'Una Serata Bolognese': An Evening in Bologna With Tony Vallone

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"How did you like the lasagna?" asked Donna Vallone as she stopped by to chat at my table. She looked me directly in the eye as she asked, giving me that unspoken message that said, "It was incredible, wasn't it?"

I nodded in agreement, confessing somewhat shamefacedly: "It was so good, I asked for seconds." It was the truth, after all.

The Vincigrasso, or traditional bolognese lasagna verde, had been utterly sublime, the sheets of handmade spinach pasta interwoven with layers of rich bolognese ragù, ricotta and Parmesan cheese. Each bite exploded in flavor even as it caressed the palate with its delicacy. I've always been a fan of Ciao Bello's house-made pappardelle bolognese (in my opinion, the best in the city), but this lasagna verde took bolognese to another level entirely.

It's what I've come to experience each time I've attended one of Tony Vallone's Regional Italian Dinners, which are held at Ciao Bello under the culinary direction of chef Bobby Matos. He began offering them late last summer, kicking off with a Sicilian dinner that was as educational as it was exciting and delicious (see my write-up of that dinner here). Since then, he's done specialty dinners focusing on the cuisine of Rome and Naples, and on this recent evening, Bologna.

When he announced the dinner, Vallone described Bologna as one of the great food meccas of the world: "Bologna and the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna are home to some of Italy's best food products. From prosciutto di Parma and the entire family of cured meats that are produced there to crumbly Parmigiano Reggiano and authentic aceto balsamico tradizionale (true balsamic vinegar), Bologna and its sister cities -- Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena -- are one of Italy's national gastronomic treasures."

Thus, "Una Serata Bolognese" celebrated the richness of Bolognese cuisine. Dinner kicked off with antipasti of Italian cheeses, olives, and plump, sweet whole roasted red peppers, followed by a first course of Raviolini ai Piselli e Carciofi Lunghi, spring pea-stuffed pasta in a sauce that incorporated imported long-stem artichoke and guanciale. Through the light cream sauce, you could taste each component of the dish -- the sweetness of the spring peas, the almost tart bitterness of the artichoke, and the salty sweet fattiness of the guanciale -- while appreciating how the flavors complemented each other.

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A course of Tortellini Modenese, which had been stuffed with prosciutto di Parma and mortadella, looked so simple yet ignited my palate with a wonderful melange of salty, tangy, sweet and creamy. It was remarkable how the different flavors accented, rather than overpowered, one other, the cured savoriness of the prosciutto strikingly pronounced, yet enhanced by a simple red tomato sauce.

The lasagna, as I mentioned before, was the highlight for me, and rightly so. According to Vallone, "Over the years, I have had the great fortune to cook with some of the region's leading chefs. Every one of them has her or his own recipe for ragù alla bolognese, the famous meat sauce of northern Italy, served over tagliatelle or layered with lasagne."

Vallone pulled out his own secret bolognese recipe that night, which included chicken livers for an added voluptuousness. The depth of flavor achieved was extraordinary, and when it was combined with the delicate pasta sheets -- hand-made just that day with spinach -- I couldn't get enough of it. Indeed, my dining companions made a show of trying to steal my second portion when it arrived at the table, with one of them declaring, "I could happily eat three bowls of this lasagna." I was tempted to share with him, but it didn't happen, as I couldn't help but hoard the dish all to myself (sorry, friend).

To follow the pasta dishes, guests were treated to a Stracotta di Manzo, veal cheeks slow-braised in Sangiovese wine, served with black and white beans. The red-wine braise reminded me of bœuf bourguignon, but that was where the similarities ended. The veal cheeks were meltingly tender, their consistency more luscious than the French dish.

A lovely round tower of honey and almond torte, wherein slices of moist cake were alternately layered with whipped cream and toasted slivers of almonds, brought the evening to an end.

The dinner also provided an introduction to the wines of that particular region. We enjoyed a white 2009 Fattoria Zerbina, AS, Albana di Romagna with our first course, followed, in order, by a 2009 Fattoria Zerbina, Ceregio, Sangiovese di Romagna; a 2012 Poggio Brigante, Morellino di Scansano from Tuscany; and a side-by-side tasting of 2006 and 2007 Fattoria Serbina, Torre di Ceparano, Sangiovese di Romagna.

Tony Vallone's Regional Italian Dinner Series continues on April 30 at Ciao Bello, with "Una Serata Toscana," an Evening in Tuscany. Reservations are recommended, since all of the dinners to date have sold out. For more information, please contact Ciao Bello.

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