The best mortadella I’ve ever had. Here’s where to find it in Bologna.

Above: Dario Barbieri’s take on mortadella blew my mind — and my palate — the weekend before last in Bologna. The mortadella is on the right of the cutting board.

Every time Slow Food U. asks me to come teach in Piedmont, my Italian crew and I plan at least one night of enogastronomic adventure.

For this last stint in early October, we headed to Emilia-Romagna where our first stop was the legendary Dario Barbieri’s wine bar Zampa in the city of Bologna.

Dario, whose wine program features labels from both Paolo Cantele and Giovanni Arcari (my southern and northern Italian bromances, respectively), had asked us to come on the later side that Saturday night so that we could all sit, visit, and discuss the finer points — we later learned — of mortadella.

For anyone not familiar with mortadella and more specifically Mortadella Bologna, it’s a sausage made from finely ground pork and pork fat. See the Wiki entry for some useful background info on mortadella. But see also this excellent post by WebFoodCulture.com. And also the Mortadella Bologna PGI consortium’s not-so-easy-to-find website.

Don’t confuse it with other types of mortadella made in other parts of Italy, sometimes not from pork.

Above: marinated fresh anchovies followed our salumi tasting that evening. Bologna and Emilia in general has some of the best bread I’ve ever had in Italy.

It has been considered one of the greatest delicacies of Europe since the 17th century and beyond. Even French cookery books from the pre-modern era describe with great reverence the then highly advanced techniques for making charcuterie in the city of Bologna (the French also loved and learned a lot from Milanese pastry production).

Mortadella is also the inspiration for a poor imitation that we call “bologna” or “baloney” (as in Oscar Myer; but we will leave Upton Sinclair out of this).

As Dario explained that evening, there are “three or so” classic recipes that are still being used by artisanal mortadella producers in Bologna today. They are all excellent, he told us.

Above: the crunchy oven-fired thyme sprinkled on the pâté took it over the top.

But in order to become their clients, he said, you have to be willing to take only one mortadella at a time. The key, he emphasized with his rich baritone, is to consume the mortadella immediately, within a few days after it was produced. Otherwise, it loses the richness of its flavor and delicacy of its texture.

As someone who has been obsessed with mortadella since I first traveled to Italy in the late 1980s, I am here to tell you, people, this was absolutely the best mortadella I have ever tasted.

With great pride, Dario told us the story of Ennio Pasquini, one of the great mortadella craftspeople of our time. He recently passed away and his family is now arduously defending his legacy from those who would cash in on his namesake. For those who read Italian, click on the image below to read their “open letter” to the world of mortadella lovers. Pasquini was Dario’s “mortadella mentor,” as it were. He had refused to sell Dario his sausages until Dario agreed to take only small quantities each week.

Our literally five-hour tasting with Dario was one of the greatest culinary experiences of 2021 for me. I highly recommend his wonderful wine bar Zampa in Bologna (no website, at least that I can find).

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