I spent most of September 2011 in Bologna, doing very little cooking and therefore relying upon the city's food vendors and restauranteurs to feed me. Here are my thoughts.
1) Portion size in the best restaurants is correct: They don't load up your plate with food. An antipasto course can often be shared, but otherwise expect manageable portions. You will not be too full to eat a secondi, and even dessert.
2) A lot of mid-priced recommended eateries that serve traditional fare are indistinguishable from each other, and none are worth walking out of your way to eat at. Since this comprises the bulk of recommended places on message boards and in mass-publication guidebooks, you might as well just go to the one closest to you or whose dining room appeals to you. It's for reasons of convenience or atmosphere that these eateries become favorites of the people recommending them, but that's about it.
3) A great many short-stay visitors to Bologna would probably enjoy the many other wonderful pastas available in the city beyond lasagna, tagliatelle with meat sauce or tortellini in broth. These are wonderful classic dishes when done right, but there are also pastas stuffed with gorgonzola, or passatelli (a unique breadcrumb-and-parmagiano pasta) or pastas tossed with seasonal mushrooms or stuffed with pumpkin, or dressed in non-meat sauces, that can be delightful. I wouldn't feel obliged to stick to the most famous classics if something else catches your eye.
4) If your sole reason for visiting Bologna is food, consider staying someplace with a kitchen so you can sample a lot of different pastas. Many great fresh pastas are available from the markets, and can be cooked at home and simply dressed with butter and sage, or served in broth. It is rare to see a tris of pasta offered on restaurant menus, and then usually it is a 2 person minimum.
Caminetto d'Oro -- If there is a better place in Bologna to eat tagliatelle, I don't know it. In the wrong hands, tagliatelle with a traditional Bolognese meat sauce can be heavy, or dry, or just plain old like the dog's dinner. At Caminetto d'Oro, it is a revelatory pleasure to eat, and worth the extra 5 euros to do so. It is even served in exactly the right kind of pasta dish, which keeps the pasta hot while you savor the tastes. I found the restaurant space and ambience at lunchtime really very nice and relaxing. Everyone was informally dressed. The service was good. Nice wines available by the glass. In addition to my tagliatelle, I had a refreshing salad -- paper-thin slices of apple and finely shredded zucchini, topped with parmagiano shavings, and dressed with a marvelous apple vinegar (Alto Adige). For dessert I ate panna cotta with preserved figs, followed by the best coffee I drank during my entire stay in Bologna. In the end, only the tagliatelle was remarkable; everything else was nicely executed. I was sorry I hadn't tried a secondo. My lunch was 50 euros. (This restaurant is listed in the 2011 Gambero Rosso and Fred Plotkin's top recommendation for dinner.)
Trattoria Anna Maria -- I had such a bad experience at this trattoria last year that -- given its near-legendary reputation -- I vowed to return to learn more. I'm glad I did, because the tortelloni al gorgonzola made me understand immediately why people say this is some of the best hand-rolled pasta you can find. Unlike my last visit, a tasty plate of mortadella and slice of frittata appeared on my table as a gratis antipasta. I ate for my secondo roast duck, which was forgettable. For dessert, a zuppa inglese that I found over-rich and too cold. The house wine is unmemorable and the atmosphere of the restaurant slips into touristy. But I would go back for stuffed pastas all the same. My Sunday dinner was 40 euros. (This is a Fred Plotkin listing.)
Serghei -- In addition to serving wonderfully satisfying pastas, Serghei serves the best secondi I've tasted in Bologna. I ate gramigna con salsiccia for my primi (with more tomato and less fat than some other versions) and a succulent roasted turkey for a second, a difficult bird to get right. All very tasty, and a good house red wine. There is no menu at Serghei. Everything is recited to you quickly by the owner, so you need to have an ear for the classic Bolognese menu before you walk in. My dinner (without dessert or coffee) was 34 euros. (This restaurant is in Gambero Rosso, and I think it is the best mid-priced place for tasting a classic Bolognese menu.)
Trattoria Giampi e Ciccio -- The overall atmosphere is incredibly pleasant in this small trattoria, and the food is fresh and cheerful to match. I ate a tagliatelle in a light onion-tomato sauce and enjoyed every bite, I followed it with a plate of grilled vegetables, noting special, but it was what I wanted. Bread here is very, very good. If this were my neighborhood trattoria, I'd be very happy. My bill for a Saturday lunch was about 30 euros, no dessert. (This is a Fred Plotkin pick.)
Teresina -- On the first beautiful day of autumn, I sat outside for lunch in Teresina's lovely alley-way terrazzo, which is such a comfortable, glowing, quiet space, you simply don't want to leave. I only wish the food was as compelling. There is nothing to complain about it. The food is very intelligently done, with care. But it just seems not to really sing. I ate a puree of potato topped with a rich pumpkin puree, with some crunchy cabbage and onions hidden deep in the plate. . I also ate a pappardelle pasta with porcini. The pasta itself was a bit on the doughy side. Were I to return to Teresina, it would be for fish dishes, because they use scrupulously fresh ingredients. My lunch -- without wine, dessert or coffee -- was 26 euros.
Olivo -- Olivo specializes in serving limited menus. One plate at lunch (either a pasta or a salad) plus wine or coffee, for 12 euros. For dinner, there are 4 choices for each course, the same fixed price for each. It has a pleasant, outdoor eating area facing the relatively quiet piazza Aldrovandi. Lunch service is prompt. One day, I ate a very fresh large mixed salad. On another, crispy crepes stuffed with creamed peas and proscuitto, light and tasty. When I returned with a friend for a Saturday night dinner, it was one of the oddest dining experience I've had in Italy. We were seated at a scuffed table, handed badly torn menus, It was hard to find anything on the limited evening menu that was appealing. We were given stale bread. We offered the house wine, a local Lambrusco, and they said they were out of it. Our antipasta choice of shrimp was terrific. Our pasta were bewilderingly pedestrian. Everything tasted out of a box. 30 euros per person. (This place is listed in Gambero Rosso)
Diana -- I looked forward to returning to Diana to eat their passatelli in brodo, which has been delicious last year, and I was disappointed. It didn't taste fresh. When I ordered an eggplant parmagiana for a secondo, I was told they were out of it. My second choice -- a house specialty of turkey breast, proscuitto and truffle shavings -- improved dramatically once I set aside the overly salty prosciutto. I decided I would finally try Diana's famed house dessert of creme gelato with chocolate sauce. It was like supermarket ice cream and hershey's syrup. I like Diana's house sangiovese. Their coffee is terrible. My lunch was 40 euros.
Il Tinello -- Soulful hand-made homey pastas are served in a pedestrianized corner of the old Jewish ghetto. There is no reason to make a pilgrimage, but Il Tinello falls squarely in the category of the good neighborhood joint for pasta if you happen to be near there at mealtime. Best to skip their antipasti unless you want the typical cured meat plate, go for their pastas (the richer the sauce the better), and order the simplest meat secondo or a salad. I ate pasta here several times for reasons of convenience (and because the quiet terrace was so appealing in a heat wave). Dinner with wine (I never tried desserts) was typically 25 euros.
Les Pupitres -- In the same pleasant quarter as Il Tinello, Les Pupitres is a cafe that serves lunch all day but NO dinner, and has particularly nice, lusty salads. It also manages to turn out credible home-made pastas which surely are reheated by microwave, but they can still be better than some of the sloppier trattorie. Salads and the ability to eat nutritiously off hours is the real draw here. About 10-12 euros.
Bistrot 18 -- This restaurant with outdoor seating could not be in a more touristy spot --- in the heart of Bologna's increasingly touristy main food market area. But a friend and I ended up eating a delightful plate of melon, figs and proscuitto for starters, then his gramigna con salsiccia was really very satisfying. My salad of pressed chicken with pistachios, sliced paper thin, was nothing to write home about. Lunch cost us about 35 per person with wine and coffee (no dessert for us). There is really no reason to choose this place for food, but you won't eat badly if you do choose it.
Belle Arti -- The owners are Calabrese, so their mixed appetizer plates have lots of heat, but also prosciutto was standout high quality. They fashion themselves as a Neopolitan pizzeria, but in Bologna that simply means a pizza the size of a manhole cover. My cheeseless pizza with seafood was full of flavor but dry. Although I didn't sample the big salads and fish dishes I saw headed to other tables, I'd be tempted to give them a try. The ambience is distinctly student quarter, so go prepared for a noisy evening, even if you sit outside. Antipasta, pizza and wine was 23 euros.
Nicola's -- Sometimes touted as the best pizza in Bologna, Nicolas's produces humongous pies out of a wood burring oven, not real Neopolitan, but very satisfying, especially for the price, and my array of toppings was very well balanced, not too much or too little of any one thing. I got my pizza to go, but they have plenty of seating, including outdoors. 8 euros.
Don't Know The Name, near the end of via San Vitale -- There is a pharmacy right at the old gate that ends via San Vitale. If you walk past the pharmacy, down the quiet alleyway that has no name, you'll quickly see a hole in the wall pizzeria. I stuck my head in one day just as a small square pizza, the size of Mac Air Book, was brought to the counter on a wooden cutting board. I asked if I could buy a slice, and they gave me a quarter of the entire rectangle. It was a near perfect piece of Sicilian pizza. 4 euros.
Food stores -- The famous food stores near the piazza Maggiore are more touristy than ever, with large tour groups colonizing the sidewalks. The food offerings at Tamburini look tired. The ones at Paola Atti & Figli are much brighter, but the offerings are hit or miss (except for their pastas to take home and their delicious maroons glaces, which you can buy individually), A more inspiring place is the Mercato dell'Erbe, with brilliantly colored, fresh, crisp produce that is head-spinning. A marvelous gastronomia is Bruno e Franco, on the via Oberdan. Further down the same street, all the way at the point where the Oberdan meets the via Righi, there is a tiny cheese shop selling giant rounds of Parmagiano Reggiano, big enough to use as ottomans. It's a starling sight.
Finally, Majani chocolates is still one of the prettiest antique stores in Bologna. Poppiing into Zanarini to sample some of their miniature pastries is also enjoyable. I like the tiny cannoli best.
Gelato or granita -- Il Gelatauro serves up the most fascinating gelato and granite, in flavors like smoked tea or pumpkin or rosehips, or lemon-mint. They are noticeably NOT sweet. Stefino has fruit flavors that are very bright and light and refreshing. it almost tastes like they don't pack calories (they do). Gelateria Gianni is probably Bologna's most popular, with a giant branch just under the Due Torri but my one taste was unimpressive.
Wine and Coffee -- One of the nicer spots for a glass of wine and snacks is Divinis on via Batticbecco, not far from piazza Maggiore. I found Enoteca Italiana an interesting wine store, but a cold place for a glass of wine. There are no end of atmospheric places in the Jewish quarter, in particular Camera e sud, hidden away on the via Valdonica.
Good coffee is extremely hard to come by in Bologna. Terzi's is closed. The best I could find (and it wasn't great) was the Roxy Bar on the via Rizzoli and an organic cafe on via San Petronio, if you are in that area.
Non-Italian food: The Indian restaurant Moghul (dinner only) is a terrifically tranquil spot in the via dell'Inferno with many tasty dishes on the menu less than 5 euros each. They also make tasty lassis, including rose or salt. There is a large Asian population in Bologna, so the food comes closer to the real deal than you find in the Greek or Mexican restaurants in the city.
All in all, Bologna is an incredible cultural destination, and that is the primary reason to visit the city, not its restaurants. Any hard core foodie worth their salt will want to come to examine the historic markets and pasta makers and taste the best. But for people trying to plan a knock-out trip to italy where food and food alone is the focus, other destinations in Italy offer a lot more excitement and bang for the euro, even if they are not as seductively lovable as red, fat Bologna.
Via de' Falegnami, 4, Bologna, Emilia-Romagna 40121, IT
Via Piella, 12, Bologna, Emilia-Romagna 40126, IT
Via Guglielmo Oberdan, 4, Bologna, Emilia-Romagna 40126, IT
Trattoria Anna Maria
Via delle Belle Arti, 17, Bologna, Emilia-Romagna 40126, IT
Giampi e Ciccio
Via Luigi Carlo Farini, 31, Bologna, Emilia-Romagna , IT