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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bologna, Italy: Piadina, Kebab and the Best Cold Cuts and Cheeses in the World


Bologna -- arguably the culinary capital of Italy. I discovered so many new things about Italian food and relished in the amazing selection of cold cuts and cheeses found in Bologna and Rome.

In Venice, I had an Italian version of a quesadilla called piadina. It had arugula, prosciutto and mozzarella cheese that had all been melted like a panini. It was ok, very much like a flatbread panini. The difference is that it's made out of dough instead of a tortilla.

I had the best home-made meal in Bologna, courtesy of my dear friend EB. She made a killer spaghetti carbonara (purists will notice that she made the quintessential Roman dish, as opposed to tagliatelle al ragu, which is Bologna's signature meat-based tomato sauce pasta dish), followed by tomino, a small soft cheese that she wrapped with pancetta and baked in an oven until the cheese oozed out.

This pancetta was unlike the thick pancetta I'm used to having in the US. It was a different kind of pancetta called pancetta magretta or pancetta coppata, sliced thinly and with a lot less fat -- kind of a saltier prosciutto. It was delicious and the saltiness complemented the warm, creamy cheese perfectly. She accompanied this dish with a huge bowl of arugula salad tossed with some extra virgin olive oil and lemon. I'm not sure if it was the al fresco dining, the food or the company but we couldn't stop eating, drinking and talking until after 2 am.

Near the University of Bologna, we made a pit stop at a kebab hole-in-the-wall joint called Jolly (Via Oberdan, 29/a - Bologna, 051-272808) and inspired by my recent discovery of piadina, ordered a piadina kebab. To my pleasant surprise, the guy proceeded to make the flatbread from scratch and baked it before stuffing it with the meat, lettuce mix and a tomato-based sauce with a kick that made it such a fine snack.



A few hours later, we had dinner at a quaint little restaurant called Casa Buia (Via Dell' Arcouverggio, 138, Bologna, 051-320089) that serves tigella and crescentine, neither of which I'd ever tried. Tigella looks like an English muffin but is made in these iron molds that give it the star stamp. I didn't think the taste was anything mind-blowing but it was a fine accompaniment to the side dishes they served, which I'll get into in a sec. Crescentine are little sheets of square dough deep fried that also are good alternatives to plain old bread.


The sides included squacquerone, a mild, soft cheese that is often had with piadina and arugula; ciccioli frolli, deep fried pork fat that tasted like crunchy chips; pickled peppers, shallots and garlic and a salsa-like sauce made with tomatoes and peppers called peperonata or friggione.

The tigella and crescentine also came with a sampler plate of cold cuts and one type of cheese. The cold cuts in Bologna got me so addicted and I couldn't stop consuming copious amounts of ham (not to mention cheese -- like smoked provolone that turns out to be hard to find here...) and different cold cuts throughout the trip for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The plate included caciotta, a more aged cheese than the one above but still pretty fresh and creamy, prosciutto crudo, pancetta (the thinly sliced kind with less fat), mortadella (which I suspect degenerated into "baloney" in the US since mortadella hails from Bologna -- get it? What a travesty!), salame and coppa.

My favorites were the pancetta and coppa, each of them imparting varying degrees of saltiness with a bit of sweetness. The mild flavor of the tigella and crescentine paired perfectly with the very strong flavored charcuterie and cheeses.

With such huge appetizers, I wasn't even hungry by the pasta course but of course I had to have a pasta sampler made to order just for us.

Since we were in Bologna, we had to have the signature tagliatelle al ragu, the famed meat sauce with wide noodles that has since been dubbed "Bolognese" in the US, much to the chagrin of our Bolognese hosts. "There's no such thing as spaghetti a la Bolognese," they told us. Whatever it's called, it was very good. The pasta was cooked perfectly with just the right amount of sauce, not drowning in it. We later learned that the ragu was a mix of various kinds of meats, including pork, beef and prosciutto.
Bologna is also known for its tortellini, tiny dumplings that are filled with ground meat or cheese and are added to a clear soup to make tortellini al brodo (usually made with ground meat filling), or tossed with a light cream sauce. This one was the cream sauce variety that had ground meat filling in it. What I loved most was that it didn't feel too heavy and enabled me to sample and enjoy all three pastas. The third one was slightly sweetened with brandy and mixed with grilled radicchio, which was good but our hosts frowned at the notion of sweet pasta and set it aside.

All in all, great meals. Most memorable during the very hot and humid summer days: the wonderful fruit popsicles sold at a tiny stand in downtown Bologna. They tasted homemade -- so fresh, rich with flavor of the fruit essence and not too sweet -- like my mother had just made them and handed me one straight out of the fridge. I could have had five more if it weren't for our pending dinner plans...

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