Italy’s cultural identity embraces food, and no city’s existence is more attached to Italian cuisine than Bologna. While it has never been the tourist destination that its more-famous sisters—Rome, Venice, Florence—have been, its art, history, and culture equal that of the others. The essence of Bologna, however, is its food. Bologna gave birth to many Italian classics (lasagna verde, tortellini, mortadella, to name a few), and meat, especially pork, is king.
Or is it?
Trattoria Pane e Panelle
On a bustling street not far from Bologna’s famed twin towers sits an inviting restaurant that offers its patrons the flavors of Mediterranean cuisine. Trattoria Pane e Panelle features fresh fish, quality ingredients, and fresh produce on a menu that changes daily according to what is in season and available. Owner Isabel Muratori has charged to kitchen to Luca Giovanni Pappalardo, a chef not beholden to meat.
“The god of Bologna is the pig. In my kitchen, it is not,” he told me recently. “I cook some meat but mostly vegetables and, above all, fish. I have applied the cooking techniques of meat also to vegetables.”
More Vegetables, Please
On my visit to Pane e Panelle to meet Pappalardo and Muratori, I joined them for pranzo (lunch) that was heavy on vegetables. In addition to pasta and a wonderful couscous dish, we enjoyed ribollita Toscana (lentils, cannellini, kale), a winter salad of cabbage, and a mixed grill of vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, fennel, onions and homemade ricotta cheese). They were simple dishes that were simply delicious.
Italian vegetable recipes do not demand hours of prep time or expensive spices, and Pappalardo’s recipe included just olive oil and Serbian sea salt. His straightforward way of cooking those vegetables elevated them to be the star of our lunch.
“In every dish, the vegetables win over everything,” Chef said when I commented that I could be vegetarian if I could have vegetables like his at every meal. “It is a very basic vegetable cooking, then the rest arrives.”
The “rest” of which the chef spoke are the freshest ingredients available from Pane e Panelle’s carefully selected suppliers, and the vegetables, meats, and fish change daily according to what’s in season and what’s fresh on any given day. When Pappalardo took over the restaurant’s kitchen, he replaced the more popular fish (salmon, grouper, hake) with less-upscale fish—anchovies, monkfish, sardines. Moreover, the Sicilian-born Pappalardo uses every part of the fish and animal, from tongue and cheeks to tripe and liver. “I also add animal offal (the internal organs and entrails) to flavor vegetables and fish,” he added while informing me of the nutritional value of offal.
While using and eating offal might not sound appetizing to those not familiar with it, offal is the heart of Sicily’s street food. Walk through any market in any Sicilian town and you’re likely to see vendors selling pani ca’meusa (spleen sandwich) or stigghiola (grilled intestines) next to the ones selling ruby pomegranates or snowy cauliflower.
The chef has elevated offal from its street food designation. To counterbalance any bitterness of the offal and to enhance a food’s flavor, Pappalardo uses marinades that contain sugar, rice vinegar and salt. He insists that when one cooks offal in an appropriate manner, he raises it from being a “poor” food to classic cuisine.
The Literary Chef
Interestingly, this creative man did not start out to be a chef. Pappalardo moved to Bologna to study literature at the university, and he worked in kitchens so that he could attend school. “I was a kitchen boy while I was studying,” he told me. “I always had to deal with food, with the raw material. I washed dishes; I cleaned the toilets of terrifying pubs; I worked in the cold lockers of big butchers. I was a baker and even a waiter.”
Pappalardo graduated with a degree in literature, but he decided to become a chef because he had, as he told me, a “visceral need to cook.” He credits poets and men of literature with helping him find his style in the kitchen, and he has united his love of creating with food and creating with words by writing two cookbooks—Cucina facile di pesce (Easy Fish Cooking) and Pesci Diversi, Ricette del mare segreto raccontate da uno chef (Diverse Fish, Recipes of the Secret Sea Told by a Chef).
A Little More…
To experience the magic of Chef Pappalardo’s kitchen, visit Trattoria Pane e Panelle at Via S. Vitale, 71 in Bologna. You can read my full interview with the chef here.