The red, the fat, and the learned: The story behind Bologna’s curious nicknames

Bologna, the capital of Italy's northern Emilia Romagna region, has three curious nicknames: the red, the fat, and the learned. Contributor Dina Caruso explores the story behind each one.

The red, the fat, and the learned: The story behind Bologna's curious nicknames
Peeking into Bologna's main square. All photos: Dina Caruso

Bologna, the capital city of Italy's northern Emilia Romagna, often doesn't make it onto tourist itineraries, but after a year studying here, I can't imagine living in any other city.

I didn't know much about it before moving – it was the very fact that I had no idea what it would be like that appealed to me. But one of the first things I learned was that Bologna is nicknamed by locals as 'la dotta, la grassa, la rossa' (the learned, the fat, the red), and that these names come from three characteristics which define the city: Bologna’s historical university, its mouthwatering cuisine, and the long-standing connection to Italy’s anti-fascist movement and left-wing politics.

La dotta | The learned

Bologna’s university – whose Latin name, Alma Mater Studiorum, means 'nourishing mother of studies' is the oldest continuously operating university in the western world. It boasts an illustrious list of alumni, from writers like Dante and Petrarch to four former popes, to Erasmus of Rotterdam, the namesake of the student exchange programme which today draws thousands of students to the city.

The library. Photo: Dina Caruso

The university is particularly noted for its medical school, and the anatomical theatre can still be visited today. It's located in the Archiginnasio of Bologna, which once acted as the main campus of the university and still houses one of the libraries, which is open to the public as well. 

READ MORE: Why Bologna should be the next city you visit in Italy

As an Erasmus student of the university, I have been able to experience first hand the Italian university system – and the first few months came as a shock. One of the main differences, compared to the UK university system, is the absence of university-provided accommodation. In Italy, it's common for students to rent rooms privately, which eliminates some of the social element of university life but provides you with a greater sense of independence.

Another difference is that Italian students are able to select their exam dates out of a range of different ‘appelli’ (exam periods) throughout the academic year. If you are not prepared to sit that exam yet, you can chose to sit it in the following exam season. Whilst this provides Italian students with flexibility, it means that degree courses to not have a set amount of years in which they must be completed in – and can last for a very long time –  because Italian students can continue sitting their exams until they are happy with their grade.

La grassa | The fat

Pizza and pasta may be considered emblematic of Italy, but actually every single region, city, small town, has its own piatti tipici; typical dishes. Bologna is often touted as the country's culinary capital, and with good reason.

Tortellini in brodo. Photo: Dina Caruso

Some of the traditional recipes include the famous tagliatelle al ragù (the ancestor of the westernized 'spaghetti bolognese') and tortellini in brodo. Tagliatelle al ragù is made of long and flat pasta strips with the ragù sauce usually made out of minced beef, onions, celery, carrots and tomato.

Tortellini in brodo consists of small, rounded shaped pasta – with a filling usually made out of pork and Parmigiano Reggiano – in a broth.

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

Not to mention tigelle, a kind of Italian bread which is sort of similar to an English muffin and is usually eaten with a typical salumi misti board (a selection of cured meats, often including mortadella – a large pork sausage with cubes of fat, which is another typical product of the city).
Mortadella slices – and some local wine. Photo: Dina Caruso

But something which surprised me about Bologna is the ever-growing number of organic, vegan, and vegetarian-only food outlets, which challenge the traditional cuisine. Equally, traditional ‘Italian’ cuisine is not the only kind of food that can be enjoyed in the city.

Bologna boasts a variety of different global cuisine; from Japanese, to Greek, to Mexican, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my preconceived view of Italy offering a limited choice of global cuisine was incorrect. All in all, it's no wonder that they call it 'la grassa' – with such a wide variety of food on offer, it's hard not to put on weight while living here.

La rossa | The red

Bologna was the anti-fascist capital during the Second World War and aspects of its ‘red’ culture remain visible today, in its street art, a lively student protest culture. It's been left-leaning almost as long as it's been a city: during the Holy Roman Empire, it was a free commune. From the 12th century onwards, it began to expand and became an industrial hub, giving rise to workers' movements. During the war, it was at the heart of the Resistance movement, and was a stronghold for Italy's Communist Party for several decades after that.

The red rooftops are the other reason for the nickname. Photo: Dina Caruso

Street art across the city pays hommage to the city’s historical connection to both anti-fascism and communism, and the 'Storia nostra, storia partigiana' artwork on the walls of Piazza Verdi, is a must see. Translating to 'Our story, the partisans' story', the piece depicts scenes with riot police, underlining the city’s past of protest and revolt.

READ ALSO: Seven faces of the Italian Resistance movement whose stories you should know

If you visit the city, wander around the student district (around Via Zamboni) – not only is this where the liveliest bars can be found, but it's where all the best street art is, as well as plenty of anti-establishment graffiti. Watch out though, because what’s there today could very well be gone tomorrow; the city’s street art is constantly changing and being painted over.

The 'Storia Partigiana' street art – as well as some more recently added protest banners. Photo: Dina Caruso

Bologna’s student protest culture also remains strong; having a lecture room change because of a protest going on outside the university is not uncommon.

One of the largest student protests I have witnessed in Bologna was the occupation of the university library. Police came inside to break up the protest, but the occupants to respond by barricading themselves inside. This encounter sparked days of protest in the university zone. 

Dina Caruso is an English and Italian Literature student from the UK's University of Warwick on an Erasmus placement in Bologna, Italy. She has lived in Bologna for eight months and has fallen in love with each and every aspect of the city, while spending her spare time travelling around the rest of Italy.

Want to write a guest blog or opinion piece for The Local? Get in touch at [email protected] if you've got something to say about Italy.

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Why some of Italy’s food festivals are ‘fake’ – and how to pick the best ones

Italy's countless sagre, or food fairs, are an autumn highlight. But how do you find the best events - and avoid the more commercial ones? Reporter Silvia Marchetti explains.

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are 'fake' - and how to pick the best ones

Italy’s renowned food fairs are one of the most exciting events during autumn and winter, particularly the coldest months when we’re looking for culinary weekend distractions. 

For the uninitiated, sagre are key gourmand exhibitions mixing local food, premium products, cheeses and olive oil – all the ‘excellences’ of the area – but lately I find some are just, well, fake. 

READ ALSO: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

Instead of selling traditional indigenous delicacies, vendors sell a little bit of everything which they think appeals to foreigners and city people desperate for a rural break. 

Last weekend I went to the sagra at Osteria Nuova, near Passo Corese in Lazio, and found mozzarella from Naples and limoncello from Amalfi: now what do those have to do with the Rieti countryside?

It was sad and disappointing. Even though it takes place in an area which is famous at this time of the year for exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts there was not even one single vendor selling these. Instead, there was codfish from Venice and porchetta from the Castelli Romani.

Up until a few years ago the Osteria Nuova food fair was very genuine and appealing: it was actually a real farmers’ market where animals were sold: not just rabbits and hens but cows, horses and donkeys. It was a vibrant event. 

Now the cages that once kept the animals are empty. And people just go there to stuff themselves with huge sandwiches and hotdogs. It’s always hell finding a parking spot because the fair is very close to Rome, luring day trippers on a ‘scampagnata’.

Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

My advice is to avoid visiting food fairs which are too close to big cities and towns, but pick offbeat villages or unknown rural spots where the sagre are small and with local producers selling authentic, ‘indigenous’ products. Choosing the remote hillsides, where traditions tend to survive, is of course better than the touristy areas. 

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

Also, it’s best if the food fair is not too heavily sponsored or advertised in national newspapers. The best thing to do is search online for all food fairs in the area you plan to visit during the weekend or even during the week, and ask friends and locals as word of mouth can often be more reliable. 

Among the authentic sagre I would recommend the porcini mushroom food fair in San Martino al Cimino in the pristine hills of the Tuscia countryside in Lazio, where the woods are dotted with porcini. 

At the fair not only bags of huge porcini are sold but you can also buy a lunch ticket and taste various mushroom dishes sitting down at wooden tables. Last time I was served a delicious potato and porcini soup which inspired me to replicate (successfully) the recipe at home. 

However, the best thing is to search for the weird and unknown – food fairs with funny names and showcasing products that sound and look really bizarre. So forget about the usual truffles, mozzarella, limoncello, ham and pasta-filled events. I suggest opting for quirky food festivals in never-heard-of-before villages where the culinary adventure comes with a cultural jolt. 


When I hear about something amazingly off-the-wall and tasty, with a particular story or legend behind it, my curiosity and taste buds tingle.

Last weekend I was surfing the web and came across the Ciammellocco festival in the tiny hamlet of Cretone, Lazio, which immediately aroused my curiosity. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

As I had never heard of it before, I jumped in the car the following day and ventured out to an isolated woody area with a few small dwellings, where one single bakery makes this huge, funny-sounding, highly-nutritious sweet-salty doughnut with fennel seeds which has been around since at least the middle ages. Housewives used to make it for their husbands as a substitute for lunch when they went off working in the fields. 

Even though I have tasted similar ciambelle in my life none come close to ciammellocco, crunchy and tender at the same time, made with eggs but light.

Next I heard about the Sagra della Papera in Carassai, Marche region, offering succulent duck meat dishes with pappardelle pasta and roasted duck breasts, and given duck isn’t something you’d normally find in Italian restaurants, it makes the cut for authentic food events. 

Vegetarians can’t miss the Festival degli Orapi in the village of Picinisco north of Naples where guests are treated to platefuls of a unique, delicious spinach variety which is made exquisite by the fact that it grows beneath goat poo, a natural fertilizer. Locals actually roam the countryside with a knife to scrape away the poo and extract the orapi.

In Pedagaggi, Sicily, local housewives organize the Sagra della mostarda di fichi d’india, with gourmet dishes made from exotic-looking prickly pear mustards. 

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

Other curious sagre include the Festa del Gorgonzola set in the town of Gorgonzola in Lombardy which is the real birthplace of Italy’s iconic blue cheese. Huge pentoloni of steaming pots of gorgonzola in the middle of the piazza lure pungent cheese addicts. 

Also Diamante’s festival del peperoncino in Calabria is a must stop for lovers of strong, authentic hot dishes spiced up with chili peppers (there’s even a peperoncini eating marathon).

Real sagre tend to showcase one premium native product rather than a myriad with overlapping origins.

The more ‘local’ you dive into the deepest, remote corners of Italy full of tradition and folklore, the more genuine the sagra and the more satisfying the gastronomical experience.