Mortadella, Bologna, Italy and the Wild West

The bite: Italian mortadella

The inspiration: The Wild West

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Artwork by Sorin


Do cowboys eat baloney sandwiches? I’m not sure, but in the 1890s they probably enjoyed mortadella.

Mortadella is an Italian cured pork sausage resembling bologna (or baloney) and it has been the most celebrated product of Bologna, Italy for at least five hundred years, and perhaps since Roman times.

The kings of mortadella–the Zappoli brothers–were the most well-known producers in Bologna. Interestingly, they, along with many Europeans of the time, had a fascination with the American West, cowboys, Indians, and pioneer heroes. To capitalize on this romantic view of Western life, the Zappoli brothers invited the leading cowboy of the era, Buffalo Bill Cody, to entertain the citizens of Bologna with his famous Wild West Show for their company’s annual circus in 1890.

This glamourized version of the West as represented in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was an outdoor extravaganza. It included historical reenactments, rodeo events, shooting exhibitions, masterful riding, cowboy and Indian battles, and generally any impressive act that could depict life in the Wild West. It was significant in scale as well, featuring scores of cowboy performers, 97 Indians, 180 horses, 18 buffalo, 10 elk, 5 Texan steers, 4 donkeys, and 2 deer.

The Wild West Show played in Bologna for eight days and left the Bolognese with stirring impressions of the American West. Today, on the corner of Via Nazario Sauro in Bologna, a sign is posted at the site of the Zappoli brothers’ first retail shop, stating, “The American dream, the Bolognese dream.”

The Zappoli brothers and their mortadella empire were renown for their annual circus and bringing the American frontier to Bologna. A byproduct of this was a popular crunchy snack: Wild West concessionaires introduced audiences to popcorn, giving them a lasting taste of American mass culture.