Bologna is the capital of Emilia Romagna, the much-envied land of plenty, and the most civilised region in Italy. The city mastered the art of living in medieval times, when a pink-bricked city on a human scale grew up around Europe’s oldest university. Bristling with towers, like a medieval Manhattan, Bologna prospered from its setting, surrounded by fertile plains and vineyards, which supplied its convivial inns. Within these walls, urban life was less stultifyingly narrow than in most provincial cities, and a free-thinking, entrepreneurial people flourished. The fable comes together in the city’s three epithets: la Dotta (the Learned); la Rossa (the Red); and la Grassa (the Fat). Greedy gourmets who read books and believe in radical politics – the city’s character is as richly-textured as a Bolognese banquet.
“Bologna is also the gastro-erotic heart of Italy and openly parades its abundance and pleasures”. Former Rome correspondent Charles Richards recalls how the city simulates the senses, beginning with the Bolognese beauties Casanova and the Marquis de Sade so appreciated. The Bolognese readily conflate food and eroticism, believing tortellini, plump nuggets of pasta, were inspired by Venus’ navel, a vision embodied by an innkeeper’s mistress. The local tortellini association still claims that each sheet of pasta must be “as round as the moon and as soft as a caress”.
Cookery writer Marcella Hazan concurs, singling out the prodigality of Bolognese cooking. Compared with the frugal Florentines, “the Bolognese will sauté veal in butter, stuff it with the finest mountain ham, coat it with aged Parmesan, simmer it in sauce, and smother it with costliest truffles.” While an exaggeration, the locals’ love of rich food has made Bologna Italy’s undisputed gastronomic capital. Ever since the Middle Ages, Bologna has been conjuring up robust yet refined cuisine, an opulent parade of pasta, velvety sauces, meat, charcuterie and cheese. Foodies can compare pale-pink Bolognese mortadella, studded with black peppercorns and green pistachios, with other Emilian cured meats, notably Parma ham. Tagliatelle, second only in popularity to tortellini, were supposedly invented here in 1487 to honour Lucrezia Borgia’s golden hair. A hair-splitting recent regulation determined that each strand should be precisely eight millimetres wide, one-12,276th part of the height of Bologna’s main leaning tower. Anything else is simply not tagliatelle.