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Trail of the unexpected: Gourmet Bologna

A culinary tour calls for a walk up the Torre degli Asinelli, says Darren Loucaides

It hurts my eyes to gaze up at the Due Torri, Bologna's twin towers, as they point imperiously towards the late summer sun. But I have to look, not least because the smaller of these soaring medieval titans seems to be leaning dangerously close to the other. Those brave enough to climb the 498 wooden steps of the taller companion – Torre degli Asinelli, Bologna's highest point – will notice many more towers poking out of the splendid vista afforded by the patchwork of rose- and yellow-hued buildings; 24 remain of the 100 or so that were once crammed into the city.

I'm not here to spy on enemies as the noble families who originally built them did. It's just that this is the perfect place to begin a culinary tour of the city. The five main roads that run from here to their ancient gates on the old city walls are like splayed digits, and I intend to balance epic consumption by getting to know them like the back of my hand.

The afternoon sunshine is pleasant but I already need to cool off, so I plunge down via Castiglione, the thumb of the hand, in search of ice cream. Bologna's finest gelato can be found at Sorbetteria Castiglione (00 39 051 233257; lasorbetteria.it), towards the end of the street. Unique flavours on offer include Dolce Emma (ricotta and figs) and Guglielmo (espresso and chocolate).

I try to make it to the nearby Giardini Margherita before my gelato dissolves. Hanging on the south-western edge of what were once the city walls, this is by far the largest green space in the city proper, and today it's full of people playing guitar, kicking footballs and smooching shamelessly. I while away the rest of the afternoon on the open grass, basking in the warm sunshine.

Later, I find sanctuary in L'Infedele (00 39 051 239456; linfedele.bo.it). Tucked away on via Gerusalemme between the index and middle fingers of Strada Maggiore and via Santo Stefano, this dark wedge of a bar is great for conspiring over a glass of Montenegro or vintage wine before dinner, and stakes claim to the widest, most eclectic range of Italian liquors in Bologna.

Thus fuelled up, I venture a little beyond the city walls in search of Ristorante Leoni (00 39 051 700 102; marcelloleoni.it) on via Stalingrado. Opened in January, it's destined to rank among Italy's finest restaurants thanks to its Michelin-starred chef, Marcello Leoni. Ask for a tour of the three-storey wonder: it's known as la balena (the whale) because of its shape. The exterior is a mix of gleaming silver and soft wood tones, while the lighting in the high-ceilinged dining room (the belly of the beast) creates a dramatic chiaroscuro effect; all the interiors, including the furniture and a diorama of racing horses, were designed and built here in collaboration with Leoni.

As for dinner itself, with an imaginative menu dominated by fish from the Adriatic, it's exquisite. It's also very expensive at about €75 a head, but the fixed menu is a slightly more reasonable €58 per person. The sexy, colourful osteria on site has plates from €20 plus terrific cocktails.

I spent the next day wandering the labyrinthine streets, pausing only to eat at the counter of one of Bologna's best-kept secrets, Pizza Casa di Simeone Mario on via Bella Arti off via Zamboni (the little finger of the five streets). By evening, I'm looking forward to relaxing over an aperitivo. In Bologna, aperitivo tends to mean that for the price of a pre-dinner drink you can eat as much as you like at a buffet, and the best place for it has to be Bar 051 (00 39 051 510515).

Right next to Bologna's foremost church, San Petronio, this trendy locale has outdoor seating overlooking the beautiful central square, Piazza Maggiore. I'm less bothered about drinking and people-watching than about the mouthwatering feast inside: mini-focaccia with toppings such as olives, tomatoes, prosciutto and other cured hams; trays of pasta with porcini and creamy sauce; tomato ragù and spicy sausage; salads, roasted vegetables, finger foods... All for the €8 price of a dizzyingly potent Hemingway daiquiri.

The challenge is not to fill up. I'm determined to save myself for dinner, which takes me back once more to via Castiglione. Drogheria della Rosa (00 39 051 222 529; drogheriadellarosa.it) is just off the main street, on via Cartoleria. It used to be a pharmacy (hence the name) but the inside is more like the living room of a kleptomaniac: a mad assortment of books, paintings, ornaments and eclectic furniture. Soon after I sit down, prosecco is poured and a mixed plate of antipasti arrives. Then the owner, Emanuele Addone, enquires after my health in the deep, husky voice of a man that smokes 50 a day, and tells me what he's prepared for the evening. (There's no menu.)

Everything here feels classically Italian, compared with the buzzy Leoni and Bar 051. I opt for Bologna's signature dish; not spaghetti Bolognese (or "spag bol"), but tagliatelle al ragù, the centimetre-wide strips of pasta covered in meaty sauce. It's followed by a sublime fillet of beef that melts in the mouth. Emanuele pops back more than once to check on things, or perhaps he's taken a shine to the lady dining close by.

Walking back to my hotel, Albergo delle Drapperie, I reflect on two days of eating. Tomorrow, to work it off, I could climb the Asinelli. Then again, there are so many restaurants left to try.

Travel essentials

Getting there

BA (ba.com) flies to Bologna from Gatwick and Heathrow. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Stansted; easyJet (easyJet.com) from Gatwick.

Staying there

Albergo delle Drappiere (00 39 051 223955; albergodrapperie.com) has B&B doubles from €75.

More information