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AL PAPPAGALLO - THE WAY OF THE PARROT
You can never be entirely alone at Pappagallo, and not just because this restaurant is a popular Bologna institution. At The Parrot (pappagallo in Italian) you are forever in the company of all the celebrities who have been here before you: their signed photographs, dozens of them, hang in rows on the walls, above the wooden panelling. Some of the portraits are half a century old or more, and feature actors and actresses that most Italians would struggle to put a name to. Others are relatively recent and entirely international: Sharon Stone, for example, or Alfred Hitchcock. I spotted Lionel Ritchie nearby. ‘Thanks for a great evening’ he has scribbled across his own torso. Gazing down on our table was the face of Gina Lollobrigida, circa 1960, in her beautiful pomp.
Those eyes of hers looked as though they could burn holes in the tablecloth. One suspects that nothing much has changed since the night Miss Lollobrigida was here.
Everything about Pappagallo is wilfully and rather charmingly old-world. Service is formal, and each young waiter (they are all men) is as efficient and deferential as an Edwardian butler. The place settings consist of a burnished steel platter adorned with a snow-white and entirely superfluous lace doily; a stained-glass art nouveau lamp stands on every table.
If you happen to be a gentleman diner entertaining a lady friend, then the menu that she is handed will not give the price of any of the dishes. Most restaurants stopped doing that soon after whalebone corsets went out of fashion. Every dish on Pappagallo’s menu is as predictable and practised as a parrot’s conversation – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You don’t come to Pappagallo to be delighted and amused by the creative wit of the chef, you come for the old Bolognesi favourites. Among the antipasti, for example, is a terrine of rabbit: a little patio of meaty edibleness, a slick zigzag of sticky balsamic vinegar, and a herbaceous border of red and green winter leaves. “This gets a very high score from me” said my dinner companion, though of course she was in no position to say if it constituted value for money. Because Pappagallo is certainly not a cheap evening out. It’s a special-occasion kind of place, but worth it if only for the primi piatti, which are all superlative versions of the pasta classics.
The tortellini in brodo, a Bologna speciality, is surely among the best to be had in the city. The minuscule pasta parcels are supposed to be modelled on the navel of Venus, but to me they looked like tiny nun’s wimples. They swim in a translucent and entirely unimpeachable capon broth, and you spoon them out one or two at a time, as if fishing for tadpoles in some kind of surreally delicious garden pond.
The green lasagne alla bolognese was just as good (both dishes are part of the five-course tasting menu). Beneath a crispy Parmesan surface, its stratified construction resembled an exposed section of Roman wall. The layers were held together with a soft bechamel sauce, and a motherlode of delicate ragù ran through the middle. Altogether terrific, like a kind of savoury trifle.
For my main course I had beef tagliata with grilled vegetables: rare steak and the charred aubergines and peppers cut into thin strips that looked almost like they had been influenced by nouvelle cuisine, though this can only have been an unfortunate coincidence.
I regretted choosing it, but only because I couldn’t finish it. Next time I think perhaps I should go for something lighter, such as the grouper fillet.
There was certainly no question of a dessert, though I was intrigued by the dish described on the English version of the menu as ‘Pappagallo’s revisited tiramisu’.
All in all Pappagallo was almost eerily good, a fine-dining experience from a dreamlike past. As we left, I glanced at the portly profile of Alfred Hitchcock and – do you know what – I could have sworn I saw him wink.
Visit the official website.
Article by Lee Marshall
Photographs by Leonardo Careddu
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Article extracted from the Autumn Issue of Bologna For Connoisseurs 2012 to celebrate the hotel's centenary year.
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