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On our way up to the tower, we had to cross the Apennines, but since a few years ago a new tunnel makes the trip up to Bologna faster. We decided to check out FICO  – Eataly’s answer to an amusement park and the focus, of course, is food. FICO is an acronym in Italian for “Fabbrica Italiana Contadina” or Italian Farming Factory (rough translation). Eataly is the company behind the project, and many probably know the name from bigger cities in the US and around the world that have had Eataly stores popping up over the past five or so years.

When FICO opened last year, there was a lot of positive and negative fanfare about it. It is late and their website sums up the place much better than I could so I’ll throw it in quotes and use it to give you a general idea of what the place is:

“FICO was born out of a passion for the heritage of Italian agri-food biodiversity.

In just one place you can learn about the culture, traditions, and craftsmanship that make Italian food the most famous in the world.

Enjoy the experiences we have designed for you every day: tours to explore cropsanimals, and factoriesclassesmultimedia rides, and restaurants.”

Thinking it’d be going to hell like the rest of the big companies coming into Italy (there’s Starbucks coffee in our grocery stores since last week), or that the hype of the opening would overcrowd the place, so we’ve been avoiding it. When they claim “it’s the largest food park in the world,” though, and we’re going right by it and we have to grocery shop for our little adventure, fine we’ll go check it out.

The park is located outside the city of Bologna. If you’re driving you barely touch or see the center, instead we wound around the outskirts. Apparently, there is also a shuttle from the center if you’re staying in Bologna and want to visit – or you could technically get there from Florence by taking the train to Bologna then the shuttle.

When we finally pulled onto the street, the entrance was lanes wide with enormous gates. I felt like we were driving into six flags, except…we were the only ones. The parking lot had a handful of cars huddled in the spots shaded by the trees. We hurried past the rows and rows of three-wheeled bikes all perfectly lined outside of the building. You can rent them once you walk inside, and ride them in the bike lanes that flow through the hallways. It’s that big. The main entrance had shelves lining the wall outside the doors. There was a note of apology that they weren’t filled with free apples to eat (apparently the norm) because it was too hot out.

Inside we checked to make sure Luna could walk with us (online they say dogs need special carts but the women just waved us through and said not to take her out to the animals) and then we stepped inside. For the Bostonian readers here, think Quincy Market – Disney style. I should have more photos. I am sorry. I was busy looking at it myself and eating pasta – and the few pictures I do have are on Rami’s phone, and they apparently would like to stay there today (my tech is failing).

They have every Italian culinary product and then some. There are shops and restaurants and workshops and tastings, The hallways last forever. We had pasta at a fresh pasta making stand, then grabbed a coffee at the cafe. All of our senses were on overload -and as we passed shop after shop, it occurred to us that this was only half of the place – because it was too damn hot for the other half of the park. Outside, we discovered a butterfly garden, a truffle patch (the workers had gone truffle hunting, so we didn’t get to go in there) animals with educational info, an entire grove of olive trees, showing the different varieties and another area where they had displayed all of the traditional olive presses.

Back inside, we found an area designed to look like an outdoor beach bar – complete with a soccer court and a beach volleyball area – complete with sand. Every so often, we’d hit a “carousel”  which looked like mini media activities – we didn’t go in because of Luna (though we could have). In one, I read that you could plant a seed in a hydroponic garden and then monitor its life through an app – just as an example.

There was so much to see and do and explore and we had no time and no money to buy everything that we wanted (everything there) but we made our rounds and got pecorino romano cheese and Sicilian sausages for dinner, with fresh bread from the bakery as another man in the next booth over carried out a mortadella the size of three Luna’s, and started to teach the little group of people surrounding him how to slice it. Then we found the booth from the Marche – and had the most amazing fried olives since being in Ascoli.

The strangest part of the whole thing? The place was empty. We passed shop after shop with workers leaning on furniture looking bored. We had more room walking through that place than we do walking down the sidewalk here in Florence. What in the world?! 

Now that we’ve approved it’s worth the trip, I don’t understand why every tour bus that passes shouldn’t stop there. It’s made for tourism. It’s made for people that come to Italy to love food and eat lots of it and learn about it. I hope that it was just an off day – that it was just too hot and too summer. 

We’ll head back once the harvest begins, and it’s cool enough to have apples outside the doors. I’ll do a better job reviewing it then, but for now, you should go – while it’s still “undiscovered.”