Unable to go to Italy this year, Anne Thomas seeks out la dolce vita in the German capital.
“Bologna! Bologna! Near the Porta S. Vitale there’s a bar called the Bocca d’Oro where they serve, if you insist on the one by the capo’s mother, the best limoncello you’ve ever tasted. It promises everything.” John Berger
"You'll see," my film studies friends told me. "Bologna is paradise."
By contrast, on that day long ago, Berlin seemed like hell. We had just watched a terrible film, it was minus 20 degrees, there was nothing decent to eat, and the red wine we had hoped would warm us up tasted like vinegar.
Il Cinema Ritrovato is a paradise for cinephiles and foodies, they promised. I needed very little convincing and booked my tickets.
A few months later, I stepped off the plane into a boiling, muggy haze and headed straight for the Cineteca. It wasn't even lunchtime, but my friends were already well into a bottle of frizzante, discussing the first screening of the day with much animation.
They poured me a glass and told me which film was next.
They had not promised too much.
Bologna is heaven on earth.
I fell head over heels in love with the city's arcades, churches and towers and the panna cotta, the parmigiano, the pasta. Not to speak of the festival, which is simply "extraordinario", as its enthusiastic director Gian Luca Farinelli likes to say of all the films he introduces.
On any given day during these magical days of late June, you might start with an early Yasujiro Ozu and follow it up with a Pedro Almodovar film, before watching a few Lumiere shorts. In the afternoon, you can catch a screening of Ousmane Sembène's La Noire De…, Julien Duvivier's La Fin du Jour or Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. Then in the evening, alongside hundreds of others on the stunning jam-packed Piazza Maggiore, you might watch a classic such as Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin accompanied by a live orchestra or perhaps Michael Curtiz's Casablanca or Charlie Chaplin's The Kid.
I have wonderful memories of seeing Agnès Varda and JR dancing on the stage after a screening of their delightful Visages Villages.
As if the programme itself were not enough, in between (and perhaps during) screenings you will be able to gorge on some of the best food on earth. Not for nothing is Bologna nicknamed la città golosa.
Unfortunately, just as you sometimes have to make some painful viewing choices, there is no way that you can try all the pizzerias, osterias and gelaterias.
But you can attempt this feat! And then you might end up with a few favourites that you keep going back to.
Caffè Rubik, for instance, is a must. With its vintage furniture under the arcades, it is the place for espresso, cornetto and spremuta in the morning before the first screening. And after the last film of the day on Piazza Maggiore, it is where you go for a negroni if you’re on a high and don’t want the evening to end. The house rendition of this classic cocktail is so strong that you might find yourself climbing a column and singing Bella Ciao into the night. On a more sedate occasion, you might settle for an amaro. Order the bitterest and the somewhat grumpy owner will grace you with a wry smile! On some evenings, films are projected onto the adjacent church and the festival continues.
There is something wonderful about seeing an Italian film in Italy. If you get hungry watching a scene of a family tucking into a plate of spaghetti, you know that you will be able to satisfy your craving soon. If you love hearing the melody of the language and trying to decipher the animated conversations peppered with swear words, you just have to go out onto the street and you're in a film set.
One of my first Ritrovato films was Vittorio de Sica's Matrimonio all’Italiana with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. If you haven't seen it, you have a treat in store. After drying our tears, we stepped out into the bright sunlight and made a beeline for Pasta Fresca Naldi, where the owner Valeria Naldi and her fellow "pasta ladies", as they are affectionately known among the festival crowd, make the best trofie al pesto I have ever tasted, as well as other delicious specials such as lasagne agli asparagi.
They don't have seating so it's become standard to grab some tables at the Barazzo bar across the street, order some very acceptable Pignoletto on tap and wait for the very gracious ladies to bring the dishes when they are ready.
Before this day, I had no idea that pesto could be so good. But mamma mia, it is the panna cotta that has had me returning year in, year out ever since. Naldi's take on this classic desert is a superior crème caramel that is so deliciously cold and smooth and sweet, but not too sweet, that I guarantee you will never be able to eat it elsewhere. Unless, perhaps, you order it at Trattoria dal Biassanot next to the window that looks out onto Bologna's hidden canal, which some would claim is even better.
I know better than to get into a debate as contentious as Charlie Chaplin versus Buster Keaton, Yasujiro Ozu v. Akira Kurosawa or Sophia Loren v. Gina Lollobrigida?
Why choose? Bologna is about indulgence and making the most of la dolce vita.
The festival has become an unmissable occasion for me. I have returned every year since the first and, each time, more friends have joined me from around the world.
This year, I intended to spend more time than usual and take some Italian lessons ahead of the film festival. When the pandemic struck, I felt bereft.
So, I decided to "recreate" Bologna in Berlin. Fortunately, the city boasts not only a number of cinemas, but an abundance of Italian restaurants, cafes and delis too.
I have yet to discover the equivalent of the "pasta ladies" here, but there is some authentic Bolognese pasta in Berlin. Osteria Ferrari in a secluded side-street in Charlottenburg serves traditional tortelloni di ricotta and ragu as well as exquisite tortelloni di burrata e tartufo fresco that simply melted in the mouth. The truffle tortellini at Sala da Mangiare were equally delicious. And the tagliere de formaggi e salumi and the burrata antipasti were so beautifully presented that they would not have looked out of place at Altro? in Bologna's Mercato del Erbe, another favourite. I also love the pasta alla norma at Capperi and the tagliatelle al tartufo (yes, I confess, I have a thing for truffles) at Mani in Pasta in Berlin's Mercato equivalent Markthalle Neun.
Sala da Mangiare now has a sideline selling piadine on Berlin's markets. These too are part of the Bologna experience. There are some days when you can't bear to sit in a crowded cinema, especially if the air conditioning has broken down again, so you might go off to Rimini. After a few hours lying on the beach, it's time for an aperitivo and a piadina with rucola, juicy tomatoes and stracchino. Straight out of Fellini!
With some imagination, you might feel like you're in an Italian film at Tipico Siciliano, a food truck run by three young guys from Marsala on Hermannplatz. With loud Italian pop blaring out of the speakers and super friendly service, this is the place for tasty spinach arancini, panelle and panini, if a touch on the greasy side.
The local Italians hang out here (I even spotted the owner of Sala a Mangiare!), dropping by for a snack and a chat.
What I also love about Italy are the bars where you see people from all walks of life drinking a coffee at the counter-top, talking about the weather or politics.
This is not so easy to find in Berlin, but at Brandi there is an attempt to recreate such an atmosphere. After a coffee and a cornetto, you can buy wine, pasta and cheese from the deli next door and have a chat with the owner Mario Brunetti from Calabria who has many stories to tell about catering for film events in Germany and meeting legendary actors such as Michel Piccoli.
And then you have Friedrichhain's Safè, an espresso bar run by Sandro Viperino, who roasts the coffee himself and has his cornetti alla crema delivered from Naples directly. The vintage style at this friendly, low-key neighbourhood cafe is a little reminiscent of Rubik.
I happened to be at Barettino, a popular Neukölln café with an ironic pseudo-religious aesthetic where you can spend the whole day from il primo collazione to aperitivo and which is one of the few places in town that serves shakeratos, when some Italian customers asked the waiter about his opinion on Berlin's best pizza.
My ears pricked up.
The pizza at Zola, he said, was good but too small. Who am I to disagree? But I love their Margherita and often get a takeaway to eat by the canal. No, it is not the Piazza Maggiore but there is something charming about watching the boats go by.
A little further downstream, I would also recommend Ammazza che Pizza and a bit deeper into Neukölln, W Pizza's burrata special as well. The Verace Rossa at Masaniello's, which has been around for decades, is also up up there among the best.
You may have noticed, I tend to stick to Margheritas, but the chicory, scamorza and stracchino calzone at Sironi is fantastico and the busker's rendition of Volare and the little kids dancing brought some Italian flair to this corner of Schöneberg. Sironi also produce wonderful foccacia, ciabatta and farinata.
If there is something wrong with you and you like neither pizza nor pasta, then Babbo Bar might be for you. The fish dishes are delicious (and others have vouched for the meat), but what I keep going back for over and over again are the perfectly prepared carciofi alla romana.
A blog about Bologna would simply not be the same without mention of gelato. You could spend a month going from one gelateria to the next and still not sample all the flavours. This is also increasingly true in Berlin and I have not done the research (I can't afford to replace my entire wardrobe when I can no longer fit into my clothes). However, the signature pistachio at Duo is simply a pale green dream, and the affogato is just the right combination of strong coffee and velvety vanilla. The relaxed atmosphere and adorable staff conjure up the spirit of Bologna's ice-cream parlours. I would also, without reservation, recommend the vegan chocolate gelato at Giomecca, in remote Prenzlauer Berg and his mignons are stunning!
The last day in Bologna is usually all about stocking up on pasta, olive oil, aceto balsamico and cheese (my suitcase is always close to bursting). Everyone I know usually gets a wedge of aged parmigiano from Al Regno Della Forma. Sadly, this will not be the case this year, but Alte Milch, which sells extremely high-quality cheese by small producers, has parmesan that almost does the trick, as well as deliciously fresh and creamy burrata, buffalo mozzarella and taleggio.
Amore too has wonderful cheeses and a whole range of other Italian goods of excellent quality. If you're looking for industrial quantities of pasta and tinned tomatoes, the more old-school Centro Italia has several branches around town. After shopping, you can get a tasty plate of zingy penne al'arrabiata big enough to serve an army (or "una persona affamata" as the waiter told me) followed by an espresso that must be the only one in town that still costs a euro! Close your eyes and listen to the "che cazzos" and "bastas" and you will momentarily forget that you're actually in a car park in east Berlin!
A few miles away, Briefmarken Weine on Berlin's perhaps most "eastern" street, Karl-Marx-Allee, has gone through a number of iterations over the years, but I will never forget the first orange wine that I ever drank there, a delicious introduction to natural wines. With films running on the projector and books about Pasolini on the shelves, it is a special place for Italophile cinephiles and ideal after a screening at Kino International.
After months in lockdown, this is one of the many Berlin cinemas that will finally re-open tomorrow. I cannot wait to watch a film with an unknown audience again. I don't think I'll even mind if people talk, or laugh in the "wrong" places!
And the cinema I'm most looking forward to going back to is Il Kino, which not only shows great arthouse films but serves a negroni that packs a punch! It also has special screenings of Italian films and previews.
For retrospectives and programmes similar to those of Il Cinema Ritrovato, Arsenal is THE place. It too is set to re-open soon.
There is no doubt that you can find Bologna in Berlin if you look hard, but it's a little like watching a film on the small screen.
Berlin doesn't have the red of Bologna.
In his wonderful meditation The Red Tenda of Bologna, John Berger depicts the city's colour so beautifully.
“All the windows I pass have awnings and all of them are of the same colour. Red. Many are faded, a few are new, but they are old and young versions of the same colour. […] The red is not a clay red, it’s not terracotta, it’s a dye red. On the other side of it are bodies and their secrets, which on the other side are not secrets.”
"It’s red. I’ve never seen a red like Bologna’s Ah! If we knew the secret of that red… It’s a city to return to, la proxima volta.”
I cannot wait to return to paradise.