It’s that time of year when friends say ‘we’re thinking of a trip to Venice’. And I go ‘er, sure’. For me, Venice is a victim of its own beauty and success. I sometimes think they should build a replica off Dubai and the millions of snap happy tourists could go there instead, leaving Venice to the Venetians. The latter then might stop being such a grumpy lot, overwhelmed as they are by their Babylon visitors.
Besides the things they don’t tell you in the guidebooks like take a pair of gumboots as St Marks square is often under water, eating well in Venice is difficult. Food varies from D- to C+ good and is always over-priced. The instant a restaurant is recommended (even ones billed as ‘where the tourists don’t go’) you know you’ll have to book and the food will have gone down hill. Also watch out for scams: I watched a waiter produce a grilled fish to a neighbouring table with a flourish and the words ‘would you like me to take it off the bone for you?’ It was a bone-averse American, so naturally the answer was yes. The fish was taken away and only half the flesh returned – the woman didn’t notice.
My advice is: if you want a gastro-heaven couple of days in Italy, go if you must to Venice; but once you’ve been there and done that, plan a trip to Bologna.
A couple of weeks ago, we had an unexpected extra 24 hours there, thanks to a train strike. What a fabulous city. It’s like Oxford and Cambridge combined, a happy cross-fertilisation of student vivacity, industrial clout and centuries of culture. One of its nicknames is la grassa, the fat one, and it oozes a well-upholstered comfortableness you’re aware of even before you’ve sat down in front of your first plate of tortellini in brodo.
We stayed at the Hotel Corona d’Oro in via Oberdan 12, a great location if you’re into food as there are loads of wonderful places to eat and buy produce within 5 minutes walk of the hotel.
Here is a round up of the establishments we managed to visit.
Right next door to the hotel is Café Terzi, Via Oberdan 10d, which specialises in single estate coffees and daily specials such as a delicious cappuccino granita, a little too rich to be refreshing (a gravel-ice coffee creation involving cream and almond syrup) but nonetheless a welcome pick me up on a hot afternoon.
Still on the ice cream trail, we loitered with several other folk for the doors to open at Cremeria Funivia in Piazza Cavour. Bill opted for a strawberry lolly reminiscent of a Mivvi but a million times better. I went for a pistachio just for comparative purposes; it was incredibly good, but for me the one made by Gelateria Gracchi in Rome just has the edge with its just-crushed-nuts mouth feel, which you dear reader may not like. Besides the usual, Funivia also do the unusual like anchovy, or cheese with pears. (Thanks to Heston et al pretty much anything seems to get frozen and spooned into a cornet these days.) Well worth a detour.
The food market area of central Bologna is to be found in medieval warren of streets surrounding and including Via Caprarie, Via Drapperie, Via delle Pescherie Vecchie. No tourists here expect us, and a couple of intrepid Japanese women, worried their purchases wouldn’t make it through airport security. One of the things I like about Italy that while supermarkets are everywhere, Italians still insist on going to specialist shops: here you can find fishmongers (pictured left), horse butchers, several very good delis, even the ironmonger’s doubles as a cookware shop.
A couple of doors up from the hotel is La Salumeria Bruno e Franco, via Oberdan 16. On our final morning I whizzed in (at 7.30am) and loaded up with their fab Parma ham, octopus salad, and smoked and normal mozzarella. Their pasta looked amazing, but I bought some from a pasta shop round the corner at Via Mentana 3, next door to Osteria dell’Orsa, simply because you can see the stuff being made behind the counter. I think their spinach and ricotta tortelloni are the best I have ever bought. The owner was all for showing me how to make them but alas I had a train to catch (constant calls from Bill ‘the taxi is HERE’) an excuse as if I needed one, to return to Bologna and its really friendly, helpful, food loving inhabitants.