ITALIAN REGIONAL SPECIALTIES: THE NORTH
Northern Italian Cuisine is characterized by a lesser use of olive oil, pasta and tomato sauce and a heavier reliance on butter (or lard), rice, corn (for polenta) and cheeses for cream sauces. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules such as the renowned olive oils of Liguria and the Lakes region, which figure greatly in the cuisines of these areas.
Pasta in the north is by no means non-existent, but it does have to share time with delicious risotto and polenta. Northern Italian main courses often reflect people's pride in their unspoiled countryside, and are likely to include some sort of game or wild fowl such as rabbit, quail or grouse.
Seafood and shellfish are very popular on the coast, and rivers and streams provide carp and trout. Of course, the overall rule is "if it grows or lives well in the area, then it can make it onto the table".
Our journey through the Northern Italian Cuisine starts from: VALLE D’AOSTA.
For its geographic position, this small and mountainous region has always been affected by its isolation. Its Cuisine has an important peculiarity: the lack of pasta because in this area wheat is not cultivated.
Another ingredient that isn’t so common is the oil, replaced by butter and other fats of animal or vegetable origin.
The local products are essentially mountains cereals, dairy products, pork and beef meats. The cheese Fontina, the famous “Salsa Fonduta” and “Mont Blanc” are well known everywhere in Italy.
Going towards North-West, we get the region: PIEMONTE.
In this Cuisine there’s a large use of butter and lard, raw vegetables, a big variety of cheeses and the widespread use of truffle and garlic. The Gastronomy of this region has got deep rural roots and conveyed the influence of the French Cuisine.
Another characteristic ingredient is the rice that is cultivated in the province of Vercelli, called the “paddy field of Italy”.
Our “culinary journey” in Piemonte starts from the very famous Bagna Cauda; a dish that symbolizes friendship and the pleasure of being together. “Bagna” means sauce and “cauda” stands for “hot”; you taste this fantastic hot dish with vegetables, anchovies and bread.
Among the courses based on rice one can mention the Paniscia and the “Bolliti” (boiled meats), the well-known truffle from Alba and the Gianduiotti (chocolate bonbons).
Let’s talk about LOMBARDIA now.
This large territory has got culinary arts belonging to very different provinces but it also has some common foods: the fathead minnow, milk, cheese and butter, beef and pork meat, rice and corn.
Typical foods from this Cuisine are also the “Bolliti” (boiled meats)and the “Stufati” (stewed meats), sauces proper to be accompanied with Polenta, rice, filled pasta, butter and lard.
In Lombardy one can find local specialities such as the “Busèca” (chitterlings), the “Lugànega” (a type of sausage) and the “Pulénta uncia”. In a particular way, Milan is famous for its “Risotto alla Milanese”, “Cotoletta” and “Panettone”. Cremona is renowned for “Tortelli alla zucca” (ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and other ingredients), “Mostarda senapata” and Torrone (a delicious nougat).
In the specific area of Bergamo and Brescia the notorious “Polenta e Osei” is really widespread. And it’s exactly Polenta the main ingredient of Lombardy’s Cuisine; it can be considered as a first course, be accompanied with a second course or even used in some desserts.
In the area of Po Valley there are some typical foods such as “zuppa alla pavese” (from the town called Pavia). In Valtellina (in the North of Lombardy) one can taste the well-known “Pizzoccheri” (Saracen wheat tagliatelle boiled with potatoes and savoy cabbage) and “polenta taragna”.
Leaving Lombardy let’s move now towards East and get TRENTINO ALTO ADIGE.
Its Cuisine is still today little known. Among the local specialities, one can find: the “Tirtlen” (fried “tortellini” stuffed with spinach, sauerkraut and ricotta cheese), “canederli soup” with beef liver and the “Panada”, another delicious soup. Cold cuts and typical cheeses are really important too; among the cold cuts due note should be taken of the well-known Speck. The “lagunto algunder butterkase”, the “almkase” and the “toblach” are famous cheeses.
The Cuisine from FRIULI VENEZIA GIULIA (the Italian region that shares a border with Slovenia and Austria) is clearly affected by its geographical features as here the territory goes from the mountains to the seaside. Moreover this region has always felt the effects of the different cultures and culinary traditions belonging to the several populations that have lived here.
In this particular Cuisine one can taste some delicious typical food such as polenta, soups with beans, barley and aromatic herbs, “gnocchi” and “cialsonz” (special filled pasta).
As regards the Cuisine from VENETO, the famous “baccalà” is a feather in the cap of this region. Another well-known product is the “radicchio trevigiano” (a sort of chicory) suggested to be eaten grilled or in an omelette. Among the fish dishes due note should be taken of “capesante alla veneta”.
Rice and “bigoli” (a type of pasta) are the main ingredients used in the preparation of the first Venitian courses. Coming back to “baccalà”, there are several ways to savour it: fried baccalà, “baccalà alla vicentina” or “baccalà mantecato alla veneziana”. Another classic recipe is “fegato alla veneziana” (liver with addition of onions). Even in Veneto, like in many other places in Northern Italy, polenta dominates the culinary scene.
Moving South we’ll meet EMILIA ROMAGNA, the last region we’ll visit in this section. From an administrative point of view it’s an only region but “Emilia” and “Romagna” are different, especially for their culinary traditions.
Let’s start from the Emilian Cuisine. It’s considered to be the result of almost eight centuries of autonomy that the Emilian towns have retained on a large territory and for this reason it should be better to talk about several Cuisines that compose a unique one.
The Cuisine from Emilia is rich in savoury dishes and it’s also known as “Cucina Bolognese”, a name that calls to mind restaurants and “trattorie” spread throughout Italy. The tradition of this Cuisine has some characteristic features such as opulence and prodigality and that’s why Bologna (and Emilia as well) is called “la Grassa”.
With no doubts, first courses represent the feather in the cap of the Emilian Cuisine. First of all “tagliatelle” (long and flat ribbons of pasta similar in shape to “fettuccine”); they can be served with a variety of sauces, though the classic one is the meat sauce or “Bolognese sauce”.
Also “tortellini” (a ring-shaped pasta) represent a very traditional dish from this region even if they are scattered throughout all the North and the centre of Italy. They are typically stuffed with a mix of meat or cheese and they are usually served in broth of beef or chicken.
Then one can taste the well-known “tortelli di magro” or “cappelletti” that are different for their shape (they resemble small peaked hats) and because they are stuffed with “mortadella”, ham, Parmigiano Reggiano, some nutmeg or with ricotta cheese and spinach. “Anolini” from Piacenza and “tortelli di zucca” (similar to those ones from Mantova) are very famous too.
The Cuisine from Romagna is simpler and poorer than that one from Emilia. The poverty of this cuisine has been influenced by the presence of small and changeable “Signorie” and then by the long dominion of the Church.
The Cuisine from Romagna finds roots in the simplicity of the rural world and the number of the dishes is moderate; as regards the contribution of the culture from the maritime world is not so relevant and it concerns only the coastal zone.
But it’s exactly in this area that Pellegrino Artusi was born: we’re talking about the author of the famous “Science in the kitchen and the Art of eating well” (1891).
This practical manual collects 790 recipes, from the broth to liqueurs, passing through soups, hors-d’oeuvres, second dishes and cakes. The recipes are followed by the author’s reflections and anecdotes, as he wrote in a witty style.
Also in the Cuisine from Romagna there’s the culture of the homemade “pasta sfoglia”. From this kind of pasta on can get “tagliatelle”, “tagliolini”, “maltagliati”, “garganelli di Ravenna”, “cappelletti” and “ravioli”. Using pasta sfoglia without eggs they also prepare “strozzapreti”.
With this versatile kind of pasta they also make the famous “piadina". The art of cooking fish, even if it concerns the coastal zone, is very important in this region. The main fish dish from Romagna is the so-called “brodetto”.
Now, let's explore the Cuisine of one of the most renowned region in Italy: LIGURIA.
A narrow strip of land bordered by the sea and the mountains with a Cuisine clearly expressing the mix of these two different territorial features. Fish and aromatic herbs are the main ingredients of the Ligurian Cuisine. But its most important symbol is maybe “the Pesto sauce” that is used both as sauce to dress pasta dishes or added to vegetables soups. Also the vegetables savory pies are really important and the most famous is the so called Piscialandrea. Then we have the Focaccia, a typical food from this area and largely imitated everywhere. The Ligurian seafood is rich in shellfish (“the red prawns are like a dream” as Paolo Conte song …) and in blue fish: the whitebait and “pesce luna” are really renowned.
According to tradition, the Cuisine from this small Italian region is poor because made of simple and common ingredients but over the centuries it could have enriched its local culinary traditions thanks to the great colonial history of Genoa in the past. The way of cooking the Baccalà, for example, has many links with the Portuguese and Provencal Cuisine.