We both loved eating bologna lunch meat when we were kids. We transferred this love to Italian mortadella in Bologna Italy and solidified it in cities like Parma and Naples. Amber Hoffman, author of The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to Taste the History and Tradition of Italy, shares the background of this often misunderstood Italian cured meat.
For travelers to Bologna, it’s understandable to confuse mortadella with its counterpart in the United States: bologna. It’s not clear how the mortadella that was eaten by Italian-American immigrants turned into American bologna.
Obviously, there’s the connection that mortadella was from the city of Bologna. What’s not clear is what bologna became considering its grandfather is a meat that has been known for its high quality for centuries.
Bologna’s home province, Emilia Romagna produces some of the most iconic Italian food products, including Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, traditional balsamic vinegar, and yes, mortadella.
How is Italian Mortadella Made?
So, how is real mortadella made? It’s a fairly simple process that involves a few different steps of pressing and grinding pork meat, along with the characteristic white bits of “fat.” Those white bits are actually the meat from the throat or cheek of the pig.
Essentially, all of the meat is mixed with a little seasoning, including salt and white pepper. The pressed meat is squeezed into a giant casing. The casing is tied at one end, and then the entire mortadella (which weighs about 25 pounds) is carefully tied over and over again.
The tying helps the mortadella retain its shape while it hangs and while it’s cooked in a large, dry oven for about 22 hours. Once the mortadella is removed from the oven and cooled, it is ready to eat!
Although mortadella is made by more commercial producers, there remain a handful of artisanal producers remaining in Bologna. One producer is Pasquini, who has been making mortadella for over 60 years! He’s the mortadella master.
What is Mortadella Bologna IGP?
A series of consortia are responsible for maintaining food quality in Italy and around Europe. They provide labels to guarantee that certain products are from a specific geographical location and are produced according to strict traditional guidelines. In Italy, these products are known as DOP (Denominazione Origine Protetta) and IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta).
In Emilia Romagna, this food classification system is taken very seriously. In fact, there are over 40 DOP and IGP products in Emilia Romagna—more than any other region in Italy, and even, the world. Mortadella is just one of these products. Mortadella is one of the more interesting of the IGP products, in part, because of its reputation as bologna overseas.
There has always been the running joke that no one knows what kind of meat is really in bologna. This is the first thing that differs from its Italian grandfather. Mortadella is made from 100% pork meat. Mortadella is one of the many DOP and IGP products in Italy, meaning its production is strictly regulated for quality. You certainly can’t say the same about bologna.
Mortadella is an IGP product, and the Mortadella Bologna Consortium controls the quality of all producers, ensuring they adhere to the traditional recipe. Interestingly, the consortium promotes the nutritional values of mortadella: a full pound of mortadella has about 288 calories—less than a plate of pasta. And, it is low in cholesterol.
How to Taste Mortadella in Bologna
The mortadella in Bologna is either sliced thin, or cubed. Many prefer the thinly sliced mortadella, which tastes smooth and fresh, and is light years away from the bologna you might have tried in the U.S.
It is common to find mortadella on menus in the city of Bologna and across the region of Emilia Romagna. One of the most popular ways to eat cured meat is with gnocco fritto, a deep fried puff of bread popular in and around Modena. The bread is sliced open in order to pop a slice of mortadella inside. The best gnocco fritto is served warm, so the bread melts the meat just a bit. Meat heaven.
It is possible to visit the Museo della Salumeria, outside of Modena, only about a half hour away from Bologna. Even if you are not a fan of museums, this is where an exception is certainly warranted. It’s the ideal place to learn more about mortadella and other Italian cured meats.
The museum includes three floors dedicated to the “art of charcuterie.” From the flavors and smells of cured meats, to the history of the manufacturing process, to an entire section dedicated to the pig. Next door to the museum is the Villani Salumi food store, where you can taste various types of meats, and purchase meat souvenirs.
It is also possible to order fresh mortadella from many delis in Bologna. When ordering mortadella in Bologna, look for the snail logo associated with the Slow Food Presidium. The snail logo indicates it is a true artisan product, and not mass produced. And, keep an eye out for Pasquini brand.
Plan Your Bologna Stay
About the Author
Amber Hoffman is a recovering attorney, professional eater and the host of the food travel blog With Husband In Tow. She published The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to Taste the History and Tradition of Italy which is available on Amazon. The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna can help you plan the perfect trip through the breadbasket of Italy. The 250-page guide covers the key products of the region, including mortadella and how to taste them.