The mayor of Bologna, Italy, is on a crusade to correct a worldwide misapprehension: Spaghetti Bolognese is not actually an Italian dish. Why has he decided that this will be the pasta-covered hill he wants to die on? To defend the honor of his beloved Emilia-Romagna, a region of Italy famous for cured meats, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Bologna’s world-class gelato.
Virginio Merola recently got on his high horse to declare that no, spaghetti Bolognese does not come from Bologna, thank you very much. He took to Twitter, where he wrote that he is “collecting photos of spaghetti Bolognese from around the world in relation to fake news.” He intends to display the photos at FICO Eataly World, a food theme park in Bologna that features cooking demonstrations and pop-up restaurants.
Merola then visited Italy’s RAI radio station where he told the host, “Spaghetti Bolognese doesn’t actually exist, yet it’s famous the world over.”
Not to “well, actually,” the mayor of Bologna, but spaghetti Bolognese does exist. How could it not if it’s “famous the world over”? It seems that Merola’s real beef (pun intended) is with the pervasive myth that spaghetti Bolognese was invented in his city.
He is, of course, correct that Italians generally disavow this dish; it has no place in genuine Italian cuisine and is more popular in North America and other parts of Europe. Its true origins are unclear though prevailing wisdom attributes its invention to Italian immigrants.
The truth is a bit more complicated than the easier-to-swallow myth: You will find ragù — a catch-all term referring to any meat sauce left to simmer on the stove for many hours — all over Italy. Recipes differ in every region throughout the country, though the most familiar version is likely ragù alla Bolognese, a tomato-based meat sauce that does originate in Bologna. Ragù alla bolognese is almost always paired with a noodle with more surface area to catch the sauce than spaghetti, like tagliatele or lasagna.
While meat sauces were eaten in Italy as far back as the Roman Empire, tomato-based ragù alla bolognese probably didn’t emerge until the 18th century, in a town near Bologna called Imola. There, a chef named Alberto Alvisi, who served the town’s cardinal, likely prepared the original version. Some 100 years later, recipes for ragù alla bolognese began to appear in cookbooks, and in 1982, the Italian Academy of Cuisine registered the official recipe at the Bologna Chamber of Commerce.
Outside Italy, “Bolognese sauce” refers to any tomato-based meat sauce, but the official recipe calls for a strict set of ingredients, including milk, pancetta, beef, and tomato paste. Merola certainly has a point that what outsiders consider ragù alla bolognese is probably nothing like what is served in restaurants in Bologna.
However, others from the region, including Matteo Lepore, a member of the Bologna city council’s marketing department, don’t feel quite as hostile toward spaghetti Bolognese. He told Lifegate that while the dish’s origins are a complete myth, “we’d better make the most of it” by drawing tourists to the city and introducing them to the culinary triumphs that did actually originate in Bologna, like tagliatelle and tortellini.
While it might be attention-grabbing to disparage spaghetti Bolognese as “inauthentic,” this dish is simply the result of the evolution of Italian food as it spread throughout the world, picking up admirers along the way. Like all good food rooted in strong traditions, Bolognese sauce must be allowed to grow and change with the times, instead of staying stagnant in the past.