A Spirited and Unconventional Guide to Italian Culture

Suddenly find yourself in Bologna through the musings and rich experiences of author Carla Gambescia.

The following is a spirited excerpt from Carla Gambescia’s book La Dolce Vita University: An Unconventional Insider’s Guide to Italian Culture From A to Z.

Bolognese . . . Sauce or Dog?

The answer is: both! But let’s first explore the city of Bologna, home of both the legendary pasta sauce and noble breed of dog.

All too often overlooked on the basic Italian tourist itinerary: a buzzing prosperous city renowned as the gastronomic center of Italy and capital of the Emilia-Romagna. It has an opulent feel reflecting both its present and illustrious past. Bologna is bellissima. The center is quintessentially medieval with red tiled roofs and balconies radiating out from the great central square of Piazza Maggiore and a harmonious ensemble of porticoed walkways, red-brick palazzi, and charming squares. There are numerous monuments and curiosities including plenty of small quirky museums and, most conspicuously, the Due Torri, Bologna’s own two “leaning towers.”

Bologna skyline with landmarks San Petronio church and Piazza Maggiore.

Italians refer to Bologna as la dotta, la rossa, e la grassa, “the erudite, the red, and the fat.” “The erudite,” because it is home to the oldest true university in the world—known as La Dotta (The Learned)—which first achieved its worldwide fame as a law school and then medical school. Thomas Becket, Petrarch, Copernicus, and Erasmus studied at Bologna. Marcello Malphighi, the great pioneering physician, Luigi Galvani, one of the first biologists, and novelist Umberto Eco taught there. Today 100,000 Italian and foreign students attend the university, making up about 20 percent of the city’s population, and bringing a true “happening” energy and vibe to the city, whether in theater, music, summer festivals, or just the café and bar scene, which is among northern Italy’s liveliest.

The atrium of Archiginnasio at the University of Bologna.

Bologna “the red” because of the vivid color of the roofs and buildings—and because Bologna has a reputation and long history of left-wing politics and is home to the former Italian communist party and its newspaper, L’Unita.

And finally, Bologna “the fat” because of its legendary gastronomy, prominently featuring meats, ham, salami, and, of course, the famous Bolognese sauce. Ragu alla Bolognese is typically served with tagliatelle or lasagna. Today it’s thought of as a red sauce but many recipes only add a small amount of tomato and the “original” did not; it was really all about the meats. The first recipe came from Pellegrino Artusi and is included in his cookbook published in 1891. Artusi’s recipe, Maccheroni alla bolognese, thought to have originated in the 1850s when he spent time in Bologna, called for lean veal filet, pancetta, onions, and carrots all finely minced, cooked with butter until brown, then cooked with broth. Artusi also suggested enhancements, like the addition of dried mushrooms or truffle slices, or finely chopped chicken liver cooked with the meat. He further suggested as a final touch the addition of cream to make an even smoother, richer-tasting dish.

The Accademia Italiana della Cucina (Italian Academy of Cuisine) registered the “authentic” recipe for Bolognese Ragù with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce on October 17, 1982 in the Palazzo della Mercanzia. The recipe features beef, pancetta, carrots, celery, onions, tomato sauce, whole milk and red wine.

Few recipe are as good, or as celebrated, as Bolognese.

Now the dog. A member of the bichon group, the Bolognese breed is thought to have descended from that type in southern Italy around the 11th or 12th century—making the dog senior to the sauce, and, as it turns out, just as well-liked domestically and abroad. The Bolognese became very popular among the royal courts of Italy and other parts of Europe from the 16th century to the early 19th century. The little dog is featured in several famous paintings by the Venetian master Titian (as well as some of those by Spain’s Goya) and was the “it dog” and a pampered companion of the Italian nobility. Cosimo de Medici took eight Bolognese to Brussels as gifts for Belgian noblemen. Both the Gonzagas and Medicis bred them. The Duke d’Este gave a pair to King Phillip II of Spain as a gift; he was thanked by the king who wrote, “These two little dogs are the most royal gifts one can make to an emperor.”

The Bolognese breed was a pampered companion of Italian nobility.

Many famous personalities in history had a Bolognese: Madame Pompadour (1721–1764), Czarina Catherine the Great of Russia (1729–1796), and Maria Therese, Empress of Austria and mother of Marie Antoinette (1717–1780). Maria Therese loved her Bolognese so much that after its death she had it preserved, and it can be seen in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

Bolognese: Madame Pompadour (1721–1764)

With the decline of the aristocracy in Europe, the Bolognese fell from favor and by the end of World War II the breed became almost extinct. But with the hard work of some dedicated breeders in Italy and Belgium it has been resurrected. So, when in Italy, visit Bologna, try the delicious sauce, and if you can’t quite pick up a sample of what is now a highly uncommon breed, you can always select the adorable and energetic consolation prize: the breed most closely related to the Bolognese is the popular Bichon Frise.


About the author

Carla’s passion for Italy began early: with her mother’s love of the Renaissance masters and father’s discourses on Italian geniuses of every calling. In the ensuing decades, she’s written about and toured every region of Italy on foot or by bicycle. Carla was a former partner in the Ciao Bella Gelato Company, conceived and co-led the Giro del Gelato bicycle tour, which won Outside magazine’s “Best Trip in Western Europe” and for nearly a decade owned and operated Via Vanti! Restaurant & Gelateria in Mount Kisco, New York. Via Vanti! won plaudits for its innovative Italian cuisine, extraordinary gelato (named “Best Gelato Shop in New York”) and on-going program of culinary and cultural events.

La Dolce Vita University: An Unconventional Insider’s Guide to Italian Culture From A to Z is the natural outgrowth of her work in the restaurant and boutique travel industries, as well as a lifelong love affair with the land of her ancestors.

Share your favorite recipe, and we may feature it on our website.

Join the conversation, and share recipes, travel tips and stories.