The Butcher of Bologna

Our meal is a disappointment. Beautifully presented pasta and delicious melanzane parmigiana, yes, but the atmosphere is lacking and the prices are steep. Our waitress rushes around the sleek surroundings in a joyless and harried fashion, which is something of a surprise in foodcentric Bologna.

It’s almost a relief to be out on the street, which echoes with conversation and movement. Cyclists pedal past, la passeggiata is still in full stroll, and diners spill onto pavements at happier restaurants than ours had been.

Bologna, Emilia Romagna, Italy, food, travel, pasta

We turn the corner into a quieter but wider road, porticoed as far as the eye can see. In a closed shop, lit only by a couple of lamps above the counter, a man is carving meat. His white apron is smudged with blood, and his old, lined face is focused. He holds a marbled red slab steady with his left hand, as a knife in his right hand cuts clean through it, a motion he repeats again and again, turning the piece this way and that way as needed.

Unaware of our gaze through the glass of his shopfront, he continues his labours. His profile is like that of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing. He could almost be the great man himself, absorbed in his work.

Bologna, Emilia Romagna, Italy, food, travel

During a pause, when the old man’s attention breaks, he senses us and looks up. He stops and stares – then he registers our curiosity. A broad smile lifts his face and he raises his free hand in greeting.

Embarrassed at being caught watching, but wanting to respond to his warmth, we wave back.

The butcher mouths something through the window and beams once more, before resuming his evening task. We drift home and make a promise to return.

We choose Easter Saturday, the day before our departure, when we have no need for fresh meat at all. We join the queue and discover that La Macelleria Della Pioggia is as full of life as Le Sflogline had been, with locals gathering ingredients for their Easter Day feasts.

Chicken legs with scrawny forked feet lie behind shiny glass. They remind me of a story about a poor widow called Signora Anna. She had little money but plenty of pride, and would prop up the (cheap) chicken feet she bought by stuffing the bottom of her shopping bag with paper. Her bag would appear to be brimming with whole birds, much to the admiration of her friends and neighbours. And the Chicken Feet Soup she made (as transcribed by Luigi Lepri in his Recipes from Bologna) was nourishing and tasty, especially when topped with a nice sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano.

My chicken feet reverie is dashed by a man who rushes into the shop with a flurry of shouts and arms outstretched. Whatever he says (there is no way I can follow the pained speed of his vernacular) causes consternation in the face of il macellaio and his grown-up daughter, whose knives leave their meat duties and assume a ready position as they ask questions to gauge the severity of the situation (I presume).

Bologna, Emilia Romagna, Italy, food, travel

A figure in the queue comments with calm authority and everyone stops to listen. Again, I do not follow the flow of language, but the general mood in the shop softens into laughter and an amused exchange defuses the tension. With relief we watch the knives return to their rightful work.

Finally, it is our turn to be served. I’m not sure whether the butcher remembers us from a few evenings back, and he looks nonplussed when all I ask for is a packet of dry pasta (but at least I’m asking for a regional type of pasta – best cooked with a sausage sauce as in Gramigna alla Salsiccia).

As the butcher gives us our change, he leans forward, looks each of us straight in the eye and with a clear and sonorous voice wishes us Buona Pasqua! He says it three times.

Maybe he has remembered us after all, and our wordless nocturnal encounter. We return his Easter greeting and leave the shop with less to carry than most, but with the feeling that we are taking away a small and intimate taste of a butcher’s life in Bologna. And a connection that intrigues me even now.

Lepri Luigi’s book of Recipes from Bologna contains a diverse range of recipes used by the author’s aunts, mothers and grandmother. Originally transcribed in the Bolognese dialect which they all used, they were translated into standard Italian, and then into English by Matthew Cruz. It’s a wonderful and very personal insight.

Bologna, Emilia Romagna, Italy, food, travel, pasta

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