I finished up my work on Anna’s farm. The next farm is in Tuscany but before heading there, I booked a few days off to have a best food ever mini-break in Bologna. Talk about setting up some serious expectations to not come close to. I also can’t wait to flex my Italian language skills in the city because I speak Italian now. What really ends up happening is that my Italian, that made one tiny leap forward under Anna’s tutelage and extreme patience, completely falls apart in front of strangers. And what about the food? That kind of falls apart, too. The best ever meals I was supposed to be bragging and writing home about didn’t really happen.
The main objective of the trip was to eat well. Somehow I didn’t realize that this would mean I would be eating alone. I hate the idea of eating alone and I hate that I am so chicken shit about eating alone. I reason with myself that I can do lunch on my own because it’s ‘normal’ to eat lunch on your own but dinner alone makes me wince. My first night I actually find a place that has bar seating. Bar seating is the Holy Grail for a shy solo diner like myself. I order the salumi and formaggi plate – loaded with meat and cheeses from the region of Emilia Romagna. My surprising favourites on the plate are probably the two most pedestrian (to me) offerings: mortadella and squacquerone. Mortadella looks like bologna (hmm…wonder where bologna as we know it got its name); it’s a mildly savoury, pink, spongy textured cured sausage with flecks of pistachios, chunks of white fat and black peppercorns. Squacquerone is a salty, somewhat tangy fresh cheese, no rind, with a runny and creamy/lumpy texture. There are fancier salumi and formaggi on my plate but I savor these the most. I giggle to myself, thinking that I came all the way to Bologna to eat bologna. I wash down all that meat and cheese with a white wine from the region called Albana. Really good. So good, that I have three glasses (the reason for the giggles) and almost fall off my stool. One night, I skip dinner since I have no courage and just focus on drinks. But I didn’t starve. Drinks were actually aperitivo. This is the Italian tradition of ordering a drink and then getting lots of free snacks to go along with your drink (most likely to keep you drinking). I need to find this in Toronto. The snacks could substitute a meal. I eat plates of savoury baked goods, finger sandwiches and crostini not to mention little bowls of potato chips, olives and peanuts. I notice that a lot of people around me leave the chips and peanuts behind. Are these snacks beneath them? I eat every last crumb and want to run my finger along the bowl to capture the salt remnants, too, but I stop myself.
It’s the afternoon of my second to last day and I realize that I only have tomorrow to turn things around. Wandering the streets, waiting to discover some amazing food gem isn’t going to just happen. I do some homework and rigorously plan my last day. I make reservations for a proper dinner at a traditional Bolognese restaurant for my last night supper. Table for one, please. For the afternoon, I decide to book a cooking course and learn about traditional Bolognese food. I find a place that looks great – Scuola Vecchia Bolognese (Old School Bolognese). Their website is in English (hallelujah!) and they have a really cute logo of a yellow cartoon chicken. Three different levels of classes – professional, amateur, and tourist – are listed on the website. Well, I’m not a professional. So that leaves amateur and tourist. I don’t know which is worse – to be called an amateur or a tourist. I decide being called a tourist is worse. There’s an amateur Bolognese Ragu and Lasagna making class the morning of my last full day. It’s meant to be! It’s too late to email and when I call, there’s only an incomprehensible answering machine message in Italian. The website lists that the school is open from 2pm to 4pm daily. I don’t trust schedules in Italy. They could possibly open later and close earlier. I decide to get there for 3pm and talk to them in person so I can get into the class. At 3pm, I’m turning the corner onto the street where the school is. I see the school and I see a woman locking the door to the school. Bah! The woman looks familiar – she has her photo on the website – she’s the owner, Alessandra. I run down the street, waving my arms and looking frantic. I get to her as she’s about to get into her car. Breathlessly, I explain to her in a savage combo of bad Italian and English that I want to attend her class: Lezione! Domani mattina! Per favore! This literally translates into: Lesson! Tomorrow morning! Please! I have to get into this class because at this point it looks like all I have to say about Bologna is “the mortadella was good.” She tells me to come tomorrow morning at 10am. She says other stuff too but I don’t understand any of it. I say Grazie! and beam a smile at her. Can’t wait for class tomorrow!
I arrive at the school a little bit before 10am. The doors are locked so I wait outside. There’s a couple waiting outside, too; they are having a heated discussion about marriage…in accented English. I’m surprised that this hyper personal conversation is taking place out on the street but I love eavesdropping so I hope they don’t stop. But then it keeps going and going. And when is this class starting? I’m beginning to worry that I got the time wrong. I ask the couple in English whether they are here for the cooking class. They are a bit taken aback that I speak English and that I’ve just been sitting five feet from them and hearing their entire personal conversation. They are here for the class. They are super friendly. She is Gloria and he is Thomas. She is from Bologna but lives in NYC. He is married to Gloria but from NYC but originally from Poland (hence the accented English). They are back in Bologna visiting family. They ask about me and they are so genuinely nice and friendly and adoringly chaotic and effusive in that Italian way. Even though he’s not Italian.
The school door opens and the three of us are ushered in. Gloria immediately takes me under her wing, offering me a seat, making sure I know how to fill out the form. There’s some miscommunication from yesterday afternoon (shocking) about me attending the class. Gloria is ready to battle – in Italian – on my behalf. After about ten minutes, the class admin guy comes back and confirms there is room for me and it’s not a problem. Gloria stands down.
We head over to the kitchen. The woman I stopped on the street, Alessandra, is waiting for us there. She is teaching our class. I quickly glance around the room wondering who is our English interpreter because Alessandra doesn’t really speak English. Class begins… and it’s in Italian. There is no interpreter. This is where I clue in that everyone in this class speaks Italian and I don’t. Oh, right. This is why there’s an amateur class and then a separate tourist class. Small hiccup. I am going to roll with this. Between my understanding of basic Italian food words and Gloria and Thomas swooping in and giving me sidebar translations, I learn a lot and don’t think I miss out too much. And Alessandra is really sweet and takes the time to talk to me, in Italian at a slow pace, to describe the smell of her tomato passata or the importance of the sofrito. I don’t understand every word she uses but on a cosmic food level I totally get what she’s trying to say to me. We first make a Bolognese ragu and then a besciamella sauce to assemble a proper Bolognese lasagne. (The pasta was already made for us to use). We each assemble our own lasagna. After they’re put together, they are wrapped up for us to take and bake at home. Oh, we aren’t eating them here. This is because amateurs have ovens at home. I’m a tourist with a hotel room with no oven. For a second, I wonder if the hotel can store it their fridge for me. I can then pack it and take it with me to the next farm. I picture myself on the train with my precious cargo, with it leaking all over me or everything in my suitcase. I decide to gift my lasagna to Gloria and Thomas. I wonder if it was good. It looked delicious in its unbaked form.
For my last night in Bologna I am actually going out for a proper multi course dinner. I’m going to have a primo, secondo and a dolce. Maybe an antipasto, too. I show up at 8pm for my reservation. I confidently tell the owner that I have a reservation for one. I am shown to my table and the owner hands me the menu in English. I feel emboldened and ask for the Italian menu. There isn’t one written down; for the Italians, he just tells diners what he has. So he starts reciting the whole thing to me in Italian. I’m too embarrassed to ask for the English menu back so I listen to him, pretending that I understand what he’s saying. I maybe understand half. I ask him to repeat the primi and he does. But by the time he’s repeated all the primi, I forget the secondi I barely understood. I wish Gloria and Thomas were here. I order a lasagna as my primo since I didn’t get to try the one I made earlier that day. For my secondo, I flounder. I have no idea what to order. He sees my flounder. He tells me of the special they have tonight. He says it’s molto buono (very good). Yes! I’ll take it. Even though I had no comprehension what it was except that it was pork. I pass on an antipasto but he brings me a little tasting of one anyway. It’s a bruschetta with white beans. Very good. The lasagna arrives. It tastes alright but I’m disappointed that it isn’t very authentically Bolognese: there’s too much tomato in the ragu and the pasta should be green from spinach, which it isn’t. I know this because I am now an expert on authentic Bolognese lasagna after my one class. The secondo arrives. I really want this to be amazing. I have such high hopes! I look at it and realize I have no idea what I ordered. There’s a piece of pork on the plate and then there are pieces of grilled things fanned around the pork. I try one of the grilled things – it’s melon. Weird. I try another and it’s pear. Another is plum. It’s all fruit and it doesn’t taste good. Ugh. I actually feel like I’m being made fun of. Is this a joke? I eat as much of the pork as I can and cut up the fruit and move it around on my plate to make it look like I ate more than I did. I feel bad and I don’t know why. The owner comes by and is surprised I’m done. He looks really concerned – was everything ok? I say, yes, it was molto buono, but too much…I’m full. I skip dessert. I couldn’t take any more disappointment.
I left Bologna a bit humbled and a bit hungry after three days of tourist buffoonery of trying to eat, buy things or go places on public transit or by foot. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Bologna – especially in retrospect. You should go, you’ll love it, too. I loved it and I had an anxious, ego bruising time. Imagine if you actually have a good time how amazing it would be! I’d go there again, not just to redeem myself, but because it really is a beautiful, charming, stylish, lively city full of really good looking and super nice people. And I hear that the food is supposed to be really good, too.