No matter where you travel within beautiful Italy, you're guaranteed to find excellent food. From north to south you won't lack for incredible Italian places to eat and fresh food to try but if you are a serious foodie, there is one region that sits above the rest when it comes to culinary excellence: the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy.
This region, situated just north of Florence and south of Milan and Venice, is the birthplace of some of Italy’s finest food (and drink) exports. For example, favorites like Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, and Prosciutto di Parma all call Emilia-Romagna home. An easy day trip from Florence or a trip on it's own, visiting Bologna, Italy is certainly something you'll want to add to your Italian bucket list.
Although you might be thinking that you know Italian food because of it's international popularity and ease to find an Italian restaurant anywhere in the world, what you've been eating abroad isn't comparable to what you'll be able to enjoy while actually in the country, particularly in Bologna.
Bologna, the largest city within the Emilia-Romagna region, is often cited as the gastronomical capital of Italy.
I had the great opportunity to live in Bologna for a summer, which was a dream come true for a foodie like me. After my stay, I can attest that it is nearly impossible to find a bad meal in this vibrant city.
While difficult to narrow down the best food in Bologna and I was tempted to tell you simply to try everything and you'll be happy, this list is full of my favorite Bologna dishes.
So, if you are traveling to Bologna, here are 9 classic eats and drinks that you must try and the best restaurants in Bologna where you should try them at.
Ah, mortadella. The most famous of the meats in Bologna, mortadella is a cured pork sausage that is injected with fat and often pistachio, as well. This simple delicacy can be enjoyed a number of ways: on its own, with crescentina fritta (a local fried bread), in a tigelle (a small sandwich, similar to an English muffin), or in a sandwich.
All ways are delicious and will make you reconsider why we ever agreed to eat “baloney” in the US instead of these far superior cured meats.
Where to Eat Mortadella in Bologna
While mortadella is a pretty common thing to find anywhere in the city, a few of the best restaurants in Bologna, Italy to enjoy cured meats are:
- Visit Salumeria Simoni (Via Drapperie) to get fresh cuts straight from the deli counter
- Polpette e Crescentine in Mercato delle Erbe to try it with crescentina fritta
- Stand in the long lunch line at Mo Mortadella Lab (Via de’ Monari) to try a delicious mortadella sandwich with all the fixings.
Tagliatelle al Ragu
If you eat one thing in Bologna, it needs to be tagliatelle al ragu (or as it is commonly referred to stateside, “pasta bolognese”). Every trattoria, osteria, and ristorante in town will have this on the menu, and when I lived there I ordered it every chance I got.
Easily one of Bologna's best food to eat, you won't get enough of this rich meaty ragu sauce paired with freshly made tagliatelle and topped with grated Parmigiano Reggiano…okay, I’m getting hungry now.
Just do yourself (and me) a favor and eat traditional bolognese while in the city.
Where to Eat Tagliatelle al Ragu in Bologna
As mentioned above, you will find this on the menu at almost all restaurants in Bologna, Italy. In general you can’t go wrong anywhere, but I love Da Bertino (Via delle Lame) because it is a traditional, family-run, and non-touristic restaurant.
Let’s get one thing straight first: tortellini are small, stuffed, crescent-shaped pasta (about the size of a quarter), while tortelloni are much larger. Tortellini are ubiquitous in Bologna and are typically stuffed with meats and cheeses, most commonly ham. You can find them served two different ways: in brodo (beef broth), and in parmigiano cream sauce.
I recommend trying both to find out which of these traditional types of pasta you prefer.
Where to Eat Tortellini in Bologna
While you won't be hard pressed to find tortellini on many menus in Bologna restaurants, my favorite spot will have you eating like a local.
Da Cesari (Via de' Carbonesi) is my favorite family-run ristorante in Bologna, serving up a wonderfully homey atmosphere alongside delicious Bolognese favorites like tortellini in brodo. Since this is one of the best restaurants in Bologna, make a reservation in advance and be sure to say hi to Riccardo (3rd generation Cesari) for me.
Like mentioned above, tortelloni are stuffed pasta that are basically the larger cousins of tortellini (more similar in size to ravioli). Tortelloni are most commonly stuffed with ricotta and spinach, and often served in a sauce of butter (burro) and sage (salvia).
Vegetarians rejoice: if you're not a meat-eater but want to enjoy traditional Bologna food, tortelloni is a great choice. This fresh pasta is easily one of Bologna's best dishes.
Where to Eat Tortelloni in Bologna
Ragū (Via Goito) is Bologna’s answer for fast-casual Italian food. And though you may be skeptical of the quality of a place that looks so hip and modern (I certainly was), I am happy to say this place provides the same delicious quality you would expect from a longstanding homestyle trattoria. Note that they technically serve ricotta-stuffed balanzoni, which is effectively the same as tortelloni.
Eating lasagne in its birthplace of Bologna comes with side effects: you will never be able to truly appreciate lasagne stateside again. It is just that good.
While you might feel that lasagne isn't unique enough since you've most likely had this meal countless times throughout your life, food in Bologna just hits differently and lasagne is certainly no exception.
I was told by an Italian nonna that you cannot gain weight eating pasta in Italy so long as you “only eat lasagne on Sundays.” Suffice to say I broke that rule quite a bit, and so should you.
Where to Eat Lasagne in Bologna
La Taverna di Roberto (Via S. Vitale) makes one of the best ragùs in town in my opinion, and it can be enjoyed in both their tagliatelle al ragù and lasagne.
Cotoletta alla Bolognese
A lesser-known specialty of the region, cotoletta alla Bolognese is a breaded and fried veal cutlet that is covered in a layer of parma ham and a layer of cheese, which is then baked until the cheese becomes melty goodness.
An alternative to pasta, this traditional Bolognese food certainly isn't a light option. This is a heavy meats and cheeses dish that I will admit tastes far better than it looks! To me, it was reminiscent of chicken cordon bleu, but much better.
Where to Eat Cotoletta alla Bolognese in Bologna
Though you will find it on many traditional menus, the owner of Scalinatella (Via Caduti di Cefalonia) introduced me to this dish, so it’s only right that this cute ristorante would be my first pick for where to try it!
Okay, so maybe gelato isn’t native to Bologna (nearby Florence claims that title), but that doesn’t mean the Bolognese people haven’t perfected it. I have traveled all across Italy, but the best gelato I have ever tasted was right in Bologna.
Who doesn’t love ending a long day of eating with…more eating?
A few tips about gelato in general: though the heaping mounds of brightly-colored gelato in the case may be aesthetically pleasing, that generally signifies that the gelato is of lower quality (and trying to draw in the tourists). Instead, search for places with simple steel canisters, as those tend to be more authentic (and more delicious!).
Where to Eat Gelato in Bologna
My favorite gelato in Bologna (and Italy) is from Cremeria La Vecchia Stalla (Via Santo Stefano). Everything is good there, but my favorite flavors are pistachio and hazelnut. What can I say? I like the classics.
Just a bit further down Via Santo Stefano is Cremeria Santo Stefano, another excellent option.
Best Drinks to Try in Bologna, Italy
Any good foodie guide would be remiss not to mention some a few traditional drinks to have accompany your meal. Although Italy is known for some of the best food in the planet, Italians know how to drink, too.
Of course, this is Italy after all, so you need some wine to enjoy with all this good food. Emilia-Romagna’s most famous wine is Lambrusco, a chilled and semi-sparkling (frizzante) red wine made from grapes of the same name. It pairs deliciously with just about all of the foods mentioned above, or you can enjoy it on its own.
Where to Drink Lambrusco in Bologna
La Prosciutteria (Via Guglielmo Oberdan), offers a lively atmosphere to enjoy a glass (or a bottle) of bubbly Lambrusco alongside some delicious meats and cheeses boards.
You have likely heard of prosecco (Italy’s version of sparkling wine), but have you heard of its little brother, pignoletto? This lesser-known dry white wine variety can be found in three forms:
- Fermo (still)
- Spumante (sparkling)
- Frizzante (semi-sparkling)
Frizzante is most popular and is my personal preference, as it has softer, rounder bubbles than you may find in a spumante prosecco. Enjoy it served with your meal or on it's own on a hot summer day.
Where to Drink Pignoletto in Bologna
Osteria del Sole (Vicolo Ranocchi) is one of the most unique bars I have ever visited. This BYOF (bring-your-own-food) wine bar has been around since the 15th century and has been relatively unchanged ever since. The walls are plastered with photos and memorabilia collected through the centuries, and the local atmosphere makes it a memorable stop to enjoy a glass of pignoletto frizzante.
Tips to Enjoying the Bologna's Culinary Scene
If you really want to eat like a local and enjoy the most delicious and most unique food in Bologna, you're well on your way. You now know the food in Bologna you need to try and the best restaurants in Bologna where you can try it all.
Before you're ready to munch through Bologna, Italy, here few more general notes about the food culture in the city.
Enjoying a Simple Breakfast
Like in most parts of Italy, breakfast is quite simple in Bologna. Visit a nearby coffee shop (“bar”) for a caffé (espresso) or cappuccino.
Beware: don’t order a “latte,” as latte just means milk in Italian!
Pair your coffee with a pastry like a pistachio cream-stuffed cornetto (croissant) and that’s all you need for an authentic Italian breakfast.
When to Sit Down for Your Lunch
Most places open up for lunch around 12-1pm, close around 3-4pm, and open back up for dinner later in the evening. Remember that wine is perfectly acceptable to drink at lunch!
Adding in an Aperitivo
This is not optional! In Italy, an apertivo is a pre-meal drink. Perhaps driven by the large student population at University of Bologna, this city has a strong culture around aperitivo and it gets going in earnest around 7pm. Enjoy an aperol spritz or negroni al fresco in Piazza Santo Stefano or the street behind Mercato delle Erbe.
Get Ready for a Late Dinner
While restaurants generally open around 7-8pm, peak dining hour in Bologna is 9pm (note this is a bit later than in the US). Try to make a reservation around that time if you are hoping to be there during the most lively atmosphere.
And don’t forget to end your meal with another caffé, the true Italian way!
Enjoying the Best of Bologna Food
There you have it! If you try all 9 of these Italian delicacies in Bologna, I can guarantee you will have a fantastic trip (and a very happy stomach). While not the best place to eat seafood, you'll be a happy tourist with the amount of cured meats, cheese, fresh handmade pastas, and yummy gelato and wine to wash it all down with.
Just remember, if all else fails, pizza is a fantastic option anywhere in Italy. Although you may not be doing yourself or the region justice if you go this route.
If you want to delve a bit deeper into the rich culinary culture of this region, I highly recommend doing a food-related experience during your visit. There are many food tours and cooking classes available that give you an even stronger appreciation for the gastronomy of the Emilia-Romagna region.
Hero image by shutterstock.com/RossHelen.