Forget the joke about cold cuts — visit tasty Bologna

WASHINGTON — So you've roamed the Colosseum, marveled at Florentine art and gamboled in gondolas and you're ready for a different side of Italy. Or perhaps you're about to dip a toe into Italian culture, including its little-known Jewish heritage, for the first time.

Try Bologna.

Bologna? Forget every joke you've ever heard about cheap cold cuts.

Located about midway between two better-known tourist magnets, Florence to the south and Venice to the northeast, this pulse-center of Italy's Emilia Romagna region has much to offer the traveler.

Think medieval palaces, leaning towers, arched porticoes, gleaming shop windows and the urbane feeling of Europe's oldest university town nestled in a region that has given birth to such gastronomic delights as parmesan, balsamic vinegar and sparkling ruby-tinted Lambrusco wines.

Imagine memorable meals in restaurants just a quick walk from a charming piazza. And everywhere the warm terra cotta of stone and paint.

Despite its stately appearance, the city even has a bit of the rebel in its soul.

Alongside Piazza Maggiore, the old city's main square, stands the gothic Church of St. Petronio, a populist tribute to Bologna's patron saint. It was designed to surpass Rome's St. Peter's — until the medieval Vatican curbed it to a fraction of its planned splendor.

Centuries later, during World War II, Emilia Romagna became a hotbed of the anti-fascist resistance movement, which included such local Jews as attorney Mario Iacchia and Franco Cesana, reputedly the youngest partisan in Italy.

Today, graffiti calling for gay rights and other causes, especially in the university quarter, reflect a continued atmosphere of activism. And left-wing politicos held sway at Bologna's city hall from the close of World War II until this year's June elections, when a center-right candidate won the day.

Jews have been a part of the city's heady blend since at least the third and fourth century C.E. Jewish silk makers and, after the advent of Guttenberg's press, book publishers flourished in their first millennium there.

Bologna's first printer of Hebrew kept shop in the Via degli Albari, said Jewish community president and amateur historian Lucio Pardo.

In 1556, Jews were forced into a separate quarter, which was locked at nightfall. Today, you can still walk the narrow alleys of the medieval ghetto on streets that reflect this harrowing history — Via de Giudei (Jews' Street) and Via dell' Inferno (Hell Street).

Later, a series of expulsions and short-lived homecomings kept Jews alternately crammed in their quarter and scattered to other cities.

A plaque at 20 Via dell' Inferno pays homage to the victims of the 20th century's Nazi genocide. The community's center has moved to Via de' Gombruti and Via Mario Finzi, where the synagogue, rebuilt after World War II, features a large, modern stained-glass window crowned by a gold menorah.

A state-of-the-art Jewish Museum on Via Valdonica explores Judaic history, with a special emphasis on Emilia Romagna, in three media: written panels with timelines, video films and on-line stations with 700 links.

As for epicurian delights, over the centuries area Jews have devised their own variations on local dishes, according to Franca Romano, a Bologna hostess. For instance, melanzane con melone (eggplant with cantaloupe) substitutes eggplant for the prosciutto used by non-Jews. Scodelline, a delicious almond pudding, is a traditional Passover dessert. A kosher cafeteria may be found at Via de' Gombruti 9, in the Jewish community center.

"In Bologna, the dinner table isn't just for eating," said Domenico Abato, the head of the local merchants' association, who fondly recalls enjoying a sociable meal after each set of university exams.

Porticoes and cookery aside, is there a downside to Bologna? You may find some prices higher than in Rome, and the narrow, portico-covered streets can seem like speedways, as the city's stylish citizens go buzzing by on their motorbikes.

But these problems pale aside the grand opportunity to watch the sunset from the cobblestone expanse of the Piazza Maggiore, to sample the savory fare at local restaurants, and to explore the city's museums and palazzos.

A day trip northeast to Ferrara, home to the famous Finzi-Contini clan, offers a journey into the drama of medieval times.

In 1492, the town's noble Este family offered protection to Jews fleeing Spain. The imposing Castello Estense still remains, as does Via Mazzini, Via Vittoria and other now-picturesque streets of the Jewish ghetto that endured from the early 1600s until 1859.

Facing the town cathedral is the Colonna di Borso, a pillar with a statue of Duke Borso d'Este at the top, which upon its renovation in the 1960s, was discovered to include tombstones from a Jewish cemetery sacked in 1716.

The Jewish center at 95 Via Mazzini contains an Ashkenazi synagogue still in use today. Upstairs, the frescoed remains of the former Italian-style synagogue, gutted by Nazi bombing, hint at its past opulence.

Also housed in the center is Ferrara's Jewish Museum, which showcases a variety of Judaica, from a colorful carved ark to illuminated manuscripts to the rusty iron keys that once locked the ghetto's gates.

In Nonantola, northwest of Bologna, one can revisit an episode of small-town heroism. During World War II, Delasem, a local Zionist group, used the grand Villa Emma, on the community's outskirts, as a waystation for Jewish refugees en route to Palestine.

There, after the arrival of nearly 100 children, activists such as Bologna's Mario Finzi set up a kibbutz-like organization to teach the youngsters basic skills. This near-idyllic situation lasted a year or so, until Nazi troops marched into the area in 1943.

The situation improved when local Catholics stepped in, led by town doctor Giuseppe Moreali and priest Don Arrigo Beccari. Both were later honored as Righteous Gentiles at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial for their efforts to hide and later spirit away to freedom all but one of the children.

Today, the Villa Emma Foundation, launched by Nonantola's mayor, Stefano Vaccari, promotes peace and Holocaust education. A tour of the mansion can be arranged by calling 059-896-511, or fax 059-896-590.

After your rambles, stop at Nonantola's Ristorante Sta. Maria Fuori Le Mure, which features the parmesan of nearby Parma or Modena, along with salads and pastas such as Tortellini with Ricotta and Spinach. And you can top it all off with the heavenly Semifredi Limone e Fruti di Bosco, a wedge of lemon mousse encircled by a pool of black raspberry sauce.