“Bologna is known as ‘la grassa’, the fat one. When you enter Atti, you understand why.”
Thus greets me Francesco Bonaga, a member of the family that owns Paolo Atti & Figli, a store which is considered an institution in Bologna when it comes to fresh pasta, bread and pastry-making of the Bolognese tradition – tortellini, passatelli, certosino, torta di riso, you name it.
Paolo Atti & Figli, which we locals simply call Atti, was founded in 1880 by Paolo Atti, who, at the age of 28, moved from the countryside to the city in search of fortune. Atti, who came from a family of farmers, knew how to make bread; he decided he’d capitalize on his knowledge by investing in the bakery business. He took over one of the city’s most ancient (beginning of 1800s) and prestigious bakeries, located in Via Drapperie 6, Antico Forno Piemontese (look for the sign above the entrance to the store). In a few years, he created a bakery empire, opening 13 stores scattered around Bologna, Casalecchio and Montecatini.
By the turn of the century, Atti had become one of the wealthiest people in town; he attended Bologna’s most prestigious parties, along with his wife, was friends with intellectuals and businessmen, and his large store in Via Caprarie 7 would became a meeting point for the most important artists of the time, like poet Giosuè Carducci and painter Giorgio Morandi.
The Via Caprarie store had been built at the beginning of the 20th century, at the base of a four-story building. The store became one of the most magnificent examples of the Liberty style, the same style that would be used for fliers and posters to advertise Atti’s products and for packaging; the beautiful boxes where to store tortellini and such are still used today.
The business has remained in the same family since its foundation, however, the last name of the current owners has been lost because, Bonaga tells me, the descendants of Paolo Atti kept having just daughters! Not that it was a problem: the women of the Atti family were always actively involved in the running of the company, starting from Paolo’s daughter, Margherita, really one of the first examples of female enterprise in Bologna, at a time when women of the high society were supposed to only take care of the house and social activities.
The two Atti stores still open today are in the historic locations of via Drapperie and via Caprarie, in the heart of the Quadrilatero district, a lively area since the Middle Ages, with an open-air market. Mr. Bonaga offers guided visits of the Via Caprarie store where he tells visitors about the history of the Atti family and business, complete with several interesting anecdotes, and tastings of their signature products.
You can learn for example about the legend that inspired the shape of the tortellino, a legend that originates in the Middle Ages when a beautiful young woman arrived at an inn in Castelfranco dell’Emilia, a small town halfway between Bologna and Modena, to rest for the night. The innkeeper was so attracted by her beauty that, after showing her the room, he remained behind the door to spy on her from the door’s lock. He remained so spellbound by the woman’s navel that, when it was time to prepare the dough for dinner, he recreated it in the shape of the woman’s navel. And, because he didn’t know what to do with those pieces of dough, he decided to fill them with meat.
Other interesting stories have to do with the Atti business itself, such as the time when, during World War II, when Bologna was heavily bombarded by the Allied forces, one bomb fell inside the production labs, right on top of a tank where bread had been left to leaven, serving as a cushion and saving the building. Another story has to do with the personnel; by the 1930s, there were as many as 30 sfogline working the dough in the labs behind the store, producing 100 kilos of tortellini a day. The main problem was how to avoid the sfogline, often former prostitutes, from eating the stuffing while working; so they were made to sing all the time.
Atti is located in Via Caprarie 7 (the larger store) and Via Drapperie 6. For more info, click here.