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25th August
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, August 25, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

Recently, I returned from a vacation in Italy, a country that I have had the great delight to visit a number of times in the past 30 years.

My modus operandi when traveling in Italy is to rent a car and drive between cities. When my wife and I were discussing our itinerary for this trip, we found that the distance between a stop in Perugia, and our final destination, Lake Maggiore, was a bit too long for me to comfortably drive. The solution was an intermediate stop, a pleasant prospect in a country where nearly every city and town is worthy of a visit.
When I suggested that we might want to revisit Bologna, my wife was skeptical. Our first visit there in 1976 was a flop. But that was then and this is now,
so we decided to give Bologna a second chance. I’m glad we did.

Bologna is a great center of Italian cuisine. It is the town that invented tortellini and ragu, which is much more than just a meat sauce. It is the home of mortadella, which is a lot better than the bologna that we Americans named after the town, but insulted with the blandness of our product. One can’t help but admire a people who can create a sausage a foot in diameter, with huge lumps of fat speckled in every slice. The city was nicknamed La Grassa, the fat, at least partially in tribute to the rich cuisine.

The Bolognese have a reputation throughout Italy of being free spirits. In the main town square, the Piazza Maggiore, is the Fountain of Neptune, a statue of the god of the oceans, who is surrounded by four sea nymphs holding their bare breasts, with streams of water spraying from the nipples. This fountain had to bring smiles to the faces of the Bolognese even in 1566 when it was completed. Bologna even had its own twin towers, two wacky leaning towers built in the same square by competing families in a medieval game of one-upmanship. So we happily included Bologna in our plans back in 1976, and greatly looked forward to our brief stay.

It didn’t help back then that my car broke down on the outskirts of the city. In my youthful exuberance, and a desire to save money, I rented a Fiat 127 with an unfamiliar (to me) standard transmission. I was not yet aware that the name Fiat is an acronym for “Fix It Again, Tony.” My car stalled and sputtered, but I somehow managed to cruise into the parking lot of a factory that re-treaded old tires. The factory was strangely empty except for a man and a woman who, as I recall, had the build of a football player. I have always found Italians enormously friendly and helpful to tourists, and this was no exception. When my wife and I explained our predicament in our much-less-than-adequate Italian, the couple eagerly pitched in.They got us moving after a process that concluded with a great deal of energetic pushing by the impressively muscular woman.

We finally got into town, and my hotel directed me to a nearby mechanic who repaired my car. We were ready to see Bologna and eat some of the famous Bolognese cuisine. It was by then about 3 p.m., and the town should have been waking up from the traditional Italian mid-afternoon siesta. But it wasn’t awakening. We discovered that the entire town was on strike, and was shut down tight. We had frequently encountered strikes and demonstrations in our Italian travels before, but never anything so widespread or paralyzing. It was never clear what these strikes were about or hoped to accomplish. It just seemed to be part of life, something for both tourists and residents to work around.

The fact that it was also a gray day didn’t help. At dinnertime we had trouble finding an open restaurant, and when we did, our much-anticipated dinner in this great culinary center was disappointing. I dimly recall that I had the Bollito Misto, a Bolognese specialty. A cart containing a variety of boiled meats, some familiar, some not, is wheeled to your table and you select what you want. On that gray day it was a disappointment. The meat was bland. The next morning we hit the road, happy to leave Bologna.

I never did find out why the city was on strike. Bologna was famous for its far-left politics: its municipal government was the showplace for the PCI, Italy’s once powerful Communist Party. Things got worse for Bologna on August 2, 1980, four years after my ill-fated visit. Under circumstances still shrouded in mystery, the railroad station there was bombed, killing 85, and injuring another 200.

Some said the far left was responsible, others blamed the far-right. To outsiders like me, it was hard to tell the difference. When I returned to Bologna a few weeks ago, I pointed out to my wife that the time on one of the clocks outside the railroad station was way off, joking that Mussolini wouldn’t tolerate anything that prevented the trains from running on time. But I learned that the clock wasn’t malfunctioning. It was stopped at 10:25, the time of the fatal blast.

Things have changed for the better in Bologna. The Communist-led city government was voted out in 1999, replaced with a center-right coalition. Instead of a city filled with banners and signs proclaiming sciopero, strike, we returned to see signs saying saldi, sale, and sconti, discounts. Instead of picket signs, the Bolognese were carrying shopping bags from fashionable stores. This time there weren’t too few restaurants open to serve us, but perhaps too many. In the couple of miles that we walked through the city, we counted no fewer than five McDonald’s restaurants.

Bologna seemed to have discovered free enterprise. Maybe they just woke up, or the trauma of the 1980 bombing somehow snapped the city back into the mainstream of western life. I can still taste the fabulous meal we enjoyed at Ristorante Diana, the traditional Bolognese eatery located at via Indipendenza 24. Here white-coated waiters efficiently serve a clientele that seemed to be virtually all locals — a rarity in tourist-filled Italy.

We gorged ourselves on Lasagne Verde, the tender green pasta strips layered with meat and béchamel. The tagliatelle al ragu met every expectation, and we found the arrosto misto, mixed roast meats, also served from a rolling cart, more to our liking than the boiled counterpart that was so disappointing to us a quarter century before.

The next morning, we set off for the lakes well-fed and happy, our oneday stop a triumph. Since our 1976 visit, Bologna seems to have turned itself around from bad politics and the mindless violence of terrorism. The lessons of Bologna should not be lost on us here in New York

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

 

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