It’s almost pointless recommending somewhere specific in Italy as a destination, because pretty much the entirety of Italy is a must visit. Honestly, is there anywhere you don’t want to go in this country steeped in history, art, stunning coastlines, hilly vistas and moreover – ridiculously good food and wine?
The latter brings me to Bologna, where I recently visited for four days over a long weekend for the sole purpose of eating. Bologna is the regional capital of Emilia-Romagna, an area closely situated to the north east of holiday favourite Tuscany, yet remains very much under the radar compared to the likes of Rome and Florence. The city has three nicknames: La Dotta, meaning ‘the learned one’, since Bologna is home of the oldest university in Europe; La Rossa, ‘the red one’, after the sea of red tiled roofs it houses; and La Grassa, ‘the fat one’, due to its reputation for a rich culinary history often singled out as making Bologna the best place to eat in Italy.
When you’re off to a known foodie destination and your research throws the names of certain restaurants into the mix several times, you know you’re onto a winner. Even better when these places are noted for not breaking the bank and for being favoured by locals. Osteria dell’Orsa in Bologna is one of these places.
Clearly the word of Osteria dell’Orsa’s reliable excellence has spread, as tourists from all over were waiting patiently for a spot to eat during my visit, but this hasn’t put off the locals, who still flock to the restaurant in hordes. Despite the Osteria’s popularity with tourists, it remains authentic with a menu fully in Italian, leaving me to use a translation app with only moderate success and a renewed resolve to learn the language with the help of Duolingo (and I bet you can guess how well that is going). The staff are extremely busy and this is a casual, local place, so don’t expect a great deal of patience with explaining each dish on the menu – ask about each section and expect a rushed reply, but it’s not too hard to muddle your way through, and they will advise if you’ve ordered too much.
And at these prices it really is hard not to over order; there’s a €6 dish of the day, their famous tagliatelle al ragu Bolognese, along with a €8 dish of ravioli and the traditional Bolognese dish Totellini in brodo (broth) for €10. Desserts are €4 and the drinks are just as holiday fund friendly, with aperitifs putting you out of pocket a mere €3 and excellent local wine comes in at just €7 for a litre. The prices alone are enough to appeal to anyone, and though you may be fooled into thinking that the prices are representative of the quality of the food, you’d be wrong. Very wrong.
Despite my strong affinity toward tagliatelle al ragu Bolognese, I’d had a perfect dish of it for lunch earlier that day, and in interest of sampling as much of a variety as I could fit in during my time in Bologna, I landed on the ravioli con pesto genovese. The break between pouring over the menu and eating provided the perfect time to people watch: everyone animatedly enjoying their food and chatting away in different languages. After a short wait a generous portion of yellow pasta arrived in front of me, smothered in plenty of fresh homemade pesto and stuffed with creamy ricotta. Washed down with a cold Aperol spritz (€3), I eyed up my neighbour’s platter of meat and cheese whilst I ate, already planning my next course.
Determined to try more food, I ordered a selection of cheeses with walnuts and honey to round the meal off, along with an excellent glass of red wine for two euros. Two euros! The atmosphere and communal tables make Osteria dell’Orsa a great place to eat solo, but with those portion sizes and the sheer desperation to try everything you see everyone else eating around you, going in a group would be handy so you can share a few things. Either way, make sure you track down Osteria dell’Orsa whilst in Bologna – it’s a true gem.
Via Mentana, 1, 40126 Bologna BO, Italy
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that you cannot go wrong with a food recommendation from a local, and after some of the top restaurants on my Bologna hit list turned out to be closed without warning for summer holidays (sob), I was lucky to have some extra tips to explore from my lovely Air BnB host, Marco.
Ideally, one of these recommendations happened to be right opposite my apartment in Mercato delle Erbe, the grocery market favoured with locals that dates back to 1910. The market has an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fresh handmade pasta, and also has several food stalls and cafes where locals flock to for lunch and dinner, tucked away to the side of the market stalls in the wings of the old building. If you saw Rick Stein’s Long Weekend in Bologna, Mercato delle Erbe may ring a bell: the market featured on the tv show and was home to the location where Rick tried stuffed squid at Banco 32 – another restaurant also recommended by Marco, though I opted for his other tip in the market: Altro?
Altro? was the spot for my first meal in Italy on this trip, and what better way to start a weekend of eating your way around an Italian city than with a steaming bowl of tagliatelle al ragu (€10) and a couple of glasses of Sangiovese? Seeing as I came to Bologna specifically to eat, there was a lot riding on this first meal to live up to the high expectations I’d built up around the food of Bologna, and I wasn’t disappointed. Altro? served up one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had: the pasta fresh and perfectly cooked al dente (and you should hope so in the land of pasta), the ragu rich and plentiful. Parmesan served in a shaker on the table allows you to keep piling on the good stuff as you make your way through your meal as you go, something I appreciate over posher establishments where the waiter is in charge of your cheese distribution.
I was actually so impressed with Altro’s version of the most traditional of Bolognese dishes that I returned a few days later for another go at it. This time around I started with the burrata (€10), which hands down overtook what I thought was the best burrata I’ve had. Sitting in the cream sauce of two varieties of tomato, Altro’s was ‘eyes rolling to the back of your head’ good, particularly mopped up with the bowl of fresh sourdough brought over to me at the start of the meal. If you’re even the slightest fan of burrata, this dish is unmissable. Pleasingly, the tagliatelle al ragu that followed kept up the high calibre of a few days previous.
Whilst dishes here can be slightly higher in price than those in many of Bologna’s trattorias, the quality is clearly worth it. The food excelled, and I would happily return to try many of the other dishes on the menu. In hindsight I was particularly disappointed in myself to have not found room to try the desserts they had on offer. I would love to return in the evening in order to take longer over my meal and enjoy the atmosphere around Via Belvedere afterwards. In the evening, the restaurants of Mercato delle Erbe and the surrounding bars spill out onto the pedestrian street, animated with scores of young professionals drinking aperitivo into the night. The night time atmosphere is wonderful on this stretch, even in the quiet of August, and Altro is the perfect place to eat before settling into a night of Aperol in the balmy air. Returning to a restaurant in the relatively short space of a long weekend is something I never usually do, keen as I am to try many different places to eat as possible. In a city of unfailingly good food such as Bologna, it is the highest of accolades.
Mercato delle Erbe, Via Ugo Bassi, 23 – 25, 40121 Bologna, Italy +39 351 014 4191
Open every day 8am – 12am except Sundays
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