The 2,000 years of history behind your lunch meat _ munchies

For most of my life, bologna­—that flabby, flaccid mystery meat most often spotted between two mayo-slathered slices of Wonder Bread—was something to be avoided at all costs. Italian sausage pasta bake recipe So imagine my surprise when I learned that in its native town of Bologna, the Italian counterpart commands the same reverence as a fine prosciutto, with top specimens fetching up to 20 euros per kilo. Homemade italian chicken sausage recipe Known as mortadella, this subtly seasoned delicacy made of lean pork speckled with lumps of lard is a far cry from the stuff found in the deli aisles of American supermarkets.

It also boasts a rather distinguished history. Italian turkey sausage recipes Two millennia ago, it fed the Roman army, as stone tablets contained in Bologna’s Museo Civico Archeologico attest. Italian sausage and potato soup recipe In the Middle Ages, roughly 10,000 people, a quarter of the city’s population, were involved in its production at around 280 salumerie. Recipe mild italian sausage Foreigners—from Napoleon, who brought it back to France, to Buffalo Bill, who flew to Italy to promote it—took a shine to the stuff over the years. Mild italian sausage recipes for dinner Sophia Loren’s character even attempted to smuggle one past US customs in the 1971 film La Mortadella.

Today, mortadella is ubiquitous in Bologna; it’s whipped into a savory mousse, ground into meatballs, grilled with aged balsamic vinegar, stuffed into tortellini, and piled into piadine. Italian sausage recipe fennel For the past three years, the city has hosted MortadellaBò, a festival in its honor complete with food trucks, competitions, and public tastings. Italian sausage recipe pasta Such obsession would be noteworthy anywhere, but in a place nicknamed “ la grassa”—literally, “the fat one”—for its gloriously calorie-dense cuisine, it had to mean something.

Intrigued, I book a flight to where it all started. Italian sausage bowtie pasta recipe My first stop in Bologna is the Quadrilatero, a web of alleys dating back to medieval times, where a plaque marks the former site of L’Arte dei Salaroli, an ancient guild of charcuterers dedicated to protecting the integrity of their product. Traditional italian sausage recipe Founded in 1242, the organization was once so powerful that its symbol was part of the official city crest. Italian sausage recipe oven In 1661, the papacy officially laid down the legal definition of mortadella, threatening dire consequences for those who dared to go against the guild.

“Why mortadella? Because it was difficult to cook it and difficult to cut it finely, so it required a lot of patience and skill. Best homemade italian sausage recipe The people who could cook mortadella back then, they were like Ronaldo or Messi,” Davide Simoni, whose family has been in the mortadella business for three generations, tells me. Recipe italian sausage soup His shop, Simoni Laboratorio, is just up the street from the historical site of the guild. Mild italian sausage pasta recipe An energetic man in his thirties, Davide is determined to keep the mortadella-making traditions alive and to preserve the history behind them. Spicy italian sausage soup recipe He shows me the copy of a decree from 1720 framed on his wall. Italian sausage with pasta recipe “This says if you make fake mortadella without the approval of the Salaroli, your body will be stretched on the rack three times, you will be fined 200 gold coins, and all the food you make will be destroyed. Pork italian sausage recipe It makes you understand how important it was.”

As he tells me about his father Nino Simoni, who at 69 is still running the Salumeria Simoni up the street, as well as his two years studying under Ennio Pasquini, the city’s legendary 80-plus-year-old mortadella master, I munch on a panino crammed with mortadella. Italian sausage penne pasta recipe It has a supple, silky texture and a flavor that quickly banishes grim memories of Lunchables past.

“I never even planned to end up here. Italian sausage pasta recipes with alfredo sauce I just wanted to help my parents for a bit after university. Recipe for making italian sausage They were 70, but they protested that they didn’t need help—they said they were still so young!” Giovanni laughs as we chat over heaping plates of mortadella-stuffed tortellini. Easy italian sausage pasta recipe When not tending his shop, he plays in two rock bands, one of which is named Ciccioli Ciccioli, from the local dialect for pork cracklings. Robert’s homemade italian sausage recipe “But in this job, I found the story of Bologna.”

While Tamburini and Simoni have their own respected brands, there is only one producer of certified organic mortadella in the city. Easy spicy italian sausage pasta recipe I arrange to meet Silvio Scapin, a boisterous man in his fifties who churns out roughly 1,000 kilos a week, in addition to regional specialties such as prosciutto cotto, salame rossa, and galantina di pollo. Italian turkey sausage recipes dinner Made from heritage breed pigs and studded with additions such as pistachios or Umbrian truffles, the mortadella is so rich it leaves slight film of porcine fat on my tongue. Emeril italian sausage recipe It’s damn near perfect, and I devour slice after slice of the stuff at the family-owned shop.