Bologna, Italywise

Elegant arches.

I’ve been making all sorts of wonderful new friends here in Italy. And one, Chris Cutler, is a delightful woman I met through my contacts (thanks to our mutual friend Novelia Giannantonio) in Sulmona, Abruzzo. Chris has been leading tours in Sulmona, but she also leads tours in Bologna. She is passionate and incredibly knowledgeable about both places. We first developed a relationship via email, and then I had

Bologna, Italywise

Chris Cutler knows Bologna like the back of her hand.

the good fortune to spend a day with her in Bologna, and to be shown around and given great insight into this wonderful city – one that is rich in history, architecture, art, education AND food! I’m amazed, and saddened, that so many people overlook Bologna when planning their Italian itineraries.

Bologna is a city of incredible porticos – almost 40 kilometers of them!

When Chris and I met in Bologna, one of the first things I learned from her was about the seemingly endless stretches of porticos that adorn the city. I thought that residents simply fancied porticos. Not so. What Chris explained is that property taxes were levied based on the size of the ground floor foot print (livable space). So as a “work around” they kept the ground level a bit limited, but built out on the upper levels. Pretty ingenuous, wouldn’t you say?

Chris was kind enough to do the following interview and generously share her knowledge. Be sure to contact her at her blog Cold Pasta & Red Wine to learn more about her (she’s of Italian heritage) and her deep love of Italy.

Bologna is an Italian destination that seems to have it all, yet it doesn’t emerge as a top destination for people visiting Italy. Why do you think it is so “under the radar”, and what it is it about Bologna that captured your attention and passion?

So, let me say this from the beginning. My roots are in the Abruzzo region, and I love that area. I go there often, and I had avoided coming to Bologna for years. It doesn’t get the publicity that other Italian cities get, so I thought it was just a large, industrial city with supposedly good food. In 2013, I had a free airline ticket that I had to use, and the only airport from which I could fly was Bologna. My husband and I stayed five days, and I fell in love with the feel of the city. The following year, I lived here for two months, and I got to know the city, its history, and her people even better.  I can’t put my finger on any one thing as they are all part of the reason I love it here.  It’s a large city, but it’s like a small town in the historic center. 

I also have to add that Bologna is central on the train line.  I can hop a train and be in Roma, Venezia, Firenze, Ravenna, Milano within two hours. That is a big attraction for me. I don’t need a car, and I can head out in the morning and be home in time for dinner.

So many tourists make a beeline for the artistic “hot spots” in Rome, Florence and Venice. What are they missing out by not coming to Bologna.

Oh, dear. The architecture. The history. The food. The museums. The people.  What people do not realize about Bologna is that there are more than 50 museums in this city. They showcase everything from art and archaeology, to manufacturing and science, to religion and music and gelato.  People forget—or don’t know—that the University of Bologna was the first in the world, and this city is a bastion of knowledge, art, literature, music, and history. 

The basilica of Bologna, San Petronio Basilica, is magnificent, but looks incomplete. What gives?

I keep hearing different stories about the basilica, but this is what I found from doing a little research last year.  Construction of the church started in 1390, and 125 years later, a different architect proposed continuing the construction to make it larger even than St. Peter’s in Rome. Pope Pius IV put an end to that idea, and the main nave is complete, but the naves that form the cross were never finished.  In addition, the façade is half-marble and half-brick.  I’ve read that they ran out of money to completely cover the façade with marble.  The basilica, by the way, is the tenth largest church in the world.

I should also mention that in 1655, Giovanni Domenico Cassini, an astronomy teacher at the university, designed a meridian line for the church.  A meridian line marks the day of the year, not the time of day.  The one in the basilica is one of the largest in the world and is still accurate some 360+ years later.

Bologna has a stellar reputation as a culinary center. What, in your opinion, earns Bologna this reputation, and what would be the top five foods you’d recommend?

I need to qualify this answer again.  Many people consider Bologna to be the capital of the Italian food scene.  While I agree that the food in Bologna—and Emilia-Romagna—is excellent,  I love the food of Abruzzo. I grew up with that.  That said, comparing the food of the two regions is like comparing oranges and apples. So! The number of foods originating in Bologna and Emilia-Romagna is long and varied—tortellini, lasagna, parmigiano cheese, mortadella, tagliatelle Bolognese, proscuitto crudo, polpette bolognese, crescentine, balsamic vinegar, lambrusco wine, zuppa inglese, raviole (the sweet kind), and heaven knows what else.

My five favorite dishes in Bologna in no particular order:

Gramigna alla salsiccia—This is a short, curly pasta topped with a sausage-based sauce.  I prefer it to have a bit of tomato in the sauce, although I’ve also had it with just sausage and cheese.

Polpette alla bolognese—The main ingredients in these meatballs are veal, mortadella, and parmigiano cheese.  My favorite version is of them in tomato sauce with peas. My aunt used to make this all the time as her husband’s family was from this area.

Tagliatelle bolognese—What Americans call “spaghetti bolognese” does not exist, and if you order it, the Bolognese will sneer at you.  The sauce is simply meat, onions, carrots, celery, and a very little bit of tomato paste.  The Bolognese use tagliatelle, a wide pasta, because it is strong enough to hold the heavy meat sauce.

Tortellini in brodo—There is nothing better than this handmade filled pasta floating in broth even in the summer.  In the US, we tend to serve tortellini with tomato or cream sauces, but I like the light broth best as it complements the flavors.

Raviole—These cookies get their name from their shape which resembles the ravioli pasta.  They’re made with a shortbread-like crust and filled with any kind of marmalade. I particularly like the amarena-filled raviole.  Amerada are a type of sour cherries that grow in the area.

I was fascinated by the story of dueling towers, can you give us the short story?

Oh, the towers.  In medieval times, there were almost 200 towers in Bologna. (Today there are about 20.)  The Garisenda and Asinelli Towers are the symbol of the town and stand next to each other in Piazza Porta Ravegnana.  The families of the said towers’ names built them between 1109-1119.  At that time, a tower was a symbol of a family’s status and power, and their height served as a sign of their social prestige.  My understanding is that the Garisenda and Asinelli families tried to out-do each other height-wise when building their towers.  The Asinelli Tower, at 97 meters, has always been the taller of the two, but at the time, the Garisenda Tower was 20 meters higher.  In the 14th century, the city removed 20 meters from the Garisenda, and today it stands only 47 meters.  

Interestingly, both towers lean, and there is some thought that there were more floors to the Asinelli Tower at one time, and they were removed due to the leaning, also.  The Asinelli Tower is the tallest leaning tower in Italy.  (Pisa is only 55 meters high.)

One other small fact: During WWII, Bolognese volunteers stayed in the top of the Asinelli Tower to watch the bombardments and direct the citizens to safety and to send aid where needed.

What are some of the hidden experiences of Bologna that a person might miss?

The first time I came to Bologna, I missed visiting Le Sette Chiese di Santo Stefano, Giardina Margherita (a huge city park), the weekend mercato, and just walking up and down the alleys of the historic center.  My favorite thing to do, though, is to enjoy caffe or cappuccino (or an aperitivo) while watching the world go by.

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