Bologna is considered the “culinary capital” of Italy. Let that sink in for a minute. We all grew up on lasagna, spaghetti, and other Italian classics, or I should say Americanized versions of Italian classics. As America has gone organic, made-from-scratch, food-to-table, and food truck crazy over the past decade, the gap between what we call Italian food and what they eat in Italy has unquestionably narrowed; however, there is still a difference. In Italy, made-from-scratch, simple family recipes using quality ingredients sourced locally from passionate suppliers is just a way of life, not a new discovery, and that commitment and history is evident. You can taste the difference, and it’s worth traveling for it.
Pasta is an art form in Italy. While we’d already enjoyed many exceptional pasta dishes during past trips to Italy, when I read that Bologna was the food capital of Italy, where chefs come to learn how to make pasta from scratch, and with local access to some of the very best meats, cheeses, vinegars and oils, among other ingredients, I knew we had to go on a mission for the best pasta experience in Bologna…which could very well mean the best pasta experience, period.
After doing our research, our target place was a no brainer, and it was only a 12-minute walk from the Piazza Maggiore. While 12 minutes doesn’t sound like much, walking in the dark through a local neighborhood without many people around almost caused us to turn around a couple of times. Fortunately, after just a couple of slightly concerning blocks, we wondered into an area full of atmospheric bars tucked away in arcade lined streets. Locals were huddled around the sidewalk outside and the yellow lights and full moon made the walk truly romantic and memorable.
The only question now remained, can we find this mecca of pasta greatness? I wasn’t entirely sure my GPS was tracking us correctly, as the blue dot kept jumping around. I half-expected to finally get to the coveted red thumbtack on my phone and yet find no semblance of a restaurant. And, in fact, when we arrived, according to our GPS, I thought we were lost because nothing I saw said to me “World’s Best Pasta”.
As it turns out, the entrance to pasta nirvana is an unmarked glass door surrounded by graffiti and is basically indistinguishable from the nearby doors that lead into abandoned buildings except for a couple of TripAdvisor® stickers and a small sign.
We walked in a bit cautiously, but then immediately knew we were in for something special. Behind the glass display case were two Italian grandmothers, the youngest one having to be in her mid-70s. Neither spoke a word of English, and the menu was hand-written in chalk on a blackboard in Italian.
The facility itself is designed for takeout, and in yet another indication of how great this place is, we saw local after local come in and order pasta to go. It’s amazing for me to think about being able to walk into this place and for less than 10 Euro walk out with “fast food” of this quality. I couldn’t help but wonder how much healthier the US would be if this pasta was a fast food option on every street corner.
If you do want to eat while you’re there, as we did, they do have a single table and a shelf that stretches around the wall for standing room only eating. We were fortunate to get the table.
In perhaps the only somewhat negative part of the experience, I ran out to buy a bottle of wine but there were only a couple of convenience stores nearby and they inexcusably had a very, very poor wine selection. WTF!? I just couldn’t bring myself to buy cheap wine from New Zealand while in Tuscany, so I ran further down the street and finally found a place with a decent bottle I could bring back for dinner. The one table was still available, and we grabbed it.
Now fully prepared to order and eat, we approached the counter and we were greeted by the younger of the two grandmothers while the elder statesman effortlessly twisted fresh tortellini with lightning quickness in the back of the open kitchen. I wondered how many years she had spent making pasta, and if anyone out there could fold and twist pasta with any greater effectiveness than what I was witnessing.
We recognized the words “bologna”, “pesto” and “truffle” in 3 different menu items, so we ordered one of each and then returned to our table. Within just a few minutes, we were presented with three good size containers of our pasta selections and we sat down to begin the ceremony. So simple, so flavorful, so fresh, each bite was truly delightful. No Michelin star restaurant in the world is serving better pasta than these two grandmothers dish up each night. The simple Bolognese was our favorite.
Looking back, the entire evening’s experience, from cautiously navigating the dark and questionable neighborhood on a quest for pasta, to enjoying the local neighborhood in the moonlight, to hunting for the completely non-descript door, to finding the restaurant that we would’ve walked right past if we hadn’t done our research and known where to look, to the two amazing grandmothers, to the perfectly small, simple atmosphere with the single table where we could perch ourselves and watch the parade of locals coming in for their pasta fix, it all added up to the kind of travel experience we cherish. However, the best part, after the entire quest was over, was actually enjoying what one could easily argue was the best example of pasta Bolognese in Bologna and, thereby, anywhere.
If you go to Bologna, in addition to all the food tours and cooking lessons and marketplaces and wonderful restaurants, get out a map and compass and hunt down the pasta at Pasta Fesca Naldi. It’ll be a meal and a memory you’ll never forget.
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