- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

I could eat tortellini alla panna morning, noon and night.

An American in Italy

BOLOGNA, Italy — Call it the Fat City, and we’re talking about some of the best cooking in Italy. Call it the Red City, and the name has two meanings — the red brick in buildings, arcades and tile roofs, or a city that leans left in its politics.

Whatever the name, this is the city that made Bolognese the world’s favorite pasta sauce, the city devoted to tortellini, usually served in a broth (in brodo) at noon and night, but also alla panna — with cream and a sprinkling of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

During poor times, the tortellini filling was cheese, but for Christmas, families splurged and celebrated with tortellini with a meat filling. Tortelloni are larger than tortellini and are filled with ricotta.

In a note at the end of “The Broker,” novelist John Grisham writes: “My research (too severe a word) led me to Bologna, a delightful old city that I immediately came to adore. My friend Luca Patuelli showed me around. He knows all the chefs in Bologna, no small feat, and in the course of our work I put on about 10 pounds.” Much of “The Broker” is set in Bologna.

Sit in a restaurant in Bologna, the city or province, and soon a bowl of tortellini in brodo, a meat stock — often chicken or, even better, capon — will arrive. First may be a plate of cubes of mortadella, another joy of the Bolognese table.

That is what happened to me, twice on a Sunday made memorable by the people and their food.

I arrived in Bologna on a train from Milan, which followed a tedious bus ride from that city’s Malpensa airport. Next time, I am flying to Bologna on an international carrier such as British Airways or Lufthansa; another option would be seasonal nonstop flights, from March to November, operated by Eurofly from New York to Bologna.

In Bologna, I was met by an American woman and her Italian husband and was taken to the venerable Ristorante Diana in the city’s medieval and Renaissance center. Every table not already occupied had a sign indicating it was reserved; this obviously is the place for tutti Bolognesi to have Sunday lunch. People without reservations were politely turned away.

Instantly the 1-inch cubes of mortadella appeared, along with delicious olives, bread and prosciutto — Parma is an hour’s drive away. Next we were treated to mortadella whipped into a spread in a food processor — about as instant a spread as could be made. Then came the bowls of tortellini in brodo and then another pasta.

The main course was a selection of boiled or roasted meats that were wheeled to the patrons’ tables on a long, narrow table. After this repast, we walked in the neighborhood for about an hour — until I left for Savigno, south of Bologna the city, but still in Bologna the province. A road sign at the entrance to the town reads: “Savigno, Ruta di Tartufo,” signifying that Savigno is on Italy’s Truffle Route.

Whether the black, white or summer varieties, truffles can be obtained in Savigno 11 months of the year, said Alberto Bettini, proprietor of Locanda Amerigo, an inn, and Amerigo dal 1934, a restaurant highly regarded for its food.

The Amerigo accommodations are comfortable and have been furnished with new and old items with the help of decorator-designer Paolo Fiorentini. Mr. Bettini is proud of having acquired a bed designed decades ago by the eminent architect-designer Gae Aulenti.

I put my luggage in my room and headed into the countryside for a truffle demonstration in which Stella, a hound the color of honey, sniffed the earth and wagged her tail with enthusiasm, especially when she located a truffle hiding underground.

A nap turned out to be necessary before dinner at Amerigo, a highlight of anyone’s visit to this part of the province or to the Reggio Emilia region, of which Bologna is the largest city and the capital.

Dinner included three pastas, fortunately in small servings: tortellini in brodo, followed by a tomato-free lasagna with thin layers of pasta and even thinner shavings of white truffles, and then came a dish of sfere — spheres or small balls of gnocchi pasta filled with Parmigiano Reggiano cream and sauced with more of the cream and then topped with wee batons of black truffle.

Somewhere during the dinner there was a Parmigiano gelato, in which three small balls of cheese ice cream were placed on a thin pastry and then drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar, most famously from Modena, a city near Bologna but also made at many wineries throughout the region.

This is not to overlook the main course of duck served three ways with artichokes: as pate, confit and roasted. There was a dessert, too, which now has faded into the background, behind the pastas, truffles, duck and plate of cheeses.

During dinner, I noticed that people at a table for four apparently ate little before they left. Soon they returned. I realized they had gone outside for a break because smoking is forbidden in Italian restaurants.

Adjoining the restaurant is a shop where visitors may buy Amerigo’s own wines, liqueurs, jams, honey and produce. On a more recent trip to Parma, I noticed a shop in the departures area of Bologna’s Guglielmo Marconi airport. The jars and bottles displayed in the window had a familiar label design. Looking closer, I recognized them as being from Amerigo.

In the airport’s arrivals area is another fine shop, Famiglia Chiari Gastronomia, an outlet of the Chiari family’s Vecchia Malga in Zola Predosa near Bologna. Besides hams and salamis and other aged meats, the Chiaris produce Sua Maesta il Nero, a black-coated hard mountain cheese.

Later, there was a magical late afternoon, sitting outside the Chiaris’ Vecchia Malga shop in Zola Predosa, enjoying platters of thinly sliced prosciutto and salami and another platter of a young, glistening and shimmering white cheese served with fig preserves, bread and a wine from the Colli Bolognesi — the Bolognesi hills. That turned out to be dinner.

At Vecchia Malga, they say their tortellini are so popular at Christmas that they must hire a dozen women to make the pasta each morning.

In the hours preceding the stop at Vecchia Malga, I began the day with a visit to Tenuta Bonzara, meeting Francesco Lambertini, a University of Bologna economics professor whose passions are teaching and producing wine. His father, Angelo, founded Tenuta Bonzara in 1963, but vineyards have been cultivated in the area since the 16th century.

The site is as stunning as any in the province of Bologna, this time in the hamlet of Monte San Pietro, high in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains. Mr. Lambertini is particularly proud of his Bonzarone, made from cabernet sauvignon grapes.

His other wines include a delicious Vigna Antica, made from pignoletto grapes and Pignoletto Frizzante, a lightly fizzy wine — froizzantes are white or red — that is popular in Bologna and the eight other provinces of Emilia Romagna and also in regions to the north.

Nearby in Tole is the Mulino del Dottore, an old water-powered mill whose wheel is fitted with curved paddles and turns horizontally instead of vertically. A young member of the owning family has decided this is his vocation; he grinds many kinds of flour and has a shop that sells baked goods made with the mill’s flours. This is not far from Rocca di Roffeno, where Azienda Chiari produces the black-coated cheese, which is enjoying popularity in food circles in Italy and other countries.

Dozza, another town close to Bologna, is known for murals painted on the exteriors of the town’s buildings in an international competition held every two years. It also is an old town dominated by the Rocca Sforzesca, whose restored cellars are home to the Emilia-Romagna Regional Wine Center, which offers tastings and information on wine.

Other parts of the old fortress (rocca) have been restored and may be toured. Of particular interest to anyone interested in food is the large kitchen with its old equipment and utensils. The Dozza streets are also interesting to see for the painted walls.

Not far away is Imola, known in sports circles for its automotive races, especially the Grand Prix of San Marino, which is too small to have a raceway, although it is the name of one of the major competitions in Formula One racing. In racing circles, the competition is often simply called “Imola.”

Downtown Imola has many old buildings and churches painted in terra-cotta shades, and another Rocca Sforzesca — once belonging to the Sforza family. A building not quite so old, the Palazzo Tozzoni was left to the city by Sofia Serristori Tozzoni in 1981. She was the last of the Tozzonis.

The museum’s furniture, fabrics, art, sculpture and other objects show how a noble family lived in a provincial town in the 18th century, with some additions from the 19th and 20th centuries. Work was continuing on sections of the museum that were not open to the public.

Also near Imola and Dozza is Castel San Pietro, where Umberto Cesari produces a variety of wines, including Tauleto, a red wine made from clones of the sangiovese grosso and bursona longanesi grapes. Tauleto is 90 percent sangiovese, and Mr. Cesari is particularly pleased with this wine, which he recommends for “important dishes, red meat and braised beef.”

The winemakers of Bologna province are proud of their wines, called Colli Bolognesi as they are made in a controlled denomination of origin. These wines — something to serve with each course — are readily available in city and the countryside.

A multicourse dinner in Bologna can be accompanied by five or six wines, especially at restaurants such as Amerigo. Mr. Bettini is an expert in pairing wines to a succession of pasta dishes, from tortellini to sfere, with or without truffles, and other courses.

For visitors interested in learning how to make pasta, including tortellini, the Vecchia Scuola di Cucina — the Old School Cooking — offers lessons in handmade pasta. After the lesson, students sit at a table for lunch and enjoy what they have made, but mostly what the teacher and her staff have made in her home. Nimble figures are required to be a skillful tortellini maker.

Bologna is more than tortellini. The city claims that the series of arcades running more than 20 miles along its buildings is longer than in any other city in the world. They are especially welcome in rain and in summer as protection from the hot sun. It usually is very humid in Bologna in the summer, I was warned.

The city’s Basilica of San Petronio, honoring Bologna’s patron saint, would have been larger than St. Peter’s in Rome had the plans not been abandoned because of a shortage of funds and anticipated displeasure from the Vatican. Construction began in 1390, but it took more than three centuries to complete the basilica. San Petronio was a bishop revered by the Bolognesi for his civic work.

On the opposite side of Piazza Maggiore is the Bologna tourist office, which provides services for visitors and also has a selection of interesting souvenirs.

Photographs of partisans executed by fascists during World War II are displayed in three large panels on an exterior wall of the Municipal Palace. Many partisans were shot in front of the palace, and there also was a massacre in the countryside.

The Allied forces captured Bologna on April 21, 1945, but in the province, stories about the Allied advance still are told, often accompanied by pointing to a certain hill or valley. The old mill in Tole is beside one of the valleys through which Allied troops passed on their way to take the city of Bologna.

Towering over the Bologna skyline are two remaining medieval towers: Torre degli Asinelli, which is 318 feet tall and leans more than seven feet, and the 157-foot Torre della Garisenda, which leans almost 10 feet.

Visitors may climb the 500 steps of the Asinelli tower, which was topped by a dome — until it fell off in 1399. Families built such towers — many in the 13th century — in Italian towns and cities for protection and to show their wealth.

Bologna is a city that hosts many international trade fairs, and it has numerous museums. The opera house, Teatro Communale, was built in 18th-century baroque style and is home to concerts and other musical performances as well as operas.

The University of Bologna, founded in 1088, is the oldest in Europe and the second-largest in Italy. The presence of so many students in the city contributes to the vibrancy of life here.

Visitors do not have to stay long enough to gain 10 pounds like Mr. Grisham, but that does not mean they should shy away from the tortellini.

Morning, noon or night.

Shops, hotels

Bologna is the capital and largest city in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. It is on the historic Via Emilia (Via Aemilia in Latin), a Roman road built from Rimini on the Adriatic Sea to Piacenza in western Emilia Romagna. Via Emilia in modern Bologna is on top of the Roman road completed in 187 B.C.

The most famous gastronomy shop in Bologna is Tamburini, Via Caprarie 1, 40124 Bologna (BO), Italy; visit www.tamburini.com. Prepared foods, cured meats, canned goods and pastas.

Famiglia Chiari sells its cheeses and cured meats and homemade tortellini and tortelloni at two outlets, the first at Via Roma 55A, 40069 Zola Predosa (BO), Italy, near Bologna; the other in the arrivals area of Bologna’s Giuseppe Marconi Airport. Visit www.famigliachiari.it.

AC Hotel Bologna, Via Sebastiano Serlio 28, Bologna (BO), Italy; visit www.hotelac bologna.com. A four-star hotel, five-minute walk from the train station, 10 minutes to the Fiera Bologna, the exhibition center, and about a 15-minute walk to the old city. This comfortable and pleasant hotel is one of the newest in the city.

Ristorante Diana, Via Dell’ Indipendenza 24, 40121 Bologna (B0), Italy; phone 39/051-231-302.

Amerigo dal 1934, Via Marconi 14-16, 40060 Savigno (BO), Italy; phone 39/051-670-8326; fax 39/051-670-8528; visit www.amerigo1934.it/ engtrattoria.php. Restaurant, shop and Design Inn, in town on Italy’s Truffle Route; room rates begin about $50.

Bologna Tourist Office: Visit [email protected]; phone 39/051-246-541. Information offices located in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, the railway station, Guglielmo Marconi Airport, and bus station.

Imola Tourist Office, Via Mazzini 14, I-40026 Imola (BO), Italy. Phone 39/0542-602-207; fax 39/0542-602-310; e-mail, [email protected]; visit en.comune.imola.bo.it/iat.cfm.

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