There’s a small place in Bologna called Bar Paolo where you can sit at the bar and order a cocktail that will make your head spin or a simple dinner that will remind you that all is right with the world. Where you can simultaneously watch the beautiful people and feel like family. Where you come hungry and leave full and happy. Where Paolo still works in the kitchen until dinnertime, then goes home, waving and nodding to regulars on his way out, leaving the rest to his son, Luca. It’s a family affair. And you’re part of it.
One of the things that makes Bar Paolo so special is the regulars. Like the 60-something couple who dress like – how to put this? – street walkers after they change out of their police uniforms. They come to Paolo almost every night to drink and dine off the free snacks, and sit next to the attractive forty-somethings whose wives have left them in charge of the kids. The kids happily dangle their feet and gorge on pasta with butter and cheese. The next day the same forty-somethings may come back with their girlfriends, and the next day with their wives. It’s an ever changing familiar landscape. It’s very Bologna – prices are steep – and it’s very comforting.
One of the (less eccentric) regulars is my husband. He’s been going to Bar Paolo for the last 12 or so years (though he’s been living abroad for 10 of them) and is, by now, family. We go with my in-laws, we go with his friends, we’ve taken my parents, we’ve taken my friends. Whenever we’re at Paolo, he will see a few people he knows. Sometimes we book the only table on the main floor (there are about 5 more in the less glamorous cellar); the rest of the seats circle a big, stainless steel bar that wraps around the drink station in the middle where Luca is standing by to fix something for whatever ails you. As soon as you sit down, fried dough and little meatballs arrive to bate your appetite. If Paolo’s in the kitchen and he’s feeling creative, you might try a tiny portion of risotto alla milanese or polenta fritta even before you’ve ordered your wine.
There’s no menu. The professional waiters read out the dishes and specials, coaching you as you decide. Would you like some pasta? Perhaps you’d like some tagliatelle. We can do them with ragù or with porcini. No pasta? How about a salad with beef carpaccio? Or perhaps with bresaola and shavings of parmigiano and freshly squeezed lemon? Or maybe you’d prefer roast beef with drippings on your salad? Va bene. After your salad, would you like to have a secondo? We have vitello tonnato or you could have a ball of mozzarella with some cherry tomatoes for something lighter.
One of the novelties in a country hampered with culinary rules is that da Paolo you can order half an order of this and half an order of that. Can’t decide between the tagliolini ai gamberi and the cotoletta? Have them both, side by side on the same plate. Even my by-the-book Italian, who never eats his meat before his pasta and poo poos meals in which all the dishes are put out at the same time, indulges in the freedom to choose. Who knew defying Italian culinary rules could be so fun?
When we’re in Bologna, we go to Bar Paolo so often that the waiters anticipate my order. They skip the spiel, not wasting their breath to tell me that Paolo made a sformatino di carciofi that morning or that there’s just one more piece of asparagus frittata. Because we all know that I will always order – sometimes, if I’m very hungry, as a precursor to a spicy beef tartar topped with a raw egg yolk – the rigatoni abbrustoliti. Toasted rigatoni. Fried pasta tossed with cherry tomatoes, arugula, lonza (cured beef tenderloin) and, if you’re so inclined, shavings of parmigiano. Delicious, unique, always on the menu. Rigatoni abbrustoliti, per favore.
Because we don’t get to Bologna as often as we’d like, because rigatoni are my favorite pasta, because this is in my top 10 favorite dishes of all time, I have been trying to recreate Paolo’s signature dish for years. And though my current incarnation is not quite up there with the original, we think it’s pretty close. So even if we can’t be true regulars at Paolo’s, at least a little bit of Paolo is a regular at ours.
Based on the amazing original from Bar Paolo, Porta San Mamolo…a must if you find yourself in Bologna. While I’m usually not strict with my recipes, I will be here: you must use rigatoni. Other pasta shapes won’t brown as nicely. Also, in order to ensure proper browning, do not substitute olive oil for the vegetable oil. I know it sounds unorthodox, but it’s the only way and I assure you it’s quite delicious. Also, unless you’re a vegetarian or serving one, don’t leave out the lonza/coppa/cured meat. It adds that extra bit of saltiness. In fact, don’t change a thing. This is as close to Paolo’s as you’re going to get, and much cheaper than a plane ticket.
Serves 2; can be doubled, tripled or adjusted to taste. Once you’ve boiled and dried your pasta, the whole affair takes about 7 minutes.
200 grams (1/2 box) rigatoni
3 – 4 tablespoons vegetable, peanut or canola oil
10 slices or so lonza (cured beef tenderloin) or similar, such as coppa, chopped
2 abundant handfuls cherry tomatoes (about 1 pint), halved
2 abundant handfuls baby arugula
a few shavings of parmigiano (optional)
Begin ahead by boiling the rigatoni in advance. They must be completely dry when you fry them. Boil them until just barely al dente (about 2 minutes less than the time specified on the box), then drain them. Dry them a bit with a paper towel, then toss them in bowl with a tiny bit of olive oil to prevent them from sticking together and leave them until you’re ready to make the dish. You can do this a few hours in advance.
When you’re ready to cook, get all your ingredients ready. Halve the tomatoes, chop the lonza (or coppa), make sure your rigatoni are completely dry. In a large, flat-bottomed skillet, heat the canola, vegetable or peanut oil over high heat for a few minutes. Put the rigatoni and the lonza in the pan and stir once or twice then leave them, untouched, for a few minutes to allow them to brown. After a minute or two, check to see if they’re browning. If not, leave them a bit longer; if they are browning, toss a little bit to give all the noodles a chance to brown.
When most of the noodles are slightly browned and crispy, add the tomatoes and arugula; toss all together with tongs for a few more minutes, until the arugula is slightly wilted and the tomatoes have begun to lose their liquid. Turn off heat, divide pasta between bowls and top with parmigiano if desired. Add salt to taste.