BOLOGNA, Italy — In downtown Bologna, dinner's cooking in a first-floor apartment overlooking the Piazza San Francesco and its imposing 13th-century red-brick church. Vegetables are being chopped, a piece of fish is rinsed under the tap. Bouillon simmers in a pot on the stove, a delicate column of white steam rising into the air.
All business as usual but for a few crucial details. Behind the stove is Marco Marino, a former member of Italy's national chef team and now a regular guest on one of the country's most popular television cooking shows. And Marino is preparing no ordinary meal. He's injecting a touch of science into traditional Italian cuisine, adapting techniques and products lifted from molecular gastronomy — the cooking style that Spanish chef Ferran Adria popularized at his now legendary El Bulli restaurant — to local fare.
Marino's audience is no family affair either: A group of 10 amateur foodies is watching his every move, hoping to imbibe some of the secrets of his trade.
The end result of his and his students' work is a delicious three-course meal, highlighted by an appetizer of split-pea soup topped by fresh squid — cut up, pureed, then put into a large syringe and squeezed into a pot of boiling water that cooks it into the shape of spaghetti — as well as sweet and sour cherry tomatoes and an extra-virgin olive oil foam.
The evening was organized by a cultural association called Il Salotto del Buongusto, or the Gourmet Parlor, and was the first stop on my recent reconnaissance tour of Bologna's booming cooking school scene.
Locally, this northern Italian city has long been famous for its two trademark egg-based pasta dishes, tagliatelle and tortellini. The city also is nicknamed La Dotta (the learned one) for its nearly 1,000-year-old university; La Rossa (the red one) for the characteristic color of its roofs and its lefty political inclinations; and La Grassa (the fat one) for its substantial culinary tradition.
The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna is home to some of Italy's most mouthwatering food, which also includes ragu, or meat sauce, and mortadella, which Americans know better as bologna (though the American version has nothing on the original). Parmesan cheese, Parma ham and balsamic vinegar come from the area as well.
You get the gist: This has never been a place for dieting.
What's new, though, is that this is no longer just a city of delicious homemade food whose secrets are vigilantly guarded by aging grandmas. Partly as a result of the economic crisis, which has forced many Italians to reinvent themselves, Bologna's long-closed gastronomic culture is finally opening up, and plenty of people are eager to coach Italian and foreign tourists in how to prepare an authentic Bolognese meal.
A culinary explosion
At last count there were more than 20 cooking schools active in Bologna, teaching everything from traditional recipes to gluten-free gastronomy. Most are concentrated in the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood around the central intersection of the Via Ugo Bassi/Rizzoli and Via Indipendenza.
For a local like me, born and raised in this city but having failed miserably to master the art of cooking, Bologna's culinary renaissance is a revelation. But experts say that the ingredients for this boom have been around for a long time. It just took locals a while to figure it out.
"Bologna is so comfortable, so easy to get around, the people are friendly, more open, more tolerant," said American chef Mary Beth Clark, a pioneer of Bologna's cooking revival. "I don't think I could do what I do in many other cities in Italy."
Clark, who lives in New York, started traveling to Bologna in the mid-1980s. Since then, she has opened her International Cooking School of Italian Food and Wine and spends the late spring and early fall here teaching American tourists how to prepare fresh pasta and other regional delicacies. Her classes take place in a 16th-century palazzo.
Stefano Corvucci of the Culinary Institute of Bologna (a recently renovated lab at the back of his trattoria, Caffe del Rosso) likes to begin the day by taking his clients to the market. He's partly in search of inspiration, because he designs his classes based on what's in season. But his aim also is to steep tourists in the atmosphere of the Quadrilatero, a miniature maze of narrow medieval streets where tiny family-owned shops, more akin to fancy streetside food stalls than actual stores, will sell you anything from greens to cheese.
In between ogling the large selection of seafood on display at one shop and rare mushrooms and truffles at another, Corvucci makes sure to keep his clients going by stopping for an espresso at one of the cafes that dot the cobblestoned Quadrilatero.
Of the cooking schools popping up all over town, La Vecchia Scuola is one of the oldest and most established. It is the creation of Alessandra Spisni, who was raised as a veritable sfoglina (the name for local women who make fresh pasta professionally), then became a successful entrepreneur and now is a regular on TV.
On a Tuesday morning, La Vecchia Scuola's newly inaugurated location on historic Via Galliera is a beehive of activity. The school moved to this two-story venue in September to accommodate the continuous expansion of class offerings and its growing number of students.
At one end of the upstairs kitchen, a mix of state-of-the-art equipment and low-tech traditional pasta-making tools and aspiring chefs from around the country and the world are readying yet another batch of tortellini for their three-month professional course, folding flaps of handmade dough over a pork-based filling. At the other end, an out-of-town couple begins a half-day tagliatelle class by breaking four eggs into flour and kneading it all up into a ball of golden dough.