Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bologna La Grassa: Bologna the Fat!


Bologna has several nicknames in Italian: Bologna La Grassa, Bologna La Rossa and a couple of others.
Bologna's Typical Red-colored Buildings: La Rossa

La Rossa comes from the overall reddish orange color of many of the city's buildings, and, from the fact that the area around Bologna has long been a stronghold of the Italian Communist Party, the region of Emilia Romagna (regions are the Italian equivalent of our states, more or less) has had more than one Communist governor, and Bologna has had many Communist mayors and politicians.

La Grassa derives from the city's amazing cuisine which relies on many rather fatty ingredients like butter, rich, fat-focused pork products like mortadella (the original baloney), pancetta, prosciutto and...lard called strutto! The food is incredibly rich, unctuous and delicious because of the fat.
Spuma di Mortadella
Mortadella, The Original Baloney
Some also say that the inhabitants themselves lean toward the corpulent, but I didn't notice this much, but then, I am accustomed to American body types.

Because there is an abundance of milk in the area, butter is the cooking fat of choice, unlike Tuscany which is all of one hour away, where the cooking fat is typically olive oil. What a difference an hour makes.

Of course the other major feature of the cuisine is the hand-rolled pasta, called sfoglia in Bologna, because it is so thin, like sheets of paper, foglia. See this earlier post: Pasta School in Bologna
Sfoglia from Bologna, prepped for ravioli

This pasta is used to make Bologna's famous tortellini, tortelloni, lasagne, tagliatelle (like fettucine), mezzalune, and so on. The results are typically a light, not al dente, pasta that is not like the chewy factory past of the south we are more familiar with. In fact, if you have never had fresh pasta, you are in for a treat. Call me, I'll take care of that! (By the way, most of the junk sold in grocery stores and even in Portland's famous Pastaworks, does not come close to the real thing, regardless of hype.)

The essential philosophy is to combine a few choice ingredients in proper proportions to create fantastic pasta dishes, deeply flavored broths for soups, tremendously tasty roasted meats, and even wonderfully satisfying, yet amazingly light fried foods. Simple is everything. American chefs: stop screwing with tradition, leave it alone...use the best ingredients and you won't need to add kiwi fruit, phony balsamic vinegar, or other unnecessary trendy ingredients to the pasta sauce, the grilled or sauteed meats, and vegetables.
Meat and Cheese Shop, Bologna

Focus is on simplicity. For example, make an amazing broth—the famous brodo of Bologna—, cook some tortellini or other small pasta in it, and there you have one of the most elegant, most pure, most simple and delicious dishes you can imagine. Broth redolent of flavor of chicken, capon, a bit of beef, some subtle onion in the background and leave it alone. Magic in a bowl...a true wet dream!

36-Month-Old Parmigiano Reggiano, Bologna
Just to bring you up to speed a bit. The area around Bologna produces some of the products we count as staples, or at least quite desirable, in cooking "real" Italian food. Here is a short list: Parmigiano Reggiano (many consider it to be the best, most noble cheese on the planet, at least of Italian doesn't come in a green can);
Prosciutto di Parma, that perfectly cured pig's ass cheek/rear leg which is typically eaten raw and it just darn difficult to approach its perfection, by the way the pigs used for these precious hams are feed a diet which is largely composed of the leftover whey resulting from the Parmigiano making process; balsamic vinegar—ok, this isn't really vinegar, and the junk you find in just about every dealer in the USA is NOT true balsamic which costs at least 75 bucks for about three ounces, is thick and sweet, and so unlike that water acidic imitator you get at 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 percent of restaurants in this country—it's made from cooked grape syrup and aged at least ten years before it gets even close to being ready;

I'd never spent any time in Bologna before, other than a couple of quick lunches (literally hopping off and on the train to Florence), and so I was looking forward to discovering more about the cuisine even most Italians (or some) agree is one of the best in the very, very culturally diverse and divided country.

Trattoria Anna Maria, Bologna
So my first stop had to be at a place renowned for its hand-rolled pasta, in this case, Trattoria Anna Maria, one of the last stalwarts, and still legendary in this style of pasta making. In fact, they have won many pasta making competitions, including the much coveted Mattarello d'Oro (Gold Rolling Pin). Many of these very awards were won by one of my teachers at the pasta school, Alessandro, brother of the school's owner, Alessandra. And his photos on the wall back up his well-deserved finesse. I was getting hungry just looking at those photos!
Passatelli in Brodo, Trattoria Anna Maria, Bologna

I started out the meal with, guess what, a bowl of that broth, but instead of the standard tortellini, I opted for passatelli which are sort of exuded dumplings, about pencil width, made of cheese, breadcrumbs and a bit of nutmeg...they are squeezed out of a potato ricer or similar implement directly into the broth where they form little worm-like strands. I've made these many times in the Tuscan style which includes spinach and sometimes a bit of meat. The Bolognese variety strips all the excess down to just a few minimal, but fantastic essential parts and rockets the result into some sort of culinary heaven.

One bite, then BLAM! That broth knocks me on my ass.

It was almost viscous, its flavor was so profound, so pronounced. Anna Maria set the bar so high for this broth that I was not to find its equal in any of the six or seven other places I tried it over the week. I was sure it was made with capon which is a far richer bird than chicken, but Alessandro, who spent thirteen years in the kitchen, assured me it was chicken. They must have an amazing source for these divine creatures. By the way, if you have never had roasted capon, please do yourself a favor and try it. They are usually in the frozen section of the meat counter and they are not cheap, maybe three bucks a pound. But, if you are feeding a small group for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you just can't beat it. Brine the sucker, roast it with a cut lemon in the cavity, baste it a bit with some wine or Marsala, and you will be rewarded with a fantastic feast.

Tagliatelle al Ragù
Next I had another pasta dish, a classic tagliatelle al ragù, one of the absolute standards and anchors of Bolognese cuisine. Ok, let's get this straight right now, Bolognese ragù is NOT a tomato sauce, in fact, nowhere in Italy is ragù mostly tomato. Rather, it is a very meaty sauce, usually with a hint of tomato for added richness. The Bologna version varies from house to house and may or may not contain some prosciutto, a bit of pancetta, maybe some pork, but mostly beef or veal, cooked in a sofritto base of onion, carrot and celery...NO GARLIC...some wine perhaps, maybe a bit of cream or milk. But no oregano, no rosemary, no basil. This ain't a spicy meatball, but it will kick the ass of about any version of sauce you find in ANY restaurant in the USA. It doesn't come in a jar, it doesn't cook for six hours. But it will delight and surprise you with it's deep flavor. (Notice a common thread here?)

So, this ragù is mixed in a small amount in a skillet with some freshly cooked hand-rolled and cut tagliatelle (like fettuccine) and served in a nice, ample pasta bowl, maybe topped with freshly grated parmigiano reggiano, the king of cheeses made right up the road from Bologna. The pasta is rolled quite thin, and cut into strips about a quarter-inch wide. They should be light, tender and NEVER al dente or chewy. Oh gawd, this was drilled in for five days in my pasta course. And Anna Maria's tagliatelle were just about perfect in every way. I was in heaven.

This place was so good, I knew I had to go back at some point later in the week. For days after, I found myself jonesin' for that brodo! And as good as other versions were, they just couldn't equal this true marvel of kitchen wizardry.

Ok, next entry: more delights from Bologna...soon!!!! I'm over a week behind on this and am now three cities ahead of this blog!

Cardi (Cardoons), Fruit and Vegetable Shop, Bologna


Anonymous said...

I wanna broth that goes BAM.

SambaMaster said...

then you shall have a brodo that goes BAM!