Bologna is the first far-flung destination I've traveled to solely to eat my way through it. After spending just two days here, I can confidently say Bologna's status as the food capital of a country lauded for its cuisine is well deserved. The best part about this medieval city situated in Central Italy's Emilia-Romagna region is that it's more affordable and less touristed than its infamous counterparts nearby like Florence. With the sheer number of noteworthy restaurants packed into Bolgona's walkable historical center, choosing what and where to eat can feel overwhelming. This food guide shares the best local dishes, restaurants, and tips to set you on the right track.
Bologna is most famous for tagliatelle al ragu, the hearty pasta with meat sauce most Americans know as spaghetti bolognese. Referring to this regional speciality by its American name is a faux pas here. Locals are proud of their pasta made with egg, as opposed to hard durum wheat pastas typically found in the south. Lasagna and tortellini in brodo are also delicious pasta-based dishes you can find at many traditional trattorias throughout the city.
Mortadella, the original and better version of Bologna meat, is another favorite local food product. Trust me on this one! Try it with just bread or in a simple sandwich with cheese.
Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese both carry POD (Protected Designation of Origin) status and are made in Parma, a smaller town in the Emilia-Romagna region outside of Bologna. If you can justify the cost of a small bottle of it, add a dab of locally made balsamic vinegar to your Parmigiano Reggiano.
Reservations: If you're like me and prefer to play it by ear instead of making dinner reservations days in advance, get to the restaurant soon after opening time. Italians eat later, especially in the summer. You can often snag an open table if you arrive early enough, but keep in mind reservations will always be necessary at some of the most popular places.
Coffee: Get your cappuccino fix before 11am. Ordering it anytime after this will prompt harsh judgement from your server. This strange custom is rooted in the deeply engrained belief that milk is bad for digestion, which foreigners might dismiss as untrue. In any case, requesting a cappuccino post lunch or dinner will definitely make you stand out as an uninformed tourist.
Lasagna: Many restaurants maintain tradition by only serving lasagna on Sundays. If you have an appetite for it, check the menu beforehand to avoid disappointment.
Gelato: Not all gelato is created equal. When you're on the hunt for a sweet treat, look for a gelateria where you can't see mounds of gelato piled high. It should be beneath the counter, out of sight.
International Cuisine: Unless you're in Bologna for more than a few days, my suggestion is not to seek out anything other than Italian food. Italians, in general, don't like to stray from their own cuisine. Italian food is really what they do best, and that couldn't be more true in Bologna!
Trattoria vs Osteria: Traditionally, a trattoria is a restaurant serving home cooked regional dishes. At osterias, people order wine and bring their own food. Many modern osterias break with tradition by serving food as a normal restaurant would. Look for the ones that serve drinks only for a window into medieval life.
A renowned coffee shop with prestigious accolades, Aroma convinced me that it's possible to actually enjoy the taste of coffee. I loved my boyfriend's Salentino, iced espresso with almond milk traditionally made in Puglia. As usual, he ordered better than I did. The custard in my zabaione tasted too rich for the morning. We liked the Salentino so much, we came back for it the very next day to savor it one more time.
Sfoglia Rina is a popular restaurant serving traditional handmade dishes in a contemporary space. I loved the lasagna made with spinach noodles, and enjoyed the tortellini in brodo as well. They don't take reservations, so I recommend getting here right when they open for lunch to avoid the long line.
Situated in the heart of the city, the Quadrilatero market is a Bolgona staple dating back to medieval times. I initially planned to drop by and move on quickly after reading about how crowded it can get. To my surprise, it wasn't as busy as I thought it would be when we strolled through it on our food tour with Taste Bologna, which I wholeheartedly recommend! The Quadrilatero offers an array of high quality local products and dishes to sample.
Pick a few goods from the Quadrilatero and bring your lunch to Osteria del Sole nearby for a picnic style meal paired with locally made wine. Established in 1465, this osteria is Bologna's oldest.
The tagliatelle al ragu I had for dinner at Trattoria da Me was the first and best meal I had in Bologna. We were bummed to find out they weren't serving lasagna after craving it all day on our 8 hour train ride from Puglia. The tagliatelle almost made me forget about my lasagna craving and set the bar high.
I finally got my lasagna fix at Osteria Al 15, a laid back restaurant decorated with old fashioned, rustic accents. It was baked to perfection. The lasagna in Bologna is really on another level, and I have yet to find anything comparable in America.
Note: Oltre is the one place we tried that I wouldn't recommend. I felt obligated to try it after seeing it on list after list, but my gut feeling that it's over-hyped turned out to be true. The food was underwhelming, especially for the expensive prices. With so many cheaper alternatives in Bologna, I would skip this one next time.
Oggi uses only the finest seasonal ingredients for their fresh, artisan made gelato. We loved the peach and stracciatella, but they have plenty more flavors from pear to tiramisu.
We also enjoyed Galliera 49 close to our Airbnb. For a treat even more refreshing than gelato, opt for granita, Italy's answer to a fruit slushie. Lemon is the classic flavor.
Two and a half days wasn't nearly enough time to eat our way through Bologna's countless top notch restaurants. We can't wait until our next trip when we can try the restaurants on our list we didn't get to this time:
Trattoria di Via Serra, a popular restaurant serving traditional regional specialties.
O Fiore Mio for pizza.
I Panini Di Miro for sandwiches.
Botanica lab, one of this meat-centric city's few vegan restaurants.
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