After visiting the Collegio di Spagna, Luca and I mosey back towards Piazza Maggiore and Galleria Cavour, where we had abandoned his wife without further notice. Ah, aspetta, Luca spots something else that cannot be missed. He guides me towards the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vita, a small Goldilox-size Roman Catholic church steps from the Piazza. In the back, towards the altar, we are face to face with Niccolo dell’Arca’s lifesize terracotta statues. The early renaissance sculptor completed ‘Sorrow Over Dead Christ’ in 1463, and the dramatic facial expressions in terracotta are eerily realistic. Their grief is palpable, and I am amazed by the material. It seems fitting that these terracotta pieces are at home in ‘La Rossa.’
Back in the sun and the land of the living, we regroup with Luca’s wife beneath the porticoes of Galleria Cavour. I stumble over my Italian and attempt a joke about how Luca has found a part-time job as a tour guide. I become tangled in the language, and because I do not want to overstay my welcome, I begin to excuse myself. With Luca’s daughter as translator I understand that Luca intends for us to dine together. I cannot believe this man’s generosity. Once again we abandon his wife under the porticoes of Galleria Cavour and off we go to a destination wholly unique to Bologna.
Our lunch destination is not one I would have found in magazines or guidebooks, and ‘soprattutto’ I would not be allowed even if I wanted to go. Circolo della Caccia has been a gentleman’s club since 1888. One might say it is the Harvard Club meets Downton Abbey before the war. We approach stately Palazzo Spada near the Piazza Maggiore and ring a bell. The massive doors glide open. We pass through an internal courtyard and ascend a grand staircase to the second floor of the palazzo, where we enter what used to be the home of the Prince of Spada. Imagine grand salons, double or perhaps triple height ceilings, decadent chandeliers, frescoed walls and ceilings, long tables with white tablecloths, men in crisp white uniforms and bowties, and a great deal of velvet seating areas. One man is enjoying a quiet afternoon with his newspaper in the Sala Lettura. Indeed there are many ‘sale:’ Sala Biliardo, Sala TV, Sala Scrittura, Sala Faraone, Sala piccoli giochi, Sala soci, and so on. The aura is one of prestige, class, and elegance.
The thing of it is, as ‘vecchia’ as the club is, it does not have an ‘aged’ feeling. I do not feel that it is past its prime; on the contrary; it is as much a part of the lives of its members today as it was decades ago. In fact, the Bolognesi surely enjoy their fair share of gala affairs; the art of donning black tie is doubtless a craft at which they excel. While for me, this is a unique experience reminiscent of a bygone era, for Luca, it is one of his go-tos. I ask how often he visits, assuming it is once in a blue moon. ‘Once a week,’ he replies quite casually.
On the club’s website, I found this quote. It is translated from Italian, but it spells out the exactitude of the Bolognesi high society with such clarity: ‘The tailcoat is, on the contrary, the classical suit for the gala nights or for the theatre, for dinners and dances. In the open air they usually wore a wheel tippet – the most elegant and valuable are lined with white embroidered silk – over the tailcoat or the “cloak” provided with pelerine and sleeves. The daily life of turn of the century attends to the spreading of the “jacket” done up aloft with four buttons. They wear the hat: the classical one is the top hat and it is suitable for every occasion. Another garment is the “capparèla”. Everybody wears it, rich and poor, tall and short, fat and thin. What makes the difference is not only the manufacture but also the body wearing it and the way it is worn. In short, it is elegant only if it is well worn and especially if it is well manufactured.’
We sit down at our large, circular table in the corner of the restaurant, where I suddenly feel embarrassed of my casual dress. I try to hide my Nikes beneath the white tablecloth. The waiter approaches and exchanges kind words with Luca, who obviously knows everyone by first name. What would I like? He asks. What do you have? I ask. There is no menu at the restaurant; Luca knows already what he will have, but I request the waiter to painstakingly explain my choices. I decide on two primi, as I originally intended to have a ‘light eating’ day. I welcome the derailment but attempt to stay somewhat on track with a bean soup and then, I veer to the left with tagliatelle Bolognese. How can I not? Luca laughs. The soup is very light, the pasta is ‘piu grassa.’ Oh, well. Luca decides on passatelli in brodo and then a decadent plate of cold cuts and pates.
A few other members of the club arrive, accompanied by fashionably dressed women. Everyone is molto elegante, and the dining room is a quiet hum of Bolognesi voices. Luca and I discuss all things old-world, such as how texting has ruined relationships, how chivalry is no more, and how unhealthy it is to constantly be ‘connected.’ I realize that I had not seen one Bolognesi looking down at their phone all day. He tells me how he does not respond to emails right away. He takes time to think, to mull, and to arrive at an answer without stress and pressure. He does not allow our state of permanent connection to cause anxiety or stress.
Our primi arrive, each in their own silver serving bowls. When I was little, my father was a stickler for table manners. I cannot count how many times he said: ‘Well, when you dine with the queen…’ Sitting at this table with Luca, my soup being ladeled from the silver pot, I feel that this is the closest I will ever be to dining with the queen. My fagioli is divine, perhaps the best fagioli ever. Luca’s passatelli in brodo is one of the most elegant, beautiful dishes I have seen. The noodles are about two inches long, and for lack of a better comparison, resemble in shape those awful gummy worms sold at movie theaters. Luca asks if I would like to taste, and yes, absolutely I would, but how tricky would it be to take from his bowl? No, no, no. After my fagioli is cleared, the waiter brings me a fresh bowl and the silver pot returns. He ladles me a small serving of passatelli in brodo, and with my first bite of the handmade egg pasta, with the ever-apparent taste of parmigiano, I am in love. I am so over the word ‘swoon,’ but that is precisely what I did. I swooned. I swooned at Luca and at the waiter. I thanked the Madonna for parmigiano reggiano. What geniuses, the Bolognesi are, for creating a pasta made with parmigiano. All you need for passatelli, (it’s so simple, both Luca and the waiter are trying to convince me), is eggs, grated bread, and parmigiano.
My handmade tagliatelle Bolognese arrives and it is, of course, exquisite and elegant in every way. A cart of cold cuts and pates is wheeled over to Luca and he makes a few decisions with ease and grace. After our second dishes, the dessert cart makes an appearance. Sono piena, but everything looks positively marvelous. There are many different creams to accompany the frappe for Carnevale, and a few cakes to choose from as well. Luca chooses the traditional frappe with panna, and I take a breather. Across the room, I spy a stupendous fruit plate at another table. Luca, ever the gentleman, recognizes my inner wish, and the waiter brings over a Cezanne-like serving platter of fruit. I finish the meal with un macchiato and strawberries. It is an ending dolcissimo.
Back in the Bolognesi sun, I suddenly feel a pang of sadness, as if I am about to say goodbye to my father after spending a day together in the city. I do not want to hog someone else’s father and husband for the entire Saturday, but I know that even though Luca is pointing me in the direction in which I should continue my ‘giro,’ my giro in Bologna has come to an end. Un giro in Bologna is only as lovely as the Bolognese by your side, and on this beautiful Saturday in ‘La Rossa,’ my luck gifted me with the loveliest of them all. I give Luca a hug and make my way back down Via dell’Independenza, now hip-to-hip with people, family, and friends, all out and about to celebrate each other and their vibrant city.