With the on-going doom and gloom of the impending Brexit decision there’s never been a better time to hop on a flight and celebrate all that our European cousins have to offer. And with sub £50 return fares to Bologna, this Mecca of food, history and culture is surprisingly overlooked by the masses of tourists who, from all over the world, descend on surrounding Venice, Florence and Milan in their millions. Add to this Bologna’s title as ‘The Kitchen of Italy’, with foodie celeb endorsements from the likes of Gino D’Acampo, Anthony Bourdain and Rick Stein, and we had landed in the perfect location to launch Shoreditch Radio’s food and travel content. This new initiative will see the team explore destinations by foot and taste, giving an insight into exciting locations around the globe with the goal of inspiring the next adventure of our listeners and followers.
Bologna sits in Italy’s north, 200 kilometres south east of Milan, so expect a swift journey just over two hours with budget direct flights on offer from Ryan Air, Easy Jet and British Airways. The city is also well connected by train, offering unique day trip locations to Venice, Milan and Florence although, even with five days to play with, we found ourselves far too immersed in Bologna to consider catching a train out of town; maybe an adventure for a future, longer stay?
WHEN TO GO
This was very much a winter city break given our November visit, which was confirmed by an unexpected snow flurry on arrival that painted white the medieval streets and enhanced the loom of Bologna’s famous two towers, leaving us feeling firmly north of the wall without our Valyrian steel. However, with the array of hearty, warming dishes that Bologna is famed for, the cold brings with it opportunity to take refuge in the comforts of steaming bowls of tortellini, picture perfect lasagne, eight hour simmered ragù or, as we found to be frequent at meal time, all of the above. Temperatures dip below zero in peak winter, rocketing above 30oC in the summer, a diverse climate that gives birth to Emilia Romagna’s globally renowned produce and food products.
From insights gained through ‘parlare’ with locals we definitely vouch for Bologna as an all year round location. With a strong foodie culture at its core, the city embraces the best of seasonal produce with dynamic restaurant menus that vary month to month all year round. Key points to keep in mind for summer visits are Bologna’s inland location (this is no beach holiday!) and the nationwide Ferragosto holiday that sees the country come to a standstill as locals head to the beach for some R&R.
WHAT TO DO
A fantastic dynamic of this city is its sights to size ratio, with over 3,000 years of history condensed into a land mass smaller than the London borough of Bromley. This makes getting around by foot a breeze and, with an endless number of cafe pit stops all over the city, you’ll be sure to keep caffeinated and intoxicated, particularly given the liberal free pouring common across bars in Italy. Bologna is also aperitif town, so expect cocktail deals and free pizza for a couple hours each evening in a daily phenomenon that seems almost too good to be true.
Whether you are a fan of history or not you will find yourself immersed in Bologna’s historical splendour as every inch of the inner city, historically surrounded by a large defensive wall, retains its medieval character. This preservation ensures a Diagon Alley like experience when wandering its streets, a contrast to the modern living that thrives in this university town.
Known as ‘La Grassa’ or ‘the fat’, Bologna and the wider Emilia Romagna food culture is something well worth exploring, with foodie tours a great way of brushing shoulders with locals and gaining an insight into this gastronomic haven. We opted for the Yummy Italy tour given the foodie credentials of host and creator Helena, a qualified sommelier, Balsamic Vinegar and Parmigiano Reggiano taster, and member of the Italian Slow Food Association. A real education, this tour swept us through the hustle and bustle of food markets in central Bologna and out to the serene hills of Emilia Romagna, with plenty of food tasting and local fizz along the way.
Well integrated with local chefs, producers and the Bologna tourism board, Yummy Italy provides a bespoke service based on your foodie interests, which will see you sampling the best of Bologna’s produce otherwise overlooked by the typical travelling Brit. A real highlight was pitching up in a bring your own food (#BYOF) bar that is coincidently one of the oldest in the city, a rowdy lunch spot that delivers what the people want, a place to bring their own food while getting sloshed on the finest sparkling wines from the surrounding hills.
We love Parmigiano Reggiano so escaping to the snowy hills at 7am to see this beauty of a cheese being born was a privilege. Add to this the opportunity to sample the cheese at different stages of production and maturities with guidance from a qualified Parmigiano Reggiano taster and this is an authentic experience well worth having. Moving on to Villa San Donnino, a globally renowned balsamic vinegar producer, we were left with a real appreciation for the dedication and hard work that goes into making this world class product with fantastic insights and knowledge from our host. This centre of foodie excellence has attracted some big names to the region such as Mark Zuckerberg and Piers Brosnan (who is rumoured to have purchased his own balsamic barrel set during his 2017 visit).
Other options on the Yummy Italy roster include cooking classes and wine tasting so if you are heading out to Emilia Romagna and want a boutique foodie experience it is well worth dropping Helena a line (www.yummy-italy.com).
Although not Italy’s most prominent tourist spot Bologna is well equipped for tourism, with a dedicated office in Piazza Maggiore where a whole host of activities can be booked. These include museum entry (including Lamborghini), city bus tours, the two tower climb, theatre tickets and more. Entry to most of the key sights are included in the ‘Bologna Welcome’ card which is worth picking up at just €30 and lasting for 72 hours.
WHERE TO STAY
Given the historic to modern contrast inherit throughout the city we wanted to mix up our stay with a bit of both. First stop was Hotel Corona D’Oro which sits within a thirteenth century structure in the heart of town. A second to none location, the splendour of this hotel is tucked away in a quiet street, a stone’s throw away from the Two Towers and Piazza Maggiore.
The hotel delivers on all the modern comforts you would expect while paying homage to its historical past, such as its stunning lobby with twentieth century Art Nouveau stuccos. Another special feature is the bright glass dome that transforms the lobby into a unique courtyard when removed in the summer. Although covered in snow on our arrival we imagine this to be the ideal central spot to soak up a Negroni or two under the stars. The elegance of Corona D’Oro extends to the cosy rooms, quiet retreats from the buzz of the immediate centre of town.
On previous European trips we have found continental breakfasts to be hit and miss, however Corona D’Oro shines here with a well executed spread that we were sad to see the back of when moving onto our next haunt.
Rooms start at £170 per night including breakfast and can be booked direct http://www.hco.it or via the main travel sites.
Our next stop was the recently launched MySuitesHome located slightly out of town, about a 15-20 minute walk from the city centre. Sitting within a historical town house, the site consists of a mixture of studio, one and two bed apartments that come complete with fully fitted kitchens, stylish living areas and super techy entrance systems that use touch key cards and auto locking doors. The trendy courtyard out front and private balconies are ideal to enjoy an afternoon aperitif, while providing some fresh air for those travelling with furry companions as MySuites is a pet friendly stay.
Although slightly away from the city centre the surrounding area is not short of dining options, with a whole host of restaurants providing some of the best food we had in Bologna. The MySuites team have pulled together a useful local guide that includes a list of bars, restaurants and other handy spots, perfect for a stay in a self service apartment in a new town.
With a laid back approach to hospitality, MySuites is ideal for a seasoned traveller who wants an independent feel with scope for a house party or two (with permission of course!)
Apartments start at €80 per night, with a two night minimum stay and can be booked via AirBnb or direct: http://mysuiteshome.com
WHERE TO EAT
Bologna, or ‘La Grassa’, is foodie’s dream; from exceptional fine-dining and traditional Trattoria’s to causal Osteria’s, quality cooking is at the heart of this culinary capital. With five days to sample as much as humanly possible we set our sights on finding the best of Bolognese classics such as tortellini in brodo, tagliatelle la ragù, lasagne verdi and cured meats. Below is a list of our favourite spots across cheap eats, mid-range and fine dining.
I Portici – http://www.iporticihotel.com
The majority of restaurants in Bologna are casual, home cooking style, but if you are looking for a bit of glam and an evening of elegance then Michelin starred I Portici, housed in the beautiful 19th-century Eden Theatre, serves up a choice of tasting menus that use the finest ingredients from all over Italy. With Chef Agostino Iacobucci at the helm, the menu is inspired by his roots in Naples and is led by a passion for gastronomy and quality products. Enticing guests from all across the city, Agostino seamlessly blends tradition with creativity and has accumulated a number of impressive accolades in industry publications and international guides over his illustrious career.
After two days of indulging in a Bolognese diet, the eight course degustazione di mare (taste of the sea), with wine pairing seemed like a great choice and came highly recommended by our waiter. Showcasing Chef Iacobucci’s creative flair, the seasonal menu features innovative dishes such as an anchovy skeleton with oyster gel served on a rock, or the explosive arancini filled with crab bisque. Our menu highlights include the Oyster with Campari jelly and mango sorbet and the Spaghetto from Gragnano with squid, black garlic and lime. Incorporating flavours from Northern and Southern Italy, Iacobucci’s unique style and attention to detail was supremely impressive and refreshing.
I Portici hosts an elaborate wine cellar, well utilised by their sommelier to select wine pairings that accentuated both the flavour and craft of the menu. The candlelit theatre provided an ambient dinner setting with impeccable service to match as expected at a restaurant of this calibre. The seafood tasting menu without wine pairing is €90 per head, and the meat tasting menu is €110.
Trattoria Anna-Maria – http://www.trattoriannamaria.com
Anna-Maria has become a local celebrity, famous for her traditional ragù recipe that slow cooks for over eight hours. If you are looking for a tagliatelle ragù done the Bolognese way this is the spot, with a bowl being the best €13 you’ll likely spend, ever. She is also featured in Gino Di Campo’s Italian Escape series aired in the U.K. and available to watch online.
Osteria Dell’Orso – http://www.osteriadellorsa.com
A super chilled neighbourhood spot that proves a great place to rub shoulders with locals across sharing tables, so brush up on your Italian! The menu changes daily in a nonna’s kitchen cooking style that serves up Bolognese classics including tortellini and tagliatelle ragù for around €6 per bowl.
Trattoria Dal Biassanot – http://dalbiassanot.it
A slightly more expensive dining option but worth every penny. Order the artichoke salad with celery and parmigiano, raviolini Bologna al pistacchi, gramigna alla boscaiola, baked green lasagna and a bottle of Frizzante Rosso to wash it all down!
Osteria Broccaindosso – https://www.facebook.com/OSTERIA-BROCCAINDOSSO-BOLOGNA-129760003742251/
Our lovely host at MySuitesHome recommended Broccaindosso for a casual dinner and we were blown away by the sheer volume of food served up. The antipasti was a full meal in itself and the green lasagna that followed was the best we have tasted (scusa Nonna!). If you have room for dessert and feel like pigging out, order their dessert plate for two, and by two we mean six! A three course meal, with wine and digestif set us back around €80, value you would be hard pressed to find in London.
Ristorante Grassilli – https://ristorantegrassilli.weebly.com
A quaint restaurant tucked away on a side street near the two towers. Try one of Bologna’s most famous dishes, tortellini al brodo (tortellini in broth), here as their rich broth is full of flavour and stood out a mile when compared with other tortellini dishes we tried. This is a full service restaurant, so the prices are slightly higher than an Osteria.
Pizza Altero – http://www.pizzaltero.it/dove-siamo.html
Pizza Altero opened in 1957 and is an institution in Bologna that specialises in deep dish pizza. Stop by whilst sightseeing for a quick, cheap pizza fix.
La Prosciutteria – http://www.laprosciutteria.com
Us Brits love a good pint of lager and packet of crisps down the pub, while the Bolognese enjoy a bottle of red wine and a selection of cheeses and cured meats. After a long day exploring, La Procuitteria is a fab pit stop for a glass (or bottle) of wine and a healthy portion of cheese and salami which would suffice as a light dinner if you have overdone it at lunch. We paid circa €12 for all you see in the picture below, including wine.
Osteria Del Sole – http://www.osteriadelsole.it
The oldest bar in Bologna, Osteria Del Sole opened in 1465 and has one rule, if you eat there, you must drink! A pretty great rule if you ask us. A real local spot that gets super busy at lunch, so make sure you book a table. We suggest you grab some mortadella from nearby deli Tamburini, a deep dish pizza from Altero and take pew with the locals and Yummy Italy whilst enjoying a bottle of Pignoletto.
Bologna proved a fantastic spot to kick back and enjoy the best of authentic Italy with an onslaught of food, history and friendly, welcoming faces. A dynamic location, this overlooked city is definitely on the revisit list, however be warned, visiting Bologna may ruin pasta as you know it!
Many thanks to our hosts and trip sponsors Corona D’Oro, MySuitesHome, Yummy Italy and I Portici. All opinions expressed are our own.