Italian food brings to mind tradition—homemade pasta, the scent of fresh bread wafting from family-run bakeries in the morning, and farm-to-table tomatoes from coveted recipes melting into sauces. Though large chain restaurants are gaining ground all over Europe, the prosperous foodie city of Bologna sticks with what it knows: pasta, pork, and cheese.
As a food capital of Italy, Bologna has been vital to the development of Italian food, and the Bolognese relish their traditional recipes. That makes it especially hard for non-Italian foods and shops to gain a place in the local food culture. Yet as Bologna attracts more foreigners, and more Italians travel abroad and bring foreign food traditions home, this city faces the challenge of balancing tradition with new culinary influences from abroad.
An Ethnic Festival is Exiled from the Center City
At an ethnic festival just outside the city walls, the sound of live music fills the air. Inside the tents, vendors are cooking the foods of their homelands. Indian, Ethiopian, Filipino and Mexican food are on offer -- and people from a big range of backgrounds sit together at the picnic tables, laughing, talking and enjoying the delicious non-local offerings.
These evenings, on the grounds of a private dormitory complex, grew out of a human rights night festival. The event originated 17 years ago in a Cinema club: its founders wanted to focus on the idea of music from around the world bringing together a community. Once the music program took off, the founders began asking their chef friends to bring the foods of their countries. The festival eventually moved to the city’s Giardini Margherita, where it became wildly popular.
Still, it has been a struggle for most foreign food purveyors to secure a niche within Bolognese food culture. Several say they’ve been pushed to the outside of the historical city walls because the food market grew competitive, and because commercial restaurants put pressure on the city council, which then reduced the time they were allowed to operate in the center city. Growing pressure from established Bolognese restaurants has caused the tourism markets to stop advertising the festival, according to the festival director Giulia Grassilli.
“The tourists will only do what the city tells them to do,” Grassilli said.
Non-Italian Food Choices Expanding
But beneath Bologna’s porticoes, more than a few restaurants are departing from Italian food traditions. Multiple vegan restaurants, for example, dot this city of meat and cheese.
Barbara Dongarrà runs the vegan restaurant Un ‘Altra Idea. A vegan since age 18, when she visited some farms and was shocked by the poor conditions in which the animals lived, Dongarrà started working when she was 21, and 10 years later had earned enough money to open her own vegan restaurant.
But due to financial challenges, and skepticism toward her unconventional way of cooking, she finds it extremely difficult to run her business.
“I put all of my heart into the preparation,” Dongarrà said.
Because of her dedication, she said, she has never experienced a negative reaction towards her restaurant. Although she finds that many Italians are open minded, most of her patrons are tourists from Germany and Israel.
Dongarrà is optimistic about the future of veganism in Italy, though, as she has noticed much more interest from young people. Because she has traveled around Italy, she is able to combine cultures from many regions in her cooking. For example, rice balls, a traditional Sicilian dish, are on her restaurant’s menu.