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Italian Food Regional Cooking NorthWest Italy
Northwest Italian Cuisine
Italy’s cuisine is usually divided into Northern and Southern regions. The North borders France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia, there is more influence from these cuisines and less of the Mediterranean fare more common further south. Northern Italy has a rich diet, varied with grain, corn, rice, fruit, vegetables, livestock and dairy products all in abundance. Northern Italy enjoys a higher standard of living than the south due to the proximity to the major European trade routes and their prosperity shows up in the food. The dishes listed here are by no means exclusive to the region or town where they are important and many will appear throughout all or parts of Italy.
Piedmont may be the Italian home for polenta with risotto, beans, and gnocchi all served more often than pasta.
Polenta, in spite of what we read elsewhere, there is a difference between authentic polenta and cornmeal. In Italy, flint corn has been the primary polenta corn since the 16th century when explorers and treasure seekers brought flint corn to the Piedmont on ships from the Caribbean. Corn is classified by the type of starch (endosperm) in its kernels. The usual corn milled in America is known as dent (the name derives from the dent that forms on the top of each kernel as it dries), has a relatively soft, starchy center. Flint corn, by contrast, has a hard, starchy endosperm and produces grittier, more granular meal.Flint corn can be hard to find and you may need to look in specialty stores.
Risotto is popular as a first course and is made into a wide variety of dishes such as Risotto con Tartufi (risotto with truffles), Risotto ai Bruscanzoli (buds of hops), Risotto al Radicchio (with red chicory ), Risotto con Brusaoci (dandelion ), Risotto con le Rane (frogs), Risotto con Codine di Maiale (baby pig tails) and many more. Pasta is usually made with egg and in ribbons like fettuccini. The variety of vegetables is unsurpassed anywhere in Italy. Many of the best cheeses are produced here while beef, pork and veal take a larger place on the menu next to the lamb and goat that dominate further south. Seafood is not as important in the landlocked regions but the areas with a coast make good use of the local catch and the rest use dried fish, fresh water fish, snails and frogs. Butter and lard are used more than olive oil but modern cooks are gradually replacing butter and animal fats with more healthful olive oil. Dishes in the north tend to be more mildly flavored as they do in France and Germany, rather than the spicy concoctions of the south, redolent of chili peppers.
Italy is a Catholic country with about 90 percent of the populace claiming to be Catholic so Catholic holy days and festivals are a big deal here. Many still follow the meatless Fridays rule and all of the regions have festivals that define the culture and the cuisine.
The Lombardia region borders Switzerland and, in the south, the mighty River Po, Lombardy is the former home to the Lombards (a Germanic tribe of Scandinavian origin). The high peaks of the Alps prevents the cold northern European weather from entering Italy while its extremely fertile land, supports the richest agriculture of any region in Italy. Milan is the capital of Lombardy.
The influence of the neighboring countries is easy to see in the dishes popular here. Meat is frequently braised as they do in Germanic countries. Green vegetables are not always served. Butter and lard are the primary cooking fats, but health concerns are getting many to switch to olive oil. Fertile mountain pastures means Lombardy has plenty of cattle so beef and veal are plentiful. Cream, other dairy products and regional cheeses such as Gorgonzola DOP, Lodigiano, Quartirolo, Mascarpone from Lodi appear often in Milanese cuisine. Gorgonzola is a product of the territories that lay between Lombardy and Piedmont. More rice and polenta is consumed in Lombardy than pasta, and cheese is invariably served at the end of the meal.
Lombardians love their meat (beef veal and pork more than lamb and goat) and poultry (especially duck, goose and turkey, here locals raise guinea fowl, geese, capons, doves and rabbits in their yards). Beef is the base of bollito misto , the Italian boiled dinner eaten everywhere. Veal dishes include costoletta alla Milanese (breaded veal cutlet) and vitello tonnato , (veal with tuna sauce). Pork is well represented in the variety of salume although beef and even goose is used in these cured meats. Fritto misto (fried mix) (in Lombardy this dish may be made with veal brains, liver and sweetbreads) and mondeghili (meat croquettes) Luganega da Monza (mild Italian sausage) is named for the town of Monza, in Lombardia traditionally seasoned with nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, pepper, and sometimes Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Bresaola or brisaola is air-dried, salted beef that has been aged two or three months until it becomes hard and turns a dark red, color. It is lean and tender, with a sweet, musty smell. It originated in Valtellina, a valley in the Alps of northern Italy's Lombardy region.
Minestrone alla Milanese. This local soupis made with rice,all types of beans, cabbage, beets, lettuce, celery, spinach, parsley and fennel. There is no single, original recipe for Minestrone alla Milanese because in the past, vegetables where available by the season so the ingredients varied with what was available.
Risotto alla Milanese , golden rice with saffron has become an international dish that originated in Milan. Its signature golden color comes from the former practice of adding gold leaf to the rice. In medieval times, the courts would coat their food with gold leaf before serving it to guests. Gold was widely believed to be the remedy for illness and promised good health. Risotto alla Milanese is usually served with:
Osso buco (In Italian means bone with a hole.) is a Milanese specialty of crosscut veal shanks braised with tomatoes, vegetables, rosemary and sage, white wine and broth. It is often garnished with gremolata and traditionally served with risotto alla Milanese. (BBC recipe for Osso Buco and Gremolata)
Mostarda di Cremona At the end of summer,local, seasonal fruits are used to make preserves that are sweet, sour and spicy with mustard. Fruits may include pumpkin, white watermelon, figs, apples, pears, peaches, cherries and orange rind. The fruits are left in large pieces and poached in simple syrup, leaving them a bit firm then packed in sterile jars to macerate.
Polenta Taragna is a traditional Italian recipe from Valtellina in Lombardy. Polenta Taragna is a mixture of corn meal, cheese and buckwheat flour that gives it the typical dark color;
These are some of the typical Lombardian sweets, loved throughout the world.
Panettone, (recipe) is a national Christmas institution, this is a light, brioche-like fruit bread is traditionally made with raisins and candied citron, or with a rich cream filling, if you ever get the chance try some French Toast made with Panettone for a slice of heaven.
Colomba is a dove-shaped Easter bread sprinkled with almonds.
Torrone di Cremona (a traditional nougat that can be found in many regions throughout Italy) and
Amaretti di Saronno (Amaretto flavored cookies)
Torrone di Cremona
Valle D’Aosta and Piemonte (Piedmont)
Valle D’Aosta is the smallest region of Italy and is presented here paired with Piemonte. Their close proximity means they have very similar cuisines. Valle D’Aosta is high in the Alps, abutting both France and Switzerland while Piedmont borders France. Naturally rocky with steep valleys at high altitudes. The cooks of Valle d'Aosta and Piemonte, like those of Trentino-Alto Adige, use mushrooms, truffles, berries, and nuts foraged on the southern mountain slopes. In Italian, piedi (pie) means "foot" and montania (monte) means "mountains," therefore the name Piemonte.
Local cooks use Jambon de Bosses (cured ham), Bresaola (cured beef), Mocetta (mountain goat ham), braised dishes of wild game like mountain goat, deer, hare, and pheasant, frogs, snails, white and black truffles, cardoons (See my article about cooking an artichoke), cabbage, asparagus, potatoes, beans, and cold-climate grains—rye, buckwheat, barley and of course, corn for polenta. Fontina cheese, originated here in the Aosta valley and has PDO status under European law. Excellent walnut oil is produced in Valle d'Aosta. Porcini mushrooms and white truffles are foraged in the woods in Piedmont.
Some of the typical dishes of this regions include:
Antipasto (plural antipasti), (before the meal)" and is the traditional first course of a formal Italian meal. Antipasto is a hallmark of Piemonte cuisine whereas many as 20 varieties of antipasto are served
Grissini (thin bread sticks),
Bagna Cauda (hot bath) (garlic with anchovies in oil, heated to dissolve the anchovies and soften the garlic),
Griva (pork, meat and liver meatballs or meatloaf, seasoned with juniper berries and spices wrapped in pork caul),
Minestra di Riso , Latte, e Castagne (chestnut chowder with rice),
Tajarin (very finely cut ribbon pasta made with eggs, similar in size to angel hair),
Brus DOP Brös (also Bros, Bross, Brus or Bruss)
Brus is a Piedmontese sort of cheese product with a very strong taste, made with different types of cheese leftovers. The mix is left to ferment and then mixed with grappa (brandy), black and red pepper and put into small crocks. Nowadays what you can actually find, made commercially, is a paste with a much milder taste, with no brandy added to it (sometimes it is substituted with white wine).
Fonduta, a melted cheese dip of milk, eggs and white truffles (tartufi bianchi) shows thew influence of Swiss cooks.
Lumache al Barbera (snails stewed in red wine),
Rane Ripiene (stuffed frogs), and Zabajone (egg custard with Marsala wine).
Costoletta alla Valdostana is a local specialty; a veal chop filled with Fontina.
Capriolo alla Valdostana is a hearty venison stew made with wine, vegetables and grappa.
Teteun - is a type of salume, made by soaking cow's udders in brine and herbs. Generally served with gremolata but to fully bring out its aromas, it can be presented with fig jam, raspberries and pears or raisins in syrup.
Apples are an important crop here in Valle D’Aosta, each October, the Valle d’Aosta celebrates its fresh produce with an Apple Festival. Food Festivals of Italy: Apples make regular appearances in the desserts such as
Mele al Forno (Baked Apples), pears, and wild berries also find their way into jams and desserts.
Chestnuts are high quality and make some seasonal desserts that are good for those who cannot tolerate gluten. Honey from the Valle di Cogne is some of the best in Italy.
Crema cotta (cooked cream) is one of the region's traditional desserts,more commonly known now as
Panna cotta , is a custard, scented with lemon or vanilla or sometimes chocolate, the origins of crema cotta are claimed by both Valle D’Aosta and Piemonte.
Piemonte is home to a number of small artisan candy makers, including Leone of Torino, Laboratorio Artiginale del Giandujotto of Torino, and Davide Barbero of Asti.
Puddings, cookies, and cakes also play a larger role in Piemontese cuisine, than the rest of Italy.
Krumiri are a mildly sweet kind of cookie, invented here in 1878 by the confectioner Domenico Rossi. They are shaped like slightly bent, rough-surfaced cylinder. Excellent served with
Zabaione , a light custard flavored with Marsala.
Liguria Mountains and Sea
Liguria is a narrow region, forming a crescent of rocky cliffs on the Tyrrhenian Sea, running from the French Cote d'Azur on the west and Piedmont to the north to Tuscany in the south. This is where vacationers go to the Italian Riviera. The mountains shelter Liguria against the cold northern European winds, keeping the weather mild for most of the year. Genoa is the most notable city of Liguria and one of the best-known Italian sauces, basil pesto , hails from Liguria. It is the pureed combination of pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, fresh basil and freshly grated the use of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, imported from Parma. Genoa was one of the most powerful maritime republics in the Mediterranean from the 12th to the 14th century so foods from across Asia came through Genoa and played a role in the menu. One of the world’s most important explorers came from Genoa, none other than Christopher Columbus started his life as a Genoese.
The protected climate here gives Liguria palm trees, citrus fruits and olives that share the growing space with northern species like wheat, garbanzos and chestnuts. Perhaps it is the warm climate but Ligurian cuisine resembles Southern Italian food more than that of the French or their other Northern Italy neighbors. Garlic, tomatoes and olive oil instead of butter are all hallmarks of Ligurian food. Pasta, vegetable and fish dishes are always seasoned with a few drops of this fruity, fragrant oil, while butter and cream usually only appear in desserts.
Perhaps the ultimate example of Genoese cuisine would be the cappon magro or fast day capon. This references the capon, enjoyed by the well off but as it is a fast day dish (meatless Fridays etc) it is made with fish. Six or seven types of fish and vegetables are cooked separately and then built up into a pyramid of layers on a base of hardtack crackers, topped with lobster and lobster coral and served with a sauce based on olive oil and anchovies. Elaborately decorated this is a traditional dish for Christmas Eve.
Antipasti here is very unlike the antipasti of the rest of Italy where you might receive a plate with some salume and sundried tomatoes. In Liguria you are likely to be served as a series of unusual small dishes such as Bianchetti which is freshly hatched whitebait fish, or soppressa di polipo which is a kind of sausage made ofpressed octopus.
Unlike most of Northern Italy, Liguria is composed of miles of coastline so seafood is a vital part of the diet and commerce here. The ancient world believed seafood had aphrodisiac qualities because Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love was born of sea foam. (Aphrodite = aphrodisiac). Fish like anchovy, the diminutive white bait, white bream, octopus, sea bass, prawns and many others, are common fare. Seafood is most often cooked simply with oil, parsley, garlic, pepper and white wine That delicious Italian American dish Cioppino started out in Liguria as Ciuppin (That’s right, Cioppino is not an authentic Italian dish) . Ciuppinis just a fish or seafood zuppa (soup) served with crusty bread. Carpaccio di Pesce is the Ligurian answer to Sushi; paper thin slices of the freshest fish possible served with a drizzle of olive oil and cracked black pepper servd as antipasto. Still the mainstay of Liguria's seafood is the anchovy, eaten fresh, fried or stuffed or canned.
There are hundreds of types of bread made in Italy, Ligurians have their libretti (booklets). They're called "libretti" because they slightly resemble an open book. The shell of a libretto is wafer thin and crispy with a light fluffy body. An.other local bread is the Ciappi, a flat bread similar to piadina , but crusty because of the addition of olive oil. is known for its focaccia, with innumerable toppings and recipes . Pissallandrea , a local focaccia topped with sautéed onions, Taggiasche olives and anchovies. Sardenaira , another focaccia is made with tomatoes, basil, marjoram and thyme, garlic and onions, and the machetto, a paste made with salted sardines and olive oil. The town of Recco claims to be the origin of the unique Focaccia al Formaggio .
Mandilli de Saea is a local pasta and the name means silk hanky because it is so thin you can almost see through it. Pasta in Liguria is usually ribbon shaped and made with egg but it is not as vital as in Southern Italy, also served are gnocchi, potatoes, rice and beans. There is a wide variety of ravioli here, notable are pansotti , large ravioli filled with vegetables and herbs, delicious with walnut sauce. Torta pasqualina (pasqualina cake) is a cake but not a dessert because it is made with eighteen layers of pasta spread with oil and stuffed with ricotta cheese, the season's vegetables and whole eggs.
Liguria is rocky mountainsides and coastlines, so this is not a place for grazing farm animals; it is however, a good place for foraging wild vegetables so this is another place for porcini and truffles. Purple asparagus are a local favorite and greens are served often. Meats are similar to the rest of Northern Italy, beef dominates but with lamb, Rabbit, and Veal found in popular meat dishes including Tomaxelle (veal roulades filled with meat, egg and herbs), Coniglio in Umbido (Rabbit stew). Tocco di Carne (touch of meat), a simple meat sauce complemented by bone marrow or veal fat is the Genoese answer to Bolognese sauce Cured meats from Liguria include Salame di Sant'Olcese , a salami made of Pork and beef flavored with black pepper and garlic and Testa in Cassetta a delicately flavored, fatty Pork head cheese.
Except for Christmas panettone the area does not boast many famous desserts but here you will find Pandolce Genovese , a sweet bread made with candied fruit, raisins and nuts, and sweet pizzas made with walnuts, chestnuts and candied fruit.
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