When my wife Dillon and I first visited Italy more than 10 years ago, the city of Bologna was on our short list of places to visit. Although not on the typical tourist circuit, I’d become intrigued about Bologna from the writings and cookbooks of Marcella and Victor Hazan.
Marcella ran a cooking school in Bologna in the ’70s and ’80s before relocating to Venice, and she writes about numerous Bolognese people and institutions: the Simili sisters, a country trattoria called Perla, al Cantunzein (“perhaps the greatest pasta restaurant that has ever existed”), and above all, Ristorante Diana.
Diana was and is a Bolognese institution. Marcella describes it as “Bologna’s great classic restaurant.” She includes recipes from the kitchen of Diana, including their custard gelato and bollito misto, or mixed boiled meats. I understand that many readers will not appreciate a dish with such an unappetizing name in English, but trust me (and Marcella): bollito misto is lovely. It is also Herculean in scale, so much so that it is vanishing from restaurant and home tables. Various cuts of meat, including cotechino sausage and a whole chicken, are gently simmered until meltingly tender and served with a series of piquant and flavorful sauces. It is a meal fit for a crowd.
Marcella has not been the only one to sing the praises of bollito misto and Diana’s version of it. Mario Batali as well has written effusively of the dish and the restaurant, and it has appeared on Mario’s own menu at Babbo.
Diana is one of the few restaurants in Bologna that stills prepares bollito misto, and the sight of the bollito misto trolley being wheeled around the dining room is memorable. When the meats are lifted from their warm bath of broth, the dining room is infused with steam and the aroma of comfort. The meats are cut to order for each patron, and one feels like a king.
Except that the cooking at Diana today is a sad and pale shadow of what it once reportedly was. On our first trip ten years ago, I was feeling under the weather and could eat little. For various reasons, I hadn’t been back until this year. I’m not sure when things went so downhill for Diana, but my meal there several days ago was certainly one of the worst I’ve ever had in Italy.
To start, the bread seemed days old, and the breadsticks came in plastic wrappers. The tagliatelle with truffles was lifeless and poor in aroma (It’s pretty hard to screw up truffles). Most disappointing of all, the bollito misto I’d read about for more than a decade and which I’d finally come to eat was a complete failure. The cuts of meat were poor, some with more fat than meat, not especially tender, and they were accompanied by a single, unmemorable sauce. I didn’t each much, mumbling something about how it was good but too much. My cameriere seemed to read between the lines. But he himself wasn’t trained properly to work in such a place and frankly couldn’t have seemed to care less. The icing on the cake was the monumental mirror on one of the restaurant walls, a beautiful piece of decoration which had been cleaned so badly it looked as if it had been wiped down with a dirty cloth.
Agreement about Diana’s decline seems to be nearly universal. My Bolognese friend and mentor Andrea speaks of growing up with Diana as the pinnacle of Bolognese dining. He’s not sure what happened either. Oddly, Mario Batali still lists it on his website as a top choice for Bologna. He says, “The cart of bollito misto alone can bring me to tears.” Me too, but not tears of joy! Let’s just assume Mario hasn’t been in a while and is due to update his recs soon.