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Nov 23, 2006
Bologna, the Fat One - Forbes

Bologna: As the capital of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, which brought the world prosciutto, tortellini, Bolognese sauce and other culinary wonders, Bologna is so blessed that asking a local to choose a favorite eatery is like asking Hugh Hefner to choose a favorite month. No wonder Bologna is called "La Grassa" (the fat lady) by Italians, who consider the city their country's gastronomic center. Bologna is blissfully devoid of the usual Italian tourist sites, so you can concentrate on the vital act of eating. In fact, Bologna's main tourist attractions--including its medieval, porticoed streets and two leaning towers--seem to have been specifically designed for one critical function: walking off meals. And what meals! To give a week's personal food orgy some semblance of structure, I will cite three extraordinary restaurants, one from Bologna's past, one from the present and one on the leading edge of the future.


A tiny street off the porticoed Via dell'Indipendenza brought me to Franco Rossi restaurant, which specializes in re-creating meals from Bologna's past. The debonair Mr. Rossi guided me to a table, and without so much as proffering a menu, started feeding me. The meal began with plump potato ravioli topped with dollops of pumpkin as light as whipped cream. He poured me a glass of Le Baccanti, an Apulian Primitivo, which was just dry enough to complement rather than overwhelm the dishes coming at me at the rate of roughly one per every half-eaten plate.

I had to surrender somewhere around course number six; medallions of veal that had a pleasantly complex and unexpectedly smoky taste. "It's organic," Franco said. "We cook it according to a 600-year-old recipe."

One of the men at the next table, Piero Valdiserra, a prominent food and wine writer--which in Bologna means roughly the same as "country & western star" does in Nashville--took great pleasure in dining on the same dishes Dante and Petrarch might have enjoyed during their student years at the University of Bologna. Soon, I'd crashed the Valdiserra family table for dessert, as Franco continued pushing everything from chocolates to a sweet Sicilian dessert wine. And all that for a mere 80 bucks in the end. We went rolling home, or rather, I went to climb a tower or two to prepare myself for the next meal.

Some consider it sacrilege to write about Bologna without mentioning the town's most famous eatery, Al Pappagallo. But for me, the Carracci restaurant in the Grand Hotel Baglioni--Bologna's most elegant stopping-place--is the city center's most impressive restaurant. It features two great rarities: a magnificent late-16th-century ceiling fresco depicting the four seasons from the school of the Carracci brothers (if you aren't gawking at great paintings while visiting Italy, at least you can dine under one) and pre-salé lamb--lamb that has grazed on seasonally flooded sea plains, which means that its innermost atoms have been naturally salinated long before you can say "pass the salt." Although the lamb came from France, chef Pasquale Falanga, added his own local touch with an olive-based sauce that accented this salt heaven so perfectly that diners were forced to stare skyward--Mio Dio!--at the Carracci masterpiece.

One of my college chums who grew up in Bologna swears that the best new restaurant in town isn't even in the city center but in one of its soulless suburbs. He bundled me into a car one night and drove me to a Stalinist-looking concrete-block hotel near the convention center. Should I mention that my pal has just become the region's franchisee for Burger King?

We entered the simple lobby, wandered through a dreary breakfast room and opened a door at the other end. It was like entering a speakeasy. Suddenly we were in the cheery Al Cambio restaurant, bathed in Mediterranean reds and whites. Moments later, we were tucking into ethereal tortellini-and-scampi soup, roast pig in red wine sauce--the house specialty--and other local dishes. The creator of this hidden eatery, Massimo Poggi, a mere 35 years old, started this modest restaurant to showcase his unique cooking skills to the neighborhood. "Six years ago, this time of night, it would be so quiet we would play cards here," he explained. Then came the food critic for the national newspaper La Repubblica, who wrote such a career-changing paean to Massimo's skills that, according to Massimo, "We never have time to play cards anymore….But we still have the deck if our fortunes change." --Finn-Olaf Jones

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