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A taste of BOLOGNA: Discovering the cuisine of northern Italy

By John Edward YoungStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 1985

Bologna, Italy

IN the 14th century, the city government here passed a law prohibiting the Bolognese from eating more than three kinds of boiled or roasted meats in one meal. Fortunately for the Bolognese, the law no longer exists. One can only speculate that they paid little or no attention to it anyway.

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Although this city is the gastronomic capital of northern Italy, it is not the boundary. All of Emilia-Romagna, shares the joy of a well-set table.

Of Italy's 20 regions, Emilia-Romagna is the most affluent -- in per capita income, intellect (half the Italians in Who's Who are from here), and agriculture. This abundance of riches and comparative leisure has contributed to the luxury of time and imagination so evident in the cuisine.

Here handmade pasta is patiently rolled, stuffed, and nimbly worked into quaint little hat-shaped cappelletti, chubby tortelli, and bite-size tortellini.

These tender pouches will more than likely be dusted with the coveted ``King of Italian Cheese,'' Parmigiano-Reggiano -- the local cheese that must, by law, age a minimum of 18 months.

Parma hams, which yield finely grained, ambrosian prosciutto, hang in long, shuttered warehouses for at least one year before being sold. The region's semisweet balsamic vinegar, which may dress a salad or even a bowl of strawberries, has mellowed from three to 30 years or more before being bottled.

A meal you savor here may literally have been many years in the making.

It was not this northern area, however, but the southern portion of Italy that contributed most to what people outside the country tend to think of as Italian food.

When the United States opened its gates around the turn of the century in an appeal for cheap labor, it was the poorer, struggling Italians from the arid south, not the wealthy, comfortable northerners, that packed up and voyaged west.

These immigrants brought their cuisine with them -- thick tomato sauces laced with garlic, olive oil, and oregano; simple dishes of affordable chicken; fava beans and vegetable soups; and of course the ubiquitous pizza.

All this was quickly labeled ``Italian food'' by the outside world. Wonderful food to be sure, but not, shall we say, the whole meatball.

During a recent three weeks in northern Italy, and more meals than I care to count, I never once sat down to a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce: a surprise in a country where I was told pasta is eaten in some form or another on an average of twice a day.

Only recently has northern cuisine been ``discovered'' beyond these borders.

Now that it has become fashionable outside Italy, have people's ideas changed as to what Italian food is all about?

``Absolutely not,'' said a chef of a two-star restaurant in Bologna. ``Many of our foreign clientele -- especially Americans -- sometimes look a little distraught when they see our menu. You know they're looking for something `Italian' like pizza, spaghetti, or lasagna.''

Not that you won't find pizza in the north. This traditionally southern dish has worked its way up the ``boot'' and beyond. ``Pizza,'' I was told, ``makes a wonderful plate on which to serve our own specialties.'' True enough. Some of the best pizza I've eaten was in Bologna -- a thin crisp crust topped with fresh mozzarella and wild mushrooms. Prosciutto, sliced as thinly as onion skin, was added just as the pizza was pulled hot from the wood-burning oven.

Emilia-Romagna has many specialties. Here, along the banks of the twisting Po River, lie vast flat and fertile farmlands. Pastures of grazing Chianina cattle provide the cream, butter, cheese, and veal for which this area is famous. And who can resist carpaccio -- paper-thin slices of raw beef glistening with virgin olive oil and lemon juice, served with Parmesan cheese and sliced raw mushrooms.