Bologna. It’s Not Just For School Lunches Anymore!

I’ve been in what many Italians consider to be the culinary center of the country for the last couple of days and am beginning to warm up to the city. We got off to a bad start.

I booked a very affordable B+B over the Internet, not far from the historic center of town. The reviews I read were positive enough and it sounded like a nice place to stay for my five nights here. I didn’t read enough reviews.

Number One: The room was one of three rented out in a private apartment. Now I’ve been in many B+Bs in Italy and none have been quite like this. It is run by a married couple, and guess what, they both work out of the home…so the, as it turns out, not very nice owner, the guy, has a rule that no one is allowed in their rooms between nine and five, while they are away at work. Not a good arrangement for weary travelers who often need room access mid-day for naps, baths, reading, more naps, etc. Strike one.

Number Two: Though a large sign says that this place is a non-smoking facility, the guy, Roberto, is clearly a heavy smoker since the entire place smells like smoke. Hypocrite, almost an asshole. Strike two.

So I decided not to stay, and went out hunting for other digs…

I finally found one which was totally filled with Middle Easterners, all Skyping back home to where ever…it was an odd atmosphere, very odd. So I did find an interesting hotel, but it was going to cost twice as much as the Beatrice, Beavis and Butthead place, but I decided it would be worth every cent. So I called via Skype, and, after trying to make arrangements on the phone, just told the clerk I would show up in person…it was less than a 10-minute walk. Problem: Bologna is a convention and trade show town, and a very large show was opening on Wednesday, so the price of my room was goint to skyrocket to more than $300 per night as of Wednesday…total outlay for four nights: $1200!!!! But I’m still just happy to be away from that jerk. I went back to gather my stuff, and though I’d already paid, via a deposit, for the first night, I forfeited that happily to get the hell out of there.

My home in Bologna

So I am now in my $300+ suite at the Hotel Touring, the only thing they had open for my final two nights. It is way too big, as it is, my first room here was about 3x the size, no, 4x the size of the B+B from HELL!

Bologna is famous for many things, both absolutely indigenous, and even for things emanating from nearby: Parmigiano Reggiano, the king of cheeses, Prosciutto di Parma, both from just up the road, balsamic vinegar, and I mean the real deal from Modena, the pseudo junk you can buy in the States, or in Italy. Chances are, you have never had real Aceto Balsamico…it costs a minimum of about $75 for three ounces, and that is just a starting point….it’s easy to spend a few hundred on the really good, old stuff. But the crowning glory of La Cucina Bolognese is the art of handmade, hand-rolled fresh egg pasta which in Bologna is referred to as sfoglia, a word which is related to the Italian word for leaf or a thin foil, foglia.  So I’m here for five days, enrolled in a class to learn a small bit of this art from the best school teaching this in town, La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese. They offer courses for amateurs like me, but also, a 1,000 hour class for food professionals. They regularly train the shrinking group of restaurant folks who can still do this…it’s time consuming, and therefore expensive…I don’t know what these, mostly women, pasta makers get paid, but I’m sure it is a hefty sum. Otherwise, there would be far more than the handful of artisans who still do this the old way, even here in Bologna.

The Vecchia Scuola Bolognese Pasta Making School

I’ve been making pasta at home for nearly 20 years, and I was terrified of not being able to accomplish the feat of kneading the dough for at least 20 minutes, making it soft and pliable enough to roll, and to then roll it into a paper thin, enormous sheet of yellow pasta with a four-foot long rolling pin. Absolutely terrified. Part of it was language, though my comprehension of spoken Italian is ok, I don’t use it enough to speak with any real fluidity. Oh, and then the dough: the style I have been making for two decades comes primarily from Tuscany via my hero, Guiliano Bugialli. Well, his dough is a bit drier, and thus, stiffer than the dough made here, and that is why I was terrified of trying to roll it. At least the way it turns out for me, I don’t think I could ever accomplish the feat with the mattarello. No way.

But classes started yesterday, and guess what? I can do it!  The dough incorporates more eggs than Tuscan pasta, and is therefore wetter, which makes the dough, at least after the long kneading, far more elastic, pliable, and best of all, soft! And very easy to roll with the rather long wooden pin.

Maestro Alessandro, Winner of Many Pasta Making Competitions

We’ve jumped right in, and the first day mixed and kneaded the dough, rolled out some dough, and made a few shapes: garganelli and strozzapretti the first day. On Tuesday (it’s already Thursday as I finish this post), we made and rolled more dough, but this time we made several shapes of stuffed pasta like tortelloni, mezzlune, cestine and others, basically all variations on the them of pasta stuffed with a tasty filling comprised of amazingly good and smooth ricotta (the stuff we get in the USA is garbage, is flavorless and very grainy; also, ricotta is NOT actually cheese, but a coagulated product made from the whey left over from cheesmaking…), 3-year-old Parmigiano Reggiano, an egg, a bit of chopped parsley, lots of grated, fresh nutmeg. I must have made at least 50 or 60 of these, in all the available shapes. Then I was taken aside and asked to make ravioli which used the same filling, but a very different technique of stuffing.

Tortelloni (yes, BIG tortelli, tortellini are small tortelli) are made by cutting the dough into roughly two-inch squared, and then exuding the filling onto each square from a pastry bag.

Finished Tortelloni
Tortelloni ready for folding

The ravioli are made by folding a two-foot circle of pasta in two, folding over half onto itself so it won’t dry, then exuding small dots of filling in very uniform rows and columns across the other half of the dough. When the filling dots are totally distributed, then the other, folded half of the sheet is carefully lifted over the filled side and used like a blanket to cover the dots. Then, starting at the fold, the dough is gently pressed around each dot of ripieno to seal the filling between the two sheets being careful to squeeze out as much air from around the filling. Why? Well, when air heats up, like in a pot of boiling water, it expands. Guess what happens when that happens when the air is sealed inside a balloon of pasta sheets? Yep…boom!

Ravioli about to be covered with the pasta
Ravioli ready to cut

 Then a serrated cutting wheel is run between each row and column to produce the finished ravioli. By the way, the singular of ravioli is….raviolo. Panini, plural, panino, singular. I’ll keep reminding you, don’t worry!

I made many dozen ravioli with my one sheet, I lost count, but it must have been at least eight or nine dozen. They looked good to me! And I was complimented by the teacher. So I’m slowly making progress.

My Ravioli

(I am finishing this only on Thursday, after my fourth class. I’ve just been too exhausted each night to finish…the classes are 10-2 and that cuts right in the middle of the day, so no time in the morning, then after lunch, then some sort of rest, then dinner, well, no energy left for thinking and writing.)

I’ve now made more pasta types: today, gnocchi, tagliatelle, and caramelle. And I’ve gotten much better at rolling out nearly paper thin pasta with the rolling pin…and today I used my very own mattarello which I bought this morning along with some other impossible to find in the USA pasta making supplies. I hope I don’t get stopped by airport security!!!

So if you are reading this, give me a day’s notice and I’ll crank up the mattarello! From just flour and eggs to rolled pasta in less than an hour now, and with more practice, I’ll get it down to under 45 minutes…

The Scuola has a section for training professional pasta makers which is three months of 7-8 hour days. There are three women enrolled in the course right now, two from Bologna, and one from Tokyo. I’ve watched their greatly advanced skill with great envy. They are quite quick and sure in all their techniques and mostly, for this week, they have been making tortellini by the thousands, literally. The school sells these to restaurants and individuals and I think uses the students as unpaid slave labor! Yesterday, two of them mixed the filling for thousands more in a ten-gallon tub, churning and mixing the ground meats: mortadella, prosciutto, pork along with egg, grated Parmigiano, and plenty of nutmeg.

The Japanese Professional-level Student

Well, today, they finally acknowledged my presence in the room! None of them had said really a word to me all week, but I think they have recognized that my dedication to the class, and my level of skill (I’m not bragging here, and it still has a long way to go, believe me), but they were all in the same place once and I think they’ve noticed my progress. I was cutting tagliatelle today, which I had done horribly yesterday, and I heard them making comments like, “They are all completely even and precise,” referring to the cutting of the folded sheets into thin ribbons, each, finally, uniform in width. They were even helping unwind the cut threads so they could dry a bit before being rolled around the hand into little nests which would soon dry to a brittle hardness. Thanks, raggaze!

Tomorrow, it’s green pasta which is used for lasagne and I don’t know what else…then I get my certificate as a sfoglia expert. I am truly thrilled, and so glad I found and stuck with this class. It has been and will be worth every bit of effort and money. I am graduating into a very small and select group of pasta makers, and I feel very honored, and very lucky.

My first sheet of sfoglia

If I weren’t such an asshole, maybe this skill and a couple million dollars would snare me a cute, smart significant other!  Ha ha ha.  No, not even these would work! So I’ll eat my hand-rolled sfoglia by myself, said the Little Red Hen!

Next, some reports on the restaurants of Bologna. I’ve had no time for sighseeing, so be prepared for lots of food porn!

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