Thank you to all the chows who've weighed in on Bologna!! All of my restaurant picks came from searching the boards here, and we had a wonderful time fattening up in fat city! Here's the report:
Night 1- Trattoria Gianni. Cute little place, immediately welcoming and cozy. The menu was utterly dazzling, and the hard choices were compounded by a great, extensive specials list. As pasta forward diners, we ended up sharing a second for our first course before getting to business. It was zucchini flowers stuffed with meatballs and a light tomato sauce and mashed potatoes on the side.Very interesting! I've never had stuffed zucchini flowers that weren't predominantly cheese. This definitely set the tone for our Bologna trip that we were exploring a unique food culture.
My pasta dish was a tagliatelle with tomatoes and buffala mozzarella buried like treasure at the bottom of the bowl. After I took my first bite, my mom asked if I was all right. I think I looked like I was about to cry. "I'm just happy", I said. It was the perfect plate of pasta to welcome me back to Italy after two years. My mom had gnochetti in a parmesan truffle sauce. They were outstanding! I believe our wine was a Dolcetto D'Alba, and about 20 Euros a bottle. More happy tears for great Italian wine for 1/3 what it would cost back home! Our service was great, and the chef was making rounds talking to the tables. He reminded me of our "rock star" chefs here in USA and LA- heavily tattooed and palpable passion for food. Rock on, chef! Alas, no room for dessert. LOVED Gianni.
Day 2- We didn't make lunch reservations and we ended up in a part of town where I didn't have any recs listed, so we followed our instincts and some Italians to a little courtyard place: Trattoria La Corte Galluzi. There were lots of Italians here and no tourists, so we went for it. We both had the "Tris" pasta sampler which had a tortellini in creamy sauce, a few tortelloni with red sauce, and tagliatelle al ragu. It was good, neither the best nor worst of the trip, but quite competent considering we were going off book. Atmosphere was nice as well, seated outside in a courtyard with a view of an old tower/church. 10 Euros a plate.
Dinner night 2 was at Serghei. The restaurant is small and they turned away at least a dozen parties hoping to be sat. (Very glad our hotel had made all our bookings a week before our arrival per my email request.) We shared an order of tortellini in brodo, thinking we had to try this quintessential dish in Bologna, and this was maybe the best place to do so. The portion was split into two bowls for us, but seemed like two portions to me. My mom and I both have the same feelings towards the dish- why chose broth when you could have a cream sauce, or any other sauce? Perhaps in the winter or if I was sick, this dish would appeal more. Next course for me was ricotta and spinach tortelloni with sage. This was very good, but my mother's green tortelloni in a gorgonzola sauce took the prize of tastiest. My mother had some issues with our server rushing off and not letting her ask about/order a salad…so she would deduct points for service, but she later said the green tortelloni was her favorite pasta dish of the trip.
Day 3 was Italian Food Days Tour!
We were picked up at 7 am in a black mercedes van. There was quite a bit of driving then, picking people up and getting out to Modena. Then we finally met our party boy, Alessandro. He has a large, fun, infectious personality that is obviously what makes the tour such a success. The tour itself was good, we had quite a bit of time at the Parmigiano Reggiano factory and got to see every part of the process. For some reason I hadn't realized that the parmesan factory on the tour is near Modena, not Parma, though as it is D.O.P. regulation, it as much "Parmigano Reggiano" as those made in Parma. Similarly, the Prosciutto D.O.P on tour is near Modena, not Parma. Alessandro is greatly informative about what D.O.P means for each of the products covered- Parmigiano, Vinegar, and Prosciutto. While my mom had been told that breakfast is served on the tour, it actually wasn't. I would recommend brining something light to eat on the van ride to Modena. Your first samples of food (parmigiano and small sandwich pieces) are at the completion of the Parm tour- a couple hours or more since you left your hotel. The sampling is very generous, we were offered as much parm as we could possible eat at that hour, plus Lambrusco wine and mini sandwiches. The vinegar tasting was fascinating to me, as I truly learned what the difference between the good stuff and any factory produced "Balsamic Vinegar of Modena". For illustration we sampled cheap stuff, then better stuff that is not DOP, then fDOP aged 12 years, and finally DOP aged 24. We got to taste the good stuff on both fresh ricotta and gelato, which was very fun. The prosciutto factory was a little bit anticlimactic, as I don't have a deep religious connection to the product. Ham legs hanging up to dry just aren't as appealing to check out, either. We certainly were treated to generous samples, however.
The "Light Lunch" was served at trattoria not far from the prosciutto factory, in the suburbs of Modena. The restaurant is not fancy, nor does Alessandro try to convince you it has any gastronomical importance or specialness. It is merely a "typical" casual restaurant of the area. We sat inside because it was rainy, but usually the tour has their own private patio seating. We started with fried gnocchi --more like a popover than a potato dumpling-- and mortadella-- we learned that this is a very common appetizer in this region. We saw it almost every restaurant we went to in Bologna. Next came three separate pasta courses- tortellini in cream sauce, tortelloni in red sauce with mushrooms, and a strozzapretti with radicchio. Each course was a full plate of pasta, and Alessandro goes around trying to put seconds of each on any empty plate. It's fun at first, but becomes a real problem by the end of the meal! Next was a grilled beef with potatoes and salad. I had a hard time eating by this point, and the meat wasn't rare enough for me to enjoy. But I somehow found room for the marscapone dessert with dark chocolate shavings-- alongside a sweet berry liqueur that I cleverly poured on top of the dessert-- my favorite course. And there was plenty of red wine through out the courses to wash it all down. So, here's the thing-- the food was just okay. The strangest thing about this tour is here we are, a bunch of foodies, and we're engaging in what is clearly quantity over quality. Not that I begrudge the tour leaders for giving us this enormous feast of regional fare in a fun setting with nice company, it just needs to be pointed out that if you're a typical Chow who researches every meal you eat in Bologna (as I did), you will be losing an entire day of potential excellent restaurant meals to this huge but mediocre meal. I'm not saying I regret the tour for that reason, I'm happy that I went on the tour and I had a great time….I'm just letting you know. I also had six nights in Bologna, so I feel I was able to get in plenty of good restaurants on our other days. I think what would make this tour truly wonderful, for me, would be a meal that reelected the quality in the DOP products we spent all day learning about, even if it weren't as ginormous.
And no, you will NOT go to dinner after the tour. The lunch ended about 4 pm, 5 full courses plus dessert and wine…this coming from the girl who usually eats dinner the night of Thanksgiving feast lunch. Everyone at the table was feeling sorry for the tour members who had dinner plans that night- one couple had to pay to change their train tickets since they wouldn't be able to stay in Bologna for dinner. Another had a work dinner function that they couldn't get out of - our sympathies for them were very deep. I had a list of "back ups" should we needed a bite later that evening that we didn't need. Unless you stay awake much later than we did (10 pm), I doubt you would so much as seek gelato after the tour.
Day 4! (Saturday)
Lunch- Trattoria Del Rosso. Near the university district, this place was a a chow rec and is very popular with locals. Luckily, it's very large so we were seated promptly, but an hour later around 1:30, people were waiting for a table. They offer specials of the day, two courses plus water and coffee for 10 Euro (with one choice per course) . Each course is pretty generous, I had a first course plate of penne arrabiata that I could't finish, and then fried mushrooms stuffed with cheese and and a side of polenta for the second course. My mom had a nice short tube pasta with sausage. Everyone was here was Italian, no tourists at all. You pay at the counter on your way out when you're done eating. Solid and cheap lunch.
Dinner- Trattoria Tony
This one was a hard choice, I think I originally had Giampi e Ciccio slated, but was then swayed by some persuasive fans of Tony. The atmosphere is very casual and homey, the place is pretty small. They turned away LOTS of people without reservations (this was a common theme while we were dining!) I had the tagliatelle al ragu and my mom had milanese meat dish (not regional fare but she craves once per Italy trip.) My plate was quite comforting -- at this point we both had colds and luckily we could still taste our food, but sadly we couldn't quite eat as much. My mom's milanese wasn't dynamite, but it was fine. The service stood out as particularly good-- the owners were kind to us and called us a cab after we ate, and nobody rushed us at all even though we weren't ordering very much and lots of people were turned away. The men next to us enthralled us by eating huge plates of pasta, then salad, then gigantic steaks that looked delicious. The prices of food and wine were so reasonable here, that I wish I had had my full healthy appetite and could have done like them. Of course, I'll never know how it compared to Giampi e Ciccio, but we liked the place a lot.
Day 5- (Sunday)
Lunch- At this point we were craving pizza as we had been in Italy a while without any. We had seen a few promising looking pizzerias near Trattoria Tony the night before, so we headed back over there and then I judged by sight which pizzeria looked better. Pizzeria Il Portico won out. It was pretty good, not superlative or anything, but it hit the spot.
Gelato- Stefino (in between the historical downtown and the park near the northern wall) which was praised on serious eats and other food blogs as the best gelato in town. While it certainly was the most photogenic gelato, it wasn't the best. I'm a fan of pistachio in particular. This pistachio was very true to the the nut (which is good), but but in an overly literal way that didn't provide enough flavor or sweetness. It's kind of hard to the define what makes a PERFECT pistachio gelato, (of course I use color a lot to determine if I want to try it, bright green scares me away, a muddy brownish green excites me), but, for me, when it's just right, the flavor is a powerful burst (and not one resembling almond or amaretto!) that is medium in sweetness, neither unsweet nor cloying.
Dinner- Antica Trattoria di Gigina. Another good option for Sunday night, when many are closed. About 3 miles north of the main city area, but still technically Bologna. We took a cab and it was about 15 Euros/15 minutes. The restaurant is huge, gorgeous, with some lovely vintage-y details in the bar/entryway area. Right away it felt worth the commute. We had that darn cold, so we couldn't order more than a primo per person. They did bring some small complimentary bites to start. I had a homemade pasta that looked like rigatoni (I believe it was called something else, but same shape) with asparagus,prosciutto, and a touch of cream binding it. (And plenty of parmigianno on top) My mother tried a green gnocchi with a truffle cheeses sauce. It was delicious but SO rich and heavy, and so heavily sauced that it looked like a bowl of soup. It was the kind of dish you want to taste but not eat more than a few bites of. I loved my pasta, though, and the wine was outstanding as well, my favorite of the trip- Cordero di Montezemolo Nebbiolo for less than 40 Euros. I had their tiramisu which was a little different, but good. The service wasn't stellar, the place being large and the servers feeling a bit detached from it all, but the atmosphere made up for it. I left quite happy that we came here, and this pasta was among my favorites.
Day 6 (Mon)-
I had "Tamburini" on my notes for a major "to do" that day and also as our lunch option. We were both wholly unimpressed with the shop. It wasn't nearly as vast or interesting as it reputation led me to believe. Not that you shouldn't pop in, but it's certainly not a destination. Maybe if you're cooking, the products here are better than others, but I didn't find a wide variety of products as I had expected, nothing worth buying to take home. I was happy to see that the same bottle of 12 year DOP balsamic vinegar that I bought for 40 Eur on the food tour was selling here for 62 Euros. The surrounding outdoor food stalls were much more fun to shop at, with their redder-than-red tomatoes and gorgeous vegetable varieties. Tamburni's hot line for lunch wasn't very appetizing. Maybe compared to other cafeteria style food in Bologna? Instead, we walked over to Teresina, which isn't far, as I had it listed from chow recs. The atmosphere, particularly the outdoor seating where we sat for lunch, was cute. Alas, the service was pretty unfriendly. The server seemed almost offended that we were Americans- though we speak Italian, he refused to speak in Italian with us, he also answered our questions with disinterested, one word replies. He was not Italian. I had a mezze luna shaped pasta filled with burrata and asparagus. It was just okay, one of my least pleasing pastas of the trip. The texture of the sauce/pasta was gummy and the flavors muddled. My mom's tortelloni with ricotta and sage were far superior. Oh well! As the prices were also higher here than anywhere else, I would personally cross it off my future Bologna list.
Il Gelatauro near the University area, another serious eats rec. Pistachio was on point! Much preferred over Stefino. They also had pastries and some sandwiches and stuff. Lots of seating as well.
Dinner at Caminetto D'Oro. This place is a bit controversial here on Chow, some really like it and some seem adamantly opposed. Interestingly, while this place is among the oldest restaurants in Bologna, I found the atmosphere and menu the most modern. It's definitely a little more urbane in feel than the others we went to--a touch more expensive than the other restaurants, the seating more snug with your neighbors. I was set on the tagliatelle al ragu, as proponents of the place say its among the best in town. The rest of the menu was a bit too modern for our mood, anyway. Who wants to eat whole wheat spaghetti on their last night in Italy? The ragu did not disappoint, it was not only the best of the trip, it was probably the best sauce, period, of the trip, as well as best "meat" dish of the trip. We had another affordable Nebbiolo (though not as delicious as the one at Gigina) and I had a roasted pineapple and ginger cream dessert, which was quite tasty and refreshing. I would definitely come back here, in fact I've been craving that ragu ever since.
So my favorite restaurants of Bologna were Gianni, Gigina, and Caminetto, though Serghei and Tony were certainly also recommends. Teresina was the only real disappointment. (Though based on what she ordered, she'd be higher on Serghei and less on Gigina) Overall, we felt like we ate VERY well in Bologna, and we repeatedly thanked Chows who cover Bologna for leading us to these places! Grazie Mille! It's good to be a chow in Italy :)