Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bologna Books and More

Here’s how you know that Bologna is a city for foodies. You go into the Libreria Ambasciatore , a book store/food palace, and just inside the entrance somebody is selling whole truffles. No, not the chocolate kind—those would be on the third floor. These are the kind that pigs dig up. Most of the ground floor of the store was redolent of the musky musty aroma. It really is unlike anything else. The cheapest I saw cost 30 Euros, and it was about two-thirds the size of a golf ball. In addition I would have had to spend another 10 Euros for a truffle slicer. Do you think I should have popped for that ? Perhaps you're thinking, “Well, you never know when you’ll need a truffle slicer” and I guess that’s true. It might come in handy if I ever need to make slices of American Cheese even thinner. Somehow I don't see a lot of truffles in my future.

It has been very interesting to browse through the cookbook section of the bookshops in Bologna. One thing that stands out is the paucity of all-purpose cookbooks. I have asked several people here, good Italian cooks all of them, whether there is an Italian counterpart to The Joy of Cooking. There really isn’t. Cooking is learned from family and the cookbooks that people prefer are those that specialize in a certain region, usually the region where they are from. Of course there are plenty of books available here about the Emilia-Romagna region. Liguria also shows up for its seafood and I see sections ranging from Puglia to the Veneto. If there are cookbooks from other countries they must be very thin on the ground. I see a few scattered here and there but nothing like what we would be used to in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the specificity of the cookbooks is but a reflection of the narrow focus of foods sold in the shops. One day Bill went to Simoni, pasta shop extraordinaire and committed the faux pas of asking for meat ravioli. No such thing around here ! It’s tortellini or tortelloni thank you very much ! Interestingly, Ferrara which is just half an hour from here boasts its own stuffed pasta called called cappellacci, meaning “small hats.” If I could examine them side-by-side I could probably tell the difference between cappellacci and tortellini, but since one is in Bologna and the other is in Ferrara it’s a little inconvenient to do so.

Back to the subject of books. ( Why do I keep gravitating toward the subject of food ?) My friend Bella has mentioned that she put my blog on twitter (I'm not sure what that means to be perfectly frank. It's good, right?) to let her friends in publishing know about my site as they prepare for a Book Fair here in Bologna in the Spring. To that end, if any visitors still feel they haven’t had enough of books after the fair, the Sala Borsa is definitely an amazing place to see. Really, it’s worth a visit even for the “casual reader,” which I guess would be most of us. The Sala Borsa, steps from the Neptune Fountain, was formerly the stock exchange. It has a beautiful open atrium with two levels of balconies above. The intricately painted ceiling has obviously been carefully restored. Now the space houses a public library, a children’s library, an urban design center and a gallery of temporary exhibitions. There is also an impressive collection of Italian and international newspapers and magazines. On the first floor is a lively caffe selling sandwiches, pastries and alcoholic beverages in addition to the expected roster of espresso drinks. Is it any wonder that I’m always coming back to food in this blog ?

This library/media center is everything one would hope for in the reuse of a historical space. Haven’t we all seen gorgeous architectural renderings of revamped civic spaces and redesigned parks? Often the result falls far short of the idea. In this case, it’s hard to see how the Sala Borsa could be any better than it is. Plus it's just so darned hip. It's as though the coolest people you know all got together and reinvented the concept of the library. I can just picture them saying, "Why not have a bar ? And with a waitstaff too ? And let's get some upholstered designer chairs that you can rotate when you need a desk for your laptop. This isn't going to be your nonno's library !"

I wanted to be sure to mention the Sala Borsa because we passed it on many occasions before we took the initiative of going inside. It isn’t always mentioned in the guidebooks and because of the abundance of college students coming and going I just assumed it was part of the University. Luckily Bill can never intentionally pass up a courtyard without checking it out so we all benefited from his wandering ways.

By way of a PS. Today I bought a Zingarelli dizionario, which I guess would be the Italian version of Webster. Although I bought the smaller version it promises to add a good five pounds to the weight of my suitcase. In addition to the usual definitions there are many pages of illustrations accompanied by appropriate vocabulary. We can assume that the subjects for the diagrams might shed some light on areas of importance in Italy. After an initial browse I have come across a half page with illustrations and names of cheeses (all of them Italian), and an entire page of desserts.

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