Bologna food is heavenly. Dishes that are now famous around the world started life in this city and the surrounding region, from lasagne and tortellini to tagliatelle al ragù alla bolognese. Renowned for its culinary traditions, the city is suitably stacked with places to eat from street-side stalls and markets to venerable restaurants and modern, Michelin-recognized eateries.
Not only is it known the world over as a foodie capital, but even within food-obsessed Italy, Bologna stands out. In fact, one of the city’s several nicknames is “La Grassa”. This literally means “The Fat”, and refers not just to the numerous dishes native to the city, but also to the rich ingredients used, including pork lard and plenty of cheese.
Get ready to dive into a world of food with this comprehensive Bologna food guide, featuring the history and origins of dishes and the best places to find them in the city. You can 100% trust what you read here because I tried all the dishes in this post (and the restaurants, obviously!).
You should also read my post Traditional Italian Food: The Best Traditional Italian Dishes.
All The Must Eat Bologna Food
Tagliatelle al Ragù
Many people, especially from the UK, may think that “spaghetti bolognese” comes from Bologna, but in fact there is no such dish in Italy. Spaghetti and ragù alla bolognese – known outside Italy as simply “bolognese sauce” – don’t go together. In Bologna, where this sauce of tomatoes and ground meat originates, a different pasta goes with the ragù: tagliatelle.
This results in the quintessential dish of the city, tagliatelle al ragù alla bolognese, or simply tagliatelle al ragù. The sauce is made first by sauteing celery, carrot and onion, before stock is added, then wine, then ground meat (usually a mix of beef and pork, oftentimes pancetta), before tomatoes (usually in the form of paste) is added. Naturally, you’ll find many restaurants serving up this iconic Bolognese dish.
Interestingly, though Bologna and the extended region of Emilia-Romagna has a long tradition of meat stews, none of these were named ragù – nor was the name recorded in Italy until the late 18th century. It’s thought that after the invasion of Napoleon in 1796 the French term ragout reached the region, thus giving birth to the famed Italian ragù.
Another landmark Italian dish known the world over, lasagne is a mainstay of northern Italian cuisine – and it’s old. In fact, lasagne pasta sheets are thought to be one of the oldest pasta types in the world. In Italy, lasagne dates back to the Middle Ages; it first appears in a transcribed text called Memoriale Bolognese in 1282. In this text, lasagne appears in a poem.
The first recorded recipe of lasagne dates from the 14th century, appearing in a book called Liber de Coquina (“the Book of Cookery”). This version of the dish is only slightly similar to the traditional version you know today; it features fermented dough flattened into sheets, which is then boiled, sprinkled with cheese and spices, and eaten with a pointed stick. There were, of course, no tomatoes in Europe until 1521.
Lasagne, however, can be traced even further back. A recipe for lasanum or lasagna appears in De Re Coquinaria, a cookbook written by Marcus Gavius Apicius in the 1st century AD. But it could go back to the ancient Greeks; the word laganon describes pasta dough cut into strips.
The modern lasagne – meaning more than one sheet of lasagna – features stacked layers of pasta, ragù alla bolognese, bechamel sauce and Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s traditionally associated with the Emilia-Romagna region, and especially in the foodie capital of Bologna. The pasta used is traditionally green (meaning it’s been made with spinach). It’s one of the most traditional Bologna food.
Tortellini is a stuffed type of pasta, filled with a mix of meat, Parmigiano Reggiano, nutmeg and egg, then served in a chicken or (better) beef based broth. In Bologna, you can find this dish and the tortellini themselves sold fresh across the city.
But these pasta parcels have a disputed origin. Though they are believed to come from the Emilia-Romagna region, two cities in the area claim to be the birthplace of this hearty dish: Bologna and Modena.
Though something like tortellini appeared in the 12th century, the first recipe for tortellini is ascribed to Italian Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi in 1570, when it was simply called tortelletti. The name tortellini didn’t appear in writing until the mid-17th century. Both tortelletti and tortellini are diminutive forms of tortello, meaning cake or pie; so it roughly means “little pie” (or “little cake”).
But the exact origins of this dish are shrouded in mystery. In the 17th century, legends surrounding where it came from sprang up in popular culture, with the two cities of Bologna and Modena both claiming to be the home of this pasta. It was decided through one particular legend that, as a compromise, the town of Castelfranco Emilia – which is situated between the two cities – should be the birthplace of tortellini.
Legend has it that the goddess Venus stayed at an inn in this town and, overcome by her radiant beauty, the innkeeper secretly spied on the goddess through a keyhole. But through this small window he could see only her navel. The innkeeper was then inspired by such a beautiful navel that he endeavored to create a replica of it in pasta form; thus tortellini was born. The term ombelico di venere (Venus’s navel) is sometimes used to describe tortellini.
Today, tortellini served in broth is a traditional dish to have around the Christmas period. However, you can find it served up throughout the year in Bologna – though I don’t recommend having it when it’s hot outside!
Speaking of tortellini, you may also know tortelloni – a larger version of the stuffed pasta. However, you may not know about tortellacci, which is an even bigger version of tortelloni. These more roughly made pasta dumplings are delicious pockets of flavor, stuffed full of ricotta, spinach and herbs.
They’re a Bologna favorite and usually served in a rich and creamy white sauce. Also part of the same pasta “family” is balanzoni, which are often referred to as tortellacci verdi (“green tortellacci”).
Cotoletta alla Bolognese
Cotoletta, or cutlet, is a very traditional dish of northern Italy. There are regional varieties, like cotoletta milanese, but in Bologna, it’s obviously all about the cotoletta alla bolognese. This version is made from a cutlet of well tenderized veal that’s been coated with flour, egg and breadcrumbs, before being fried in either lard or butter. But it doesn’t end there.
The Bolognese version is then layered with a slice of ham, covered with Parmigiano Reggiano, and a dash of meat broth (to add moisture), before being placed in an oven and cooked until the cheese has melted to perfection. Sometimes tomato paste is added to the oven tray for extra zing.
You may also find it accompanied by truffles – typically trifola, a white truffle from the Apennine Mountains near Bologna. It’s a very hearty dish, and a particularly good one to understand why Bologna is known as “La Grassa”!
The origins of the dish go back a long way. In fact, cotoletta alla bolognese is sometimes called “La Petroniana”, after Petronius – the bishop of Bologna in the 5th century. The dish is said to have been served at banquets during the early 17th century.
Today the dish is so much a part of the culture of Bologna that, in 2004, the recipe was submitted to the Bologna Chamber of Commerce by the Italian Academy of Cuisine, whose mission is to safeguard Italian gastronomy. Countless trattorias and eateries around the city serve up this classic Bologna food.
Though mortadella is made across Italy, the version from this city – Mortadella Bologna – is the original (and the best one, if you ask me or my dad). And, in fact, mortadella itself originates in Bologna and is recognized by the European Union with a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.
This large sausage is made from heat-cured pork that’s been finely hashed, mixed with cubes of pork fat (usually from the neck of the pig), sometimes pistachios, and flavored with black pepper. Traditionally, the pork filling of this sausage was ground using a large mortar and pestle – hence the name, which could be derived from mortaio. That’s one theory, anyway.
No one is quite sure exactly where the name comes from. Another possible origin comes from a 17th-century Bolognese scholar who believed the roots were Roman, who used to make a sausage flavored with myrtle berries called farcimen murtatum – myrtle being used as a spice before pepper was available in Europe.
Mortadella as it is known today did come from Bologna, however. It was mentioned in a document in the city that dates back to 1376. As you might expect, you can find Bologna’s famous mortadella pretty much everywhere in the city; head to the markets for the best selection.
Also known as crescentine, tigelle (singular tigella) are delicious sandwiches native to the Emilia-Romagna region. This popular street food kind of looks a bit like an English muffin, but it’s filled with a variety of fillings – usually cold cuts of meat with cheese (even sweet spreads). Yet another good example of why the “La Grassa” nickname fits!
Crescentine have long been a comfort food of the Apennine Mountains region, often made at home, but have since spread to the cities as people moving from the countryside brought their traditions with them. They have more recently been adopted in many restaurants, snack stalls, trattorie and cafes, particularly in Modena and Bologna.
Known more specifically as crescentine modenesi, they have long played a part in Modenese culture. In this neighboring city, the process of making, cooking and eating crescentine (or tigelle) has long been associated with company and socializing – it’s something you do together, rather than something you’d make for yourself.
Today, tigelle are toasted in specially made cast-iron griddles called a tigelliera, which features multiple spaces to make more than one tigelle at once. But the method of making them in the past was certainly not with such a specific tool. In fact, the name “tigelle” derives from the way these delicious round sandwiches were cooked in the past – namely, between two hot tiles called tigelle.
As if tigelle weren’t tasty enough, crescentine fritte takes dough to a whole new level of tastiness. It’s popular throughout the Emilia-Romagna region, where they also go by the name of gnocco fritto (roughly “fried dumpling”).
The main part of the dish, the dough, is prepared using flour, water and lard, sometimes with yeast or baking soda for extra puffiness. This is then shallow fried in pork lard until it puffs up, the name “crescentina” coming from the verb crescere meaning “to grow”.
The Bolognese version of this dish is round rather than the diamond shape often associated with the region. Sometimes included in the Bolognese version of the dough, before cooking, are slices of prosciutto.
Once sufficiently puffed up, the crescentine fritte is sometimes used as a sandwich, with two “slices” containing cheese and various salumi (cured meats). But the method of eating is up to you; it’s fine to just eat the various parts you’re served up separately, if you like.
At markets, you’ll usually find the crescentine fritte served up by themselves (that’s how I prefer them, actually), but it’s no less delicious without the extra ingredients to play with!
At the very basic level, prosciutto is a particular cut of pork meat, specifically from the thigh meat of the pig; in English, this cut (and the product) basically translates to “ham”. It’s not a protected name, so there are various types of cured meat that can be called “prosciutto” in Italy.
But, for example, prosciutto di parma – also known as Parma ham – is a protected name, and is native to the Emilia-Romagna region.
Italians have been processing prosciutto for thousands of years. The first traces of it have been found to originate with the Etruscans in the 6th to 5th centuries BC, and the processing (i.e. salt curing) of a pork leg was mentioned in writing in 160 BC. Today, prosciutto begins life by being salted and left in a suitable environment for around two months. During this time, the ham is pressed gradually so that the fluids drain from the meat.
The salt is then washed off and the prosciutto joint is hung in a dark room. The quality of the air in that space is an important part of the final product; better results come from well ventilated rooms in cold climates – perfect for the mountainous region of the Apennines. The length of time the joint spends in this dark environment varies depending on the air quality and climate. When it’s finally dry, the ham is then hung at room temperature for around 18 months.
After this long process, which can take over two years in total, the prosciutto is ready to eat. It’s usually thinly sliced and served up as an antipasto, or a snack for an aperitivo. You may find prosciutto used in a pasta dish or on a pizza. For us Italians, it’s actually the perfect filling for a sandwich: we love a good panino al prosciutto! In short, prosciutto is delicious and a particularly beloved Bologna food!
The topping, filling and essential part of many an Italian dish, Parmigiano Reggiano – simply known outside Italy as parmesan – is a hard Italian cheese made from cow’s milk. It’s legally recognized by the EU with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.
Parmigiano Reggiano takes its name from an amalgamation of the two regions in which it finds its origin: Parma and Reggio Emilia. In addition to this, it is also produced in parts of Mantua, Modena and in Bologna (specifically, west of the River Reno), all in the Emilia-Romagna region.
The cheese is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk that’s mixed into copper vats; starter whey and rennet is then added, as the mixture is gently heated until curds form. The curd is left to settle and collected into a muslin, squeezed of its moisture and put into molds. The remaining whey separated from the curds traditionally feeds the pigs used for Parma ham!
The molds containing the cheese, which are round and imprinted with the name – Parmigiano Reggiano – as well as the date of when it was made, are then transferred to an aging room, where the cheese is aged for a year. These rooms are often enormous, with over 2,000 wheels of cheese per aisle.
The cheeses are turned and cleaned every seven days. After the year is up, the cheese is tested by a “master grader”; wheels that pass the inspection are branded and aged for around one more year. Over 3.5 million wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano are produced per year.
This process results in a cheese that has a nutty, umami flavor, providing a rich addition to a number of dishes, whether it’s grated on top of pasta, mixed into soups or sliced in curls over salads. We even eat it plain, with or without a bit of bread: it’s very rich in calcium and we think it is a good remedy against osteopororis!
Parmigiano has long been part of the culinary culture of Emilia-Romagna. It is believed to have been created in the Middle Ages, and produced in a similar way to the process still used to this day. In fact, Italian writer Boccaccio described the delicious cheese in 1348 when he wrote that people put “a mountain, all of grated parmesan cheese” on their ravioli and macaroni in chicken broth.
Famous English diarist Samuel Pepys obviously thought very highly of parmesan; during the Great Fire of London in 1666, he actually buried his parmesan cheese (along with other valuables) to preserve it from the flames!
Aceto Balsamico di Modena
Another product with PGI status, aceto balsamico di Modena, or balsamic vinegar from Modena, may be named after Bologna’s neighbor (and culinary rival), but it’s widely used in the city and the Emilia-Romagna region at large.
What makes it special from regular balsamic vinegar? There are various recipes, but generally it has to be made using between 20% and 90% grapes and between 10% and 80% wine vinegar. Once mixed together, it must be left to sit in a wooden vat for 60 days (or longer). One hundred million liters of aceto balsamico di Modena are made per year; 92% of it is exported abroad.
In Bologna, it’s such an influential ingredient that it’s treated like wine in certain places. It’s here that you can go for a balsamic vinegar tasting session. There’s even a shop dedicated to balsamic vinegar at Bologna airport, run by the De Nigris family (who have been making it since 1889), which shows just how important it is.
Another place to head to is FICO, the gastronomic theme park, where you’ll find Le Terre del Balsamico, which is entirely dedicated to the famous vinegar.
How To Make The Most Of Bologna Food
As you can probably tell, food is a very important part of the culture of Bologna. Now that you know a bit more about the history of some of the most famous Bologna food, and how some of the region’s most iconic ingredients are made, you may be wondering, “But how can I try it all?”
It’s a good idea to think about how you’re going to approach the culinary landscape of Bologna, rather than just wandering around aimlessly, so here are a few recommendations of how to fully experience a taste of this food-obsessed city.
Eat at one of the best restaurants in Bologna
This is easily the best way to try out Bologna’s specialties. Below is a selection of my favorite restaurants in Bologna.
This down-to-earth, family-run restaurant has been in operation for over 50 years, so they certainly know what they’re doing with food. Eating here is a chance to enjoy an array of classic Bolognese dishes, from tortellini to tagliatelle al ragù (they are legendary here). Thankfully, it’s also an affordable place to try these dishes.
It’s open Monday to Saturday, 12:30 to 2:30 pm, 7:30 to 10:30 pm (closed Sundays). Reservations are definitely recommended.
Founded in 1979, Trattoria dell’Orsa can be found in Bologna’s University District. It’s been a popular spot for enjoying a bite to eat ever since it opened its doors. The atmosphere is lively and easygoing. It’s not a high-end dining experience; think communal tables and unfussy interiors.
However, this place is popular, so do expect a line of people waiting outside. Make sure to try cotoletta alla bolognese here, or the tortellini which are especially good. And while you’re there, the lasagne is also delicious.
Opening times are 12:15 to 10:30 pm every day.
If you’re looking for a more polished dining experience in Bologna, then you should make your way to Oltre. The sticker-covered door down a narrow passageway doesn’t seem like much, but step inside and you’ll find a sleek environment for an equally sleek dining experience.
Located in the Mercato delle Erbe area, Oltre has the accolade of being reviewed by Michelin inspectors. It serves up an outstanding menu of classic dishes with an elegant twist for a balance between tradition and innovation.
On weekdays it’s open 7:30 to 10:30 pm.; Fridays and Saturdays it’s open until 11:00 pm instead. It’s also open for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays, 12:30 to 2:30 pm. It’s closed on Wednesdays.
We stumbled upon this restaurant on a Sunday, for lunch, as we were wandering around the area, and we loved it! Donatello serves up real old-school swankiness and an array of Bolognese specialties – and has done so since 1903. Run by the Fanciullacci family, the interiors convey the eatery’s long history, with walls adorned by old photographs and paintings.
The 120-year-old restaurant features typical Bologna food including lasagne, tortelloni and tortellini, as well as popular local appetizers. For dessert, don’t miss the zuppa inglese – it’s delocious.
It’s open every day, 12:00 to 2:30 pm, 7:00 to 10:00 pm, (closed Tuesdays). It’s only open for lunch on Sundays.
Mo Mortadella Lab
Want to try a famous mortadella sandwich? Look no further than Mo Mortadella Lab. This deli is not much bigger than a hole in a wall, but what it lacks in size it makes up for with its enormous sandwiches.
As well as the classic mortadella sandwich (with a few interesting variations), you can get other snacks and street food here, too. The bread is fresh, as are the fillings. Expect there to be a line, especially at lunch times.
It’s open every day (except Mondays) from 12:00 to 4:00 pm and 7:00 to 9:30 pm (6:00 pm on Sundays).
Go on a Bologna food tour
One of the best ways to get involved in the culinary world of Bologna is to join a Bologna food tour. This way you can be led around the highlights of the city without getting lost or generally wasting time. But it’s not just that – you’ll be guided by a local expert who knows the best spots, and will tell you all about what you’re eating and the establishments you go to.
One option is this guided traditional food tour, which sees visitors whisked around the city to five different eateries across three magical hours of food wonder.
There’s also this three-hour secret food tour, which takes you to a few more hidden, lesser-known spots of the city (six stops in total) to try out local delicacies and street eats.
Or take a cooking class
There’s no better way of learning about Bologna food than cooking it yourself! The best thing about taking a cooking class is not just the experience, or learning about Bologna food – it’s getting to take the recipe home with you so you can enjoy these delectable dishes whenever you feel like making them (the best souvenir)!
Most cooking classes (such as this one) see you heading into a local’s home to learn homespun family recipes.
You can even choose cooking classes that focus on a specific dish, such as this tortellini-making workshop.
Check out the local markets
Another way to really learn how Bologna food scene works is to check out its markets. Markets in this city stretch back to the Medieval era, with many starting life in the 14th century (and earlier).
The main square in town, Piazza Maggiore, was home to a market for hundreds of years until it was forced to close down in the 18th century.
Today there are a whole lot of different markets to see, the most famous being Mercato di Mezzo in the Quadrilatero district, which is also stuffed full of places to eat and stores selling all sorts of food and drink.
You should also make sure to check out the very important Mercato delle Erbe. There’s also Mercato Ritrovato and Mercato del Novale, which are both farmer’s markets.
If you are traveling to Bologna, these other posts will be useful:
- 26 Best Things To Do In Bologna, Italy
- A Perfect One Day In Bologna Itinerary
- How To Visit Bologna Towers
- How To Get From Rome To Bologna
- How To Get From Bologna To Florence