Eating At Home In Bologna And The Dish That Time Forgot

Eating att Home in Bologna and the Dish that Time Forgot“I am very pig,” Andrea proclaimed in his broken English, having abandoned the etiquette of dishing the meringue onto his plate. His arm was possessively swung around the giant serving bowl, he was digging into dessert with the fervor of man on a mission for diabetes. Then he looked up, his eyes shifting around the table at each of us, a meringue-eating grin on his face. It was the end of a long and amusing meal with strangers.

I was at someone’s home. In Bologna. And dining with a small handful of people I’d just met that night, eating the food of a muscular-armed woman I didn’t know existed until about two hours earlier. Welcome to Home Food, an organization that stretches from the tip to the top of the boot, offering hungry eaters the chance to eat regional home-cooked food in a home.

“Guests are treated like visiting relatives,” said one of the women sitting across from me at the dinner, who was apparently a Home Food regular. And why not? Based on Andrea’s affair with the meringue bowl we might as well have been visiting family. “And the chef, the Cesarina,” – the name the organization uses to call the host-cook – “she is like our grandmother.”

It sounded good to me. I ended up here sort of by accident, the consequences of the type of coincidence that occurs when the person sitting next to you on a flight opens their mouth and lets those things called words ooze out. I was on my way to Bologna. So was Cathy, as I’ll call her, because I don’t remember her name but as she rambled on and on through the flight I kept thinking: why oh why did I end up sitting next to this Chatty Cathy? She took a break from telling me about her life story to say she had signed up for a personalized tour though a company called Italy Vacations and in doing so they had organized for her to eat at someone’s house. The organization, which can be booked through the website, is called Home Food. (My old friend Matt Gross has also written about it here.)

When most restaurants in Italy also serve simple cuisine in a generally no-frills environment, What makes Home Food different? The woman across from me had an answer: “Restaurants are an enterprise and they can’t spend too much money or they won’t make a profit. They cut corners. Here, though, you’re getting traditional cooking – sometimes dishes you can’t get in a restaurant – that are made with care.”

Case in point, the first dish our Cesarina brought out was rosetta: thick strips of baked pasta wrapped around mortadella and prosciutto with a gooey cheese and béchamel center. While I admit I’ve only dedicated about three weeks of my life to being in Bologna, I’d never seen anything like this on a menu before. Then came tender veal and pork meatballs, a mountain of them, which the group happily (and understandably) devoured. The last of the savory courses looked like it was marched here straight from the nearest elementary school cafeteria or red-state church basement potluck dinner: aspic. Even the name sounds gross. Dig, if you will, the picture: carrots, potatoes, beans, peas and chicken encased in a transparent gelatin. These probably-very-good ingredients were trapped inside like bad children. The jelly monster sat there, jiggling and staring at me in the face, challenging me to liberate its prisoners. The Italians at the table didn’t seem to have the revulsion I did.

But in the spirit of trying everything at least once (and being a good guest), I scooped some aspic on my plate and commenced chewing. It would be nice to say that the aspic surprised me, that it was the best thing I ate all night and that I’m going to make it when I get home. Nope. It tasted exactly as it looked: like a miasma of gelatinous goop in my mouth.

Out of all the dishes (including that meringue that Andrea “generously” finished off for us), the Cesarina was batting four out of five. Not bad.

That night we were all “very pig.”