Freshly made tagliatelle is a thing of beauty (Photos: Simon Day)
Freshly made tagliatelle is a thing of beauty (Photos: Simon Day)

KaiJuly 2, 2018

Spaghetti bolognese doesn’t exist: A love letter to Bologna

Freshly made tagliatelle is a thing of beauty (Photos: Simon Day)
Freshly made tagliatelle is a thing of beauty (Photos: Simon Day)

A quest for pasta perfection takes one carb enthusiast from Mt Eden, Auckland, to Bologna, Italy.

This story originally ran in Barker’s 1972 magazine.

During my three-week honeymoon in Europe, I gained 7kg. Despite spending only two days there, I believe Bologna is where the majority of the weight was assumed. I am obsessed with pasta and Bologna is the best place in the world to eat it.

The city’s reputation predicted my expansion. It’s earned the nickname “la grassa” – the fat one – for its famous cuisine. Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, and to plagiarise a previous visitor writing in our apartment’s guestbook, it is the city most devoted to food and wine in the Italian region most devoted to food and wine in the country most devoted to food and wine.

Most visitors to Italy don’t even bother getting off the train in Bologna, located halfway between Florence and Venice. Its beautiful terracotta buildings aren’t of interest to the tourists who want selfies at the Colosseum. There are no pebbly beaches for breaking out your speedos. There isn’t any Chianti for crowds to drink from a wine glass attached to a lanyard. So if you run a restaurant in Bologna, you have to be really good to survive. In Florence or Venice there are so many Americans looking for a menu in English, the quality of food is irrelevant as long as the pages are laminated. In Bologna, menus are handwritten on brown paper, sometimes there’s no menu at all and the food just starts to arrive. And whatever arrived at my table on my brief visit was exquisite.

We arrived at lunchtime, so immediately took the opportunity to have lunch. We found a table on the cobblestones beneath the famous Asinelli and Garisenda towers (the Garisenda tower leans at 4 degrees compared with Pisa’s tower tilt of 3.97 degrees, so flag that tourist trap and spend an extra day eating in Bologna). Our first meal was the city’s most famous, tagliatelle al ragù di Bologna, and easily Italy’s most bastardised dish, passed off around the world as ‘spaghetti bolognese’.

Italians hate ‘spaghetti bolognese’. To them it’s one of the great travesties committed against their cuisine (along with cream in carbonara, meatballs served with pasta, and, perhaps the greatest crime of all, tinned spaghetti on pizza). They’ve watched their food, the cornerstone of their culture, get exported and then degraded and disfigured. You wouldn’t retouch Michelangelo’s David, so why do we insist on changing recipes perfected over hundreds of years?

Bologna from above

On the first page of the menu of Paste & Cuore, an Italian restaurant and pastificio in Auckland’s Mt Eden village, is their vision statement: “Spaghetti bolognese doesn’t exist”. It’s an important fact check that owner and head chef Stefania Ugolini (a proud export of Bologna) wants right in the face of New Zealanders coming to experience her authentic, pasta-focused Italian food.

“In Bologna we are very protective of the authenticity of our thing. I put in ‘spaghetti bolognese doesn’t exist’ because we know this in Italy, but in Bologna specifically we are the mother and father of the sauce. We know the tagliatelle and Bologna sauce is born together like twins. You cannot separate the twins,” she says.

As we sat on the medieval streets of Bologna, our tagliatelle al ragù was unlike any spag bol I’d ever tried. The “bolognese” is rich and sweet, the minced beef cooked down with pancetta, and has a deep citrus-like flavour from the tomatoes that have cooked with the meat for hours. The tagliatelle is thin but wide, firm and long, its texture like velvet. Bologna’s famous sauce was born with tagliatelle for a reason – it’s the perfect width to carry the sauce’s nuggets of beef. Spaghetti with a meat sauce makes no sense to Italians; it falls off the thin pasta and its purpose as a vehicle for flavour is defeated.

“Spaghetti is too smooth. The sauce does not grip. There is a reason,” Stefania says with flagrant frustration.

The dimensions of pasta are a serious thing for Italians. In the Chamber of Commerce in Bologna, housed in a glass case is a solid gold representation of a perfect tagliatella, exactly 1mm thick and 6mm wide. There are strict guidelines to pasta measurements. Spaghetti should be 2mm wide, tagliolini is 3mm, linguine 4mm, tagliatelle 6mm, fettuccine 8mm, and pappardelle 10mm. Each has a specific role and relationship with the sauce it is married with. Spaghetti’s thin tentacles carefully carry viscous cheese sauces like cacio e pepe, while pappardelle has the strength to bear heavy things like slow cooked beef cheek. Yet we ignore basic common sense and centuries of tradition when we steal Italian cuisine.

A solid gold representation of the perfect tagliatella in Bologna’s Chamber of Commerce

I’ve always cooked with dry packet pasta. I used to make spaghetti bolognese; I admit to adding cream to carbonara; I would serve meatballs with pasta. Until I met Stefania Ugolini. When I first ate at Pasta & Cuore I immediately became obsessed with traditional Italian food and handmade fresh pasta. Watching it made in the restaurant window on Mt Eden Road was entrancing, the long sheets of pasta passed deftly through the roller by the chefs. But it was the day Stefania taught me how to make it that I fell deeply in love with pasta, and the same day I knew I had to visit Bologna.

The dining room on the first floor of her restaurant was turned into a classroom. We were here to learn from the master. The first revelation was that pasta is made from just two ingredients, egg and flour – one egg for every 100g of double zero flour. But according to my teacher, there is an essential third element to making pasta:

“It’s love. Without love, you can’t make pasta properly. Without your passion, your sentiment,” says Stefania. Fittingly, “cuore” is the Italian word for heart.

When I first whipped the eggs into the flour, and then kneaded the soft, sticky dough, it started to break and crumble apart, a hole forming in the centre of what should have been a smooth ball. I was using too much force, robotically crushing my dough. I had to be kind but firm, nurture the dough, massage the yellow lump and encourage the gluten to do its work to create the silky texture.

Stefania probably thought she was being gentle in her critique, but the intensity of her Italianness made her displeasure with me loud and clear. She had the sentiment of a mother who wasn’t angry, but disappointed in me. It felt like she had the love and care of a parent invested in my development, but I suspect she loves pasta so much she couldn’t bear to watch me butcher it.

She took my bagel-like creation and nursed it back to an elastic ball of golden dough. She showed me how to manipulate my dough into the perfect texture, firm but bouncy, the outside smooth and shiny. The dough rests for around 15 minutes, and while we waited for the gluten to do its work, we shared an espresso and Stefania told me about her history and the history of Bologna.

Stefania Ugolini at Pasta & Cuore

She is the third in a maternal dynasty of chefs. Her grandmother was born in Emilia-Romagna in the early 1900s to a poor family who worked on the farm of the wealthy landowners. Aged 12, Stefania’s grandmother was sent to clean the family’s house and she started to cook with the other servants. The mistress saw passion and dedication in her cooking. She taught her to write and cook properly, and she was allowed to copy recipes from books and the newspaper. Eventually she became the family’s cook. She was taught the rules and traditions of the region’s cooking. When her mistress died, Stefania’s grandmother was gifted the notebook full of the recipes the pair had transcribed together.

This passion for food and cooking was passed down to Stefania’s mother. After getting work in a kitchen washing dishes, she worked her way to the role of head chef of the restaurant. She was then invited to work at Circolo della Caccia, an exclusive private club where politicians and the Italian elite rubbed pinstriped shoulders, which was home to one of Bologna’s finest restaurants. Established on 1 October 1888, the club describes itself “as an important meeting place for illustrious guests for more than 100 years”. For 15 of those years, Stefania’s mother ran the kitchen.

“When you are a daughter of a chef, you never eat at home with your mother. When my mother is home she doesn’t want to cook for us,” she says.

So, while she washed dishes and peeled potatoes at her mother’s restaurants, it was Stefania’s grandmother who taught her to cook and love food. She watched her grandmother turn simple ingredients into delicious meals. Her eyes were drawn to her grandmother’s hands that muscled giants lumps of dough into smooth sheets of pasta, and delicately folded half moons of tortellini. Her grandmother told Stefania that if she wanted to find a good husband, she must learn how to make good pasta; and so she began to share with her granddaughter the secrets of the traditional food of Bologna from her recipe books.

Stefania opened her own cafe in 1998, and a year later found a property in the hills outside the city to open her first restaurant. Her grandmother made fresh pasta, and she worked alongside her mother in the kitchen, while her daughter would occasionally work as a waitress. Local farmers would deliver vegetables, eggs, fresh milk and cheese. Stefania made sourdough bread from the flour ground in the local stone mill.

That Christmas her grandmother gifted her the treasured recipe books. It was Stefania’s story to tell now. For 10 years she ran that restaurant using her grandmother’s recipes. After she sold the restaurant, food took Stefania to the United States, where she started to think about the role of her cooking in telling Italy’s stories overseas. Now copies of the pages of her grandmother’s recipe book live in frames on the walls of her restaurant in Auckland, where she hopes to share the authenticity and dedication to quality of Italy and her home Bologna.

“It is my favourite place,” she says. “But I am biased. I think all Italy is special for food. But I like a lot the food that come from the north. I prefer simplicity. Elegant and honest.”

“These are the recipes of my grandmother.”

One of the recipe books handed down to Stefania by her grandmother

It was raining on our first night in Bologna and, on our way to dinner, we shot across the puddled road between the shelter of the city’s famous covered walkways – the porticos. They’re both an ingenious rain cover and a historic solution to Bologna’s expanding population in the late middle ages. Home to the oldest university in continual operation (founded in 1088), Bologna’s population exploded as students and academics descended on the city. To create urban growth without encroaching on public spaces, the city planners allowed buildings to extend out into the street, but only from the second floor or above, preserving the city’s civic space and creating the iconic porticos. Glowing from the shadows of the porticos is La Drogheria della Rosa, a restaurant that feels like you’re dining at someone’s home and where you are treated like family.

“I move you to a better table,” Emanuele Addone, the chef and owner of La Drogheria della Rosa, shouted at us he strode past our table, which was quietly tucked away in the back corner of the restaurant. “Follow me,” he demanded. So we picked up our bottle of wine and headed down the hallway to what was a much louder and much better table, because we got to watch Emanuele in action.

He charged through the restaurant with a heavy steel pot full of “tortellini a brodo”, tortellini in broth. He personally delivered giant ladles of the tiny morsels of pasta with a scoop of the soup, before sitting down to enjoy a plate of tortellini of his own with his guests. This is the dish the Emilia-Romagna region, and Emanuele, are most proud of.

The legend of tortellini is, deservedly, a love letter to beauty. After a heavy day on the battlefield, the gods Venus and Jupiter retired to an inn to rest in a small village halfway between Modena and Bologna. The innkeeper was so enamoured by Venus, the goddess of love, he spied on her through the keyhole of her room. All he could see was her naked belly button. Infatuated by her beauty, he released his sexual excitement like only an Italian could – in the kitchen – and he sculpted Venus’s delicate navel from pasta; thus, tortellini.

Bologna’s tiny tortellini are stuffed with pork, veal, mortadella, prosciutto, parmigiano and nutmeg. The broth is slowly boiled from iced water with a whole chicken, celery, carrots, onion and thyme, simmered very gently for four hours to retain its clear colour. Strained and skimmed, the broth is rich but subtle, salty and deep brown but still clear. The packages of pasta are dropped in the soup to cook and “the tortellini flavours the broth, and the broth flavours the tortellini”, Stefania tells me.

After our first course of pasta (and we quickly learned you must always have more than one course of pasta), Emanuele sat down with us, poured himself a glass of red wine and started to talk to us about food, and the young people’s failure to appreciate its history and tradition. The waitress, studying politics at the university, rolled her eyes so hard they nearly landed in my broth. She’d heard it all before. But Emanuele was unstoppable in his celebration and lament for the state of Italian cuisine. He stayed seated with us through the course of lasagna and tortelloni (tortellini’s larger cousin), talking without pause.

Emanuele Addone at La Drogheria della Rosa, his Bologna restaurant

New Zealanders haven’t quite grasped the idea of a chef joining their table to chat during a meal. At Pasta & Cuore, customers still get a fright if Stefania sits down to ask how they are enjoying their meal. But she’s working on breaking down the barrier. She wants to personally share the story of her food, and her country.

“We are so proud of our food,” she says. “We can stay at the table eat and talk about food for hours. It is an obsession.”

After my dough had rested, Stefania showed us how to roll it into a chubby sheet that is thin enough to pass through the pasta machine’s widest setting. The page of dough is compressed through six progressively tighter settings, forming yellow waves on the table as the sheet is squeezed through the rollers. Her grandmother would have pressed the sheet to 1mm using a rolling pin and the strength of her hands.

Folding the sheet back on itself, Stefania encouraged us to hand-cut the pasta, aiming for 6mm precision but with rustic imperfection. The pasta falls off the knife in a coil. Unrolling my first ribbon of tagliatelle was an immensely satisfying experience. How egg and flour became something this beautiful, I cannot understand.

“I like it because it is a simple thing,” she says. “It is just two ingredients. And you have infinite possibilities.”

In Bologna I ate tortelloni filled with ricotta, basil and lemon, soaked in a butter and sage sauce; I had tagliatelle infused with coffee served in a light film of cheese and black pepper; I tried delicate tubes of cannelloni, less than a millimetre thick, stuffed with pork and fennel; I had lasagne made with basil-infused sheets of pasta with a crunchy cheese top; I was served the famous tortellini a brodo by the ladle; there were long strands of green pasta served with thin chunks of Emilia-Romagna’s famous cured ham. And, of course, we consumed tagliatelle al ragù di Bologna four times in the two days we were in the city.

According to an outfit called the International Pasta Organisation, Italians eat the most pasta in the world, 26kg per capita every year. That’s more than double Venezuela, in second place. New Zealand doesn’t yet chart on the list of top 20 pasta-consuming countries, but, wherever we rank, I believe I’m single-handedly raising our position.

Keep going!