Bologna Food Guide
Bologna Italy food is something of a legend. I think we knew about the food in Bologna before we even really knew where Bologna was. We’ve been traveling together to Italy for almost two decades, but it has only been the last few years that we learned all about Bologna food and that the city is the food capital of Italy.
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What To Do In Bologna – Eat The Best Italian Food
In this Bologna Food Blog, we share some of our top tips on how to eat well, and I mean really well, in Bologna. Our knowledge comes from many, many trips to Bologna and to Emilia Romagna over the years.
We so fell in love with the region that I published my first culinary travel guide “The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna” about Bologna and the surrounding area. I share some of the tips from my book in this guide.
Here I share our recommendations on how to find the best food in Bologna Italy. This includes the best Bolognese cuisine and the typical dishes you will find on menus at Bologna restaurants.
Why Travel To Bologna and Emilia Romagna
In 2018, Lonely Planet named Emilia Romagna as one of its best places to visit in Europe. This is no surprise. We’ve been traveling to this region of Italy for years now. Bologna has become more popular as a destination for food and drink travelers.
But, it is still often overlooked in favor of travelers to Italy hitting the big 3: Rome, Florence, and Venice.
Emilia Romagna is a large region that starts just east of Milan and reaches east to the coast. The region traditionally was split in two, with Emilia in the west and Romagna to the east.
Although Romagna is lovely and has its own food and wine specialties, some of the most famous Italian foods come from Emilia, and in particular from Bologna and its neighbors.
Emilia Romagna includes Bologna (the home of lasagne and mortadella), Modena (the home of traditional balsamic vinegar), Parma (known for its prosciutto), and Reggio-Emilia (which gives its name to Parmigiano Reggiano).
Other famous products from the region include pancetta, culatello, truffles, and more. Yes, Bologna is a top food vacation destination.
What Is Bologna Italy Known For?
So, what is Bologna known for? Sure, there’s culture and architecture, but Bologna is all about the food. The city’s nickname is “La Grassa,” or the Fat One, and is one of the centers of the Emilia Romagna food scene.
Pellegrino Artusi, the father of the national cuisine of Italy supposedly said: “When you hear speak of Bologna cuisine make a bow, for it deserves it.” Truer words were never uttered. Bologna is truly known for its food.
Bologna is the largest city and the capital of Emilia Romagna. That means it’s the capital of one of Italy’s most well-known food regions.
And the best of Bologna begins and ends with the individual dishes and food products that make this great Italian food region so amazing for people who travel for food.Click here for the Best Places To Eat In Bologna Italy - TripAdvisor Bologna Restaurants
What To Eat in Bologna – The Must Eat Italian Dishes
When it comes to what to eat in Bologna, there is no shortage of great food. This list includes classic Bolognese dishes and some dishes and food products from the Emilia Romagna region as well.
Cured Meats In Bologna – Mortadella And More
When asking what food is Bologna known for, there is, of course, one food that always comes up: bologna or what is known as mortadella. Some people refer to this product as mortadella ham or mortadella sausage. In the US, an awful version is known as baloney, but that couldn’t be farther from the authentic mortadella in Italy.
Mortadella has a mild pork flavor. It’s not as strong as bacon, but more pork-flavored than a pork chop or pork loin. It also has a thicker mouthfeel than prosciutto. True Mortadella Bologna IGP is amazing, and a must-eat dish in Bologna. See our full guide to What Is Mortadella.
Other meats to eat in Bologna include Prosciutto di Parma (or di Modena meaning it comes from Modena, not Parma). Or, look for Culatello di Zibello from a town just outside of Parma, or pancetta or coppa, which both come from Piacenza. It’s also common to find various types of salame as well.
Almost every restaurant, trattoria, or osteria offers a starter platter of cured meats, often served with a regional bread. The platter might include just mortadella or a mix of several of the meats mentioned above.
The cured meats will always be served with bread, but Emilia Romagna has several different types of bread that are different from what you would eat elsewhere in Italy.
Typical Italian Cheese in Bologna – Parmigiano And More
Although the cheese that is most commonly eaten in Bologna is not from Bologna, it comes from the surrounding area in Emilia Romagna. You will often find one or more of these types of cheese served alongside cured meats at most Bologna restaurants.
There are about half a dozen DOP and IGP cheese varieties from the area. This means they are certified by the Italian and European Union governmental bodies. Italy’s best restaurants will only use cheese that are DOP and IGP products.
Parmigiano Reggiano, the King of Cheese, is a DOP product and nothing like the generic parmesan found in supermarkets in the United States. Because of its DOP classification, cheese makers in Italy must follow specific rules to certify the cheese as Parmigiano Reggiano DOP.
If Parmigiano Reggiano is the King of Cheese, perhaps Grana Padano DOP could be considered the Queen of Cheese. Often confused with Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano has its own characteristics that make it unique.
Other Unique Types of Cheese
One of the more unique cheeses to eat in Bologna is Formaggio di Fossa DOP. The history of cave cheese dates back to the Middle Ages when people of the region began hiding food in large holes in the ground in order to protect their food supply from invaders.
The word fossa translates to pit, although cave cheese seems to be a more popular interpretation. The cheese, normally pecorino, spends several months aging inside a pit in the ground before it is ready. Look for pasta dishes made with formaggi di fossa for a unique dish to eat in Bologna.
Squacquerone DOP is a soft cheese produced in Romagna and closer to the sea, but can be found easily in Bologna. Similar to ricotta, squacquerone is made from cow’s milk that’s been curdled.
There is no aging process. Instead, squacquerone is always eaten fresh, generally within three days. Squacquerone is most often served with a typical breads from Emilia Romagna, including piadina. The chilled fresh cheese is spread on a hot piadina, where it starts to melt until creamy, and topped with arugula.
Popular Types Of Bread In Bologna
One of the most popular ways to eat cured meat and cheese is with gnocco fritto, a deep-fried puff of bread popular in and around Modena. The bread is sliced open in order to pop a slice of mortadella inside.
The best gnocco fritto is served warm, so the bread melts the meat just a bit. In and around Bologna, the deep-fried bread is called crescentina.
Or, look for tigelle in Bologna, a dense round bread almost like the cousin of an English muffin. It is made by rolling the dough into a round ball and then pressing it on a heavy cast iron, or aluminum style pan called a tigelliera.
The top is pulled down and the dough is pressed to form tigelle. When a basket of tigelle arrives at a table, they are always warm.
Many travelers to Italy want to eat pasta. I know we do. Some of the dishes you will see on Bologna restaurant menus are pasta varieties you might find at home. But, some might not be familiar to many Americans or Europeans.
In some cases, what you thought was an Italian pasta dish at your local Italian restaurant doesn’t resemble the real Bologna cuisine. These dishes form the core of our Bologna Food Guide!
Most notable in Bologna is Lasagna Bolognese! Yes, Bologna is the home to lasagna, but it’s a lot different than the lasagna many of us grew up with. The lasagna in Bologna is all about the fresh noodles, layered with traditional Bolognese ragu.
It’s normally made with spinach noodles, Lasagna Verde al Forno, which translates to green lasagne in the oven. The Bolognese ragu is found on other pasta dishes as well. There is cheese in the lasagna, but its creaminess comes from bechamel, a sauce made with flour and milk.
One of the best spots for lasagna in Bologna is Trattoria Da Me – dal 1937. Located in the heart of the city, the restaurant has been family run since it opened its doors. For us, a trip to Bologna isn’t complete until we come here and enjoy their amazing lasagna. Eric considers Trattoria Da Me one of Italy’s best restaurants.
Tagliatelle al Ragu
This is one of the Bolognese dishes that causes the most controversy and confusion around the world. People around the world, from Texas to Thailand, seem fascinated with a dish referred to as Spaghetti Bolognese.
Many people who travel for food end up in Bologna searching for this dish, to try the authentic Italian version. Thing is, there is no such thing as Spaghetti Bolognese! The Bologna specialty is Tagliatelle al Ragu, but what does that mean?
Tagliatelle is a pasta that can often be confused with many other Italian pasta shapes, including fettuccine and pappardelle. It is entirely different from spaghetti. Tagliatelle is made by rolling out an egg pasta until it is so thin you can almost see through it.
Then, the pasta is cut with a knife to make it the perfect thickness. If it’s too wide, it becomes pappardelle. If it is too thin it’s more like tagliolini. Although tagliatelle is roughly the same shape as fettuccine, tagliatelle in Emilia Romagna is always made as an egg pasta. Fettuccine, which is from the area around Rome, normally doesn’t have egg in the pasta.
Regardless of its width, it is best served in Bologna with meat ragù, a typical Bolognese meat sauce. Just don’t call it spaghetti bolognese!
One of our favorite spots for tagliatelle al ragu in Bologna is Antica Osteria Romagnola. Know primarily for there roast suckling pig, which is a must, they make one of the best tagliatelle al ragu we’ve ever eaten. Bookings are a must as they fill up quickly.
Garganelli is a pasta that is not well-known outside of Italy. I had never heard of it until visiting Bologna. Garganelli is made in a similar way to tagliatelle, by rolling the pasta very thin. Although it is possible to cut the pasta with a knife, a pasta roller is often used to cut the pasta into squares.
When making garganelli, a pettine, or comb, is used. It’s a small wooden device, that looks like a comb. The pasta is rolled around a small wood stick. The pettine is used to create little grooves in the pasta. This makes the sauce stick a little more to the pasta. And, the space in the center of the pasta collapses while cooking, making it quite a delicate pasta.
When we first started traveling to Bologna, I often got confused between garganelli and gramigna, as they were both pasta shapes I never heard of before. Gramigna is a hollow, tube-like pasta, named after a particular type of grass. It shaped like a short curlicue.
Gramigna is made by running the egg pasta through a machine that looks like a sausage maker, called an extruder. The most common way to eat gramigna is with a sausage-based ragù, gramigna alla salsiccia.
Tortelloni, Tortellini, and Tortelli
These are three similar pasta varieties, each served differently, and often confused on Italian restaurant menus in the US and elsewhere. Tortelloni is a half-moon shaped pasta, which is pinched at one end.
When I was growing up in New Jersey, I often ate tortelloni, stuffed with cheese and served in a cream sauce. But, it was usually referred to as tortellini on menus. Confusing right?
When we started traveling to Emilia Romagna, I became enlightened on the different varieties of this pasta and learned what I was eating in the US was wrong.
What Is Tortelloni
First, tortelloni is what I was really eating back in America even though it was often on menus as tortellini. Tortelloni is larger than tortellini. Any time “ini” is added onto an Italian word it means smaller. In Bologna, it is common to find tortelloni in a cream sauce or slathered in butter and topped with sage.
Even better, look for tortellini drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar, and sprinkled with local Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. The savory flavor of the pasta is offset perfectly by the sweet taste of the balsamic vinegar.
What Is Tortellini
Second, tortellini is the smallest of these three shapes. If you take a Bologna cooking class and see how hard it is to tortelloni just right, you can only imagine how hard it is to make them even smaller.
Although often served in a cream sauce, the most common way to eat tortellini is in a light broth, particularly during the winter months. Tortellini al brodo is also a must-eat dish for Christmas. For me, I seem to eat this dish almost once a day when eating in Bologna.
Last, tortelli is the largest of the three shapes. A dish of tortelli might only include 4 or 5 pieces because they are so big, and so filling.
Passatelli is particular to Emilia Romagna and was entirely new to us. It has a more floury, dense taste to it. As dense as it is though, it is also much more delicate than it appears.
This Emilia Romagna pasta is made with Parmigiano cheese, bread crumbs, egg, flour and sometimes nutmeg. The mixture is run through a press, almost like a garlic press, to form its eel-like shape. It has a texture to it, which allows the sauce to hold onto the pasta more than a smooth pasta would.Wondering what to drink in Italy? Check out our Italian Drinks Guide
Best Restaurants In Bologna – Where To Eat (Our Favorites)
The downside of Bologna’s fame within Emilia Romagna is that Bologna is one of the more touristy cities within Emilia Romagna. It is easier to find a bad meal in Bologna than in any other town in the region. It is, of course, not as touristy as Rome, Venice, or Florence. Whereas it is possible to find a good meal on the main square in many towns within Emilia Romagna, in Bologna it is necessary to dig a little deeper.
Bologna is one of the few areas in Emilia Romagna where you might not find great food. It is the largest, and most touristy, of the cities and towns. As a result, if you are not careful and don’t plan ahead, you might be disappointed. This is particularly true in the city center north of Piazza Maggiore, in the restaurants that flank Via dell’Indipendenza.
Best Restaurants in Bologna Italy
Some of our favorite Bologna restaurants specialize in traditional Bolognese cuisine. Our list includes restaurants in Bologna city centre as well as some that are a little farther away, but worth the visit.
If looking for a typical Bolognese restaurant, with some of the best pasta in Bologna, away from the crowds, and the tourists, this is the place. It’s easily at the top of the Bologna top 10 restaurants that tourists don’t know about. Set outside of the city center, close to the football stadium, tiny Trattoria Bertozzi squeezes in a handful of tables. And, they are filled with reservations almost every night, despite the fact that the restaurant has no real website, no updated Facebook page, and doesn’t advertise. Have the hotel call ahead for reservations. Their handmade pasta is the real draw, along with the chef’s explosive personality.
Trattoria Bertozzi, Via Andrea Costa, 84/2
A popular spot for university students, and a short stroll from Piazza Maggiore. Expect traditional Bologna pasta dishes served to diners at communal tables drinking carafes of house wine.
Osteria dell’Orsa, Via Mentana, 1
Osteria al 15
Just a 10-minute stroll from the Piazza Maggiore, in a quiet part of town, Osteria al 15 is a “blink and you’ll miss it” restaurant, that is barely recognizable from the outside. Inside, it’s a little classic kitsch, with walls covered in historic memorabilia. Cheap house wine. Limited menu of traditional Bologna pastas and meats. Try the ricotta cheese with saba as a starter. Or order a sample of two or three pasta dishes all served on one plate, to let you try more.
Osteria al 15, Via Mirasole, 13
Trattoria la Montanara
A great option just a handful of blocks from Piazza Maggiore Bologna. A small spot, where reservations are recommended. It’s so small that if you don’t like sitting shoulder to shoulder with other guests, it might not be the best spot. A good selection of local house wines as well as a selection of Bologna hills wines. Trattoria la Montanara offers a good mix of classic Bolognese cuisine and some more creative dishes. Try the gramigna with sausage or the green lasagna verde.
Trattoria la Montanara, Via Augusto Righi 15
FAQs – Bologna Food Guide
You’ll find locals in all of the cafes and restaurants in Bologna. That’s one of the best things about the city. One place you’ll certainly find more locals than tourists is Osteria Bottega Bologna. They serve up traditional Italian dishes include one of the best tagliatelle ragu in the city. Their most famous dish is a roast suckling pig that is sublime.
While we usually advise people to avoid eating in the city center, you can find good restaurants and trattoria in Bologna Centro. Because Bologna is a smaller city compared to Rome, you don’t find as many touristy restaurants in the city center.
Pizza is an everywhere thing. While pizza comes from Naples, not Bologna, you can find a good pizzeria in Bologna if you ask around.
If you ask us, yes. If you ask people from Bologna, yes. If you ask people anywhere else in Italy, they will say their city is the food capital of Italy. That said, Bologna is famous for several iconic Italian dishes including lasagna.
What most people refer to as spaghetti bolognese is called ragù alla bolognese in Bologna. And in Bologna the pasta used in ragù alla bolognese is tagliatelle. So while spaghetti bolognese gets it’s name from Bologna it isn’t a true representation of the traditional dish.