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One of the things I was most exciting about when I got on the train to Northern Italy? The food, of course! I boarded the train in Germany in the morning knowing that I’d get off the train in Milan a few hours later, and all I could think about was what I’d be eating for my first meal in Italy. I love Italian food – the pastas, pizzas, breads and pastries, risotto and pretty much everything that I can eat as a vegetarian (I am always told I am missing out because the meat dishes and seafood are amazing, apparently). And I was curious to see how the food in Northern Italy and particular in the Lombardy region would compare to the food in other parts of Italy.
The food of Lombardy and Northern Italy
I’m inviting you to join me on a culinary tour of Lombardy and Veneto, the regions I traveled to on my recent visit, but be warned: this is only a small fraction of all the good food Northern Italy has to offer, and it is the meat-free version.I quickly noticed that the food in Lombardy was distinctively different than the food I had in the regions further south. Here, I found that dishes like polenta and risotto were much more prevalent than in other regions and much more common than pasta, for example. You’ll notice in my photos that the color yellow is almost always present – and that’s, as I was told later, because in medieval times, hosts would usually coat the food they were serving guests with gold, which was believed to heal sicknesses and was a sign for good health.
When this decadent customs wasn’t feasible anymore because of rising gold prices, Lombardians still wanted their food to look as if gold was used, which is why the color yellow is omnipresent – in the most iconic dish of the region for example, Risotto Alla Milanese. The color comes from the saffron, which is the most expensive spice in the world – did you know that? In addition to saffron, lots of grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and butter are used. As you can see in the picture below, ‘Alla Milanese’ can also be made with pasta, not just with risotto.Speaking of butter – Lombardians are not afraid to use butter and lard, especially in the polenta dishes. Polenta, a corn meal based dish is together with risotto the most common dish in the region, and is usually served with meat or vegetables.
I was told that the food in northern Italy was much more similar to Austrian or Central European food, and I think this asparagus egg dish is a good example for that – even though I’d say the truffle on top is distinctively Italian: When I heard that meat (especially poultry) played a big role in the cuisine of this region, I was worried about vegetarian options, but I always found something scrumptious on the menu – like this amazing zucchini starter, which was heavenly:One of my favorite Italian dishes is pasta with sage butter – burro e salvia -, but I never tried gnocchi (dumplings made from potatoes, eggs, flour and semolina) with sage butter. I was delighted to find out that this dish is just as good with gnocchi as it is with ravioli, for example, and now I am keen on learning how to make gnocchi myself – the home made version is just so much better than the gnocchi you can buy at the store. I also learned that there are quite a few different variations of gnocchi – some are made with semolina, some without, some are made with eggs, others without. But the most important thing for the perfect gnocchi? The right potato – it makes all the difference! You can see here how different these gnocchi look from the ones above:Lombardy also has its own version of stuffed pasta, similar to ravioli, called casoncelli. They are usually stuffed with cheese or meat, but you can also find more unusual fillings such as spinach, raisins and pears. And much to my delight, they’re also typically served with burro e salvia, sage butter.Tortelli di Zucca, pumpkin filled ravioli or tortelli, is another pasta specialty of Lombardy. Again, they are usually served in a very simple way, with melted butter and Parmesan cheese.And speaking of cheese: like most of Italy, Lombardy has amazing cheeses. Grana Padano, one of the world’s most famous hard cheeses, was created by Cistercian monks over 900 years ago in the Chiaravalle Abbey near Milan, and the famous Gorgonzola cheese as well as mascarpone also originate from the Lombardy region. That’s not it though – there are many more less known cheeses that are made in this region, Cookipedia lists over 40 cheeses for Lombardy! So do yourself a favor and order a cheese board of local cheeses when you visit Lombardy.Another excellent option for a cheese appetizer? Burrata mozzarella with tomatoes. I love mozzarella, but nothing beats burrata, which is basically a deluxe version of mozzarella – it is filled with panna (cream) and mozzarella strings.. absolutely divine. And Italian burrata is the best I’ve tried anywhere in the world – these days, it is also produced in the U.S. for example, but it’s just not the same.You can get pretty much anything with burrata – pasta, pizza, salads.. and sandwiches! The burrata adds so much to a ‘regular’ mozzarella sandwich, just thinking about it makes my mouth water.And while we’re talking about sandwiches – In Milan, I stumbled across a sandwich, or a panini, to be precise, that I thought was a great combination: shredded zucchini mixed with hard boiled egg pieces and topped with tomatoes. To die for!And then there’s pizza, of course. I can’t talk about food in Lombardy without mentioning pizza, which is a staple food in pretty much all of Italy. Even though pizza originates from southern Italy, you can also find good Neapolitan-style pizza in the north, and two of the top ten pizza places in all of Italy (according to Conde Nast Traveler) are in the north: Pizzeria Spontini in Milan and Pizzeria Antico Forno in Venice.This pizza topped with fresh arugula (rocket), over which olive oil is drizzled, is one of my favorite pizzas – and I’ve been told that the carnivore version, with prosciutto and large pieces of grated Grana Padano, is even better. The olive oil that is used (generously) for all kinds of dishes comes from Lake Garda, which is known as some of the best olive oil in the country. Wine is another local specialty from Lake Garda – especially the Chiaretto rosé gets a lot of praise. But there are also wines from Bonrada, Riesling and Barbera grapes that are grown mainly in the Oltrepò Pavese region in the northwest of Lombardy, and highly ranked sparkling wines from the same region as well as Valtellina, a breathtakingly beautiful (and off-the-beaten-path) wine region in the Alps close to Switzerland.The Veneto region, to which Venice belongs, is another important wine producer in the north of Italy, and it is also the birthplace of the popular Aperol Spritz cocktail (albeit Trieste and Padua are fighting with Venice over this title). The simple, yet tasty cocktail with aperol, soda water and prosecco has become hugely popular beyond the borders of Italy in recent years, and can be found on every menu in Venice. I also discovered ‘Aperol Spritz happy hour’ during which a buffet of antipasti is offered in bars, and it is completely FREE with the purchase of an aperol spritz (which is usually less than €5). I don’t know if that’s a Venice thing or something that is done throughout Italy, but I basically had free dinner one night thanks to ‘Aperol Spritz Happy Hour’!Now I’ve talked about lunch and dinner dishes, and you might be wondering: What about breakfast? Breakfast is a pretty unspectacular meal, and most Lombardians who I asked what they had for breakfast told me that they only had a cup of coffee or cappuccino. If they have something to eat with their coffee, it is a brioche, or cornetto as it is known as in the south of Italy, a type of croissant. These are served either plain or filled with chocolate, jam or honey. I always went for chocolate, of course.And if you have a sweet tooth, like me, you’ll be happy to hear that you’re never far from a bakery in Lombardy, and they are filled with delicious pastries like cannoli (different than the Sicilian cannoli, by the way!)……shortbread, cakes, cookies, and all sorts of sweet treats.And of course you can find Meringues here, a beloved Italian dessert made of egg whites and sugar. Cakes, fruit cakes in particular, are also very popular in northern Italy, much to my delight. I have to say that I prefer a tart with fresh fruits or berries over chocolate cake. My kind of dessert!I can’t write about pastries in Lombardy and not mention Polenta e Osei, which I’ve already mentioned as one reason why you should visit Lombardy. These little cakes that look like perfectly mounded polenta have little marzipan birds (birds = osei in Italian) on top and are a specialty from Bergamo.And then there’s tiramisu, the most iconic Italian desert, which is made with local mascarpone here, and let me tell you: it makes all the difference! Last but not least – no article about food in Italy, no matter what region, is complete without the mention of gelato. Don’t make the mistake of calling it ice cream, because it’s not ice cream. Gelato has less fat and more milk, and it is much denser, making it more flavorful, and because it is served at a slightly higher temperature, its consistency is silkier than that of ice cream. When you arrive in Italy and see a gelateria, do yourself a favor and walk inside straight away. But wait – it’s not as simple as that. There are just as many ‘tourist trap’ gelaterias in Italy as there are decent ones, so read these tips on how to tell the good from the bad gelaterias first.
Now tell me – what’s your favorite Italian dish?