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Northern Italian Cuisine

Updated on August 2, 2017
Robie Benve profile image

Born and raised in Italy, Robie loves good, healthy food (even better if it's easy to cook). She cooks every day for her family and friends.

Regions of Italy, Northern Italy in blue.
Regions of Italy, Northern Italy in blue. | Source

How History Affected Northern Italian Food

Italian cuisine if internationally known for a few dishes most of all, like pasta, lasagna, meatballs and of course pizza. Italian culinary reality however, is as multi-faceted and varied as the local territory and its history.

Due to geographical characteristics – mountains, island, planes, etc. – and a history of many foreign occupations, the Italian territory is divided into areas of different dialects, different traditions, and different foods.

Modern communications and transports have connected even the most remote areas, but there are still some local foods that can be found only in specific regions of Italy.

Northern Italy Flourished After WWII

Northern Italy is known to be the most industrial and commercial parts of the country, but its roots are from a rural background.

The two World Wars have left Italy starving and depleted, but with the willpower of the population and the economic expansion of the 50s and 60s, the lifestyle has become more refined and demanding.

Even after the economic boom, the food has retained the original simple ingredients and the capacity to use poor ingredients to make tasty and nutritious dishes.

In northern Italy rice and polenta have always been the staples, while rich pastures meant an abundance of meat and dairy products, with an incredible array of local salami, ham, pasta, cheese, and wine. The dense woodlands are home to porcini and prized truffles, and the coastlines, rivers and lakes offer the freshest seafood.

The simplest polenta is made with cornmeal, water and salt, and it's eaten by northern Italians instead of bread to accompany many meals, especially juicy ones.

Many ingredients can be added to polenta to make it tastier and richer, like cheese, mushrooms, sausage, etc.

Cuisine of the Different Regions in North of Italy

Let's look into each region of northern Italy and its typical foods.

The regions are: Lombardy, Piedmont, Liguria, Valle D'Aosta, Trentino Alto Adige, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Veneto, and Emilia Romagna.

Provolone Cheese

Three Italian Provolone cheese, from Pavia (Lombardy) and Parmigiano cheese on straw.
Three Italian Provolone cheese, from Pavia (Lombardy) and Parmigiano cheese on straw. | Source

Food of Lombardy (Lombardia)

Lombardy is a vast region, formed by areas with different characteristics, so from the gastronomical point of view it’s probably the most heterogeneous region. The common players of all Lombard cuisine are: fresh-water fish, milk, cheeses, butter, beef and pork meat, rice, and corn.

Lombardy’s cuisine has lots of stews, broths, stuffed pasta, sausages, tripe, and hot sauces to accompany polenta and rice.

The typical rice dish of Lombardia is the risotto alla Milanese, cooked with onion, bone marrow, meat broth, and saffron.

Polenta has a main role in each course of a meal, from appetizers to dessert, and its varieties are infinite, starting from the kind of flower used to how it’s prepared, and what other ingredients there are in it.

Bagna Cauda

Bagna càuda dip with stick salad (Piedmont).
Bagna càuda dip with stick salad (Piedmont). | Source

Food of Piedmont (Piemonte)

Piedmont’s cuisine is one of the most refined of Italy. With strong roots in the rural culture, with the use of simple every-day ingredients, but at the same time it has a strong influence from the more sophisticated French cuisine.

In Piedmont’s kitchens there is a big use of butter, lard, raw vegetables, great variety of cheeses, the precious truffle, and garlic. Another typical ingredient is rice, cultivated in a vast area of Piedmont, near Vercelli.

The dish symbol of Piedmont is the bagna càuda, which means hot dip. The dish is usually shared with friends, dunking raw or cooked veggies in the warm sauce, accompanying each mouthful with country bread.

The city of Albs is the most famous center for white truffles, subterranean fungi with a characteristic odor. They are considered a culinary delicacy, and are always served raw, shaved directly onto the food.


Focaccia Genovese con Pesto (Liguria)
Focaccia Genovese con Pesto (Liguria) | Source

Food of Liguria

Liguria is a strip of land between the Alps and the Sea, and the region fully expresses this duality in its cooking. The foundations of Liguria’s cuisine are seafood and herbs.

Seemingly poor, because made with simple a common ingredients, Liguria’s cuisine has developed with many influences from foreign cultures, due to the active commercial role the city of Genova, the region capital, had in the past.
The use of cod, for example, is very similar to how it’s prepared in Portugal and South France.

The most famous item on the menu is the Pesto Genovese, the green basil sauce that is so good on pasta, but also great in soups, fish, panini, and more.

Quiches, or torte salate, usually made with vegetables, are also very important in the local gastronomy, as is the focaccia, a typical dish of Liguria, now imitated everywhere.


Tortelli with pumpkin stuffing, seasoned with Butter and sage. Tortelli di Zucca con Burro e Salvia.
Tortelli with pumpkin stuffing, seasoned with Butter and sage. Tortelli di Zucca con Burro e Salvia. | Source

Food of Valle D’Aosta

The region of Valle D’Aosta is located in the North-West border of Italy, right on the Alps. The mountainous territory has kept this area quite isolated from influences of external cultures, and in the typical cuisine of this region one of the main characteristics is the absence of one of Italy’s most famous food: pasta, due to absence of grains.

Also rare in the cuisine of this region is olive oil, common is the use of butter, lard and other fats of animal or vegetal origin.

The local products are dairy products and meats, especially from pigs and cows.

Some products of Valle D’Aosta have become very famous and presents in many tables, in Italy and abroad, like the Fontina cheese, the principal ingredient for the Fonduta.


View of City Of Meran in Alto Adige, Italy
View of City Of Meran in Alto Adige, Italy | Source

Food of Trentino Alto Adige

Due to the high mountains and deep valleys that characterize Trentino Alto Adige, its territory is quite isolated from outside influence, thus the local culture has developed quite independently from the rest of Italy. Actually, the cuisine in the northern part of this region, called Alto Adige, has strong influences from the bordering country of Austria.

In Trentino Alto Adige, pasta and rice are usually served as side dishes, and not as main courses. Canederli, are preferred as main course. Soups are made with barley, sauerkraut, or meat.

Canederli are dumplings made with dried bread, milk, flour, and eggs to which are added speck, liver, vegetables, or herbs.
Dishes like this fully reflect the culture of the local farms, where the inhabitants are used to producing everything they need to lead an independent existence.

You can also taste goulash made with game, chamois Tyrolese style, venison with blueberry sauce, and other quite unique recipes.

As in all North of Italy, polenta plays a leading role, and it’s always a rather special polenta with addition of potatoes, cheese, bacon, sausage, or sautéed onions.


Canederli, Dumplings from Trentino - Alto Adige
Canederli, Dumplings from Trentino - Alto Adige | Source

Food of Friuli Venezia Giulia

Friuli Venezia Giulia, located on the North-East border of Italy, adopted culinary traditions from the bordering countries and from the Mediterranean cultures, with which maritime commercial business flourished in the past.

This region’s cuisine has the duality of using simple ingredients and transforming them with delicious culinary surprises, like interesting combinations of sweet and savory.

A generous portion of polenta can be always found ready to accompany almost anything, from salami, to mountain cheese, from small birds to pork.

Polenta pasticciata is made with lamb, sausage, boiled ham, chicken, and fresh tomatoes.

Friuli Venezia Giulia faces the Adriatic Sea, and fish-lovers will find succulent seafood dishes. A good menu is sure to include the classical brodetto, a fish soup that is usually accompanied by toasted slices of polenta or bread.

Rich pastries filled with walnuts, almond, pine nuts, raisins, and candied fruits reign in the realm of sweets.

In Friuli is produced one of the best known and loved pork products, the Prosciutto di San Daniele. The prosciutto is made from pigs that ate a special diet, reaching a weight of at least 350 pounds, and undergo strict inspections. The most important stages of the ham curing process are salting, pressing, and aging.

Rabbit and Polenta, typical dish of northern Italy, origins from the rural background: people used to eat what they grew themselves.
Rabbit and Polenta, typical dish of northern Italy, origins from the rural background: people used to eat what they grew themselves. | Source

Risi e Bisi

Risi e Bisi (Veneto), risotto with fresh peas.
Risi e Bisi (Veneto), risotto with fresh peas. | Source

Food of Veneto

In Veneto the cuisine is full of brilliant colors and a variety of interpretations for each dish.

Every town has its own way of cooking baccalà or salted cod: alla vicentina in Vicenza, alla trevigiana in Treviso and mantecato in Venice.

When it comes to meat, each locality has different main dishes. Geese, chickens, and capons in Padua; Polenta and small birds (osei) in Vicenza, horse meat in Verona, and in Venice a famous dish is fegato alla veneziana, with calf’s liver and onions.

Risotto is prepared with all kind of ingredients. In Veneto you can eat delicious risotto with fresh peas (risi e bisi), asparagus, chicken liver (fegadei), radicchio di Treviso, and more.

One of Italy’s traditional holiday specialty, Pandoro, originated in Verona. Pandoro is soft and fragrant, with a slight vanilla scent, and sweet to the taste. Like panettone, it is eaten as dessert during the Christmas holiday season.

Hand-made Cappelletti

Cappelletti (Emilia Romagna). Made by stuffing squares of egg pasta, folding them in a triangle, and then joining the two ends around a finger. They are cooked in chicken broth and eaten as soup.
Cappelletti (Emilia Romagna). Made by stuffing squares of egg pasta, folding them in a triangle, and then joining the two ends around a finger. They are cooked in chicken broth and eaten as soup. | Source

Food of Emilia Romagna

People in Emilia Romagna are known to be happy, pleasure-loving, and playful, and they have developed a cuisine that can turn a grumpy soul into a cheerful one.

Symbol of Emilian food is the homemade pasta, with which expert hands make all kinds of different formats of pasta, some of which with delicious stuffing: tortelli, tortelloni, tortellini, ravioli, cappelletti, gnocchi, tagliatelle, cannelloni, lasagne, etc.

Emilia Romagna is also the home of Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, those cheeses that Italians can’t live without.

The delicious Prosciutto di Parma is also on every table, as are other pork derivate such as: coppa, pancetta, culatello, mortadella, and salami.

Romagna is also famous for its piadina, a flat bread that is filled with cheese, salami, or prosciutto and eaten hot.


Piadina with Ham and Cheese.
Piadina with Ham and Cheese. | Source

How to Make Real Italian Pizza at Home (Pizza was invented in the South of Italy, but it's now very popular everywhere in Italy - and the World!)

© 2012 Robie Benve


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    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      4 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Peter Esak, polenta is one of the staples of the Northern Italian cuisine. :) Glad your grandma spoiled you with many delicious version of it.

    • profile image

      Peter Esak 

      4 years ago

      always loved family was from the part of Italy that meets Switzerland and France......grandma always had many different delicious concoctions. cacciatore anyone!

    • Mickji profile image


      5 years ago from between Italy and Switzerland, travelling around the world thanks to a little special object

      Nice article, but I will avoid the flowers piz

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      cassidydt, Risotto alla Milanese is delicious! Good luck with your own cook book, sounds like a great idea. :)

    • Cassidydt profile image

      Cassidy Dawson-Tobich 

      6 years ago

      Great Hub :) I have been living in Italy for just over 3 months now and lets say the food has been one of my top highlights. I live in Milan, and have had so many different food experiences to die for. Just the other day I learnt to cook risotto alla Milanese. Have now begun my very own Italian cook book :)

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      8 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Deborah, you are right, in Italian cuisine even a few miles can make a lot of difference on what dishes you find and even how the same dish is prepared. Thanks for reading and your comment. :)

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 

      8 years ago from Iowa

      What a well-written, interesting hub. It's amazing how much difference a few miles can make in terms of cuisine. I had no idea there were so many variations in northern Italian cooking.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      8 years ago from Ohio

      Hi kittijj, I'm glad you enjoyed reading about the different Italian cuisine. I appreciated you taking the time and leaving feedback. :)

    • kittyjj profile image

      Ann Leung 

      8 years ago from San Jose, California

      I really enjoyed reading this well written hub. The facts behind each cuisine made it fun to read. I love Italian food, especially the pastas and breads. Voted up and interesting!


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