Bologna is our first stop in the Try Somewhere New podcast series with Ryanair, presented by us!
Listen to the first episode below or find it in your usual podcast app by searching ‘Try Somewhere New’.
This trip was always going to be about food. After all, we were spending four days in the legendary home of spaghetti bolognese.
Well, not quite.
Prior to our city break exploring this beautiful northern Italian city of medieval towers, endless porticoes, and a distinctive colour palette of earthy reds, oranges, and yellows, we had been warned that - at absolutely no point - should we order spaghetti bolognese. Due to endless streams of first-time visitors making this very mistake on a daily basis, that simple request was apparently guaranteed to provoke one of three reactions from an exasperated local waiter: laughter, confusion, or anger.
Now, for the record, we should remind you that even though we're vegetarians*, one of the first things we do when we have a semi-permanent base on the road is to make an overfilled meat-free bowl of spaghetti bolognese (just add soy mince!), and always go for second helpings. And sometimes third. And then lick the bowl clean.
For these two reasons, we knew that we wouldn't be able to eat the famous pasta dish in the world here in Bologna, but we remained determined to find out exactly why the whole world wrongly thinks that this is the birthplace of bolognese (and not just because it's in the name!)
Marco Franchini - or just 'Big Marco' to his friends - was the man to give us the answers.
At his restaurant Osteria del Capello (9 Via de Fusari), just a short walk from Piazza Maggiore, it was immediately clear that they take their job of correcting a wronged recipe very seriously. On the black t-shirts of the waiters and across various posters, the slogan #notspaghettibolognese is printed in big red letters. This is partly a smart marketing move on the back of the city mayor's well-publicised recent rant about decoupling Bologna's international reputation from a dish that literally nobody eats here, but it's also a conversation starter. A chance to learn.
After devouring platefuls of local cheeses and our 'primi patti' of freshly made sage and butter tortellini, we sat down with Marco to ask where it all went wrong.
"There is a lot of stories about how spaghetti bolognese was born", he tells us in English spoken with that glorious Italian accent where the vowels hanging on for dear life at the end of each word. One of the most popular theories is that post-World War Two, returning British and American soldiers wanted versions of a meal they had eaten whilst stationed in and around Bologna. And, like any half-remembered recipe or story, ingredients were changed according to personal tastes and local ingredients.
Spaghetti bolognese was created, and became a mainstay of homes and restaurants the world over. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that, after pizza, it's probably the most well-known Italian dish over the last half-century. Wherever we backpack in the world, a traveller-centric restaurant menu is guaranteed to have a bolognese on it!
But the only place you'll find it in Bologna is on a restaurant trying to cater solely to tourists (and therefore a good sign that you should probably make a quick exit!).
Food in Italy, as we appreciate more and more with each visit, remains incredibly regional and linked to tradition. Certain types of pasta will only be made and eaten in certain regions, and within those regions there's often heated debate about which sauces that specific pasta can authentically be used with. It can all get quite passionate.
Dry spaghetti, the thin spindly type we would all use in our homemade or restaurant bought bolognese back home, is certainly not from Bologna; it's generally accepted it's from the south of Italy.
Instead, this northern city's authentic culinary roots are based around thick ribbons of fresh tagliatelle with egg, precious parcels of tortellini, stacked postcards of lasagne, and an awful lot of meat. To Marco, authentic dishes from Bologna are "good food, healthy food...but not light food".
The meal which perfectly encapsulates that culinary tradition is tagliatelle al ragú. Scrawled at the top of the black chalk board of specials here in Marco's restaurant, it is also widely accepted as the root cause of all the spaghetti bolognese mistakes occurring on a nightly basis from Birmingham to Bangkok and Leeds to Las Vegas.
With chunks of slow-cooked beef and pork rather than mince, and much less sauce than you'd expect, this is the dish that people loved so much that they wanted to recreate it back at home after the war. And, ifyou want to eat like a local on your city break, then that's why you should be ordering in Bologna.
Never ever spaghetti bolognese.
* For any vegetarian looking for a great place to eat excellent plant-based versions of meat-heavy local dishes, then we recommend lunch or dinner at Il Rovescio (75 Via Pietralata).
To get some inspiration for your own city break, listen to our Bologna episode for the Ryanair Try Somewhere New podcast series!