Italy in general is great for food, but food in Bologna is truly special. The area is home to some of the most revered food products in the world, as well as homey classics. These are the food experiences you can't miss!
If you're a regular here, you may remember me mentioning our trip to Bologna last year when I shared my prosciutto salad with peach and mozzarella. I'll admit it was more by chance than design that we went, but it really is such a dream place to visit if you like food (which, funny enough, I do).
I figured it was about time I shared some of our top Bologna food experiences!
Bologna: Italy's foodie heartland
Italy is, of course, a country where food is central to daily life. After all, they gave us pasta, pizza and gelato amongst many other things. Nowhere is that more true than in Emilia-Romagna, the region that Bologna is part of. It's the old heartland of traditional Italian cooking and is often the region people think of, even if not consciously, when they talk of traditional Italian cooking.
You might not know the name, but you will definitely know some of it's iconic exports: Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham), Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan) and Aceto Balsamico di Modena (balsamic vinegar). And that's before I even mention the 'real' Bolognese sauce.
Try an authentic ragù alla Bolognese (the original Bolognese)
First rule when you order Bolognese in Bologna: don't ask for spaghetti Bolognese. Serving the classic meat sauce with spaghetti is not how they do it here. Traditionally, ragù alla Bolognese is served with tagliatelle or other wide, long pasta like fettuccini and pappardelle.
The other thing is the flavor of a well made ragù is probably nothing like you might be familiar with. The traditional sauce has only a little tomato in the sauce and includes some wine, pancetta and milk. It's simmered for a long time to thicken the sauce and mingle all the flavors. You'll find it all over the city, so you'll definitely be able to experience it at least once.
Enjoy handmade tortellini (their other famous pasta export)
Both Bologna and nearby Modena claim the invention of tortellini as their own and of course it's a debate that may well never be solved given how old they are. A legend developed in the 1800s gave a compromise of it being a town between the two.
These days, tortellini and the slightly larger tortelloni are made on an industrial scale and sold worldwide. However the mass-produced versions have nothing on hand made, and it's definitely worth trying some while you are there.
Most self-respecting restaurants will make their own and we say a few with open kitchens where you could see trays of them ready to cook. Tortellini are typically filled with a mixture of meat along with parmesan.
A classic way to enjoy them in Bologna is as tortellini in brodo where whey are served in a rich broth.
Explore the old food market in Bologna and try wine and salumi
There's an area near the cathedral in central Bologna that used to be the main food market and is now home to a number of small food shops, delis and bars. It's a great place to go bar hopping and nibble on salumi - the various cured meats and sausages of the area, as well as cheese.
If you're able to cook for yourself while you are there, it's also a great place to pick up some high quality ingredients including cheese, fresh produce and freshly made pasta. You'll find a stunning array that is all so tempting.
Visit a prosciutto producer
We're lucky enough to be able to get Prosciutto di Parma in many places in the world these days, which really is one of the best cured hams. But even as someone who tried cured meats many times and been to bars with hams hanging, I have to say visiting a prosciutto producer was something else. The rows of hams hanging as they air dry is really something special to see.
As the name suggests, the area to see it is by Parma which is not far from Bologna. There are various ways to arrange a tour - you can organize yourself directly with some, but the easiest is almost certainly taking a tour, as we did, and in most cases combining it with at least a visit to a Parmigiano Reggiano producer if not more.
See Parmigiano Reggiano being made
As mentioned above, we visited a parmesan producer on the same tour as the prosciutto producer. It was great to see the various stages of the famous cheese being made and, in particular, the huge towers of the cheeses as they age.
The highlight, of course, was getting to taste different ages of Parmigiano Reggiano and really get a sense of what the aging does to both the flavor and texture. There was a small store at the producer as well and naturally, we couldn't resist picking up a block to take home (because when sealed, it works to be out of the fridge, which was great news).
It was a running joke in our group that my son was first in on each tasting! In case you didn't already know from other posts, we are a family of cheese-lovers, so this was a wonderful experience for all of us.
Do a Balsamic vinegar tasting
Personally, I am a big fan of balsamic and since we were planning to take the kids to see the Enzo Ferrari museum in Modena, not far from Bologna, it seemed only right to tie it in with visiting a balsamic vinegar producer.
I was unsure how the kids would like this one, but actually they really enjoyed tasting every single sample they were given. I'm sure this is largely because we visited the oldest producer, Aceitaia Giusti, that produces both the prized traditional method balsamic vinegar as well as less aged versions, blazes and white balsamic.
It was fascinating to learn about the process and taste the different products under the trees outside. Again, you could really taste the difference in the different ages etc and it was almost impossible not to pick up some to take home.
We loved the producer we visited independently, and it wasn't difficult to arrange. Many tours of prosciutto and parmesan producers have the option of adding a balsamic visit to the tour as well, so this is another was to see the process, although the exact products vary from one place to another.
More food in Bologna to try
These were the big highlights for us, but there are, of course, so many more foods to try in the many cafes and restaurants around the city and surrounding area. You will find excellent gelato (Italian ice cream) all over, and in fact there's a Gelato Museum not far from Bologna that we didn't manage to visit.
Another place that we didn't have time to visit but sounds wonderful for another visit is FICO Eataly World - if you're a fan of any of the Eataly reastaurants/markets elsewhere, this is the idea on a grand scale. Lots of restaurants and food production all in one place.
Bologna is also home to the deli meat known as Bologna outside the country, there called mortadella. It's worth getting some in a sandwich or from a deli there to try the real thing from the source.
And if you have time for one more producer tour, the Bologna region is home to Lambrusco wines as well. They might have a bit of a less-than-great reputation from years gone by, but visiting a winery is always a special experience. You can also, of course, as I mention above try some great wines from the area in the bars and restaurants in Bologna.
Food in Bologna is such a central part of daily life, and there are so many ways to experience it as a visitor. From what you can easily access in the city, to easily accessible food producers in the area, there's so much to explore, eat and enjoy!
Want to try some Bologna-region dishes at home? Try these recipes:
- Pumpkin ravioli (tortelli di zucca)
- Miale al latte (milk-braised pork)
- Pumpkin risotto (especially good with aged balsamic on top!)
- Tortellini in brodo (meat and cheese filled pasta in broth)
Looking for more travel ideas? Get lots of ideas in my Paris with kids post for activities, food and play in that great city (not just for kids!).