Perhaps Bologna’s most well-known nickname – especially among other Italians – is “La Grassa.” The literal translation for this is “the fat one,” but it’s usually not meant to be pejorative. In fact, many Italians from other parts of the country will acknowledge that the Bolognese eat well – really well.
Here is just a partial list of some of the best things to eat when you’re visiting Bologna – and to be sure not to miss any of the local treats, you can sign up for a food tour of Bologna, too.
The word “bolognese” simply means “from Bologna,” but it’s also the name given to the city’s most famous pasta-coating export. This is a thick sauce with lots of meat and onions – there’s tomato in there, too, but not as much as you might expect. It’s really a meat sauce, not a tomato sauce, and it’s typically served on pastas like tagliatelle, which Italian chefs think grips the sauce best.
Oscar Meyer stole the name “bologna” for that processed so-called meat some of us grew up eating for lunch, but don’t let that keep you from trying the original Italian inspiration. Mortadella is a thinly-sliced pork sausage with big chunks of pork fat visible in each slice. It’s sometimes eaten in sandwiches but also appears frequently on meat-and-cheese plates.
Tortellini in Brodo
This little cheese-filled pasta, shaped so beguilingly into circles, comes from Bologna. The stories about its invention vary, but many revolve around the pasta maker being inspired by the shape of a woman’s navel. The preferred way to eat tortellini in Bologna is “in brodo,” or in broth, where the fresh pasta is served in a bowl with a light meat-based broth.
One of the world’s most famous cheeses, parmigiano-reggiano, comes from neighboring Parma – but there’s no rivalry between Parma and Bologna that’s going to keep this fantastic cheese off of Bolognese menus. It’s a hard and salty cheese, sometimes grated over dishes and sometimes served as part of a cheese course.
Parma ham is another famous export from nearby Parma, and another local ingredient you’ll find prominently featured on many a menu in Bologna. It’s sometimes referred to as “prosciutto crudo di Parma” (to distinguish it from prosciutto made in other places). In the spring and summer, look for offerings of “prosciutto e melone,” where the pork is wrapped around fresh slices of melon.
Another nearby town, Modena, is famous for producing the best balsamic vinegar in the world. You can take a day trip to visit a balsamic vinegar maker in Modena – it’s a fascinating and very slow process – and you can eat it at pretty much every meal in Bologna. Balsamic goes on everything – it goes equally well with both savory and sweet dishes.
The Bolognese claim that lasagna was invented in Bologna, and they certainly know what they’re doing when it comes to layered pasta and meat sauce. This isn’t necessarily something you’d want to eat on a hot summer day, but you’ll be happy to tuck into a true Bolognese lasagna when there’s a chill in the air.
Piadina is a flatbread that’s common in nearby towns like Ravenna, but also found all over Bologna. It often serves as the sandwich bread for a light lunch or snack, usually with meat and cheese inside, folded in half, and grilled.