Sunday, 26 June 2011

Federico Aicardi – food loving musician and pharmacist

Federico Aicardi - singing pharmicist

The day job of Federico Aicardi,  a singer song-writer with a growing reputation in Italy,   is running a pharmacy in Bologna city centre. The previous time we met he supplied me with a few sachets of his famous Aicardi baking powder which I used to explosive effect to bake a giant focaccia. This time we met for lunch across the road at Olivo. Federico knows everyone including another diner who he introduced as one of the most famous singers in Italy.
I began by asking him about his earliest   memories of being brought up in a Bolognese household.  ‘I was very small and it was Christmas, and my grandmother and my mother and all the women were gathered around the big kitchen table that I used to play with my soldiers on. They were all making tortellini as if the whole of Bologna was coming to dinner.’
Apart from tortellini and lasagne, Federico has fond memories of those other Bolognese winter classics, ciambelli, a ring shaped cake and certosino, the richly fruited Christmas cake. But from holidays in the mountains in the north east he picked up a liking for polenta, and from trips to the seaside, he came to love piadina, a flatbread that is traditionally eaten filled with spinach or with mozzarella.
'It's all they ever talk about.'
Federico married into a food loving family. ‘It’s all they ever talk about when we get together – their last great meal or a favourite dish’.  He promised to send me his wife’s recipe for roast guinea fowl. But why is that the Bolognese love to talk about food, I asked.
‘Well, it is a centuries old tradition here,  food culture was an integral part of the every day experience in the big houses that once  ruled the city. Poets would write about food and wine. We’ve always admired the skills of great cooks, and women have always been prized for their skill in the kitchen. Nowadays, our love of food goes along with  our pleasure in socialising. We love to get together to eat and talk (as I’d noticed)’.
But is that any different from anywhere else?
‘People still stop for lunch in Bologna whether they’re lawyers or factory workers. They don’t in Milan. They just have a quick sandwich there. Bologna is known throughout Italy for the quality of the food you can eat and for the reputation of its university, whereas Rome is known for being the centre of government and for its monuments and Milan for fashion and the pace of life’.
We moved on to talk about favourite places for aperitivi. ‘Somewhere very traditional is the Osteria Olindo Faccioli or Drogheria Calzolari. Young people prefer the Nu Lounge in San Petronio’. And eating out? ‘ I like della Santa and Cesare Maretti’s place in via Senzanome. I also like da Vito for the atmosphere and the fact that you’re likely to be rubbing shoulders with writers and artists’.
But what about his dislikes. ‘The worst meal I’ve ever eaten was in Santa Barbara, in California, fettucine alfredo, a dish that doesn’t exist here. The pasta was overcooked and swamped in water and cream. Ugh. I can’t stand the fact that MacDonalds is right in the centre of Bologna opposite the statue of Neptune. I’ve got nothing against America or American food but this is sacrilege. Oh, and I can’t stand mostarda di cremona’. At this point I explained the well known English concept of Marmite food – you either love it or hate it.
Finally, his ideal dining companions?  Every year, he gets together with 25 of his mates from high school for a meal. ‘This year it was at Anna Maria’s. I don’t know where we’ll go next year, but we are a big bunch of foodies, as you might expect’.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Highlights of a month in Bologna?

Piazza Maggiore - late night
Hard to choose. But top of the list are the city itself, with its never ending vistas of medieval buildings and the porticos, fascinating shops and workshops, and the people who we have met who have been so generous with their time. Above all,

• Gianni at Vicolo Colombina and their gorgeous recipe for lasagne with a guinea fowl ragu

• Giacomo the chef at Trattoria della Santa and his recipe for tortellone

• excellent recommendations for places to eat from Giorgia Zabbini, Mimy Tavormina and Davide, the chef-tutor at the Cookery School on via Pratello

Mimy Tavormina - local where to eat specialist

• charming memories of Bolognese food from Massimo Maracci and Federico Aicardi

• Alessandra Spisne and the team at La Vecchia Scuola for their enthusiasm and hospitality

• Marcello dall’Aglio at Locanda del Castello who provided us with one of our most memorable dinners (and where we ran into Donna and Alistair, two of our blog followers)

• Davide Simoni who took time out to introduce us to Pasquini, the only artisan mortadella maker left in Bologna

• the Bergonzis at Al Vedel and Podere Cadassa near Parma who put on a special display of culatello production just for us and Marcello

• Trattorie La Montonara, Olivo and Leonida for beautiful food and lovely recipes

• two simple ideas: Almond pesto at Eataly and zuccine pesto at Al Vedel.

More of these on the blog over the coming weeks – and also in the forthcoming book.

Bologna's porticos: feast for the eye, protection from the elements

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Learning to make pasta – the proper way

Alessandra Spisne and her daughter Stefania

A morning in La Vecchia Scuola, Alessandra Spisne’s celebrated cookery school (writes Liz). There we met Tim and Janet, two Canadians from Toronto with a passion for pasta. That’s why they are spending five days of their holiday learning how to make pasta.

Breaking the eggs into the flour 'nest'

After donning the school’s t-shirt and yellow cap, they do what they do every day here: they create a 500g nest of flour and break five eggs into it. No olive oil, no semolina (‘that’s not traditional Bolognese’), no extra yolks, just flour and eggs.

Breaking the eggs with a fork, they gradually work in the flour until they have a ball of dough.

Looking for San  Luca
Over at the next table, Massimo, who is doing the three month professional course, is rolling out his 500g and five eggs into a intensely yellow, incredibly thin oval. That’s what Tim and Jackie hope to achieve by the end of the week, a sheet or sfoglio of pasta so delicate that they can see San Luca – the church on the hill overlooking Bologna - through it.

Even though they are only here for a short time, they are taught to professional standards and learn how a real Bolognese kitchen works, with its separate spaces for the pasta maker and the sauce makers. In fact, many restaurants have a pasta workshop in another building where the sfoglina – the pasta maker – toils alone making tagliatelle and gramigna (a kind of curly macaroni that accompanies a sausage sauce), as well as the filled pastas.

The next step for Tim and Jackie is to knead the dough they have made. For this you need clean dry hands and just a little flour on the rolling board – just how much  you need to knead depends  on the season and the humidity. Today is hot and clammy, tough conditions for apprentice pasta makers.
Kneading the dough
Their task is to make tortellone, pasta filled (in this case) with a mixture of potato, parmesan and finely chopped parsley. Luckily you don’t have to roll the pasta as thin for tortellone as you do for the smaller, finer meat filled tortellini or  for tagliatelle.

As the students cut the sfoglio into small squares, they are told not to waste any of the pasta. ‘You’ve worked hard to make it’, says their teacher Simone, ‘so you want to use every scrap of it’. They work the off cuts into the squares, which makes the pasta thicker but for tortellone this is less critical. Another clever tip is about preparing the potatoes for the filling: they put them once cold through a ricer, skins and all, and what comes out is just the potato. To this they add parmesan, parsley and an egg, and then mix well before putting the stuffing into a piping bag.

End result
Learning to use the piping bag is an art in itself. But once mastered it takes no time to pipe a blob of filling onto every square. Folding over the pasta and then forming the distinctive tortellone shape takes a bit longer. Watching the students grappling with the pasta and the filling you can see why it took Nonna years to perfect hers.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Surprise meeting

Last night we dined at Locanda del Castello at Palazzo Rossi, Sasso Marconi. And so did Donna and Alistair. So what? Well, funnily enough they were there because they read this blog and decided they liked the sound of the Locanda. And they spotted me from the photo on the blog and introduced themselves. We' d sat at adjacent tables and hearing their accent, I wondered how they'd found out about this slightly off the beaten track restaurant. Anyway, it was an unexpected pleasure to meet some blog followers out of the blue.

In the excitement of the moment, I forgot to ask how they found it. I look forward to reading your comments, Donna and Alastair, about the Locanda and the other places you've tried on your eating tour.

As usual, we loved it. Especially, the lasagnette with aubergine and pesto, the pork chops, and a mille feuille with mascarpone and chocolate (look out for recipe later). The food is classically Bolognese but always with a slight twist of creativity. Incidentally, we got there on the 92 bus, getting off at Pontecchio, walking down the lane to the train station, and crossing over. But we needed a taxi home at 1130.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011


Apologies to all our followers. A persistent fault with Google blogspot means that you have disappeared from the site - temporarily I hope.

Welcoming eating place with style and good Bolognese food

Perfect place for lunch watching the world go by
 Trattoria La Montonara

Augusto Righi 15

We stumbled on La Montonara and then went back for more. It hardly figures in Trip Advisor but it does rate a mention in the Wallpaper guide to Bologna. What do we like about this small neighbourhood trattoria just off via dell’Indipendenza? Everything: the quaint decor, the service and above all the food.

Run by Filippo Venturi, whose stories about a group of young people in the Bologna of the 80s has just been published, it does simple Bolognese food with a flourish. In a selection of antipasti, the mortadella mousse stood out (see recipe below) as did the hard to get right old stager, crescentine with squacquerone – a local soft cheese that tastes much better than it sounds – and salami. Tagliatelle al’ragu was excellent as were beef carpaccio and a dish of sedanini (pasta) with tomato sauce which was a miracle of simplicity and flavour. The Coteletta Bolognese was finely judged with a tasty piece of veal surmounted by just the right amount of prosciutto and fontina. We all took a spoon to the ravishing and light as air mascarpone pudding. There is a small terrace outside but inside you can still watch the world pass by as well as taki in the fine detail of the decor which consists of toy kitchen sets and ovens, veteran cooking utensils and a set of antique bed heads.

Filippo’s recipe for Mortadella Mousse

enough for 6


250g mascarpone

250g mortadella

1 handful grated parmesan

salt and pepper

a smear balsamic vinegar glaze


1. Cut the mortadella into cubes, then process with the mascarpone. Season to taste.

2. Butter six metal moulds and fill each with the mousse mixture

3. Chill for a couple of hours then unmould by placing each mould for a few seconds in a bowl of very hot water.

4. Alongside each mousse make an artistic smear of balsamic glaze.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The original pop up restaurant - Festa dell’Unita

Imagine a pop up restaurant run mainly by volunteers, and feeding up to 300 customers every evening for a month at a time. That is the centrepiece of the annual Festa dell’Unita – Unity Festival – that takes place in the Two Madonnas Park on the outskirts of Bologna. This is one of hundreds if not thousands of similar events that take place in Italy every summer, creating that risky mix of food and politics.

We went with long time friends Sonia and Cecce and the four of us paid euro 70 for two courses plus wine. We ate excellent tortellini, lasagne and tagliatelle al ragu followed by a fritto misto of fish – OK – and a mixed grill – better. Within seconds of arrival our order was taken and within minutes the pasta arrived.

A vibrant version of zuppa inglese
Waiters and washers up are volunteers with a few professionals brought into the manage the whole affair and oversee the cooking. Out front we were surrounded by groups of all ages including three generation families. Behind the scenes, there were teams folding napkins and preparing trays of cutlery, other teams dealing with the washing up, and then more teams ladling out pasta and grilling meat and fish.

Nowadays, the Festa is one of the highlights of the year for supporters of the Partito Democratico, the centre left party currently in opposition, and a financial mainstay. Originally, the festival was run by the Communist Party whose newspaper, L’Unita, still survives even if it doesn’t. Every suburb, town and village has its Festa dell’Unita, above all in the red belts of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. As well as sampling food, locally produced wines and ice cream, expect to see political debates, families trying their hand at the local version of tombola, children excitedly throwing luminous balls in the air and people of all ages enjoying taking to the dance floor for a rumba or tango. Not unlike an English village fete, a local Festa is the place to go if you want to experience life with the Bolognese. The tourist information office in Piazza Maggiore in the city centre will be able to tell you if there is a Festa taking place anywhere during your stay.