On my recent visit, I realized immediately how special the food is. No kidding, the apple I got at the Bologna Airport convenience store was better than ones I’ve had at U-Picks in central Washington state. My first salad -- at a nondescript hotel bar -- gave me the revelation that lettuce doesn’t actually taste like dirt and water. Here, it tastes like an herb garden. Exploring Bologna, I found produce lining the city’s narrow streets, and after sampling cherries, oranges, melons, and tomatoes I wondered why cities like Fresno and Turlock weren’t pulling off the same magic.
The restaurants in the region take full advantage of their proximity to this angelic produce, as well as some of the world’s finest cheesemakers, wineries, and pork farms. Osteria Francescana in Modena is Emilia-Romagna's most famous restaurant, a spot that in 2016 earned San Pellegrino’s coveted Best Restaurant in the World title, the first in Italy to do so. But the food here extends far past 12-course tasting menus in Michelin-starred restaurants. The real treasures live in back alleys and neighborhood streets.
A stroll through Bologna can be overwhelming. Those cafes people imagine -- where people sip wine and sample prosciutto for hours at a time -- extend for blocks in every direction from the Piazza Maggiore, the city’s central square. Walking the cobblestones had me wobbling as I ogled plates of tortellini in brodo and gnocchi Bolognese. I stopped at the first place that advertised 10-euro bottles of wine and ordered my body weight in pasta.
West down the Via Emilia in Modena, I discovered the restaurants that every classic Italian-American joint back home was trying to duplicate. Wine bottles in baskets lined shelves beside big black-and-white photos of famous Italians. Diners feasted on family-style plates of pumpkin ravioli in butter and nutmeg that they washed down with generous glasses of Lambrusco. At Ristorante da Danilo, tucked just behind the city’s only synagogue, plate after plate of tagliatelle in ragù, ossobuco alla milanese, and filetto di manzo passed by, tempting me to order. But here, ordering is a little different.