Food in Northwest Italy: a brief gastronomical tour!
Liguria; Valle D’Aosta and Piedmont; Lombardy
Portofino (Cinque Terre); Genoa; Asti; Turin; Aosta; Vercelli; Milan; Cremona; Mantua; Stresa (Lake Maggiore); Como
It may be on the Italian side of the border, but the cuisine of Valle d’Aosta and Piedmont is strongly influenced by neighbouring France, as is much of the food of Northwest Italy.
The smallest region of Italy, mountainous Valle d’Aosta is famed for its Fontina cheese. Most milk produced in the area is used to produce this buttery, nutty cheese that’s been made here for nearly 700 years.
In Piedmont, if you’re feeling rich, try the renowned white truffles (trifola d’Alba); sniffed out by trained dogs, they’re supposedly an aphrodisiac! Southern Piedmont, near Asti and Alba, produces some of Italy’s greatest wines, we’ve all heard of Barolo and Barbaresco. Polenta is another regional specialty. Monasteri Bormida and Bubbi, two cities in the Asti district each year hold the festival of Il Polentone (“the big polenta”).
Antipasto is a hallmark of Piemonte cuisine; you could be faced with as many as two dozen varieties at city restaurants. The most famous antipasto dish is "bagna cauda", vegetables dipped fondue-style into a "hot bath" of oil, anchovies, and garlic – strong stuff!
If you’re around in Autumn, make sure you get to the Langhe district, where Barolo wine and truffles come from. After the grapes have been harvested the farmers go hunting for truffles with their specially trained dogs. The Barolo wine goes perfectly with specialities such as "taiarin," narrow tagliatelle enriched with aromatic truffles.
A Piemontese specialities is "agnolotti," pasta made with eggs stuffed beef, pork, or rabbit, flavoured with sausage, parmesan cheese, eggs and herbs. Piedmont is one of the most important rice-growing regions of Italy, and "Risotti" or rice dishes are another speciality, often covered with shaved truffles. In past times a "risotto" might compose the entire meal, enriched with "funghi porcini" (mushrooms), fondue, eels and frogs from the Po River, little birds on a spit, and other delicacies.
The secundi piatti served in Piedmont show French influence, for example, "brasato al Barolo" (braised beef with Barolo red wine). "Bollito misto" or boiled meats is served without any extras, except sometimes "mostarda" from Cremona, fruit preserved in syrup that gains quite a kick from a healthy jolt of powdered mustard seed. The rich assortment of meats includes pork, veal, turkey, beef and vegetables accompanied by pickled sauces and "salsa verde", a spicy green sauce made from parsley, garlic, breadcrumbs soaked in vinegar, hard-boiled eggs, olive oil and pepper.
Cheeses from the area include "Tome delle Langhe" and "Brus". The best "Tome" are soft inside with a thin pale yellow crust. Some farmers conserve them with oil and herbs. "Brus" is not advised for those with delicate stomachs, as it has a hell of a kick (it’s made with grappa, a lot of pounded black pepper and hot red pepper) – have some dessert wine handy as an antidote!
Turin didn’t just invent "grissinis" (breadsticks). Chocolate was produced there even before Switzerland, and chocolatiers Giroldi and Giuliano were already famous in 1700 where their shop in Via Doragrossa served hot chocolate to faithful customers. Their competitor, Peyrano, today uses nine different types of cocoa in their products which include bitter gianduiotti (made with almonds), pistacchio shells and other specialties. Baratti & Milano and Caffarel are other famous names.
South of these two regions on the coast is Liguria. Ligurians are known for their seafood dishes and their Pesto Genovese, a sauce made of a paste of fresh garlic, extra virgin olive oil, fresh Italian basil leaves, pine nuts and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
The trattorias along the Ligurian coast serve a typical fish soup called "ciuppin" which is served in two dishes, one containing a strongly flavoured broth with thick bread, in the other the fish, shrimps, and octopus that helped make the broth. Another speciality, "frutti del mare" (a seafood platter) are cooked simply with oil, parsley, garlic, pepper and white wine.
Zucchini, onions, eggplants, and green peppers are generally baked in the oven, enriched with bread crumbs, cheese, and flavours of garlic and herbs, especially marjoram. Tomato sauce isn’t used much here, instead they use "pesto".
Not all Ligurian dishes are simple, though. The renowned "cappon magro" is Genoa’s traditional Christmas Eve’s dinner speciality but you can have it anytime, though you usually have to reserve it in advance. It takes the form of a pyramid made up of six or seven types of both fish and vegetables cooked separately and then built layer by layer on a base of crackers and covered with a rich sauce based on olive oil and anchovies. The dish is elaborately decorated with slices of hard-boiled eggs, lobster medallions, large shrimps, oysters and other fruits of the sea.
Another one is "Torta pasqualina" (pasqualina cake), made with eighteen layers of light pasta spread with oil and stuffed with ricotta cheese, the season’s vegetables and whole eggs. They also make pies of artichokes, biete. onions and parmesan cheese, not to mention the renowned "torta marinara"(anchovy cake).
Liguria is not big on desserts, but there are candy and pastry shops, one of which, Romanengo, has been in Genoa’s Via Roma for 150 years. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor requested shipments of Romanengo’s marron glacés surrounded by candied violets wherever they were staying.
Go east and you hit the region of Lombardy and Milan. Yep, this is the home of Minestrone alla Milanese and Risotto alla Milanese, to name but two dishes everyone knows. Now how about Spaghetti Milanese, you’re asking. Well, they actually eat more polenta here, as they’ve been doing since the days of the Roman soldiers. Rice too. More rice is consumed in Lombardy than pasta, and cheese is invariably served at the end of the meal.
Cheese and first courses are really the strong points of the regional cooking: cold "minestrone" (vegetable soup), "polenta bergamasca agli accelletti," (corn bread with little game birds), "pizzocheri della Valtellina," "tortelli di zucca mantovani" (little pasta shapes stuffed with pumpkin), and primus inter pares, "risotto allo zafferano," (rice with saffron) prepared with meat broth, bone marrow from oxen, white wine, onion and Vialone rice which aquires a pasty shine as it swells with cooking.
Cuisine around lakes Garda, Maggiore, and Como, as well as d’Iseo and others is famous for its crispy bread and for "misoltino" (sardines from the lake), and areas near the Po river feature eel, catfish, and sometimes "storioni" (sturgeon).
On the meat side, "Ossobuco" (a braised veal stew) is a Milan favourite. "Costolette alla Milanese" are veal cutlets dipped in egg and breadcrumbs, fried in butter and served with lemon. Rich? You betcha! Brasaola, aged lean beef, is a specialty of the Valtellina area; have it sliced paper-thin on bruschetta with eggplant and mozzarella. The Brianza district is known for its choice beef cattle and dairy herds, the former seen as some of the best meats produced in Italy and the latter helping to make Gorgonzola and Bel Paese cheeses.
Lombardia is big on dairy products. Butter is often used instead of olive oil, cream is frequently used to enrich dishes. Local cheese specialties include "crescenza," "robiole", "mascarpone," "gorgonzola", "taleggio, "grana lodigiano," and "bel paese."
Lastly, don’t forget the dome-shape, plain or fruited "panettone" for which Milan has become famous…