The streets call out to me, urging me to leave my ivory tower in the Grand Hotel Majestic, an apt name as it is palatial. Directly opposite me, San Pietro stands on a plinth atop the Cathedral looking glum because his position is set in stone. He has to remain aloof on his roof. I, on the other hand, don’t. Italy’s tricolour flag wafts enthusiastically in the soft, warm breeze. Lit up by the sun, it draws my eyes to Piazza Maggiore less than a hundred metres away where I can see a congregation of models, aka smartly dressed Italians, parading around, and hear the sweet sounds created by street musicians. The whiff of intoxicating aromas drifts upward to tease my nostrils. The clink of glasses combined with easy laughter taunts me. On my balcony, I feel like I am missing out. The lure of the scene below is irresistible. We have only been in the city for half an hour, but I’m impatient to become more closely acquainted with Bologna, the food capital of Italy.
Some cities can be standoffish at first, even slightly moody until you get into their groove. Others are like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen for a long time. Bologna falls into the latter. Despite the fact I have body, style, and looks envy the second I step into Via dell’ Independenza, pedestrianised for the weekend, I feel instantly relaxed, like I’m joining a party where everyone is invited. And that’s what Bologna on a Saturday afternoon feels like, a party. An electric buzz from the milling throng puts beams on our faces. Welcome to the pleasure drone.
There is an air of happy hedonism about the city as we set off toward Piazza Maggiore, the feeling aided and abetted by mermaid statues at the base of Fontana del Nettuno who direct jets of sparkling water from their breasts. It’s just after 2pm and we have a food tour arranged at 3.30pm. But we haven’t eaten since early morning, so some sustenance is essential. Where do you start in a city where food is like a religion?
The Quadrilatero, foodie heaven
In one way, the answer is easy in Bologna. Just aim for the Quadrilatero, a network of narrow streets and slim alleys adjacent to Piazza Maggiore where every establishment sells food to D-I-E for. When there is so much choice of delectable dishes, choosing just one is an impossible task. If I was in a musical, I’d start belting out ‘I want it all, and I want it now’ at this point. We dither our way past cool pavement cafes inhabited by beautiful people picking at mortadella mountains; salumerias decorated with hanging hams and towers consisting of chunky wedges of Parmigiano Reggiano; delicatessens displaying artistically painted boxes brimming with tortellini; a pescheria (fishmonger) outside which two men sit on stools tucking into freshly fried fish while a young couple wrap their mouths around beefy burgers bought directly from the butcher next door. It is overwhelming, in a mouth-watering way. I have never been in a place where there is such an obsession with food, and yet Bologna’s residents remain predominantly slim. Tellingly, I haven’t spotted any international junk food chains. There might be fast food outlets, but they serve top quality fare.
With time dwindling away, stomachs grumbling, and a food tour of the streets we are indecisively meandering through looming ever closer, we turn into Via Calzolerie to see the solution right in front of us, Piadineria la Piadeina. A filled Italian flatbread is prefect for plugging a hole for an hour. Some traditional street food is also a fitting immersion into Bologna’s food scene, the reason for our visit. I order a Nettuno Classiche consisting of mortadella and pecorino dei colli Bolognesi while Andy opts for a mozzarella and tomato cassoni, which is like the toastie version of a piadina. Like many of la Piadeina’s other patrons, we take our seats on the pavement outside and sate our hunger while simultaneously indulging in some serious head-swivelling, admiring fashions that range from the outrageous to the super stylish. It’s a veritable pavement fashion show and the piadina is the best I’ve eaten, not that I’ve eaten a lot. It hits the spot with a satisfying ‘ah.’ Andy gives me a taste of hers, and it is equally delicious, all warm gooey tomatoey cheese wrapped in crisp flatbread. Both are more substantial than we expected, so maybe not the smartest move when we’re about to embark on a food-tasting tour. We’ll just have to smile and swallow. Sacrifices must be made in the line of duty.
At 3.30pm, we meet our guide beside the Fontana del Nettuno. He takes us back into the streets we’ve just emerged from, adding detail, anecdotes, and context to the Quadrilatero’s colourful establishments and characters. We turn a corner, and he stops in front of a place he tells us sells some of the best street food in Bologna. It is Piadineria la Piadeina.
We say nothing, praying the owner doesn’t remember us. At least it confirms we have good judgement when it comes to sniffing out the best places to eat.