Friday, March 29, 2013

Bologna: The Gastronomic Heart of Italy

Bologna is a microcosm of everything that’s fabulous about Italy: friendly residents, walkable sites, beautiful architecture and amazing food. Even in Italy, a country that takes food very seriously, Bologna stands out. Its chamber of commerce preserves centuries-old recipes, and the city’s nickname, La Grassa, means 'the Fat One.' Bologna is an omnivore’s dream. The list of foods originating in Bologna and the surrounding area — lasagna, tortellini, 'spaghetti bolognese', Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese — reads like a what’s what of Italian cuisine. The food in the Emilia-Romagna region is less about tomatoes and olive oil and more about butter and cream, which makes it a great place to visit in the cold weather of March, when we made our pilgrimage to the 'Fat One'.

Bologna is known for its miles of portici, or covered terracotta arcades

The historic city centre is a handsome ensemble of brick buildings and charming porticoes and colonnaded streets. Medieval palaces are clustered around two central squares, Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nettuno, flanked to the south by the Churches of San Petronio and San Dominico. 

Fontana del Nettuna - Neptune's Fountain

 A saucy detail of the Fontana - her breasts actually squirt out water 
when the fountain is running!

Palazzo Communale in Piazza Maggiore

The archway through Piazza Communal 

Over the archway is a statue of Bologna born Pope Gregory XIII, 
most famous for reorganizing the calendar

Palazzo 'Re Enzo' on Piazza Maggiore, once home to King Enzo of Sardinia, 
who was imprisoned here in 1272

Basilica di San Petronio on Piazza Maggiore, currently being refurbished

Interior of the Basilica

The famous towers of Bologna, 'Le Due Torri' - Asinelli and Garisenda - are mentioned by Dante in The Inferno, and stand side by side in the very compact and bustling Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. In the Middle-ages, every family of importance had a tower as a symbol of prestige and power, and as a potential fortress. There were originally more than 200 towers in Bologna, and even now more than twenty, dotted around the city centre, can still be found. Asinelli Tower is the taller, and was built between 1109 and 1119 by the family of the same name, and leans almost 8-feet off it's vertical axis. The Garisenda Tower is the shorter of the two, and tilts even further, more than 10-feet!

Le Due Torri - Torre Garisenda and Torre Aisinelli

Bologna is full of colonades, this one in the bustling area 

in the University of Bologna neighbourhood

One wall in the University area was plastered with flyers 
for 'Rooms for Rent' for the enormous student population

The exterior of Tamburini, Bologna's most famous food emporium

Inside is a mecca of top-quality cured meats, succulent cheeses 
and glorious selection of homemade pastas

Tamburini's homemade Tortelloni di Zucca

Fresh roasted pork and veal ready to be packaged up and taken home

'La Baita' is Bologna's ultimate formaggeria

A cornucopia of Bolognese specialties beckon

A food lovers paradise with legs of Prosciutto Parma hanging from the ceiling 
along with chandeliers 

La Baita has its own version of Parmigiano called 'Sua Mesta il Nero' 
and a delicate 'squacquerone' which is a soft and creamy cows milk cheese

A temple of Bolognese cuisine, Ristorante Diana on Via Independenza 24, is Mario Batali's favourite restaurant in Bologna. With a city that is overwhelmed with fabulous cuisine, and we had a list of esteemed culinary competitors to consider, we decided to try Chef Mauro Fabbri's restaurant in the heart of the city. With any of northern Italy's better restaurants, it's always best to reserve ahead. But, given that it was March, chilly and wet, we tried our luck and were fortunate enough to get a lovely spacious table for four, for just the two of us.

Ristorante Diana, Mario Batali's favourite restaurant in Bologna 
- so we had to try it!

The sophisticated interior was full of affluent Bolognese 
and the occasional Canadian tourist...

Our gracious table for two at Diana's - it pays to arrive by 12:30 
to get one of the better tables

The menu was extensive and every dish sounded mouth-wateringly tempting -
needless to say, we only ate one meal day

Coppia Ferrarese, Emilia-Romagna's uniquely-shaped twisted bread

As we considered Diana's mouthwatering menu, we ordered a half bottle of Lambrusco, Italy's answer to Rosé. A dry (secco) sparkling red wine that's made in Emilia-Romagna, we originally felt obliged to give it a try, and were quickly won over by its light bouquet, dry finish and affordable price. At between 6 and 12 euros a bottle, we found that many Italians were drinking this light wine at both lunch and dinner, and we began to do the same. The question becomes whether we'll be able to find Lambrusco when we get home to Canada, and if we do, if we'll be given queer looks for asking for a sparking red wine. But as 'they' often say, 'don't knock it until you try it.' You'll be surprised — I was, and am a Lambrusco convert.

A mezzo, or half bottle, of Lambrusco to begin our sumptuous lunch

Affetata Mista con Mortadella "Dei Torri" Alcisa: a mixed cured meat platter
of prosciutto, shaved mortadella, cured salumi and paper thin slices of a pork terrine

A bottle of Sangiovese Cesari Riserva was the perfect choice with our decadent lunch 

Gnocchi con Speck e Porcini - light, pillowy and unbelievably delicious

Lasagna Verde al Forno

Carello degli Arrosti, the hand-carved and customized plate of roast meats
from the trolley: pork, tongue, turkey and more - a specialty of the region
along with Carello degli Bollita, which are all boiled meats

Diana's Arrosti Mista

Grilled Entrecote

A contorni, or side, of Carciofi al Tegume: poached local artichokes 
dressed in a vinaigrette

a second contorni - Patate Rosti

Torta di Risa: a uniquely traditional Bolognese dessert made with rice, spices, 
dried fruit, eggs and cream - "As my Nonna used to make," our server told us

The Maitre'D with the dessert trolley, serving my homemade vanilla gelato 
served with a compote of sundried local cherries

Vanilla gelato with sundried local cherries - like many dishes we enjoyed, 
they make look like hell, but my God they're phenomenal! 
These were the most flavour-packed cherries I've ever eaten

One the way back to our car after dining at Diana's, we chanced upon 'Laboratorio Privato della Trattoria Anna Maria,' where we discovered Anna Maria Monari of Bologna's Trattoria Anna Maria, making pasta in her small shop a few doors down from Trattoria del Rosa. The rumour is that Trattoria del Rosso is the oldest and best trattoria in town. Written up in Bon Appetit Magazine, Trattoria della Rosa was one of 'the' Bologna restaurants worth a visit. Next time we're in Bologna, we'll definitely make a point of trying her homemade tortellini, but at the very least, I saw her making handmade tortellini!

Written up by Bon Appetit Magazine a while ago, Anna Maria's restaurant 
was on my culinary radar, so I was thrilled to chance upon it on Via Belle Arte in Bologna

Anna Maria Monari making the tiniest imaginable tortellini, for her restaurarnt
Trattoria Anna Maria on Via Belle Arte in Bologna - what a privilege to catch her in her craft

Anna Maria's small ristorante

Although we didn't have the opportunity to try Anna Maria's pasta, we did take home two packages of homemade pasta from Tamburini: Capellaci di Porcini and tiny totellini for two sumptuous meals we would look forward to enjoying at Villa Mazzino in the hills of Tredozio.

Our two beautifully wrappped packages of homemade pasta from Tamburini in Bologna,
in front of our fireplace at Villa Mazzino - yum!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ravenna's Early Christian & Byzantine Mosaics

Of Emilia-Romagna's artistic jewels, few shine brighter than Ravenna’s early Christian and Byzantine mosaics. Described as a symphony of color in Dante's Divine Comedy, Ravenna's well-preserved mosaics are some of the finest remaining in the Western world, and date to Ravenna’s golden age as an early Christian centre. Located on the Adriatic coast in North-East Italy, Ravenna was briefly the capital of the Roman Empire and later the Italian capital of the Byzantine Empire. Ravenna rose to power in the 1st-century BC under Emperor Augustus, who built a port and naval base at nearby Classe. Briefly a capital of eastern Rome during its fall, Ravenna was taken by the barbarians. Then, in A.D. 540, the Byzantine emperor Justinian turned Ravenna into the western most pillar of the Byzantine Empire. 

6th-century mosaic of Jesus
at the Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna

A pinnacle of civilization in that age, Ravenna was a light in Europe's Dark Ages, when the city grew into a glittering showcase for Byzantine art and culture. Today, Ravenna is a very pleasant town of about 140,000. It looks much like any other Italian city at first glance, with old streets, fine shops and peaceful squares, but the Byzantine domes of its churches still evoke its Eastern heritage. Ravenna's early Christian churches and mosaics have been collectively designated a World Heritage Site. 

The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna

The Basilica of San Vitale is one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture in western Europe, and one of eight Ravenna structures listed as the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The church is most famous for its spectacular wealth of Byzantine mosaics, the largest and best preserved outside of Istanbul. This church was the prototype for Istanbul's Hagia Sophia built 10 years later, and it inspired Charlemagne to build the first great church in northern Europe in his capital of Aix-la-Chapelle.

The mosaics inside of San Vitale

San Vitale's apse mosaics show Christ, two angels and Bishop Ecclesius with St Vitalis being handed a martyr's crown by Christ. Bishop Ecclesius is depicted because he began the church of San Vitale.

A detail of the Apse 

The left transcept

The right transcept

The extraordinary detail of one of the columns

The dome of San Vitale is painted, 
in contrast to much of the church being detailed with mosaics

The floor of San Vitale is made entirely of mosaics

Located in the backyard of San Vitale is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, also known for its ancient and breathtaking mosaics. The small brick structure dates from around 430 AD, making it one of the oldest monuments in Ravenna. While on his honeymoon in Ravenna in the 1920s, Cole Porter wrote "Night and Day" while thinking of the starry sky of Galla Placidia. 

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

The interior mosiacs of Galla Pacidia

The carved stone ossuary with the remains of Galla Placidia

Originally built in 1869, Ravenna’s Mercato Coperto stands in an area of the city that has been historically known for its markets dating back to the 5th century A.D. The construction of a covered market at this site was first completed in 1869, but when enlargement was necessary a few decades later, the market was rebuilt from scratch. The existing structure is from this latest construction, which was completed in 1922. To this day, the freshest of produce, flowers, fish, meats and other home-related products, from the region and elsewhere, are sold to locals and visitors alike. The pride and joy of Ravenna is Piadina, which is a thin flatbread made from white flour, olive oil, salt and water and is a specialty of the Romagna region. Although many accounts attribute the origin of the piadina to ancient times, the modern piadina as it is enjoyed today, was created around 1371 when it was adopted as the people’s bread of Romagna. A Piadina from Ravenna is usually a bit thicker than those from other areas of Romagna, and often contain cheese, herbs, and cured meats. 

Mercato Coperto

One of the vegetable stalls inside the market

Fabulous local artichokes

One of Ravenna's cobblestone streets

My first glimpse of a pink Vespa!

Dante's Tomb

Dante's wanderings around Italy after his exile from Florence eventually brought him to Ravenna, where he died in 1321. A lamp in his sepulcher is fed by oil given by the city of Florence.

The interior of Dante's Tomb

Ravenna Duomo and Battistero degli Ariani

Duomo interior and ceiling detail

The 5th-century Baptistry 

The cupola of the Baptistry is a mosaic showing the Apostles ringed around 
a centrepiece depicting the Baptism of Christ

Basilica Sant'Apollinaire Nuovo

The glorious 6th-century Basilica of Sant'Apollinaire Nuovo, named after the first bishop of Ravenna, is dominated by two rows of mosaics showing the Three Kings, virgins and martyrs bearing gifts for Christ and the Virgin.

The interior of Sant'Apollinaire Nuovo

Detail of the 'Three Kings' mosaic

The elaborate apse of Sant'Apollinaire, equally fantastic, 
gets eclipsed by the Basilica's superb mosiacs

Bustling Piazza del Popolo

A mamma and bambino feeding the birds in the Piazza

Ristorante Bella Venezia di Bazzani in Ravenna

The menu with dishes from the local Romagnan tradition

We decided to go Tuscan with our wine selection this time, with a 2009 Chianti Classico

Insalate Caprese

Cappeletti alle Ragu, which are rather like large ravioli

Crostata di Manza, a grilled porterhouse steak

Nodino Bazzani, a veal chop topped with prosciutto in a cognac cream sauce, 
a house specialty of the brother and sister Bazzani team - the brother 
is the chef and the sister is 'front of house'

A contorni of Spinaci con burro e parmigiana

A second contorni of Fagioli Barlotti - looks boring but they were al dente and delicious

The Dolci Mista, a mixture of Zabaglione, Crema Catalania, Tiramisu, 
Torta di Marmalade and Biscotti