Ciao from Bologna! Four weeks into my ten months studying at the University of Bologna, I thought Id publish initial findings. Firstly, Bologna, gastronomic capital of Italy, is a delicious place to be. I havent had one bad meal here. However, the challenge to find especially superb chow continues, and I have unfortunately been disappointed by several recommendations found on this board.
Diana, Grande Dame of the Bologna culinary scene, didnt turn out to be the sort of Dame I was expecting. I feel that the owners were going for a no-frills, simple, good food approach, with food prepared and dressed by your table, etc. However, it ended up feeling a bit like an Italian boarding house. Contorni and pasta went down well, but the meat secondi were a disappointment; oily, a trifle overcooked and generally lacking the yum factor.
Grasilli, too, didnt meet my expectations. Whilst the atmosphere is charming (photographs of famous Italians, many taken inside the restaurant, cover the walls), the tortellini in brodo was a tad salty, and the meat had the same problem as at Dianas.
One restaurant that I do like is called La Brace, a couple blocks away from i due torri, Via San Vitale 15. Initially I ignored this place, because the glowing signs and the English/Italian menu in the window made it seem like a touristy franchise. However, a closed pizzeria once forced me and a friend to have dinner here, and I have returned several times since. It is always busy and bustling inside, with a cheery atmosphere and good lighting (all the better to study everyones food!). As far as I can tell (i.e. no braying foreign accents) I have been the only non-Italian when Ive been there. It has a huge menu (divided into seafood and meat/vegetarian), generous portions and a no fuss approach to good food. For a restaurant so far from the sea, it has good seafood too, brought in fresh from Comacchio every day. Whilst I have not eaten any secondi here (I never get that far!) I have been very impressed by the antipasti and pasta. Popular dishes (after an intense study of dishes brought past my table) include the hot mixed mussels/clams/langoustines antipasti, served with hot flatbreads straight from the pizza oven, often shared between two, and all of the pasta dishes. The penne arrabiata are very spicy, the stregoli with mixed seafood and the pink tagliatelle with prawns both are ever so lightly coated in a wonderfully seafoody flavour, and marvel of marvels, the seafood isnt overcooked (very difficult when dealing with mixed seafood). Their pizzas, whilst not the best Ive ever had, are of an acceptable quality. I usually find a plate of pasta, or sharing a pasta and a pizza with a friend, fills me up perfectly. I also like the fact that the waitstaff have no issue with diners sharing dishes, something I have unfortunately encountered at other restaurants. The prices are better than most in Bologna; pasta (depending on whether you have lobster, etc. in it!) ranges from seven to fifteen euro.
Now, the most important part; gelato. I have tried most of the well-known meccas, and have the following to say about them:
Sorbetteria castiglione, Via Castiglione 44 :
Good, but I actually find them too rich. I was actually unable to finish a cone of cioccolato, something which, thank god, has never happened to me before. Now, some might see this as a sign of a good ice cream, but I feel one of the joys of gelato, versus American ice cream, is its exquisite lightness. It should leave you feeling refreshed, not like youve been hit by a truck. Ideally, this allows for the consumption of more than one cone. I do not know if this would be possible at Sorbetteria castiglione.
Giannis, top of Via S. Stefano:
A fun place with fun flavours. If I had to find fault, I would say there is an over-reliance on nutella, a wonderful substance to be sure, but not one which shows off a superbly made gelato. A good place for decadent mixes of different crunchy, sticky flavours. And if you find yourself in Piazza Maggiore desperate for a gelato, I would recommend a visit here, rather than any of the gelaterie on the Piazza. Those are usually part of a bar, rather than an establishment dedicated to gelato nirvana, anyway, and I once had a melon sorbet there which definitely hadnt so much as touched a real melon.
Dolci Passioni, Via Massarenti 93:
This is a bit out of the way for tourists, a couple blocks down Via Masserenti (a continuation of San Vitale, past the old city walls). However, the employees wear white lab coats, and the ambience is pleasant. I had the best fragola gelato here; it had a slightly tacky, chewy texture rather than meltingly fleeting, which I enjoyed a lot. However, their specialty flavour of secret ingredients had very little taste, and I feel that a gelato offered as a specialty should be, well, special.
Gelateria Capo Nord, via Murri 49/b :
I include this one because I have a friend whos lactose intolerant, and this gelateria does several flavours of Italian-style gelato using soy instead of dairy. Ive tried the nocciola, and was surprisingly impressed.
Gelatauro, Via San Vitale 98/b:
This is my true chowhound find, and my favourite gelateria in Bologna. It is a small but delightfully decorated place. The owners (three brothers) are the ones behind the counter, as opposed to other, busier, establishments where every day theres a different employee scooping. And Ive actually seen them eating the gelato themselves! There are fewer flavours than offered at Sorbetteria Castiglione and Giannis, but what flavours Two Sicilian types, zenzero, yoghurt, zucca e canella, cioccolato e arancia, finocchio (fennel), crema dei pinoli (pine nut) as well as many old standbys. Sorbets include fichi dIndia (prickly pear), fichi e mandorle, formaggio e pera (with exciting flecks of blue cheese) and uva fragola (concord grape). However, since they use only fresh fruit, it depends on whats in season. I spoke with one of the brothers wives, an American, who told me that they only use butterfat in producing their gelati, and that many of the more famous gelaterie in Bologna, due to their high turnover, use vegetable oil instead because it does not need to be refridgerated.
All the flavours are delicious, but Il Regno delle Due Sicilie (pistachio, arancia, noci, and more), fichi e mandorle and cioccolato are my favourites. Its important to note that since flavours are not boosted with artificial stuff, fruits that are naturally subtle in taste will produce subtler flavours (such as fichi dindia, for example), and should not be paired with strong flavours. However, good matches include il regno delle due sicilie plus zenzero, yoghurt plus any fruit sorbets, and in fact pretty much anything with zenzero.
There are also biscotti, bottled produce, wines and fruit jellies. They have now just started producing other snacks, such as aperitivi, which I have not sampled, but look interesting, based on rare Italian produce, such as prosciutto made from lamb, salame from boar, etc. Real chowhound stuff!