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A Lot of Bologna

Top: Giovanni Domenico Cassini, La meridiana del tempio di S. Petronio tirata, M.DC.XCV. Plan of the cathedral of San Petronio in Bologna showing the solar meridian on the floor.

Bottom: Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. South side of square, featuring from left to right: Palazzo dei Banchi, San Petronio Basilica, Palazzo dei Notai, Palazzo d'Accursio (now the Town Hall). Courtesy Tango7174, Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday was National Bologna Day. I'm sure that conjures up schoolbox lunches for most, (and there are probably plenty of bologna sandwich lunches on their way to school at the moment), but we shouldn't forget the origins of this go-to sandwich for most harried parents—the fabulous city and gastronomic capital of Italy, Bologna. Plus, the Libraries didn't have many lucheon-meat images to share …

If you are lucky enough to travel to Italy, and especially, Bologna, you will undoubtedly be served cured meats in an antipasto, among them mortadella, which is a far cry from Oscar Mayer, but is definitely the source material (as is, I'm afraid, olive loaf, a bane of my childhood).

Bologna sausage is an American sausage derived from and somewhat similar to the Italian mortadella (a finely hashed/ground pork sausage containing cubes of lard that originated in the Italian city of Bologna). It is commonly called baloney/boloney or more formally, bologna.—Wikipedia

Mortadella's origins are also interesting:

Mortadella is a large Italian sausage or cold cut made of finely hashed/ground heat-cured pork sausage which incorporates at least 15% small cubes of pork fat (principally the hard fat from the neck of the pig). It is delicately flavored with spices, including whole or ground black pepper, myrtle berries, nutmeg, coriander and pistachios, jalapeños and/or olives.

Traditionally the pork filling was ground to a paste using a large mortar (mortaio) and pestle. Two Roman funerary stele in the archaeological museum of Bologna show such mortars. Alternatively, according to Cortelazzo and Zolli Dizionario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana 1979-88, mortadella gets its name from a Roman sausage flavored with myrtle in place of pepper.

The Romans called the sausage "farcimen mirtatum" (myrtle sausage), because the sausage was flavored with myrtle berries. Anna Del Conte (The Gastronomy of Italy 2001) found a sausage mentioned in a document of the official body of meat preservers in Bologna dated 1376 that may be mortadella.—Wikipedia

You can get mortadella in most supermarkets in the U.S., and it invariably has pistachios in the filling. It is also thinly sliced, like American bologna, not like in Italy, where chunks are served up alongside cubes of salame and provolone and roasted peppers, eggplant, zucchini …

Elizabeth Periale


  1. Carolyn

    Just to clarify, the pistachio-filled mortadellas are traditionally from Tuscany while Bologna’s, well, bologna, is pistachio-less, as the local producer Alcisa indicates on their site ( The US tends to favor more the pistachio-filled mortadella, although a reason has yet to be found. Is there some historical trend of Tuscans that have led to such a migration? Thank you for the excellent article!

  2. The Oscar Mayer Bologna Song
    My bologna has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R
    My bologna has a second name, it’s M-A-Y-E-R
    Oh, I love to eat it everyday,
    And if you ask me why I’ll say. . .
    ‘Cuz Oscar Mayer has a way. . .
    With B-O-L-O-G-N-A.

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