Situated in the north of Italy, Bologna not only houses the almost 1,000-year-old University of Bologna, but the city is also known as the food capital of Italy, and not just for pastas. You may wonder if there is still any place for Michelin restaurants in this paradise of budget-friendly meals.
There is only one Michelin-starred restaurant in town – I Portici – which has been here for more than a decade, challenging the way that tourists have shaped the area’s traditional culinary scene. I call it a gastronomic “maverick” outside the mainstream.
Three months in Italy traveling and meeting friends, I spent a lot of time around Bologna. The traditional food scene in Bologna is attractive enough with its mouth-watering street foods that even make high-end restaurants not so tempting. A simple plate of Bolognese pasta was all I wanted on my first day in town, not a Michelin restaurant.
But in the end we chose fine dining as our first stop due to tight schedule. I Portici is a Michelin one-starred and the only starred restaurant in Bologna. The young chef’s determination to walk in a lively experimental spirit is commendable – after all I would think it takes a bit of Don Quixote’s courage to run an upmarket restaurant where visitors are basically looking for traditional food markets. Chef Gianluca Renzi told me that before moving to Bologna, he understood that the local culinary system was very much focused on tradition. However, this was not a disadvantage but rather a new possibility for fine dining.
Housed ina four-star hotel with the same name, I Portici scooped one Michelin star four years after its inauguration in 2008. The space was a luminous reminiscence of its history, classy and spacious. Compared to opulent five-star hotel decor, I prefer less is more.
Inside the Eden Theater, an ancient café-chantantwas restored to its former glory thanks to the elegant design of stage and audience seating. The food at I Portici far exceeded my expectation. The starting appetiser was thoughtfully flavoured with a traditional element of Bologna’s Mortadella(cooked ham sausage). The golden bread that followed was deep fried and then lavishly covered with an entire sheet of gold leaf, delicious but I am not a big fan of the gold leaf after all.
The next was the sea bass carpaccio, which was surprisingly fresh and chewy, served with green curry, basil leaves and fermented banana crisps. It was an exotic provocation in textures and flavours.
The flavourful duck ravioli served with mushrooms and ginger juice was impressive. Ginger is not often found in Italian cuisine and is mostly used in desserts. But its refreshing taste complemented the duck and the al dente ravioli. A tasty version I love.
Featuring a sauce made with almond milk and sea urchin, the fusillone, one of the signature dishes, was excellent in colour and flavour. It was a shame that the cuttlefish was a bit overshadowed by the perfectly cooked pasta, but it was still outstanding.
The main course pigeonwas of textbook quality, decorated with crushed peanuts and finalised by a splash of Lambrusco snow(frozen sparkling red wine from Modena) to complete the picturesque plating. The ruby colour, berry notes and bright acidity balance the oils.
I Portici’s dishes are harmonious and aesthetically pleasing, butnowadays Michelin’s preference seems to be more focused on idiosyncrasy. The ability to elevate a dish to the level of art requires a solid foundation in traditional cooking. And that’s where Chef Gianluca Renzi’s expertise is relevant.
At only thirtythree years of age, Gianluca Renzi is already very experienced. He spent ten years side by side with German Michelin three-starred chef Heinz Beck. When he was only 20, he became part of Heinz Beck’s team as Chef de Partie at La Pergola, a three Michelin stars restaurant in Rome. He also participated in different world events as a member of Beck’s team. He later worked as Sous Chef at the Apsleys Heinz Beck restaurant in London and in 2014 he worked for the first time as Executive Chef for the restaurant Castello di Fighine by Heinz Beck, winning the first milestone of the coveted Michelin Star after four years under his leadership. In 2018 he returned to Italy to work at Attimi by Heinz Beck in Milan.
Working for the same person for a third of your life is no arbitrary act of will. Many of Joel Robuchon’s students have been working with him for 20 or 30 years. I met Heinz Beck once in Shanghai ten years ago. He was humourous and his dishes were exquisite and airy. I haven’t been to Beck’s restaurant in Rome though, there are many must-visit local trattorias, so I wasn’t particularly looking for starred restaurants. Gianluca also mentioned that his cooking has changed as he seeks out new techniques and inspiration. “Of course the fundamentals will stay, but I like to adapt to the local.” he said.
I tried Gianluca Renzi’s dishes at the restaurant in Milan before the pandemic. Young as he is, he already has the makings of a celebrity chef with solid techniques and brilliant cooking that is striking for its creativity and the talent with which he interprets all kinds of products. There are restaurants running by young chefs that come and go, but Gianluca Renzi writes the future by himself, already a MICHELIN Young Chef Award winner, and probably only at the beginning of the successes he deserves from what he demonstrates today.
Fearlessly shaping its style while on the road to achieve two stars, I Portici takes on the challenge to establish itself as a culinary landmark in Bologna. If you are not rushing to the next stop in your trip, I Portici is an enchanting addition to the traditional Bolognese cuisine you’d expect from this amazing city.
Article/Photo: Jocelyn 华姐