I was incredibly fortunate to teach two semesters in Bologna Italy during the fall of 2007 and 2009. It was there that I discovered how Italians really eat. I, like Dorothy when she landed in Oz, arrived in Italy with my own preconceptions of what I would find "over the rainbow". I imagined eating the most perfect renditions of all of my favorite Italian dishes on a daily basis.
While it is true that by and large even the mediocre food there is "not bad" (an expression Italians use often even to describe something they like), there is a wide range of quality there as is true anywhere. The bigger revelation for me, however, was how regional the country is. Every Region (or Province) of Italy has a distinct culture and cuisine, and there is a definite divide between North and South. Regional differences often lead to regional pride that can lead to a surprising intolerance of others depending upon where they are from.
Living in Bologna in the Region of Emilia-Romagna, I quickly discovered that almost without exception, every Bolognese ristorante, trattoria, pizzeria etc. offered basically the same menu (depending upon its category). As is the case everywhere, some restaurants were definitely better than others, but there was no Bistecca Fiorentina, Veal Milanese, Bucatini Amatriciana, Spaghetti Puttanesca, or chicken of any kind (chicken is considered a dish to be eaten at home) on the Bolognese menus. If I wanted anything other than true Emilia-Romagna Bolognese cuisine, I had to search out a restaurant dedicated to that part of Italy, eg. a Tuscan, Roman, Sicilian etc. restaurant. The Bolognese cuisine, when well prepared was delightful and delectable from the tortellini en brodo, to traditional ragu Bolognese served with or as part of lasagna Bolognese, to bolito misto to Stinco (pork shank either braised or roasted), to passatelli, to cotechino and beyond. I was swimming in the most delicious Prosciutto di Parma, Mortadella, Parmigiano Reggiano, Stracchino among so many other regional cured meats and cheeses and condiments. Not that I am complaining, but it was an eyeopener for me to have the same limited choice on almost every menu in town. Also as in all of Italy, if I wanted to have pasta with my main course? NEVER the twain shall meet. One is a primi and the other is a secondi, and that is that. Salad should come last, end of the story.
Living there inspired me to search out "authentic" Bolognese recipes which provided many memorable moments as my friends, Giovanna, Fabrizio, Chiara, Cristina Letizia, and Susanna among others came to my rescue. As I share some of these recipes on this website it is my hope that you can experience some of Bologna with me.
When I asked my Bolognese "foodie" friend Domenico what he thought about Italian food in the U.S., he told me in no uncertain terms that It was good, but it was not Italian. Surprised by his answer I said "What do you mean it's not Italian?! What is it?" Without hesitation he replied "It's something else".
Now that I am home and back from "Oz", I think I understand what my friend Domenico was telling me about true Italian cuisine vs. ours. With many different regions represented on one menu, often with experimental ingredients or cooking methods applied to traditional dishes, and with the option of having a pasta course alongside a main course, not to mention salad as an antipasto, we truly do have a different, more fluid take on Italian cooking in this country. Here, even when Italian food is prepared exquisitely and is very very good indeed, it definitely is "something else".according to their exacting standards. Even though I do not always adhere to Domenico's strict guidelines when preparing my food, planning a meal, or eating in a restaurant, when I do vary from the straight and narrow, I always do so with his words resonating in my ears, and with a smile on my face.