On a beautiful Bologna day in early fall we met with Sara in the Piazza Maggiore. We were beyond excited to be part of Taste Bologna's Classic Bologna Food Tour, and she'd be our guide for the next few hours of Bolognese food discovery.
The Piazza Maggiore was home to one of Europe’s biggest open-air markets until the mid-1800s when the market was walled off from the elegant Piazza so Bologna’s elite wouldn’t have to deal with the noise and squalor. It was a perfect place to start a food tour in what is arguably one of the most iconic foodie destinations in all the world. There’s a lot of history that goes along with a visit to Bologna, but today we're here to sample the culinary treats and staple foods of Bologna of this medieval Italian city - and we couldn’t wait to get started.
The first stop for our small party of six was Aroma, one of Bologna’s most celebrated coffee masters, just a block off the Piazza Maggiore, They've invented several unique variations on the coffee drink and we were in awe of the artistry and variety of coffees offered. My hubby had the Caffe Torinese, a smooth espresso with a rich chocolate froth, but for me, I just had to try the Caffe ‘Allo Zabione because I'd never seen anything like it. It was an indulgent mix of espresso and zabaglione - the egg, sugar, and sweet wine concoction usually served for dessert. Sara explained this was Aroma's twist on a traditional Italian early morning pick-me-up enjoyed for centuries.
Aroma has much more than coffee too, like small confections and baked goods. I love nutella and only gianduja - the best nutella in Italy - is used here in their pastries. I was having dessert at 10 o’clock in the morning and loving it. Our sweet tooth was satisfied and it was time to move on.
Mercato delle' Erbe
A short two blocks later we arrived at the Mercato delle' Erbe, a lively local scene and the largest indoor market in the city’s historical district. It was started in 1910, and after nearly being destroyed by bombing in 1945 was restored and reopened in 1949.
Vendors offer an unbelievable variety of vegetables, fruits, cheeses, wine, olive oil, and meats. All produce is labeled by its region of origin in Italy, e.g., mangoes and avocados from Sicily, and kiwis from Emilia-Romagna. Kiwis...who knew? We were introduced to Brisighella olive oil, a limited production PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) olive oil from only four locations in the hills of Romagna. The flavor was peppery and distinct, with an intense green color.
It was interesting to see what was in season this time of year and how Italians adhere to seasonality, eating more of what's fresh and local. And guess what? It's truffle season! Do you like (love) truffles? They’re here in abundance in early fall due to the vast number of hazelnut trees in the region for which truffles have a natural affinity. Growing under them is a delicious symbiotic relationship, don't you think? Nearly every vegetable stand had truffle oil and the pricey white truffles for sale at 28 euro/kilo.
We browsed past a number of butcher shops with the traditional beef, pork, and chicken, and then saw a lone butcher standing behind a counter of freshly cut red meat in the far corner of the market. The sign above read Macelleria Cavallo, the horse meat butcher. As it turns out, Italy is the largest consumer of horse in the EU. Though we didn't try it on the tour, we did try horse meat later on in our travels. Like it or not, horse meat is low in fat and cholesterol, and rich in protein and nutrients. This butcher, we later learned, was by himself because the law requires horse meat be butchered and sold separately and away from other red meat sources. This was enacted to prevent scams on consumers not able to identify what meat they are buying.
Our next stop, a short walk down the street, was Le Sfogline, a quaint tortelloni and tortellini shop where these scrumptious pastas are made fresh every day. Just three ladies run this traditional by-hand production line - from rolling out the dough, to placing filling in just the right spots, to cutting out the individual pieces, and giving that special little fold to each piece. And boy were they quick!
They showed us how to fold the tortellini and then let each of us try - not as easy as it looks. I tried several times and a few landed on the floor or just got smooshed.
On the day we visited, the ladies were making tortelloni, the larger of the two, with a ricotta, parmesan, parsley mix filling that smelled great. The smaller tortellini are filled with meat.
At Christmas time, this little shop turns out up to 80kg of tortellini a day and that’s a lot of pasta!
If you like pasta as much as I do, you have to try homemade tortellini in Bologna! The traditional Bolognese way to eat both is in a chicken or beef broth - or for a richer dish with cream and herbs.
The Quadrilatero, the oldest market area in Bologna is a bustling place with an ancient tradition that dates back to the 15th century. It had its greatest development in the Middle Ages and kept its trade vocation throughout the years. The main craft guilds of the city such as goldsmiths, butchers, fishermen, “Salaroli” (workers who salted meat to cure it), furriers, barbers, and painters all were based in this area. A facade was actually built between it and the Piazza Maggiore to hide the market, which at the time was the poor area of the city. Today, small shops line both sides of the narrow streets, with everything from the day's fish catch to fresh breads, produce, cheese, and cured meats. If there’s a cheese or type of salami made in Italy, it’s here.
Sara chose Salumeria Simoni, a small cheese and salami shop to pick-up our lunch for the day. With it’s premier selection in the heart of the market, Sara thought Simoni is arguably the best shop of its kind in the Quadrilatero. Looking into the refrigeration cases it was easy to see why, and by now we were all feeling good and hungry.
With goodies in hand we walked just a short ways up the Vicolo Ranocchi to the oldest pub in the city, Osteria del Sole. This place was amazing!
In existence since 1465 - 1465! - the pub originally catered to university students for, well, things that go along with college students and pubs. It no longer has a kitchen - just a bar for beer and wine - and you bring in whatever food you want to eat, find your spot at a long communal table and dig in. It’s old and noisy, but so cozy and cool eating amongst all that history. We could have been sitting next to Da Vinci and Galileo drinking wine at the next table, it was that authentic. We felt the easy-going vibe and good spirits of all who entered. What a fun place!
So, what did we have for lunch? Sara opened one bundle after another and passed around the table to the six of us:
- Salami Rossa, the grandmother of mortadella, and not actually a salami at all, but cooked the same way as mortadella
- Prosciutto, of course, we’re in Bologna!
- Garlic salami
- Coppa di testa, similar to head cheese and made from pork head
- Mortadella, a Bolognese tradition
- Parmigiano reggiano, because we’re in Emilia Romagna
- Pecorino cheese made from sheep’s milk
- Fucchi, caramelized figs that were succulent and yummy, and paired well with the cheese
- Squacquerone, a tangy cream cheese
And what Bolognese lunch would be complete without a good local wine and fresh baked bread? For us it was Pignoletto, a wonderful frizzante style white wine, and fresh baked crescente bread sometimes called tigelle, and a flat bread which we slathered with lard spread. Delicioso!
Cremeria Santo Stefano
By the end of lunch we needed a good walk so we followed along as Sara headed down the market streets of the Quadrilatero toward Via Santo Stefano. Four or five blocks later, we giggled like kids when we reached the Cremeria Santo Stefano. Gelato!
Sara talked about the Italian tradition of eating gelato during the day. Just a small little serving of sweetness is perfect for Italians at the end of a meal. And though I thought I'd never be able to eat another thing after that big lunch, once I had my first taste, other flavors soon followed!
This place had some of the best gelato we've ever had - and not a hint of artificial neon color in sight! Cremeria Santo Stefano's gelato was balanced and deliciously sweet, but not overdone.
What We Liked
- Taste Bologna's Classic Food Tour offered a good variety and sampling of typical Bolognese foods. Sara was fun, knowledgeable, and added just the right amount of history and background about the foods and markets.
- Lunch at Osteria del Sole was a highlight in terms of sampling the food in a great atmosphere, and of course her taste in gelato was outstanding!
- Shopping mid-morning and at lunch time was a bit hectic with crowds, but it gave us all a chance to linger on our own for a while - and photograph the Quadrilatero to our heart's content.
We absolutely recommend Taste Bologna. Sara did a great job at introducing us to the highlights of Bolognese food, and the merchants we met along the way really know their food. I was struck by their passion for creating it, carving it, presenting it, eating it, and most importantly sharing it. The tour was so much fun, and walking through the scenic historic parts of the city just added to the flavor of the tour. We can't think of a better way to spend a few hours with new friends than enjoying local delicacies over a few bottles of wine!
If You Go
Taste Bologna - Contact Andrea and his team of guides online. They offer a variety of delicious and informative tours to suit just about any foodie!
We were excited to have been introduced to these talented merchants through Andrea and Sara as guests of Taste Bologna. All delicious opinions are our own based on our first hand experience. Prego! :-)
Reach out below and tell me about your Italian food travels!