When was the tagliatella born? According to legend, it was created by the Bolognese chef Zefirano, who was inspired by Lucrezia Borgia’s blonde hairdo, when she traveled to Bologna in 1487 to marry the duke of Ferrara, Alfonso I d’Este. Albeit fun, this is just a legend, invented by the Bolognese humorist and illustrator Augusto Majani in 1931.
We don’t really know how the tagliatella came to be, but what we know is that, by the 19th century, it had become a familiar dish in the entire area of Bologna.
We do know however how the word originated: tagliatella derives from ‘taglio’ (cut). Once the dough has been rolled out, it is folded over itself in strips, which are subsequently cut.
We even have a poem dedicated to this quintessential Bolognese pasta, aptly titled “Le Tagliatelle” (1918), by Olindo Guerrini. The last verse goes like this:
Questa minestra che onora Bologna detta ‘la grassa’ non inutilmente, carezza l’uomo dove gli bisogna, dà molta forza ai muscoli e alla mente fa prender tutto con filosofia piace, nutre, consola e così via.
This first course that honors Bologna,
nicknamed ‘fat’ for a reason,
caresses people where they need it,
it gives a lot of strength to the muscles and to the mind,
it helps taking it easy
people like it, it feeds, it comforts and so on.
Bologna’s Chamber of Commerce, located inside the Palazzo della Mercanzia, once the merchants’ square, guards the traditional recipes of the city, registered with notary deeds (we’re not kidding here when it comes to food).
Among them is of course the recipe for tagliatella bolognese, which was the first to be officially registered with the Chamber of Commerce, on April 16, 1972.
Recipe for Tagliatella alla Bolognese
The recipe for the dough calls for:
(ingredients for four people)
400 gr flour
A pinch of salt
½ spoon of flour to work the dough
The official recipe also specifies the width that the authentic tagliatella should have: 8mm (0.314 inch) when cooked, or the 12,270th part of the height of the Asinelli Tower, a Bologna landmark. That means it should be between 6 ½ and 7 mm (0.255-0.275 inch) when you cut the dough in strips, depending on how hard the dough has turned out.
As for thickness, the official recipe states that tagliatella should be less than one millimeter (0.03 inch) thick, between 6 and 8 tenths of a millimeter to be precise. (I won’t judge if your tagliatelle turn out thicker.)
The above measurements have even been reproduced in a golden tagliatella sample on display at the Palazzo della Mercanzia. “Any other size,” says the deed, “would make it lose its inimitable character.”
Remember, the best way to appreciate tagliatelle is with ragù alla bolognese. However, you can combine them with other ingredients as well; for example, tagliatelle al prosciutto are popular; in the mountain villages of the Apennine mountains south of Bologna, you’ll often find tagliatelle with porcini mushroom and tagliatelle with truffle (when in season).
Now, for the best place to eat tagliatelle in Bologna, I can’t help you: for me the best are the ones my grandmother used to make. (You’re likely to get the same or similar response from every Bolognese: the best place is either at nonna’s, or mamma’s. The wife’s? Not so much.)
If you, like the Bolognesi, are a big fan of tagliatella, you should know that there is even a day set aside for its celebration: January 17, International Tagliatella Day.