Tracking down a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna proves to be trickier than it sounds
When my wife, Claire, and I recently spent a week in Venice and Padua, we decided to take a day trip to Bologna. We were searching for spaghetti Bolognese, in Bologna — a wonderful, steaming bowl of long, perfectly cooked noodles in a thick meat sauce . . . our gastronomic Holy Grail. And what an adventure it turned out to be!
“Don’t eat near the train station.” It was one of those pillars of wisdom dispensed by sophisticated Euro-travelers, along with “never change currency at airports” and “always carry an umbrella in London.”
The reasoning, apparently, is that train stations tend to be found in sketchy, industrial parts of town. Train stations seem to crawl with unscrupulous restaurateurs. They specialize in overpriced and underdelivered meals all in order to bilk naive tourists and business travelers sporting expense accounts. The true “hidden gems” are known only to locals and the cognoscenti.
Searching for spaghetti Bolognese – the quest begins
Avoiding the chaos around the station, we relied instead on a tip from the stable: Antica Osteria Brunetti, touted to us a week earlier by our chum Jerry – a globetrotting screenwriter with a gargantuan appetite and a belly to match.
Neither of us had visited Bologna, long regarded as the culinary center of Italy. For lovers of Italian food, tucking into a bowl of pasta Bolognese, in Bologna, had been a lifelong dream for us both.
Stepping from train to platform at Stazioni di Bologna Centrale, we lowered our heads, clutched our wallets, and charged. We dashed through the steel hurricane of cars, buses, bikes, and scooters toward the city’s central square, Piazza Maggiore. A few blocks later we were striding happily along the archway-covered, marble-floored sidewalks of the Via Dell’Indipendenza. We strolled past stylish shops, ancient churches, and as expected, a seemingly infinite number of adorable restaurants. Each beckoned us with plates of fettuccine and tortellini smeared with the region’s signature rich ragu.
A twist of fate
We easily located the address Jerry had given us, on via di Caduti di Cefalonia, an impossibly quaint cobblestone side street not much wider than our combined wingspans. The snug trattoria was everything he had promised: colorful servers, boisterous locals, old photos lining the walls, and a forgelike pizza oven at the center of the compact, bustling kitchen.
Well, everything but one: the place was under new management, the awning out front now reading Scalinatella. Sensing our disappointment, the effusive host assured us that the cuisine and service had not lessened, but in fact, improved since the change of ownership. “And how long ago was the change?” I queried, suspicious of anything new and untested. “Venti cinque anni (25 years),” he answered with a smile. Well, Jerry hadn’t told us he’d been there recently.
We weren’t ready to eat yet, but having scoped things out, informed the proprietor that we looked forward to returning later in the day when we’d worked up an appetite.
Visit cobblestones, towers, and boutiques of Bologna
This was easily accomplished. Bologna has a lot to see, especially on foot, and we took in as much of it as we could in one afternoon. You can read somebody else’s article about sightseeing in this historic city; our attention was focused laserlike on the “mission im-pastable” ahead of us. The cobblestones, towers, boutiques, and, yes, other enchanting trattorias went by in a glorious, colorful blur as the hours ticked down to dinnertime. (According to our trackers, we logged over 25,000 steps that day.)
Finally spent and famished, we limped back to the front door of the restaurant – our restaurant . . . and it was closed.
Our disappointment was sharp but short-lived. This is Bologna, for chrissakes. Open your mouth and somebody will practically stick a forkful of osso buco into it. We bravely continued our quest.
The trouble was, now we were hungry, tired, sore, and it was getting late. Our train back to Padua would leave in a couple of hours.
A new search plan for our “Mission Impasta-ble”
Retracing our route, we checked out an inviting place we’d seen earlier, just behind the Palazzo del Podesta. But now that the temperature had dropped a dozen degrees, its outdoor-only tables were less inviting.
A few doors down, a funky, friendly spot with a Charcuterie-based menu and a youngish clientele seemed promising. Then an overhead speaker began blasting Proud Mary at earsplitting volume. Hell, we can get CCR back in the States.
The next stop was intriguing: an odd, rather stripped-down hideaway on the Via die Mille. It resembled the “social clubs” where mob hits are planned in Scorsese flicks. But its sole occupant – presumably the proprietor – refused to tear his eyes from the giant TV screen on which Formula One racecars screamed past. We went away from there.
The dead ends and false starts continued. Too cold. Too expensive. Too touristy. One option that called out to us – in fact, it was on one of the most beautifully lit restaurants we’d ever seen – turned out to be a McDonald’s.
Face to face with failure, we returned to the train station
Now it was night, and chilly. Bowing to time constraints, we had bent our trajectory back – inevitably – toward the train station. But behold! Hope sprang anew in the form of a beautiful little hotel restaurant, where the chefs in an open kitchen lovingly bent over handmade gnocchi. Giddy with anticipation and nearly weeping with relief, we grabbed a seat, only to learn that the place was closing in 10 minutes. The gnocchi was being prepared for tomorrow’s diners. Cursing them sotto voce in English and Italian, we tore ourselves away from the table.
Now snapping at one another like terriers, Claire and I trudged back out onto the street to discover that it was raining buckets. Worse, in this less-glamorous part of town, all those ingenious covered sidewalks had given way to busy streets and block after block of closed cell-phone outlets, vacuum repair shops . . . and no restaurants.
Finally, Siri to the rescue!
At this point, Claire and I had stopped talking to each other altogether. In a final act of desperation to my only remaining friend, I raised my damp cell phone to my mouth and wretchedly muttered, “Siri, show restaurants nearby.”
Well, at least Siri was cooperating. A handful of options soon populated the screen. The first offering caught my eye. It was highly rated (4 out of 5 stars), relatively inexpensive, and only a few hundred meters distant. We found the odd name, Dispensa Emilia, a bit off-putting – it sounded like a vending machine for medical supplies – but by now we would have eaten cold Chef Boyardee straight out of the can. Soaked to the skin, we splashed onward, trying to ignore the admonition ringing in both of our heads: “Don’t eat near the train station!”
Two lefts, a right, and a dash across slick cobblestones ahead of a clanging streetcar later. We pushed through a pair of heavy glass doors into what turned out to be our salvation. It was clean. It was warm. It was welcoming. It smelled great. And it wasn’t near the train station.
It was IN the train station.
Claire ordered Tortelloni di Ricotti. I ordered Tagliatelle. We split a bottle of the local cabernet and a bottle of Pellegrino. The whole meal set us back 28 Euros, a bit over thirty bucks.
And . . . it . . . was . . . stupendous.
Photos ©Monte Montgomery