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What’s cooking in Bologna? Cooking schools.

May 4, 2013

Originally published in the Washington Post Travel

On a snowy February night in downtown Bologna, dinner’s cooking in a first-floor apartment overlooking the Piazza San Francesco and its imposing 13th-century red-brick church. Vegetables are being chopped, a piece of fish is rinsed under the tap. Bouillon simmers in a pot on the stove, a delicate column of white steam rising into the air.

All business as usual — but for a few crucial details. Behind the stove is Marco Marino, a former member of Italy’s national chef team and now a regular guest on one of the country’s most popular television cooking shows. And Marino is preparing no ordinary meal. He’s injecting a touch of science into traditional Italian cuisine, adapting techniques and products lifted from molecular gastronomy — the cooking style that Spanish chef Ferran Adrià popularized at his now legendary El Bulli restaurant — to local fare.

Details: Bologna, Italy

Marino’s audience is no family affair, either: A group of 10 amateur foodies is watching his every move, hoping to imbibe some of the secrets of his trade.

The end result of his and his students’ work is a delicious three-course meal, highlighted by an appetizer of split pea soup topped by fresh squid — cut up, pureed, then put into a large syringe and squeezed into a pot of boiling water that cooks it into the shape of spaghetti — as well as sweet and sour cherry tomatoes and an extra-virgin olive oil foam.

The evening was organized by a cultural association called Il Salotto del Buongusto — or the Gourmet Parlor — and was the first stop on my recent reconnaissance tour of Bologna’s booming cooking-school scene.

Locally, this northern Italian city has long been famous for the “three Ts”: the towers (torri) that dotted its streets in the Middle Ages, the generous breasts (tette) of its women, and its two trademark egg-based pasta dishes, tagliatelle and tortellini. It’s also nicknamed La Dotta (the learned one) for its nearly 1,000-year-old university; La Rossa (the red one), for the characteristic color of its roofs and its lefty political inclinations; and La Grassa (the fat one), for its substantial culinary tradition.

The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna is home to some of Italy’s most mouthwatering food, which also includes ragu, or meat sauce, and mortadella, which Americans know better as bologna (though the American version has nothing on the original). Parmesan cheese, Parma ham and balsamic vinegar come from the area as well.

You get the gist: This has never been a place for dieting.

What’s new, though, is that this is no longer just a city of delicious homemade food whose secrets are vigilantly guarded by aging grandmas. Partly as a result of the economic crisis, which has forced many Italians to reinvent themselves, Bologna’s long-closed gastronomic culture is finally opening up, and plenty of people are now eager to coach Italian and foreign tourists in how to prepare an authentic Bolognese meal.

Culinary renaissance

At last count, there were more than 20 cooking schools active in Bologna, teaching everything from traditional recipes to gluten-free gastronomy. Most are concentrated in the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood around the central intersection of the Via Ugo Bassi/Rizzoli and Via Indipendenza. This area, where most of the city’s tourist attractions are located, is flanked to the south by the vast main square of the Piazza Maggiore, which is dominated by the Basilica of San Petronio. Europe’s sixth-largest church, the basilica was originally intended to surpass even St. Peter’s in Rome. But in the mid-1500s, Pope Pius IV halted the project, resulting in a unique half-finished look to the structure, with marble covering the bottom half and exposed dark bricks at the top. To the east, the Due Torri, the two highest medieval towers still standing, soar above the glittering terra-cotta roof shingles.

For a local like me, born and raised in this city but having failed miserably to master the art of cooking, Bologna’s culinary renaissance is a revelation. But experts say that the ingredients for this boom have been around for a long time. It just took locals a while to figure it out.

“Bologna is so comfortable, so easy to get around, the people are friendly, more open, more tolerant,” says American chef Mary Beth Clark, a pioneer of Bologna’s cooking revival. “I don’t think I could do what I do in many other cities in Italy.” Clark, who lives in New York, started traveling to Bologna in the mid-1980s. Since then, she has opened her International Cooking School of Italian Food and Wine and spends the late spring and early fall here teaching American tourists how to prepare fresh pasta and other regional delicacies. Her classes take place in a 16th-century palazzo.

Stefano Corvucci of the Culinary Institute of Bologna (a recently renovated lab at the back of his trattoria, Caffe del Rosso) likes to begin the day by taking his clients to the market. He’s partly in search of inspiration, since he designs his classes based on what’s in season. But his aim is also to steep tourists in the atmosphere of the Quadrilatero, a miniature maze of narrow medieval streets where tiny family-owned shops, more akin to fancy streetside food stalls than actual stores, will sell you anything from greens to cheese.

In between ogling the large selection of seafood on display at Pescheria L’Adriatica in the Via Drapperie, the whole salamis and prosciuttos hanging from the shelves at Ceccarelli’s in the Via Pescherie Vecchie and the rare mushrooms and truffles at Franceschini’s (also in the Via Pescherie Vecchie), Corvucci makes sure to keep his clients going by stopping for an espresso at one of the cafes that dot the cobblestoned Quadrilatero.

Pasta and precision

Of the cooking schools popping up all over town, La Vecchia Scuola is one of the oldest and most established. It is the creation of Alessandra Spisni, who was raised as a veritable sfoglina (the name for local women who make fresh pasta professionally), then became a successful entrepreneur and is now also a regular on TV.

On a Tuesday morning, La Vecchia Scuola’s newly inaugurated location in the Via Galliera, a historic street that runs parallel to the Via Indipendenza, one of the main commercial arteries of downtown Bologna, is a beehive of activity. The school moved to this large, two-story venue in September to accommodate the continuous expansion of class offerings and its growing number of students.

At one end of the upstairs kitchen — a mix of state-of-the-art equipment and low-tech traditional pastamaking tools — aspiring chefs from around the country and the world are readying yet another batch of tortellini for their three-month professional course, folding flaps of handmade dough over a pork-based filling. At the other end, an out-of-town couple begins a half-day tagliatelle class by breaking four eggs into flour and kneading it all up into a ball of golden dough.

A few tables over, four students stretch similarly hand-prepared dough into thin disks, slice them up into squares, place a lump of ricotta filling on each and then fold them into ravioli. Trolling between one workstation and the other are instructors Carla Tessitore, the patient one, and Alessandro Spisni, the gregarious and at times intimidating younger brother of owner Alessandra. “What do you think you are doing there?” he yells at one point. “Do you ever listen to me?” He has taken issue with how Claudia Baracchi, from Switzerland, is using the rolling pin on her dough. But he doesn’t stay angry for long, and Baracchi soon gets a pat on the back and a playful “cara,” or dear.

Teachers at La Vecchia Scuola do their best to cultivate a convivial atmosphere, but they are exacting. Here, the making of fresh pasta — more than a dozen varieties of it — is approached with precision, almost a kind of reverence. The school is a perfect fit for foodies eager to work hard for at least a few hours before sitting down to savor the fruit of their labors.

Hands-on gelato

A more intimate atmosphere is the hallmark of Il Salotto di Penelope (Penelope’s Lounge). Hidden away on the far side of a courtyard off the Via San Felice, a porticoed street that connects downtown to one of the city’s medieval gates, this large but charming professional kitchen has been in use for more than 50 years. The Simili sisters, two of Bologna’s most famous sfogline who are now well into their 90s, worked here until recently. Today, chatty friends Barbara Zaccagni and Valeria Hensemberger manage the place.

I visit them one weekday evening as they’re teaching 17 people how to make tortellini. “The secret is stretching out the dough so thin that you can see San Luca through it,” says Zaccagni. She’s referring to the salmon-colored 18th-century Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, which stands guard over Bologna from high atop a hill just outside town. On the drive to Bologna from the north, San Luca is the first thing you see from the plain, emerging from the characteristic fog and signaling to returning locals that they’re finally home.

A few days later, my mother and I visit the proverbial cherry on my cooking-school cake — the Gelato Museum, opened last year by Carpigiani, the world’s largest maker of professional gelato equipment. In the same location right outside town, Carpigiani also manages the for-profit Gelato University, catering to people who dream of opening an artisanal gelato shop.

My mom and I first take a guided tour through old artifacts and machinery with a group of Chinese high school students. Then the two of us sit down with Italy-educated Japanese teacher Makoto Irie for an hour-long gelato-making class.

Irie guides us through the rules for making a sherbet (an Arab invention from the 11th century, we learn) with fresh oranges that had come straight from the market that morning. This turns out to involve more math than I’d expected, to find the right balance between the natural sugars in the fruit and added sugars.

But we do okay in the end, and during the tasting session that follows, we’re pretty impressed with our soft, brightly colored final product. Though we’ve made the sherbet in a professional Carpigiani machine, Irie explains how to make it by hand and sends us home with amateur-appropriate instructions. My mom and I immediately replicate the experiment with a much smaller, non-professional and non-Carpigiani device that she has owned for many years. It’s a big hit with our dinner guests that evening.

“When you hear mention of Bolognese cuisine, take a bow, for it deserves such respect,” wrote Pellegrino Artusi in his 1891 cookbook, “The Science of Cookery and the Art of Eating Well,” which was the Italian housewife’s bible for decades. Today, this city’s culinary tradition no longer has to be just an obscure object of desire. Everyone’s free, even welcome, to dabble — and delight — in it.


Pasquali is a freelance journalist based in Washington who travels frequently to Italy and beyond.

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