As the clock winds down on the last day of the year, the historic city of Bologna, nestled in the heart of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, comes alive with a culinary tradition as old as time. Cenone, the grand New Year’s Eve dinner, is more than a meal in this gastronomic capital; it’s a celebration of culture, history, and the art of good eating.
The Prelude to Midnight: Antipasti and Beyond
In Bologna, Cenone begins with an array of antipasti, setting the stage for the feast to come. This introductory course is a parade of the region’s finest cured meats – prosciutto, mortadella, and salami, a nod to the city’s rich charcuterie traditions. Accompanying these meats are cheeses that speak of the area’s dairy heritage, such as Parmigiano Reggiano, with its sharp, nutty flavor, and soft, fresh varieties that melt in the mouth.
The Heart of the Feast: Primi Piatti
As the evening unfolds, the first course, or ‘primi piatti’, takes center stage. In Bologna, this means pasta, but not just any pasta. Tortellini in Brodo, small meat-filled pasta served in a rich broth, is a dish synonymous with Bolognese culinary craftsmanship. For many, the Cenone is incomplete without a serving of Lasagna Verde, layers of green spinach pasta interwoven with rich ragù and creamy béchamel sauce, a testament to the region’s love for hearty, comforting flavors.
Tortellini: These small, ring-shaped pasta pieces, often described as navel-shaped, are a culinary symbol of Bologna. Traditionally stuffed with a mixture of pork loin, prosciutto, mortadella, Parmigiano Reggiano, eggs, and nutmeg, tortellini are usually served in a savory broth. The dish, Tortellini in Brodo, is a heartwarming concoction that blends the richness of the filling with the simplicity of the broth, offering a balance that is both refined and comforting.
Tagliatelle al Ragù: Another quintessential Bolognese dish is Tagliatelle al Ragù. This isn’t just any pasta with meat sauce; it’s the original version of what the world knows as ‘Spaghetti Bolognese.’ In Bologna, however, it’s served with tagliatelle – long, flat ribbons of pasta, perfect for holding the rich, slow-cooked meat sauce, or ‘ragù.’ This ragù is typically made with a blend of beef and pork, tomatoes, onions, carrots, celery, and wine, simmered for hours to achieve its deep, complex flavor.
The Splendor of Lasagna
Lasagna Verde al Forno: Bologna’s take on lasagna, ‘Lasagna Verde al Forno,’ is a testament to the region’s love for layered pasta dishes. Unlike the typical red lasagna familiar to many, Bologna’s version uses green pasta, tinted with spinach. Layers of this vibrant pasta alternate with béchamel sauce, ragù, and Parmigiano Reggiano, resulting in a dish that is as visually stunning as it is delicious.
The Comfort of Risotto
While not as globally renowned as its pasta counterparts, Bologna’s risotto dishes are a testament to the region’s rice cultivation. Here, the risotto is often prepared with local ingredients like porcini mushrooms, truffles, or Parmigiano Reggiano, offering a creamy, comforting dish that warms the soul.
The Main Event: Secondi Piatti
The main course, or ‘secondi piatti’, is where the chefs of Bologna showcase their mastery over meats. Braised beef, slow-cooked to tender perfection, and roasted pork, with its crispy exterior giving way to succulent flesh, are often the highlights. These dishes are not just about taste but also about time-honored cooking techniques passed down through generations.
Bollito Misto: One of the most traditional dishes in Bolognese cuisine is ‘Bollito Misto,’ a mixed boiled meat dish typically served with a variety of sauces. It’s a hearty, comforting dish, often including beef, chicken, cotechino (a type of Italian sausage), and sometimes tongue or other cuts of meat. Each element is cooked until tender, making for a succulent, flavorsome meal.
Cotoletta alla Bolognese: Unlike the Milanese version, Bologna’s cotoletta is a unique creation. A veal chop is breaded and fried, then topped with ham and Parmigiano Reggiano, and finally baked to a crisp, golden perfection. It’s a dish that combines the richness of cheese, the saltiness of ham, and the tender juiciness of veal, creating a symphony of flavors.
A Symphony of Sides: Contorni
No Cenone plate is complete without ‘contorni’, the side dishes that complement the main flavors. Seasonal vegetables, be they roasted to bring out their natural sweetness or grilled for a smoky touch, add color and balance to the feast.
The Sweet Finale: Dolci
As the night approaches its zenith, the dessert course, ‘dolci’, brings a sweet conclusion to the meal. Panettone and Pandoro, the stars of Italian Christmas and New Year’s cuisine, make their customary appearance. These light, sweet breads, enjoyed with a glass of sparkling wine, embody the festive spirit of the occasion.
Pandoro: A Star in Bolognese Celebrations
Pandoro, another Christmas classic, hails from Verona but is equally cherished in Bologna. This star-shaped, golden bread, dusted with powdered sugar, is prized for its buttery, vanilla flavor. It’s typically served plain or sometimes with an accompaniment of mascarpone cream, offering a simple yet indulgent treat to end a festive meal.
Torrone: A Nougat Tradition
Torrone, a nougat confection made with honey, egg whites, and nuts (typically almonds), is a traditional sweet during the festive season in Bologna. It comes in various forms, from hard and crunchy to soft and chewy, and is often enjoyed as part of the array of treats during Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.
Certosino: Bologna’s Own Christmas Cake
Certosino, also known as Pan Speziale, is a traditional Christmas cake from Bologna. This dense, spicy cake is packed with almonds, pine nuts, chocolate, and candied fruits, offering a rich and flavorful experience. It’s a testament to the city’s spice trading history and a unique feature of its festive gastronomy.
Toasting the New Year: Beverages
Throughout the evening, the wine flows generously, with a focus on local Emilia-Romagna varieties. As midnight draws near, glasses are raised with sparkling wine, a traditional toast to welcome the New Year, symbolizing hope, joy, and the promise of good fortune.
Here Ideas for your Cenone in Bologna
- Ristorante da Nello
- Location: Via Monte Grappa, 2 – Bologna (BO)
- Highlights: Nestled in the heart of Bologna, Da Nello charms with its setting in ancient wine cellars. The restaurant, run with immense professionalism for over 50 years, combines traditional Emilian cuisine with creative flair. Recommended dishes for Cenone include fresh seafood antipasto and Trofie alla Carloforte, a local delicacy.
- Fattorie di Montechiaro
- Location: Via Tignano, 30/A – Sasso Marconi (BO)
- Highlights: Located a short distance from Bologna in Sasso Marconi, this agriturismo is set amidst greenery, perfect for a rustic yet refined New Year’s Eve dinner. The restaurant offers dishes made with local, organic, and seasonal products, including homemade pasta, bread, and cheeses from their sheep’s milk.
- Piano Piano
- Location: Piazza Maggiore, 5g – Bologna (BO)
- Highlights: Perfectly situated for celebrating Cenone in the heart of Bologna, Piano Piano offers a magnificent event hall that can accommodate up to 130 people. The restaurant is known for its authentic Bolognese dishes made with fresh, high-quality ingredients. The venue is also adept at hosting a variety of events, from graduations to press conferences.
- Numa Restaurant & Ballroom Club
- Location: Via Alfieri Maserati, 9 – Bologna (BO)
- Highlights: Numa, emerging from the former Ruvido Disco Dinner Club, stands out as a modern and elegant choice. Its interior design reflects trendy London venues, and it’s known for a diverse musical offering, including international DJs. This location is ideal for those seeking a lively and surprising New Year’s Eve celebration.
- San Silvestro in Cantina
- Location: Piazza Minghetti, 2 b/c – Bologna (BO)
- Highlights: In the historic center of Bologna, San Silvestro in Cantina offers a unique shabby chic ambiance, perfect for an elegant and exclusive atmosphere. The menu for Cenone includes dishes like Avocado Tartare with Steamed Prawns and Ginger, and Eggplant Parmigiana with Seared Scallop.
- Trattoria Da Me
- Location: Via S. Felice, 50 – Bologna (BO)
- Highlights: Established in 1937, this trattoria is a symbol of Bolognese culinary tradition. The owner and chef, Elisa Rusconi, winner of the Bolognese challenge on Alessandro Borghese’s “4 Ristoranti,” brings a blend of tradition and innovation to the table, with a focus on seasonal ingredients and non-intensive farming.
- Ristorante il Tulipano – Admiral Park Hotel
- Location: Via Fontanella, 3 – Zola Predosa (BO)
- Highlights: Located within the 4-star Admiral Park Hotel, Ristorante Il Tulipano offers an elegant setting for refined dinners. Led by Executive Chef Antonio Miccoli, the restaurant is known for enhancing the flavors of prime ingredients. The New Year’s Eve dinner promises a selection of hand-prepared meat, fish, and desserts, accompanied by a fine selection of local wines.
- Agriturismo Il Murello
- Location: Via Fiorentina, 3780 – Medicina (BO)
- Highlights: Situated amidst the green areas of Medicina, a few kilometers from Bologna, Il Murello specializes in organizing festive event dinners. The menu for New Year’s Eve blends tradition with a touch of originality, offering a range of delicious dishes, a triumph of sweets, and live music for entertainment.
In Bologna, Cenone is more than a dinner; it’s a journey through the flavors that define one of Italy’s most celebrated culinary regions. It’s an expression of a culture that finds its deepest joy in the shared experience of eating. As families and friends gather around tables laden with the best that Bolognese kitchens have to offer, they don’t just mark the passing of another year; they reaffirm a bond that has, for centuries, found its strongest expression in the simple act of breaking bread together.