At Via Clavature 18, hidden in the back streets of Bologna, is the comparatively charmless little Ristorante da Gianni. It’s dimly lit, almost to the point of stumbling darkness — especially if you enter, as we did, from the sharp rays of a late midsummers’ afternoon nursing a fierce hangover brought on by a handful of Negronis the night before — and is made even darker by heavy wood paneling on all sides and rather gruff service. However, it is famous among local gastronomes for its strictly traditional Bolognese fare, and as most food-obsessed people know intuitively, what they serve in such seemingly unlikely-looking places often more than makes up for what is lacking in atmosphere. So it was here.
I’ve rhapsodized previously about the wonder that was the deep-fried lamb chops I first ate there, and my wife has written extensively about both the outstanding ragu alla Bolognese and the equally scrumptious sausage ragu we tore through as our respective primi piatti that day, but (as part of a gargantuan meal that also included a giant-felling plate of bollito misto) these courses were preceded by a dish of such cunning, such laughter-inducing simplicity, that I have been wanting to make it ever since — just to see if it would tickle me in the same way again. Not only that, but it may also have been among the most effective hangover cures I have ever tried, for following it, I was able to play a more than active role in emptying three bottles of Barolo. So just what was this jovial and miraculous dish, you ask? Spuma di Mortadella sauced sparingly with the sweetest, honeyed, aged-balsamic vinegar I’ve ever had the privilege to taste.
“Ugh! Baloney foam! Why would you begin such a meal with that crap?”, I hear you cry. Well, you’re half-right. Spuma di mortadella is, in fact, nothing more than whipped “Bologna ham”, but it is also, simultaneously, so, so, so much more. Unfortunately, many Americans only know baloney/Bologna as the ubiquitous bright pink sandwich meat that has cursed many a child’s school lunch with its weird, cloying, yet plasticky, texture, and flavor somewhere between hairspray and old socks. But, as with many mass-produced things — from shoes to IKEA furniture — the handmade versions are not only completely different, they’re way better.
Mortadella, known as Bologna in the US because it was originally made only in the immediate vicinity of the city, is an ancient kind of emulsified (forcemeat) sausage that gets its name from the mortar (mortaio) and pestle that was used once-upon-a-time to grind up the pork and spices during preparation. Incorporating at least 15% pork fat — specifically the firm, white neck fat of the pig, and often as large cubes rather than ground up with the pork — mortadella can be flavored with a variety of things including, myrtle berries, black or white peppercorns, nutmeg, coriander, olives and pistachios. It is then cooked gently for as long as 24 hours, depending on the size of the mortadella (some weigh up to 100kilos/220lbs), in air-drying ovens, before being sprayed with cold water and allowed to stabilize in a cooling room.
In Emilia-Romagna, mortadella is often served as part of a salumi, or charcuterie, plate with a selection of the region’s staggeringly delicious cured pork products like, culatello di Zibello, coppa Piacentino, prosciutto di Parma, spalla cotta, zampone (at Christmas), or cappello di prete (a pinky-white forcemeat “sausage” that looks like a priest’s tri-cornered hat), but it can be used to make a wide variety of delectable treats, including spuma di mortadella.
The translation of spuma di mortadella to “mortadella foam” is unfortunate, and somewhat hyperbolic, because while the sausage is whipped and feels light on the tongue, it neither resembles foam in texture, nor sits like air on the stomach. Nonetheless, its simplicity is its brilliance: we simply combined first-rate mortadella (with the lumps of hard fat) with nutmeg and cream and whipped it into a light pink emulsion garnishing with pistachios and a drizzle of excellent balsamic vinegar (in our case, a 30 year old we had bought from a man with a very dubious hair-piece).
However, spuma di mortadella isn’t a one trick pony, quite the opposite. It also makes a fabulously rich filling for a stuffed pasta – which we sauced with garlic-infused butter. And, in a glorious return, tearing up its debased American bag-lunch roots, it is a kick-ass sandwich filling that would be the envy of any child in the playground. It’s even better when used as a topping for a montadito (small, open-faced sandwich, like a crostini or bruschetta) and mounted a cheval, with a poached egg.
We encourage you to give this one a try, even if you have remedial issues from being teased about your baloney-breath by the cool kids, because spuma di mortadella can make even the biggest nerd cool.
- 3/4lb best mortadella you can find
- 2/3 cup light cream
- 4 heaping tablespoons of ricotta cheese
- 1tsp freshly ground nutmeg
- pinch of fresh ground pepper
- 2oz shelled pistachios
- good bread
- Best aged balsamic vinegar
- Chop mortadella into bite-sized chunks and place in food processor
- Blitz sausage until reasonably smooth – you’ll know when it can’t really get any smoother without adding any liquid.
- Add cream, ricotta and nutmeg and continue to blitz until smooth and mousse-like.
- Taste and season with black pepper or more nutmeg according to your taste.
- Scoop your spuma into a non-reactive bowl, press plastic wrap onto the top, and refrigerate for at least an hour so mixture can set.
- Put shelled pistachios in a bag and bash with a rolling-pin or other blunt instrument until crumbly and broken but not dust.
- With two spoons, make quenelles out of your spuma and place artistically on a plate with some toasted bread.
- Decorate spuma with a sprinkling of pistachios and a few dots of balsamic.
- Enjoy with a bottle of bardolino or dolcetto.
Ristorante da Gianni (A La Vecia Bulagna)
Via Clavature 18, Bologna, 40124 IT
Dinner €20-30 per person