Travel: Bologna & Modena

IMG_2953My love affair with Italy started in high school, when my family traveled there for a week. We stayed in Siena and Vernazza in the Cinque Terre, and I was immediately hooked. After that trip, I vowed to learn Italian and go back for a longer stay--and I did. I studied abroad in Bologna during college, and grew to love the language and the culture even more. Ari studied abroad there as well (we actually met when we were both TA's for an intro Italian class when I came back), so it's a very special place for both of us--and we were really excited to go back together. When I lived there, we lived in pretty basic dorm-style apartments with other Italian students--not exactly the fresco-filled palazzos of your dreams. This time, we decided to stay in an Airbnb on the other side of town to explore a new neighborhood (it was fantastic! Paola was so gracious and lovely, and the place was very comfortable.) Bologna is a very walkable city--you can get from one end to the other in about an hour and a half, and there are electric buses that go all over as well. It's still very much a university town, and you can feel the energy of the students all over the city. It was pretty amazing to be back in the familiar streets, seeing the same restaurants and stores (and bars) that we had been to as students. Of course, now with jobs and a little more spending money, we could also eat out more--though I remember eating very well there on a minimal budget too. Here's where we ate:

Osteria della Lanterna

Just down the street from our Airbnb, this trattoria felt like the quintessential Italian neighborhood spot. We ordered two of the Bolognese specialties: tagliatelle al ragu and tortelloni al brodo, both delicious. I love that you could order ragu from 100 different restaurants in the city, and they would all be slightly different. They also had a great selection of inexpensive, local wines--we had a lovely sangiovese from Emilia-Romagna that went perfectly with the pasta.

Trattoria dal Biassanot 

This place was a recommendation from a former professor, and it didn't disappoint. I had gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce and Ari had the tortelloni al brodo (are you seeing a pattern?) and we shared the pork loin. If you're looking for a perfect example of Bolognese cuisine, this is an excellent choice.

IMG_3039Hosteria Giusti

This tiny restaurant is in the neighboring town of Modena (about 20 minutes away by train) and is absolutely worth the trip. Housed in the back of a salumeria, it's only open for lunch and the curated menu is perfectly executed by the Morandi family. Be sure to order the salumi plate with fried gnocchi--the prosciutto, salami and lardo is the best I have ever had, and the light-as-air pillows of dough were incredible. You can also order half portions (as to be able to try more things, of course) which left us feeling pleasantly full but not over-stuffed. Note: you need to make a reservation about a month in advance, so plan ahead.

Don't miss: in addition to the incredible pasta, Bologna is also known for a few other specialties: piadine and aperitivo. I ate a piadina almost every day for lunch while studying abroad--it's a kind of flatbread sandwich, typically filled with prosciutto or coppa and cheese. Aperitivo happens every day before dinner--remember, Italians eat dinner around 9 pm or later, so their "happy hour" is anywhere from 6 pm to 10 pm. Around this time, you'll see restaurants and bars set out little plates of food, ranging from a bowl of potato chips to full plates of pasta. If you buy a drink (an Aperol or Campari spritz if you want to feel very Bolognese), then you can snack on the food as you like.

Insalata Caprese

The first time I ever had this salad was when I was 16 and traveling in Italy with my family. I vividly remember sitting in a small trattoria in Vernazza, the bright red tomatoes bursting with flavor in my mouth, their sweet juices offset by the creamy mozzarella and sharp basil. Of course, I had eaten raw tomatoes before, but had never liked them much. But there was something about this combination of flavors that changed my mind for good, and since then I have loved tomatoes in salads, pastas, even plain with a little salt. Be sure to only use the best tomatoes you can find -- this is not a salad for winter, since there are only a few flavors it really gives them a chance to shine. Insalata Caprese

2 large tomatoes (beefsteak or heirloom), sliced

8 oz mozzarella, sliced

10-12 basil leaves

2-3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

 

On a large plate, layer one slice tomato, one slice mozzarella, and one basil leaf. Repeat with remaining slices to form a circle around the edge of the plate. Drizzle vinegar and olive oil over salad, and season well with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Tagliatelle alla Bolognese

Though I studied abroad in Bologna almost three years ago, sometimes it still feels like it's only been a few months. My favorite part of the whole experience was the cooking lessons we were lucky enough to take with Rita, an amazing woman who runs two restaurants in Sardinia and her own cooking school in Bologna. Every meal we made with her consisted of several courses, lots of wine, and wonderful conversation. I still remember learning how to debone a fish (she made it look effortless; it was in fact very difficult), create handmade pasta, and deep-fry artichokes. However, the recipe that sticks in my mind (particularly on cold January nights) is her tagliatelle all bolognese. In Italy, every grandmother has her own bolognese recipe, and each of them will insist that it's the best. This one is my favorite because it was the first I ever had. Rita told us that you know that a bolognese is done when no one flavor overpowers the others, and I think that this one creates a perfect harmony of creamy tomato, salty pancetta, and hearty beef. Also, if you ever see a recipe that instructs you to use spaghetti or fettucine, don't listen to them . True Bolognese know that the only way to serve their namesake sauce is with tagliatelle.

Rita's Tagliatelle alla Bolognese

1 lb tagliatelle (good quality dried noodles or handmade fresh pasta is best)

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 lb ground beef

2 oz pancetta or prosciutto, roughly chopped

1/4 white onion, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 rib celery, finely chopped

1 clove garlic

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup red wine

10 oz tomato sauce

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/3 cup beef or vegetable broth

Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook the vegetables until soft, five to seven minutes. Crush the garlic with the side of your knife, leaving the skin on. Add the garlic and bay leaf to the pan and cook for one minute. Add the pancetta or prosciutto and cook until soft, two to three minutes. Increase the heat to medium and add the ground beef and brown, about five minutes. Pour in the wine and cook until it reduces slightly, then remove the garlic clove and the bay leaf and discard. Add the tomato sauce and paste, broth, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, covered, for an hour and a half or until all of the flavors have melded together.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the directions. Toss with ragù and serve with freshly grated parmigianno reggiano.