Mortadella sandwich with butter, bread and spices on wood cutting board

Mortadella is perhaps Italy's most misunderstood meat. Unapologetically fatty and studded with pistachios, mortadella can be seen as the poor cousin of pancetta or prosciutto, however, that's not quite the case.

Originating from the Emilia Romagna region, mortadella's roots are in Bologna. The meat is classified as part of Italy’s cultural heritage and its production within the region is protected.

Traditionally, mortadella was the food of choice for Italy's rich and powerful - and was even given as a wedding gift to the noblewomen Isabella d'Este in the Middle Ages. Due to the spices used to preserve the meat, mortadella was expensive - apparently three times the cost of ham and twice the cost of olive oil.

Mortadella on a board

What is mortadella?

Mortadella is essentially a processed meat, usually pork belly, studded with chunks of fat, and often pistachios. It's carefully spiced and comes in a roll - like a huge sausage.

Mortadella is often confused with Bologna, a US cold-cut, which is actually quite different, despite being named after mortadella's city of origin. The chunks of fat in mortadella, along with the spices, means its much more flavourful than Bologna, with a slightly different texture.

Typically, slices of mortadella are cut off for antipasto, or bigger chunks are diced to use in cooking. Mortadella is often eaten cold, but can also be fried before serving.

Mortadella's history

The first mention of mortadella dates back to Roman times - it's mentioned by Pliny in his works and an ancient stele displayed Bologna’s Museo Civico Archeologico shows a butcher using a mortar, the tool employed to crush together the meat and spices to prepare mortadella.

By the Middle Ages, the Guild of Salaroli. They also had the important role of monitoring the quality and the mortadella-making process to make sure it adhered to certain standards. Its production in Bologna has also been protected since 1661.

Mortadella sandwich with butter, bread and spices on wood cutting board

Eating mortadella

Despite the descriptions above, mortadella probably isn't as fatty as you're expecting and is rich in a number of vitamins, mineral salts and, of course, proteins. Just be sure you're buying Mortadella Bologna IGP. The recipe for mortadella has remained the essentially same for centuries, however, the heavy medieval spices tend not to be used in modern times - many versions use only pepper nowadays.

Mortadella sandwich cross-section

Mortadella sandwich

Cut the mortadella in thin slices and place inside fragrant warm bread, like rosetta, with crescenta. Add cheese (aged Parmigiano-Reggiano or ricotta are both great options) and/or salad depending on taste. Plain with mayonnaise and topped with extra pistachios is also amazing. You can also try variations with pestos, grilled peppers, figs or mustard - the result are of course, delicious!

In pasta

Mortadella is an essential ingredient when making the stuffing of tortellini or ravioli. It gives the pasta body, while adding a huge amount of flavour. Mortadella also makes a great addition to pasta sauces near the end of cooking - just make sure the mortadella is heated through. A simple and delicious favourite is pesto spaghetti with pistachios and mortadella.

Mortadella pizza

Mortadella makes a wonderful topping for a white pizza, a pizza without tomato sauce. Top the base with olive oil, garlic, and perhaps a white cheese like burrata or ricotta along with mozzarella. Scatter small chunks or thin slices on top of the pizza and be amazed at the amount of flavour you can get from just a small amount of meat.

Other uses:

  • Serve as part of an antipasto, thinly sliced with bread or crackets.

  • Include in a stuffing for poultry

  • Use in quiches

  • Use a bit in polpettone (meat loaf) for extra flavour

  • Make mortadella mousse

Mortadella, please - the International Festival of Mortadella in Bologna, Italy

Mortadella's festival in Bologna

As one of the quintessential foods of Bologna, there is, of course, a festival dedicated to mortadella The annual "Mortadella, please – International Festival of Mortadella" usually takes place late September in Zola Predosa, just outside Bologna. It lasts for three days of and includes tastings, original recipes paired with local Pignoletto wine, gastronomic stands, music and entertainment.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 21 October 2022