Bologna the hot. That's my contribution.
Bologna already has other nicknames:
La dotta. [The learned one. This town has the oldest university on the continent – dating to 1088. And even today, its student population swells to 80,000.]
La grassa. [The fat one. The epicenter of Italian agriculture and the navel on the big belly of Italian cooking. Tagliatelle and tortellini were invented here.]
La rossa. [The red one. Look for red in the color of the terracotta bricks. And in politics. A communist city council for most years after the Second World War. Free public transport. etc.]
But today, she is also steaming. Ninety-five degrees outside. Italy is in a heat wave and the Bolognese are reveling in the summer-like weather.
And still, at the Drogheria della Rosa, everyone is begging for a dinner table outside. The owner and his staff are plucking tables from the small room and scattering them up and down the loggia.
What’s a loggia, and where are we, and how is this place anyway?
We came Sunday afternoon. Leave Rome, head north. Past beautiful, lush Italian countryside.
Past Florence, but not quite yet in the Venice region. We get off the train at a small station outside the city. The main station (Bologna Central) is undergoing major systems upgrades and so we are carted by bus from this suburban outpost to the center.
Bologna Centrale. Are you old enough to remember the terrorist bombing that took place here in 1980? I am. Eighty people died and scores were injured as the roof of the station caved in during the terrorist attack. Italy in those years felt like Northern Ireland at the height of unrest.
It’s calm here now and the only movement comes from under the soil. As we well know, these can be dramatic enough. (Remember the earthquake west of Rome this year.) And underneath Bologna, things are shifting and heaving (if not quaking) all the time. Take a look at her ancient towers now, after centuries of ground movement:
Didn’t I mention that Bologna is also called the city of three “T’s”? [T for towers – there used to be hundreds and a significant handful are still standing; T for tortellini – see above; T for tits – something about the healthy and voluptuous shape to the female form here.]
But don’t get lost in all the nicknames. For the tourist, Bologna is one beautiful medieval town. Well preserved, heavenly to walk through. It’s the city of arcades -- most blocks have them (originally used as a way to expand living space without narrowing the already small streets, the concept really took off here. New York built its space up to scrape the sky, Bologna went for the sprawl in a different direction).
At the Drogheria della Rosa, the chef, Francesco Guerra, comes out to check on how the food is going over. Noticing my photo taking of the most perfect dish of tortelli di stracchino e squacquerone with zucchini blossoms, he comes up and asks to see the photo. Quality control! he jokes. You can keep that one.
Someone comes out with an open bottle of Prosecco. We’re past the aperitif stage, working our way through a bottle of local white wine, but our glasses have just a smidgen of wine in them at the moment. The person with the Prosecco tops what we have with the fizzy wine. In a few minutes, he does the same to another table of diners. No one protests. It’s as if we have an invitation to pause in midmeal and enjoy a special moment.
Bologna on a Sunday is like a sunflower, with colorful but empty petals and a center swarming with every Bolognese man, woman and child. (There are few tourists here. Everyone is in a hurry to move from Rome, to Florence, to Venice. Towns along the way are forgotten. And I should talk! For all my frequent travels to the Mediterranean, I’d only been here once before. Almost forty years ago.) The market sells the usual cheese and sausage, but also sweet things. Crispy pancakes, cookies, nuts coated in honey.
We walk in the cool shade of the loggias, through vast open squares...
... pausing only briefly at a café to catch up on food (because, really, we’ve been so starved in this country!).
I watch the cyclists cut across the square. Families again! Father with two children, then father with daughter. She waits patiently for his conversation to end.
In Rome, we never once used any transportation – not even when a restaurant was miles away, not even when retreating on a hot morning to the railroad station with luggage in tow. It took countless hours to move around this way, but we felt closer to the city and her people by simply walking.
In Bologna, we walk as well, but the distances seem child’s play by comparison. Hiking toward the corner of the old town to look at the university and the faculty of law, where it all began almost a thousand years ago, we pass groups of students idling away the early Sunday evening.
And there are traces here of Bologna’s more radical side.
And of course, here too, we find the beauty of the loggias -- so compelling, so cool on this hot hot day.
Around the corner. There are the towers again. They come and go. Tilting, hiding behind one another.
Notes of opera music spill out into the loggia of the Drogheria della Rosa, chasing down every last patron sitting at the scattered tables of the restaurant.
Emanuele Addone, the proprietor, comes over and asks – you like opera music? I think this is so appropriate for good food. When I tell him that truly not only do I find the strains of opera so enchanting, but the pasta dish was in fact the very best pasta dish I ever remember eating, he pulls up a chair and joins us for the remainder of the meal.
You see, I have this menu, but it does not say anything (in fact, there is no real menu; Emanuele goes to each table, tells them more or less what there is to choose from and they take it from there). Because I don’t want to print out anything. I go to the market and the menu is born then.
Someone calls to him from inside. Porca miseria, leave me alone! He shouts back. It’s my day off from the kitchen!
He’s from the south – from Matera. But he learned about the restaurant business in France and England.
Ever travel to the US? – I ask. We think that for this type of food, there would be lines around city blocks, say in New York.
No, no I haven’t. I like it here, in Bologna. If I could spend time elsewhere, it would be in Brittany. But, the wife – she’s a professor of French here.
He’s effusive about the region. And about cooking. Good food is about good memories. I remember a moment when I ate this same cheese and I put it into the tortelli, to create that happiness again.
He shouts out to the waiter to pull in a chair from a departing client. He’s my nephew, he tells us. I’m trying to teach him. He shakes his head as if the effort is sometimes too much.
The staff is hovering now. They want his attention for one detail or another, but Emanuele is on a roll. Here, I will give you a shirt to take home. (He whips out a shirt with a logo about a cap that I do not understand, but you can see the man is all heart. He has a reputation for treating guests as if they are longtime friends. I can see why.)
The Prosecco bottle is at his side again and he offers us another glass, but it is near midnight and we are ready to call it a night. I pick up the bill. I'm shocked at how small the tab is considering all that we have consumed.
The strains of opera, muted in the corridor of the loggia, stay with us until we round the corner. We hold on to our roses – Emanuel takes these from the tables and hands them to all his female guests. Good memories. Made at a dinner table. Over a plate of tortelli, and pheasant in spicy honey, and Mascarpone with strawberries and cream.