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New book aims to settle age-old question: Does spag bol exist?

The pasta-and-meat-sauce combination of spaghetti bolognese is a symbol of Italian cooking around the world, yet many Italians will be quick to tell you there's no such thing. Tourists ordering the dish are likely to be met with confusion, or even a stern telling-off.

New book aims to settle age-old question: Does spag bol exist?
Where do you stand in the Great Pasta Debate? Photo: Elsie Hui/Flickr

“Spaghetti bolognese doesn't exist,” the waiter will likely inform you. “What you're looking for is tagliatelle al ragu.”

'Bolognese' might get its name from the northern city of Bologna, but not only do foreigners usually put it with the 'wrong' kind of pasta (unlike spaghetti, tagliatelle is flat, perfect for picking up chunks of meat), Italians often criticize foreign recipes for bolognese sauce, arguing that the traditional ragu must be cooked a certain way, usually for many hours or even days.

But is that strictly correct? Professional marketer and proud Bologna citizen Piero Valdiserra aims to put the question to bed once and for all with his new book, Spaghetti alla Bolognese: L'altra faccia del tipico (Spaghetti bolognese: The other side of tradition).

It's the first ever to be devoted to the dish and is likely to stir up strong feelings. Valdiserra proposes that rather than shunning spaghetti bolognese, Italians need to accept and even embrace its place in the country's culinary tradition. 

He tells The Local that he was inspired to pen the book by the sheer volume of material which had been written on the subject but never presented in a cohesive way. 
 

“The question always elicits strong debate, whether in personal meetings, dinners, in press or on social media,” Valdiserra explained.

He also has a personal connection to the dish. “Ragu or Bolognese sauce has always been important to me. My earliest, strongest and most emotional memories are all of Bolognese sauce, made by my mum, my grandma, and my aunts. In my house – as in many Bolognese homes – ragu is always being prepared and eaten.”

According to the ragu enthusiast, there are four widespread myths about spag bol: that it doesn't exist, that it is 'bad', that it is made with tuna, and that it dates back to World War II. The book debunks each of these urban legends through a comprehensive study of the history and development of the dish, which was first attested as far back as the 16th century.

READ MORE: Why you won't find spaghetti bolognese in Italy

This research led him to a conclusion that's bound to shock food purists: “Spaghetti bolognese actually represents, in every way, a typical product of Bolognese cuisine,” Valdiserra says.

He argues that, if good quality ingredients are used, the dish need not be a disgrace to Italy's culinary tradition and is actually extremely Italian fare, despite being somehow 'unique'. 


Piero Valdiserra. Photo: Private

“Like language, cuisine is a great social institution which does not stand still but changes constantly over time, thanks to the collaboration of many people,” the expert said. “Culinary tradition is simply the accumulation of many small innovations, which are never finished.”

So, spaghetti bolognese's reputation as a perversion of Italian food is undeserved.

The expert hopes that the publication will appeal to anyone with an interest in Italy's culinary tradition, but it also has a more specific purpose. 

“It is also aimed at Bolognese institutions, including public bodies, the tourist office and chamber of commerce” he says, and he hopes his defence of spag bol might persuade his native city to take advantage of the Bolognese 'brand' and stop turning their noses up at the twist on their regional dish.

Valdiserra has wide experience in marketing, and believes that the city is missing a trick by distancing itself from the recipe when it could be embracing it, and using it as a vehicle for promoting Bologna and its food.

He's got firm words for anyone who denies the existence of the controversial sauce: “Those who seek to ‘stop’ the evolution of food by fixing it in rigid recipes, fail to understand the deeper spirit of food itself. Cuisine – particularly that of Italy – is life, and like life, it moves, evolves constantly.”

The book also includes a section devoted to poetry inspired by Spaghetti Bolognese (yes, really) and a look at the recipe of ‘classic bolognese’.

So what has the reaction been like in a country staunchly protective of its cooking traditions?

“Initial reactions have been diverse,” says Valdiserra. “The ‘innovators’ have reacted with enthusiasm to the pragmatic approach and openness to the world, while traditionalists are sceptical or critical, if not openly hostile.”

Indeed, foreign 'corruption' of Italian meals frequently makes headlines and has provoked many a social media storm. During the summer, Bologna's airport felt compelled to send a tweet to the low-cost airline, Ryanair, telling them to stop referring to 'spaghetti Bolognese' when promoting flights to the city.

And a New York Times recipe for White Bolognese – using a mushroom-based sauce with no tomatoes – got plenty of Italians in a simmer just a few weeks later.

 

 

READ MORE: Why you won't find spaghetti bolognese in Italy

 

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How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

If you're visiting Italy from outside the EU you risk running up a huge phone bill in roaming charges - but there are ways to keep your internet access while avoiding being hit by extra charges.

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

Travelling without access to the internet is almost impossible these days. We use our phones for mapping applications, contacting the Airbnb, even scanning the QR code for the restaurant menu.

If you’re lucky enough to have a phone registered in an EU country then you don’t need to worry, thanks to the EU’s cap on charges for people travelling, but people visiting from non-EU countries – which of course now includes the UK – need to be careful with their phone use abroad.

First things first, if you are looking to avoid roaming charges, be sure to go into your settings and turn off “data roaming.” Do it right before your plane lands or your train arrives – you don’t want to risk the phone company in your home country starting the clock on ‘one day of roaming fees’ without knowing it.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

But these days travelling without internet access can be difficult and annoying, especially as a growing number of tourist attractions require booking in advance online, while restaurants often display their menus on a QR code.

So here are some techniques to keep the bills low.

Check your phone company’s roaming plan

Before leaving home, check to see what your phone plan offers for pre-paid roaming deals.

For Brits, if you have a phone plan with Three for example, you can ask about their “Go Roam” plan for add-on allowance. You can choose to pay monthly or as you go. Vodafone offers eight day and 15 day passes that are available for £1 a day.

For Americans, T-Mobile offers you to add an “international pass” which will charge you $5 per day. Verizon and AT&T’s roaming plans will charge you $10 per day. For AT&T, you are automatically opted into this as soon as your phone tries to access data abroad.

READ ALSO: Seven things to do in Italy in summer 2022

These all allow you to retain your normal phone number and plan.

Beware that these prices are only available if you sign up in advance, otherwise you will likely be facing a much bigger bill for using mobile data in Italy. 

Buy a pre-paid SIM card

However, if you are travelling for a longer period of time it might work out cheaper to turn off your phone data and buy a pre-paid SIM card in Italy.

In order to get a pre-paid SIM card, you will need your passport or proof of identity (drivers’ licences do not count).

READ ALSO: TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

Keep in mind that you will not be able to use your normal phone number with the new SIM card in, but will be able to access your internet enabled messaging services, like WhatsApp, Facebook and iMessage. Your phone will need to be ‘unlocked’ (ask your carrier about whether yours is) in order to put a new SIM card in.

Here are some of the plans you can choose from:

WindTre

WindTre, the result of a 2020 merger between the Italian company Wind and the UK network provider Three, currently offers a “Tourist Pass” SIM card for foreign nationals. For €24.99 (it’s sneakily marketed as €14.99, but read the small print and you’ll see you need to fork out an additional €10), you’ll have access to 20GB of data for up to 30 days.

The offer includes 100 minutes of calls within Italy plus an additional 100 minutes to 55 foreign countries listed on the WindTre website. Up to 13.7GB can be used for roaming within the EU. The card is automatically deactivated after 30 days, so there’s no need to worry about surprise charges after you return from your holiday. To get this SIM card, you can go into any WindTre store and request it.

A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.
A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Vodafone

Vodafone has had better deals in the past, but lately appears to have downgraded its plan for tourists, now called “Vodafone Holiday” (formerly “Dolce Vita”), to a paltry 2GB for €30. You get a total of 300 minutes of calls and 300 texts to Italian numbers or to your home country; EU roaming costs €3 per day.

Existing Vodafone customers can access the offer by paying €19 – the charge will be made to your Vodafone SIM within 72 hours of activating the deal. 

READ ALSO: MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

The Vodafone Holiday offer automatically renews every four weeks for €29 – in order to cancel you’ll need to call a toll-free number. The Vodafone website says that the €30 includes the first renewal, suggesting the payment will cover the first four weeks plus an additional four after that, but you’ll want to double check before buying. You’ll need to go to a store in person to get the card.

TIM

TIM is one of Italy’s longest-standing and most well-established network providers, having been founded in 1994 following a merger between several state-owned companies.

The “Tim Tourist” SIM card costs €20 for 15GB of data and 200 minutes of calls within Italy and to 58 foreign countries, and promises “no surprises” when it comes to charges.

You can use the full 15GB when roaming within the EU at no extra charge, and in the EU can use your minutes to call Italian numbers. The deal is non-renewable, so at the end of the 30 days you won’t be charged any additional fees.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

To access the offer, you can either buy it directly from a TIM store in Italy, or pre-order using an online form and pay with your bank card. Once you’ve done this, you’ll receive a PIN which you should be able to present at any TIM store on arrival in Italy (along with your ID) to collect your pre-paid card. The card won’t be activated until you pick it up.

Iliad

Iliad is the newest and one of the most competitive of the four major phone companies operating in Italy, and currently has an offer of 120GBP of €9.99 a month. For this reason, some travel blogs recommend Iliad as the best choice for foreigners – but unfortunately all of their plans appear to require an Italian tax ID, which rules it out as an option for tourists.

Contract

Though buying a pre-paid SIM card is a very useful option for visitors spending a decent amount of time in Italy, as mentioned above, there’s a significant different difference between buying a one-time pre-paid SIM versus a monthly plan that auto-renews.

Make sure you know which one you’re signing up for, and that if you choose a plan that will continue charging you after your vacation has ended, you remember to cancel it.

UK contracts

If you have a UK-registered mobile phone, check your plan carefully before travelling. Before Brexit, Brits benefited from the EU cap on roaming charges, but this no longer applies.

Some phone companies have announced the return of roaming charges, while others have not, or only apply roaming charges only on certain contracts.

In short, check before you set off and don’t assume that because you have never been charged extra before, you won’t be this time.

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