For most of my life, bologna—that flabby, flaccid mystery meat most often spotted between two mayo-slathered slices of Wonder Bread—was something to be avoided at all costs. So imagine my surprise when I learned that in its native town of Bologna, the Italian counterpart commands the same reverence as a fine prosciutto, with top specimens fetching up to 20 euros per kilo. Known as mortadella, this subtly seasoned delicacy made of lean pork speckled with lumps of lard is a far cry from the stuff found in the deli aisles of American supermarkets.
It also boasts a rather distinguished history. Two millennia ago, it fed the Roman army, as stone tablets contained in Bologna's Museo Civico Archeologico attest. In the Middle Ages, roughly 10,000 people, a quarter of the city's population, were involved in its production at around 280 salumerie. Foreigners—from Napoleon, who brought it back to France, to Buffalo Bill, who flew to Italy to promote it—took a shine to the stuff over the years. Sophia Loren's character even attempted to smuggle one past US customs in the 1971 film La Mortadella.
Today, mortadella is ubiquitous in Bologna; it's whipped into a savory mousse, ground into meatballs, grilled with aged balsamic vinegar, stuffed into tortellini, and piled into . For the past three years, the city has hosted MortadellaBò, a festival in its honor complete with food trucks, competitions, and public tastings. Such obsession would be noteworthy anywhere, but in a place nicknamed "la grassa"—literally, "the fat one"—for its gloriously calorie-dense cuisine, it had to mean something.
Intrigued, I book a flight to where it all started. My first stop in Bologna is the Quadrilatero, a web of alleys dating back to medieval times, where a plaque marks the former site of L'Arte dei Salaroli, an ancient guild of charcuterers dedicated to protecting the integrity of their product. Founded in 1242, the organization was once so powerful that its symbol was part of the official city crest. In 1661, the papacy officially laid down the legal definition of mortadella, threatening dire consequences for those who dared to go against the guild.
"Why mortadella? Because it was difficult to cook it and difficult to cut it finely, so it required a lot of patience and skill. The people who could cook mortadella back then, they were like Ronaldo or Messi," Davide Simoni, whose family has been in the mortadella business for three generations, tells me. His shop, Simoni Laboratorio, is just up the street from the historical site of the guild. An energetic man in his thirties, Davide is determined to keep the mortadella-making traditions alive and to preserve the history behind them. He shows me the copy of a decree from 1720 framed on his wall. "This says if you make fake mortadella without the approval of the Salaroli, your body will be stretched on the rack three times, you will be fined 200 gold coins, and all the food you make will be destroyed. It makes you understand how important it was."
As he tells me about his father Nino Simoni, who at 69 is still running the Salumeria Simoni up the street, as well as his two years studying under Ennio Pasquini, the city's legendary 80-plus-year-old mortadella master, I munch on a panino crammed with mortadella. It has a supple, silky texture and a flavor that quickly banishes grim memories of Lunchables past.
These days, La Società di Mutuo Soccorso tra Salsamentari—the successor to the Salaroli founded in 1876—is less about torture and more about celebrating a shared gastronomic heritage. Several times a year, over a hundred members, ages 19 to 94, gather to swap stories.
"We mostly get together and eat," Davide tells me. "At our last party we had a with 20 different dishes from all different parts of the pig. Cheeks, tongue … the whole thing,"
How big a feast was this, exactly?
"Oh, we had three ambulances at the ready, just in case. We were way out in the countryside, so you have to be careful."
To find out more, I head down the street to meet a former president of the Salsamentari, Giovanni Tamburini, at his eponymous shop, A. F. Tamburini Antica Salsamenteria Bolognese. The current store dates back to 1932, but the location has been a butcher shop for much longer. Metal hooks used to hang pig carcasses line the ceiling of the main room, where mortadella was made until 1973. Francis Ford Coppola swings by when he's in town and 1,000 Places to See Before You Die dubbed it "Italy's most lavish food emporium." When I enter, the proprietor is talking to a local politician—I can't divulge which one—who winks and tells me that Tamburini is more famous than the city's iconic twin towers.
"I never even planned to end up here. I just wanted to help my parents for a bit after university. They were 70, but they protested that they didn't need help—they said they were still so young!" Giovanni laughs as we chat over heaping plates of mortadella-stuffed tortellini. When not tending his shop, he plays in two rock bands, one of which is named Ciccioli Ciccioli, from the local dialect for pork cracklings. "But in this job, I found the story of Bologna."
While Tamburini and Simoni have their own respected brands, there is only one producer of certified organic mortadella in the city. I arrange to meet Silvio Scapin, a boisterous man in his fifties who churns out roughly 1,000 kilos a week, in addition to regional specialties such as , salame rossa, and galantina di pollo. Made from heritage breed pigs and studded with additions such as pistachios or Umbrian truffles, the mortadella is so rich it leaves slight film of porcine fat on my tongue. It's damn near perfect, and I devour slice after slice of the stuff at the family-owned shop.
"I researched the original recipe from the 1500s," Silvio tells me with obvious pride. "I started helping out in a butcher shop when I was 13, then at 22 I opened my own place."
Silvio's children Francesco, 24 and Simona, 28, invite me for a tour of the small-scale factory where it all starts. The siblings share a birthday and a profound enthusiasm for the family trade. "It's a hard business, of course. My father works at least 12 hours a day," Francesco tells me as we wander past gleaming machinery and heaps of mortadella stacked like timber. "This is only something you can do if you're passionate about it. You have to mortadella."
After all this, I do. Following in Ms. Loren's stilettoed footsteps, I've got a fist-sized hunk of the good stuff swaddled in sweaters and stashed in my suitcase. Let's see if I have more luck with American airport security.