They call this place “Bologna the Fat.” And for good reason.

Every Italian region is justifiably proud of its own cuisine—considers it in fact to be the best in the whole world. But ask any Italian to name just one region, one region in all of Italy, that’s known above all for its culinary prowess and he’ll admit: it’s Emilia-Romagna.

In Modena they make the world’s best balsamic vinegar; in Parma the best aged sheep’s cheese (parmigiano) and cured ham (prosciutto di Parma). And the regional capital? Ah, you must mean Bologna the Fat.

Bologna is the birthplace of tortellini—little rings of pasta stuffed with savory meats and gooey cheeses. This is the land that invented the ragu sauce atop tagliatelle alla Bolognese. The local cured meat named mortadella remains so wildly popular the world over (particularly in school lunches) that most culture call it simply “bologna”—or, if you prefer, “baloney.”

Life in Bologna centers around the kitchen. These people just love to eat—and eat well. To get under the skin of this city, forget making the rounds of the churches, museums, and monuments. Instead take a morning to explore the gastronomic side of Bologna: its street markets, wine bars, fourth generation grocers, traditional pasta makers, and storied chocolatiers. Start early, around 8am, to mingle with the market workers, professional trattoria chefs, and home-kitchen master chefs out doing their morning shopping.

Begin three blocks east of Piazza Maggiore, just off Via Castiglione at Paolo Atti & Figli (Via Caprarie 7, 051-220-425, www.paoloatti.com), purveyors of Bologna’s finest baked goods since 1880. Under high frescoed ceilings, crisply aproned saleswomen bustle about arranging fresh pillows of pasta into rows in the glass display cases. The signs at each tray of pasta translate as, “Classic ravioli—we put our art into it!” And, “We make our tortellini one at a time.” Flower dusted women, their forearms burly from decades of kneading, come puffing out of the back room shouldering enormous trays stacked with steaming loaves of bread.

Down the block, the corner of Via Drapperie is marked by stacks of salami and pendulums of prosciutto in the old-school “supermarket” of A. F. Tamburini (Via Caprarie 1, 051-234-726, www.tamburini.com). Though it’s too early to be thinking about lunch, keep this place in mind for another day, as it makes for a great cheap meal stop. In the back of the shop—past the glass displays of cured meats, aged cheeses, and fresh yellow pastas—there is an always crowded tavola calda section, an Italian cafeteria serving filling portions of prepared pasta dishes and roast meats for €3.50 to €5.50.

Turn left onto Via Drapperie to enter Bologna’s main street market. On your left you’ll see another Paolo Atti outlet, and across the street is the Drogheria Gilberto (Via Drapperie 5, 051-223-925), its entrance marked by a suit of armor grasping a bottle of the family’s wine. Pietro opened the joint in 1905, followed by his son Oreste. Now it’s in the hands of the third generation, Gilberto and Elisabetta, and their sons Danilo and Michele, the quartet selling chocolates, candies, liqueurs, marmalades, and preserves (both sweet and savory) from shelves stacked almost to the 15-foot ceilings. There’s always a free sample of some lying around; last visit, I scored brownies.

From here, the market beings in earnest. Fruit and vegetable stalls groan under the weight of purple-fringed artichokes, crinkly bunches of arugola, sleek indigo eggplant, pink pomegranates, orange zucchini flowers, pungent mushrooms, tiny susine plums, pointy San Marzano tomatoes, mounds of grapes, trays of chestnuts, garlands of fiery red pepperoncini, and ropes of garlic.

Where Via Drapperie meets Via delle Pescherie Vecchie are a pair of fishmongers always mobbed by bolognesi waiting patiently on the water-slicked cobblestones, numbered tickets clutched in their hands, admiring the Styrofoam trays of squid, scampi, octopi, anchovies, every type of fish, and live—if terribly cold—lobster wiggling their feelers feebly and mazzancolle (a kind of giant Adriatic scrimp) scuttling their little yellow legs en masse whenever someone’s knees bump their tray.

Turn right up Via delle Pescherie Vecchie. At no. 7B is a typical butcher ship, but look at the name above the door: Macelleria Equina. Yep. The bolognesi do love their horsemeat (though, unlike their brethren in the Veneto, they don’t usually go in for the gammier, stringier donkey).

Just beyond the next fruit stand, turn left into the Mercato Clavature. This covered market is looking a bit down at the heels these days. Signs taped to the walls proclaim that renovations are underway. “Ha!” says Signora Mazzetti, who runs the drogerhia (dry goods stall) and is vice president of the market workers association. “They’ve been saying that since 1995!”

The stated plan has always been to take out some of the central stalls and install a café—but the building’s owners have instead slowly let the place run down as, one by one, tenants move out. Of the 20 shops and stalls available, only seven are currently going concerns—and those seven must cover the same total rent that was once split 20 ways. “We ‘insects’,” says Signora Mazzetti. “We can’t go to the comune [town hall] ourselves to get some action. We must wait for the owners to do something.” She clearly deplores the condition of her market, but is desperate that it survive and return to its former glory.

More than half-empty, and dimly lit by an outdated electrical system, Clavature does look a bit dire at the moment. “We want a market with life,” says Mazzetti. “But the owners…” she trails off with a defeated-but-defiant shrug of her lower lip. It’s out of her hands and mired in the bureaucracy; there’s nothing she can do but hang on. Just inside the market entrance, a gypsy woman in colorful rags with a babe in arms pulls faces of exaggerated suffering, begging from passersby.

Backtracking to continue down Via delle Pescherie Vecchie, you’ll pass lots more fruit and veg stands, and, at no. 3C, an herbalist—Italians are mad for homeopathy and herbal remedies; but just peek in get an idea of what a commercialized one looks like, as we’ll be visiting a real, artiginal herbalist in a bit.

At no. 3A hangs the sign for La Baita Formaggi, another traditional deli with an excellent selection of cheeses—eight types of mozzarella, six kinds of ricotta, and (count ’em) 21 different varieties of pecorino—in addition to the usual mortadella, salami, and both kinds of prosciutto (the world-famous prosciutto di Parma, selling at €26.90 per kilo, and the even pricier, gourmet-beloved prosciutto di San Daniele, from up in the Friuli mountains, going for €31 per kilo.)

When you hit the main square, turn left down Via dell’Archiginnasio, an arcaded shopping street stretching along the left flank of the cathedral. By now, you’re probably ravenous. Wanna spoil that appetite? Pop into the grand doorway at Piazza Galvani 1 and head upstairs for a peek at the flayed statues and the marble dissecting slab for human corpses in the Teatro Anatomico (see box “Europe’s Oldest University”).

At the corner with Via Farini sits the chic Caffé Zanarini, a sleek, modern bar where besuited and bespoke shoppers from the high-end Cavour shopping gallery next door, and students from up the block, mingle over superior espresso, sublime pastries, and platters of free crostini and teensy sandwiches.

Turn right onto Via Farini, which becomes Via Carbonesi. At no. 5, step into the divinely scented shop of Majani, chocolatiers extraordinaire since 1796 (051-656-2209, www.majani.com). About €4.50 will buy you a sampler baggie filled with their greatest hits—one each of the chocolate “tortellini” (in milk, dark, and white, each filled with a chocolate cream), a selection of the famous cremini Fiat napoleons, and a few scroza (thin sheets of dark chocolate, roughly accordioned up into a bar).

Across the street sits the Bolognese outlet for Il Regno Vegetale (Via Carbonesi 10A, 051-263-792, www.regnovegetale.com), a minuscule “reign” for 51-year old Orazio Martini and his rigorously traditional practice of the ancient art of herbalism. “We only use natural plants and herbs in our medicines and cosmetics,” he declares proudly. “No chemicals—as in 90% of the ‘herbalist’ medicines you see today. And we sell exclusively our own products,” Martini continues. “Not some multinational pharmaceutical corporation’s version of herbal medicines that’s made mostly of chemicals.”

You could say Maestro Martini has a chip on his shoulder, but he is an artisan living in a world of mass production, so it’s hard to fault the guy. He eagerly shows the engraving of a medieval monastic herbalist printed on his shop’s fliers. “You see? We make our products the same as they did in the Middle Ages.” He frowns. “Well, almost the same. Now we use machines to press it into pills”—he levers his forearms until his cupped hands press together in demonstration—”We use technology to help. But the ingredients, they are all natural…so there are no side effects!”

Orazio says he has always been intrigued by plants. When he was about 20 years old, it hit him. “Like a bolt of lightning!” He says, wide-eyed. “I knew, all of a sudden: ‘I have to be an herbalist’—but in the old style. So I studied for a few years, and I learned about it, and now I’ve been making my cures and cosmetics for 23 years.” His diligence and devotion to tradition has paid off. In 1999, the University of Pavia declared his anti-wrinkle cream to be the best on the market. “And,” Orazio Maritni finishes with a flourish. “It’s made with exclusively natural ingredients!” His eyes glow with triumph.

Turn right up Via de’ Gombruti, then sidestep left on Via Porta Nova to visit the Stregate Tea Shop at no. 7A (051-222-564, www.stregate.it), its air scented with more than 160 varieties of tea piled into numbered crocks on the shelves. I know: you’re thinking: Tea isn’t Italian! Well, they got coffee—espresso and cappuccino alike—from the Turks, pasta from the Chinese, wine from the Greeks, and tomato sauce from the Native Americans, so what, really, is Italian cuisine if not borrowed? And besides: this shop smells incredible.

Continue north up Via A. Tostoni. At no. 9A, La Braseria Sfoglia, you can peek past the sales counter into the back room to see bologna’s famed sfoglini rolling out fresh pasta in great sheets then cutting it into strips using rolling pins set with rows of plastic discs. Some strips are cut narrow, destined to be coiled into bird’s nests of tagliatelle, tagliolini, fettucini, and other noodles. Other strips are kept broad then cross-cut into squares, each of which will receive a dollop of filling then be deftly folded into those little winged pasta-pocket rings we call tortellini.

Turn left onto Via Ugo Bassi, then left again onto Via G. Marconi to pop into the church of San Francesco—those impressive and intricate tombs-on-stilts by the roadside just south of the main entrance belong to several 13th century law professors from the university (boy, they treated profs right back in those days). Behind the church’s high altar inside sits an incredible, massive marble altarpiece sculpted in 1388-92 and bristling with saints in niches, martyrs standing on balconies, all topped by a comb-tooth row of lithe pinnacles. OK, so it’s not culinary, but few tourists bother coming into this church, so you can have it all to yourself.

On the north side of the piazza begins the narrow, arcaded Via Pratello. It doesn’t look like much at this time of day—though you should definitely grab some lunch at Trattoria Fantoni while you’re here (see Dining), or, if you want something lighter, at any of the numerous take-away pizza shops or kebab shacks. But after dark, this street transforms into one of the hoppingest scenes in Bologna. It comes alive with trattorie, pubs, osterie, and wine bars. To whit: a pleading homemade sign scrawled onto a sheet hangs from one window: “Your right to party ends where my right to sleep begins.”

Return back east along Via Ugo Bassi. In the second block, on the left just after a little food shop, is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entrance to the Mercato delle Erbe. This covered market houses 36 specialty food shops and 72 fruit and vegetable stands—much more of a going concern than the Mercato Clavature, though make sure you get here before they close up shop for the lunch break around 1pm. Exit the market on the back side, onto Via Belvedere. Free of those bland modern structures that have grown up around the Via Ugo Bassi entrance, this 1910 temple of gastronomy can only be appreciated in all its orange and yellow Neoclassical grandeur from the back side.

Just across the street from the market’s back steps, at Via Belvedere 7B, is Le Sflogline, another traditional sfoglini shop run by a trio of smiling ladies who spend their days making fresh pasta, pastries, and simple lasagne in tiny take-away foil containers.

Ok. This is Italy. All the fine food in the world is worthless if there isn’t a fine wine with which to wash it down. Continue wending your way east and north to Via Marsala and the Enoteca Italiana (Via Marsala 2B, 051-235-989, www.enotecaitaliana.it). If it weren’t for the crowds, you’d never suspect that this blandly modern wine shop with its crooked, cheaply varnished bar and racks of bottles in the back has won Il Sommalier magazine’s “Oscar dei Vini” as the best wine bar in all of Italy in 2000 and again in 2002.

Once more, pinstriped suits an silk dresses mix freely with the tatty sweaters, leather jackets, and untucked shirttails of students—but everyone here is a genuine wine aficionado, debating the merits of a Tuscan Sangiovese/Merlot/Cab mix as compared to a Bordeaux cru (though the vast majority of the 35 fine wines available by the glass are Italian, not French). Elbow yourself a spot at the chipped bar, place your in the capable hands of the barrista, and ask for a plate of bread, salami, and mortadella to fortify yourself for an evening sampling some of the greatest wines Italy has to offer.

Bologna the Fat, indeed.