How They Cook In Bologna

Pasta making in italy handmade
Tagliatelle in their nests accompanied by Strichetti and Tortelloni. (Ben Maloney)

The large window looks out into a 13th-century church courtyard. The kitchen is filled with the soft natural light of a Sunday afternoon. It’s quiet here other than the soft singing of birds gossiping. It feels a million miles away from the center of Bologna, which is really right outside the door. Scattered around the room are the ancient tools used to make handmade pasta, a giant wood roller, tools for cutting pasta shapes, a giant wooden board for rolling dough. These are not just tools for pasta they are transmitters of culture and knowledge passed down from grandmother to granddaughter.

I’m in the 17th century home of Alessandra to learn how to make pasta for a traditional Bologna meal. Cooking an authentic Italian meal in a beautiful Italian home is something most can only dream of. To sit around a table enjoying authentic Italian food made some of the most beautiful aspects of Italian culture come to life.

We travel not for checklists and tourist sights but for experience, and this experience is something many travelers long for.It’s why Cristina Fortini has been so successful in creating Italy Food Nest. She exposes visitors to local culture with hands-on cooking classes in real Italian homes. Her mission is to not only give outsiders a deeper understanding of the way Italians live but to bridge the gap for visitors to get the real experiences they crave. In Italy, so much cultural experience is transmitted through food. Until today I’ve never quite understood the effort and expertise behind Italian cooking and what I’ll learn will reshape my entire understanding of Italian cuisine.

In Italy, so much cultural experience is transmitted through food.

Step one is to make the dough! (Ben Maloney)
Step one is to make the dough! (Ben Maloney)

The process seems simple enough putting eggs into flour, mixing it up, making dough, rolling it, cutting it, boiling it, and finally eating it. In reality, there’s much more to it than that as Monica (a professional pasta maker) teaches me as we make the dough. That’s the thing about great Italian cooks they don’t need measuring cups and precise amounts. They just have a feel for what’s right in the kitchen. It’s a mastery of knowledge that comes from being around great food their entire lives.

It’s a skill I definitely do not possess, therefore I’m trying to follow the recipe exactly. To feed four people I’ll need 3 eggs and 300 grams of flour. Easy enough! I make a flour wall around the broken eggs and slowly mix the flour into it. I’m already doing it wrong and Monica can see there is too much flour so she suggests taking some out. Her knowledge by sight and feel is not something I’ve acquired in the 15 minutes I’ve been an expert Italian chef. Knowing how the dough will turn out just from looking at the amount of yolk from the eggs is one of the many examples of Italian cooking knowledge learned over a lifetime. Once the dough is complete it’ll need to be hand rolled. A process that hasn’t changed much in a hundred years. I use a large wooden roller to slowly and methodically roll out the dough. Working towards the sides twisting and perfecting it like a Michalengalo statue.

Monica cuts Tagliatelle like a true pro. (Ben Maloney)
Monica cuts Tagliatelle like a true pro. (Ben Maloney)
The age old question in picture form "Am I doing this right?" (Ben Maloney)
The age old question in picture form “Am I doing this right?” (Ben Maloney)

The shapes of pasta are almost a religion in Bologna. You must know that Tagliatelle is long and thin. It’s made by letting the dough rest just enough to be cut into thin slices. You shape the slices into a small nest and let it sit. (It’s where Cristina Fortini got the idea for the name of her service). Though pasta is nothing without a proper sauce! Cooking a traditional Ragù (Bolognese meat sauce) is not for the impatient as a proper sauce takes 3-4 hours on the stove to mature into something worthy of sitting on pasta.

As we sat down for Sunday lunch I didn’t feel like an outsider. Alessandra’s children ran through the halls getting ready for a birthday party they had later that day. Among good conversation we laughed and eat together, and it felt like being at the dinner with my family growing up. These are the kind of experiences we travel for. The kind of experiences that make you realize ever so deeply that no matter how much our cultures may be separated by space, language, and tradition when we sit around a table together for a good meal we are all family.

FInally, we can eat! (Ben Maloney)
Finally, we can eat! From left Alessanda, Ben Maloney, Cristina Fortini, and Monica. (Ben Maloney)

Yes, you can do this too!

For an experience like this reach out to Cristina Fortini at Italy Food Nest.

For any Bologna related travel questions talk to the friendly experts at Bologna Welcome.