella, served with butter and sage as they do at Oltre, in the Mercato delle Erbe area. At Casamerlò on the other hand, you’ll find a few historic recipes such as La gramigna bicolore and la cotoletta alla petroniana. The sweet tradition speaks of torta di riso (rice cooked in milk flavoured in amaretto, lemon and almonds) and raviole filled with mustard at Trattoria di Via Serra or certosino (medieval panforte with flour. Cocoa, candied fruits and honey). 

Hotel I Portici is located in Piazza Maggiore and housed within a liberty style building with frescoed rooms elevated with a minimal yet refined decor and a beautiful terrace with a view. The in house restaurant is the only Michelin starred restaurant where Chef Gianluca Renzi creates novelty and avant-guard recipes inspired by tradition. 

Heading towards the centre you’ll find Forno Brisa where, as well as some of the best leavened products, breads and biscuits you’ll also find a variety of specialty coffee, chocolate and natural wines. A young company whose aim is to balance out flavours with environmental and economic sustainability. 

Pass by Drogheria della Pioggia with rows and rows of vases filled with every kind of sweet imaginable. 

In the last few years the streets neighbouring the Mercato delle Erbe has seen a strong rise of restaurants and bars that have attracted many locals and tourists to the area, such as Ahimè. A place so far from tradition in which every day creates a new menu according to the available, seasonal ingredients and natural wines sourced at the Azienda Orsi Vigneto San Vito della Valsamoggia. 

Eliche pasta, scoglio soup, red pesto and olive powder at I Portici
Baking at Forno Brisa

Nearby is Oltre, a restaurant that reinterprets the great classics of the region in a contemporary key in a relaxed and refined environment. From tortellini in a parmesan cream to tagliatelle al ragù or even spinach bao bun – make sure you leave just enough space for desert as the rose cake is divine. 

At the entrance of the market you’ll cross the Antica Formaggeria Bernardi, filled with a great variety of cheeses and cured meats such as the Zubello Culatello, coppa di Parma and, of course, mortadella. For a quick lunch, make a pit-stop at Merlino. Il Mago della farina: a bakery with freshly baked leavened products and fresh egg pasta. Come for a quick snack or aperitivo with artisanal wines & beers sided by fried tortellini. 

As you venture towards Piazza Malpighi, you’ll notice the decors of Osteria Bartolini, with a menu centred around fresh catch of the day from the Adriatic. All served in a traditional guise such as sardoncini pan fried with oil and lemon or deep fried fish. 

One of the ‘must’ restaurants for traditional Cucina Bolognese is Casamerlò. Here you’ll find ‘le ricette di una volta’, or those dishes once cooked by our grandparents such as gramigna paglia e fieno, il poldino, burgers made with the tortellini filling, il friggione and ruote alla vodka. 

Il Poldino at Casamerlò
Tortellini in brodo at Casamerlò

It may be hard to believe however the cuisine in Bologna is not just tagliatelle and tortellini – there are some restaurants centred around plant based cuisine such as Botanica Lab, a location whose philosophy balances sustainability, conviviality and taste. 

Botanica Lab, Bologna

Walking away from San Petronio  (fourth largest church in Italy) and it’s incomplete façade behind, venture towards il quadrilatero, a district that has housed artisans since the medieval times. Toady, the streets are filled with small and intimate restaurants, delis and fresh fish stands so magnificent they could be an exhibition. In this part of the city you’ll find Paolo Atti & Figli, open since 1868 – a historic and iconic place to purchase fresh pasta, tortellini and tortelloni, passatelli, zuppa imperiale and reale as well as traditional cakes and sweets like the certosino natalizio (available all year around). 

Bottega Portici is the only public palazzo in Bologna to house a terrace with a view of the two towers. It’s a caffè and a fresh egg pasta lab with an open kitchen (take a peak as you walk by at the ladies at work) and where you can purchase takeaway pasta to either cook at home or select one of the sources and simply enjoy the pleasure of simpleness. 

If you’re looking for an overnight stay with a view of the historic quarter then check out Casa Isolani, a b&b with twelve antique residences designed with the minute attention to detail. 

Heading towards the uni quarter, an icon of the city is Antica Drogheria Calzolari, a family run business for the last sixty years. Frequented by wine lovers for the vast selection of Italian and international wine labels and ideal for an aperitif. 

Nearby, Berberè has opened a second location (15 in total in Italy) where pizza is made in a light and easily digestible way using organic semi-wholemeal flours and sourdough.

In this area there’s Casa Bertagni, a delicate guest house with antique furnishings, paintings and trinkets you can also purchase. The atmosphere is that of a house in which you’re warmly welcomed to take a seat in the living room or in the breezy outdoor patio. 

Close to the station is Trattoria di Via Serra, a favourite amongst locals for its true authenticity – nothing overly fancy, just simple recipes – and for this reason we advise to book in advance. From tortellini in brodo di cappone to crescentine, which are also proposed in a sweet guide with caramel. Finding a hotel in this area also means blending in with the hustle and bustle of the locals, and staying in one of the most authentic parts of the city: La Bolognina. One of the hotels we recommend is The Student Hotel – a hybrid concept between hostel, student housing, co-working and events space. 

Last but not least, take a day trip in the outskirts of the city centre and enjoy a lunch at Al Cambio, where you’ll taste traditional ‘cucina di casa’. Or perhaps venture a little further toward Castelmaggiore and reach Villa Zarri, a magnificent building rich in frescoes and seventeenth century stuccoes. Inside is Iacobucci, a Michelin starred restaurant whose cuisine travels through international influences and experimentation. On your way back to the city perhaps visit Gino Fabbri’s pastry store, with brioches, cakes and many more delights. 

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