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.

WILL ITALIANS EVER EMBRACE SUSHI AND CURRY?

LIV STONE

Liv Stone is an American lifestyle photographer who splits her time between California and Mexico. She is an independent photographer and available for custom quotes.

LIV STONE

Not if the Bolognese have anything to say about it

Writing by Gianna Bruzzese, Mikaela Chianese and Mason Plotts

Photography by Mason Plotts

Interpreter: Chiara d’Alfonso

Bologna: People-Powered City

Foreign vs. Traditional. An appetizer platter at the non-traditional foods restaurant Un'Altra Idea (left), and a tray of fresh pasta from the top traditional restaurant Diana's. Some Bolognese seem uneasy with non-native cooking.

It took the owner of the Chinese restaurant La Rosa nearly 30 years to persuade the locals to accept his cuisine.

Other non-Italian cuisines have fought for a place in the Bolognese food market.

The Chinese restaurant La Rosa is tucked away in a small alley, with a simple, rose-adorned sign hanging outside the door. Owner Jiong Neiqing credits his success in the food market to his family’s background, and to the faithful quality of his Chinese recipes.

But it was not always easy for La Rosa to gain its expansive Bolognese clientele;  Neiqing remembers when the Italians would not accept his food. It has taken 29 years of networking and restaurant experience in Italy to finally establish the almost exclusively Italian clientele he now has.

During our interview, one of his customers came over to greet him, with a handshake and a chat; it’s clear that he’s found a niche here at last.    

Younger Bolognese can be more adventurous eaters. University of Bologna student Chiara D’Alfonso lists sushi and Chinese as some of her favorite foods. She attributes her broader approach to her travels, during which she’s been able to experience other cultures. Among her hometown friends in the coastal Italian city of Ancona, she acknowledged, attitudes toward ethnic foods can be negative.

It can be tough for foreign foods to compete with Italian food traditions and history, codified in the first Italian cookbook, Pellegrino Artusi’s “Science in the Kitchen, and the Art of Eating Well,” in 1891. Many recipes have not changed since then – and the book is still reverentially handed down, from mother to daughter, upon a daughter’s marriage. But D’Alfonso acknowledges that there has been “an upward trend in ethnic places that may force the market to change in the future.”

Working against change is Bologna’s traditional cuisine, upon which the city’s prosperity is based. Pasta is woven through Italian history, and many restaurateurs don’t see this changing anytime soon. Nor do they feel threatened by the influx of festivals glorifying diversity, ethnic and dietary-concerned restaurants, or by large fast food chains.

“Tradition is a winning strategy for me, and you never change a winning team,” said Eros Palmirani, the owner of Diana, one of Bologna’s most famous and historically rich restaurants. However, he admits that if the Italians themselves began to demand different types of food, he would be forced to oblige them. Is "Slow Food" Delaying Diversity?

A reverence for Italian food traditions and authenticity gave birth to the Slow Food movement, which was founded in Italy in 1986. Slow Food seeks to ensure the health and origins of products from farm to plate. The nonprofit organization that leads the movement supports free trade and locally grown products over any other imported goods. Although such notions seem admirable, Italy’s Slow Food movement is extremely exclusive: its markets only serve products and dishes of traditional Italian cuisine.

“People are paying more attention to the quality of food, that it should be “good, clean and fair,” Slow Food representative Antonella Bonora said. “So people are looking for good food, and they can easily find it in traditional cuisine.”

But this stance also discourages experimentation in the restaurant arena, as it looks to support only those food purveyors that faithfully support their Italian roots. The movement could even end up alienating efforts to expand foreign foods into Italy.  

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