Bologna is big on pasta

Some see it as “the Disneyland of pasta,” The Sleek Fico Eataly World draws foodies to Bologna

WORDS Boyd Farrow
June 2019

Claudio Morelli

Early spring is unseasonably mild in Bologna, the historic capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy, but I fly into a political storm. According to the morning papers, Virginio Merola, the city’s mayor, is in a froth over tourists requesting “authentic” spaghetti Bolognese. Here, ragù alla Bolognese is served with
ribbony tagliatelle, which is better for delivering the rich meat sauce that typically has bubbled for 12 hours. In these parts, culinary traditions are taken seriously.

Emilia-Romagna has long been considered the cradle of Italian cuisine. Along the mazy medieval lanes of Bologna’s Quadrilatero area, storefronts are crammed with picturesque foodstuffs: hams hanging like punching bags, cheeses stacked like tires, dunes of yolk-yellow tortellini. And every business not selling produce seems to be a trattoria, osteria, ristorante or pizzeria—unless it’s a caffetteria, gelateria, cremeria or just a bar grilling panini. At times, the city feels like one big Italian-food theme park.

For the last 18 months, there has been an actual Italian-food theme park just outside Bologna’s city center, a 25-acre sprawl containing dozens of restaurants, scores of artisanal stands and several mini-factories and farms. Cofounded by Oscar Farinetti, of the Eataly food hall empire, FICO Eataly World claims to be more than a tourist trap. Rather, we are told, it aims to convey “the taste and the beauty of Italy, illustrated to all citizens of the world.” Mayor Merola is said to be collecting dubious foreign interpretations of ragù alla Bolognese for some kind of spaghetti-shaming exhibition.

There are a number of people in Bologna, meanwhile, who can reasonably claim to having had the “taste and beauty” thing covered for a while now. Among them is Giovanni Tamburini, a stout, charismatic man whose family has owned Bologna’s Ditta A.F. Tamburini restaurant since 1932, and which has been selling produce in this region since 1855.

Giovanni Tamburini behind the counter

“Food in this part of Italy is produced the same way it was seven centuries before Christ was born,”he says in his wood-lined dining room. In front of us is a platter of mortadella, Bologna’s famous heat-cured sausage, along with crusty bread and Lambrusco the color of cherryade.

“This mortadella,” Tamburini says, gesturing for me to dig in. “The bread, the cheese, everything is so good here because they’re high-quality products, made slowly, by hand. Food is like life:

You cannot cut corners.” I nod, resisting the urge to utter, “Yes, godfather.”

All 34 firms making mortadella in Emilia-Romagna use ingredients and methods approved by a certification board that safeguards the heritage. Producers are free to add their own seasonings—pistachios, say, or olives or cinnamon—but the pork must come from the leg and shoulder of the animal, while the cubes of fat must come from the neck. “It is all about continuity,” Tamburini says, though he admits to reducing the fat content of his own mortadella by up to 30 percent for modern palates. 

A couple of decades ago, there were 200 different salumi (cold cuts) made in the region; today, only 70 or 80 types are available, due to what Tamburini calls “the globalization of taste.” On the plus side, he has opened three delis in Japan to add to the four establishments he owns in Bologna. “People from Tokyo, Yokohama and Chiba come here to learn our way,” he says. 

I sense that Tamburini may not be sympathetic to the idea of food courts, and less so to the outsized pageantry of the FICO Eataly project, but when I mention that I’ll be going there the following morning, he shrugs. “If it promotes the region’s food,” he says, “it can only benefit my business.”

Breakfast this morning is All-Bran, though the waitress who saw me decimate yesterday’s buffet assumes I am kidding and keeps returning to take my real order. The truth is, I am pacing myself for a day of serious
grazing at FICO Eataly World, a 20-minute cab ride away.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the scale of this place. From the outside, it looks like a massive shed—the world’s biggest garden center, perhaps, or a Scandinavian college campus. Eataly World is so big, in fact, that the feted Italian cycle firm Bianchi designed special three-wheeled bikes with baskets for visitors to get around. You could rustle a herd of Chianina cattle through the main entrance without anyone noticing—except, perhaps, the proprietor of the restaurant La Carne.

It would be easy to dismiss FICO Eataly World as a culinary Disneyland, but it could also be thought of as a kind of interactive museum. FICO is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Contadina (Italian Farming Factory), and as you walk down the runway-wide corridors you are flanked by 40 or so glass-fronted kitchens in which experts are kneading breads, stirring sauces, or coloring sugared almonds in tiny spray-tanning booths.

I wander around for a while, watching olive oil flowing through tubes, strands of pasta drying, gelato churning, focaccia rising and a guy kneading a slab of licorice as shiny as glass. Behind one window, a woman in hospital scrubs vigorously stirs the contents of a Jacuzzi-sized tub, making the rich and tangy spreadable cheese squacquerone. Another display features a robotic arm placing trays of pasta into a cooker. I wonder if it is a fourth-generation robot.

Teatro restaurant

Outside, you get a whiff of agri-business—there are four acres of fields and farms, which are part of the educational aspect of the enterprise. There is also an embryonic vineyard, a “Truffle Land” exhibit and a butterfly house. The most Disney-like element is actually the real animals— Sardinian sheep, Saanen goats, various breeds of bunnies—who are so cute you feel CGI must have been involved somehow.

Just as I start thinking about eating some food rather than simply looking at it, I’m invited to watch mortadella being made and—forgetting for a moment that mortadella is luncheon meat and not another cheese—I say sure. A few minutes later I am in a white room, watching pink goo being squeezed into a cow bladder. “See how fine the meat is?” chirps my guide. “Get in closer if you like.”

Making my way towards the eatery where I’ll be having lunch, I pass shops and stalls with artisanal products from every part of Italy—from Piedmont in the north to Sicily in the south—along with a post office for visitors to mail their goodies home. At the far end is a terminal-sized wine emporium, along with one of the largest selections of Italian craft beer in the country, but it would take a Bentley rather than a Bianchi to get me all the way down that corridor.

At one stand, I chew the fat with Carlotta Montali of the Ruliano family, which has been producing Parma ham for 70 years. She hands me a few slices, which literally melt in my mouth. The meat is coated in sea salt and hung for 24 months to cure, but Montali confides that the company recently found a whole ham that had somehow been mislaid for eight years. It tasted pretty good, she says, “although perhaps you wouldn’t want to eat more than 10 slices in one go. It was very intense.”

At one of the many casual pasta eateries, Osteria del Fritto, I meet Tiziana Primori, FICO’s CEO. Although the park is fairly quiet today, Primori assures me that visitor numbers—3 million in the first 14 months—have surpassed expectations. Later this year, more outdoor attractions will be added for kids, and there are plans for an eco-hotel. “We want everyone to see, and hopefully sample, the amazing biodiversity this country offers the world,” she says.

Primori orders a tasting menu for us both, but keeps leaving the table and returning with samples from other restaurants—a scoop of peppery radicchio risotto, a sliver of citrusy squid on crunchy fried potato. “I love food—cooking it and eating it,” she says. “We’re so lucky here, not only because of the quality of the food but because of the simplicity of our dishes.” Which is not to say that Primori will only eat Italian food: “Just five or six days a week.”

Just then, I spot Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti rushing by. He lives in Barolo, a three-hour drive away, and is lunching here with the head of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium—literally, the big cheese. I ask Farinetti what he thinks Americans will get out of a visit to the FICO Eataly complex. “Americans know pizza and pasta, but it is amazing how many regional dishes or unique ingredients they have no idea about,” he says. “And as for the wine … ” A few moments later he hurries away again, off to plot his latest commercial venture.

Back in the Quadrilatero, in the storied grocery Drogheria Gilberto, I buy a 25-year-old balsamic vinegar from Modena—sweeter than jam—but pass on the hundred-year-old version, which costs more than $2,000 for
a small ceramic flask. As in most of these densely stocked shops, the packaging is as exquisite as the food: tiny chocolates individually wrapped in mini portraits, gold-embossed pickle jars, belle époque coffee tins. Buying birthday gifts in Bologna must be a cinch.

In the window of the 150-year-old pasta-maker Paolo Atti & Figli is a photograph of a smiling Pope Francis
holding one of its signature art deco boxes of tortellini. Inside, the owner, 84-year-old Anna Maria Bonaga, stands beside a stack of books containing her family’s recipes. In the kitchen out back, three middle-aged women fill squares of egg pasta with pork loin, Parma ham, mortadella and Parmesan, working with the precision of Swiss watchmakers.

On a neighboring street, before a wall of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, I meet Davide Simoni, scion of the family behind the three Salumeria Simoni delis and restaurants in town. “What I love about Bologna,” Simoni says, “is that nobody talks in terms of ‘tourist restaurants’ or ‘local restaurants,’ like in other Italian cities.

It’s total authenticity everywhere.”

From his pungent shop, we discuss Simoni’s plan to convert a disused building into a facility to make mortadella. “It will bring production back to the city, for the first time in a generation,” he says, making it sound like they now ship the stuff from Beijing, rather than make it a couple of miles away.

Simoni says his family was approached about taking space at Eataly World but decided against it. “I know some producers who are doing good business there, and good for them, but we want to offer a more authentic experience,” he says. “I respect what FICO is trying to do, but everything there is a little too sanitized, even outside. Producing and preparing food has always been messy.”  

And yet, despite the choreographed cheesemaking and blow-dried cattle, Simoni says he will be delighted if the supersized venture helps to bring more tourists to his own expanding empire. “Most businesses here feel the same,” he says. “Italians are proud. Nobody would like to see it fail.”

Each January, Simoni tells me, his family hosts a massive blowout in the countryside for all their production partners, with two ambulances on standby. He insists he is not joking: “We eat vast quantities of rich fatty meats and heavy creamy sauces all day and night. Some of these guys are in their 90s. This place is in the middle of nowhere.”

I remember this later at the elegant I Carracci restaurant at the Grand Hotel Majestic già Baglioni, as my tortellini in a double capon broth is being ladled from a tureen. Luckily, my final stop is Osteria del Sole, a small tavern that dates back to 1465, which is one of the few places in Bologna where you cannot get food.
Many guests bring their own, spreading out hams, cheeses and breads on long communal tables. Beer or local wine is available from a counter by the entrance. Water isn’t available anywhere.

“We don’t serve it here,” the bartender tells me. “I don’t actually know why. It’s just a tradition.”


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