A taste of BOLOGNA: Discovering the cuisine of northern 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.

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.

Maize is ground into polenta, a sort of cornmeal porridge, perhaps to be mixed with cheese or topped with truffles. Scaloppine of veal is listed on numerous menus in a variety of dishes -- sometimes served with a simple reduced cream sauce and wild fungi, or perhaps in a more esoteric dish with pur'eed nettles and red peppers. Ossobuco -- veal shin braised and topped with Bolognese sauce -- is served with an accompanying marrow spoon to scoop the creamy marrow from the bone.

Trout from icy Apennine streams are lightly saut'eed and served on a bed of finely shredded red-leafed radicchio. Saltwater fish from both the Adriatic and Atlantic may well appear on the same plate -- baked in rock salt or stuffed with vegetables and herbs.

Some highlights from three weeks of memorable meals include one served at the foot of the Apennine Mountains where freshly picked wild porcini mushrooms were served five ways.

A lunch in Ferrara included a casserole of sweet fresh eel caught, they say, by the light of a full moon and cooked with tangy cabbage, preceded by Cappellacci con Zucca -- pockets of pasta stuffed with pumpkin, then flavored with nutmeg and topped with a simple butter sauce.

In Parma I tasted moist baked sea bass and culatello -- the best of the prosciutto -- served with fresh green and purple figs. There were also grilled porcini mushroom caps as large as saucers, grilled over oak, drizzled with green olive oil, and dusted with freshly ground black pepper.

In Bologna, the variety of ways they can dress a plate of tagliatelle is spectacular. The aroma that rises from a plate of these simple noodles as a waiter shaves slivers of pale white truffles onto the steaming buttered pasta is beyond description. The Italians may have a word for it; I don't.

Tagliatelle may also be served with cream and prosciutto, Bolognese sauce, small bits of anchovies and capers, or just butter and Parmesan cheese, to name but a few possibilities.

As I am not much of a dessert eater, my memories of this course are less vivid. One indelible offering, however, was a small dish of mascarpone, a soft, mild, triple-cream, white cheese sprinkled with cocoa. I managed a ``No, grazie'' after three servings.

I do have one general criticism of the fare here. Italians seem to have as little concern for their cooked vegetables as some say they have for their politics. They seem to take neither too seriously. Don't be surprised if in a humble trattoria, or in a starred restaurant, your cauliflower or beans are overcooked, cold, or both.

If, however, you doubt that this cuisine satisfies a nation of food-lovers, check a local phone book and see how few foreign restaurants there are in Italy.

The following dish is typical of the area. Ragu alla Bolognese 3 tablespoons olive oil 3 tablespoons butter 2 large onions, finely chopped 1 carrot, scraped and finely chopped 1 rib celery, scraped and finely chopped 1 pound very lean ground beef 2 cups canned Italian tomatoes with juice, chopped 1 tablespoon tomato paste 2 1/2 cups chicken or beef stock 1/4 cup heavy cream 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg Salt and pepper to taste

In a large heavy saucepan, heat oil and butter. Add vegetables except tomatoes and saut'e until soft, about 20 minutes. Add ground beef and cook until lightly browned. Add tomatoes and tomato paste and 1/2 cup stock. Bring to boil and partly cover.

Simmer 3 1/2 to 5 hours, adding 1/2 cup stock at a time when necessary. Just before serving, add cream, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Mix well. Serve hot over your favorite cooked pasta. Serves about 6.

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