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Risotto alla milanese, this one decorated with red saffron threads, is one of the most colorful superstars of Northern Italian cuisine; image is "Italian saffron risotto" by kuvona.

Italian food really reflects the people. It reflects like a prism that fragments into regions. ~ Lidia Bastianich

If you’ve grown up believing fabulous plates of pasta, pizza, and bread were the greatest pleasures Italian cooking had to offer, hold on to your hats, dear foodie explorer, there’s MORE.

The foods of Naples and other cities in Southern Italy, from where the majority of Italian families in the U.S. hail, are just the tip of the iceberg.

Or, rather, the tip of the Italian boot.

Outline of Italy, including the Italian "boot," Sardinia, and Sicily, showing the location of the cities of Aosta (Valle d'Aosta), Otranto (Puglia) and Ragusa (Sicily).From the city of Aosta at the top of the Italian boot to Otranto in its heel tip is a distance of over 780 miles. From Otranto to Ragusa on the island of Sicily you’d have to drive another 450 miles.

As you can imagine, there is a world of difference in climate, landscape, and therefore, cuisine, as you travel from south to north. 

Just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on how a “typical” Italian meal is put together ~ with olive oil, pasta, and tangy but meatless marinara at the heart ~ you drive up the road a bit and it all changes.

It is WAY up that road, in the eight regions that comprise Northern Italy, that you’ll find a rich and diverse cuisine where ricepotatoes, and cream sauces play the starring roles. 

Northern Italian cuisine with its emphasis on local products including dairy, corn, rice ~ Italy is Europe’s largest rice producer ~ will surprise you.

So make it a point to sample some Northern Italian cooking at your next opportunity.

For now, whet your appetite with a look at the specialty dishes of each of Northern Italy’s eight regions (listed in clockwise order, starting with Valle d’Aosta in the far northwest): 

  1. Valle d’Aosta
    The richness of Northern Italian cuisine owes as much to Italy's proximity to the surrounding seas and nations as its history as a union of multiple city-states, each with its own unique ways with food.

    Eight of Italy’s 20 regions lay in the area known as “Northern Italy.” Northern Italy ranges from Valle d’Aosta, an alpine valley that borders France and Switzerland to the southernmost portion of Emilia-Romagna, a large region that nearly spans the width of the Italian peninsula, from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic.

  2. Piemonte 
  3. Lombardia
  4. Trentino-Alto Adige
  5. Friuli-Venezia Giulia
  6. Veneto
  7. Emilia-Romagna
  8. Liguria

I expect you’ll find a new favorite of your own among them because every single one of these regional specialties is de-licious. And, by the way, you won’t see a single plate of spaghetti among them.

 

Fonduta con Crostini

Fonduta con crostini is an example of Northern Italian cuisine from Aosta in Valle d'Aosta. It's a fondue made with Fontina, a regional cheese, and milk, butter, and egg yolks; perfect for dipping toasted bread.

From Aosta in Valle d’Aosta. Dip toasted bread into this fondue made with Fontina, a cheese exclusive to the region. The mild taste and fragrant aroma of Fontina cheese have been thrilling Italians and others who appreciate good eating for more than seven centuries.

 

Grissini

Grissini or Italian breadsticks are, perhaps, the most widely eaten creations of Northern Italian cuisine from Torino (Turin) in Piemonte.

From Torino (Turin) in Piemonte. The story of the long, thin breadsticks known as grissini goes like this: Back in the 17th century, the Duke of Savoy, had a tough time digesting regular bread. So a local baker created an especially thin and crunchy breadstick as a cure.

Apparently, those breadsticks did the trick since the duke lived long enough to become King of both Sicily and Sardinia. And within a century’s time, grissini had become popular enough throughout Western Europe for Napoleon Bonaparte to have become a big fan.

Today, you’ll find them around the globe, with a variety of coverings. These include caramelized onions, fresh herbs, and sesame seeds ~ like the grissini pictured here.

 

Risotto alla Milanese

From the stylish Northern Italian city of Milano in Lombardia (Lombardy) comes this risotto alla milanese seasoned with saffron; image is "Italian saffron risotto" by kuvona.

From Milano (Milan) in Lombardia. Rich and flavorful risottos are legend in Lombardy, which is arguably the leading rice-producing area in Europe. The most popular is this risotto alla milanese seasoned with saffron, the fragrant and fire-colored spice that Mediterranean cooks have prized since the time of ancient Romans. 

 

Knödel con lo Speck

Knödel con lo speck or dumplings with speck, a lightly-smoked ham. This superstar of Northern Italian cuisine hails from Trentino-Alto Adige. Image: Knodel con lo speck by comugnero silvana

From Trento in Trentino-Alto Adige. Look no further if you’ve been seeking a new dish that’s both filling and economical. Knödel con lo speck, also called canederli con lo speck is a dish of bread dumplings laced with bits of lightly-smoked ham called speck. This dish is a delicious way to stretch a dollar and put your stale bread to good use.

 

Frico

Frico is an example of Northern Italian cuisine from Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Here you see it done crispy (as cheese crisps) and soft (as a secondo piatto or second course dish, with potato.) Image: Frico by comugnero silvana.

From Trieste in Friuli-Venezia Giulia comes frico. You’ll find it in two versions, “crispy” and “soft,” and the key ingredient in both is well-aged Montasio cheese.

Imagine the crunchiest cheesy snack you could put in a bowl for watching your favorite TV show and you’ve got “crispy” frico. These are cheese crisps you can make by frying Montasio in hot oil. (That’s right. Hit the road, Cheese Doodles.)

No less delicious is “soft” frico. Slow-cook this pancake of cheese melded with potato, butter, and aromatic herbs for a feel-good food guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

 

Zalèti

A dish of zaleti with your morning hot beverage can be a delicately sweet introduction to Northern Italian cuisine.

From Venezia (Venice) in Veneto. These cornflour and raisin cookies get their name from their warm golden color: the word giallo is Italian for yellow and gialleti or “little yellow ones” when spoken in Venetian dialect sounds like zalèti. (The “z” is soft, like a hiss.)

Now then, as to how to enjoy these delicately sweet cookies at home, let me count the ways… for breakfast instead of muffins or toast, as a special treat with tea, or, if you like to dip, try dipping warm zalèti into your hot milk in the morning,  your hot tea at midday and, if you drink wine at the end of your evening meal, you can dip them it that, too. It’s all good.

 

Tagliatelle con Ragù Bolognese

Tagliatelle con Ragù Bolognese, Italy's national dish, originates in Emilia-Romagna. Image: Tagliatelle with ragù bolognese by uckyo.

From Bologna in Emilia-Romagna. Enjoy tagliatelle, an egg pasta typical of Northern Italy, covered with a slow-cooked meat sauce, or ragù. The traditional Bologna-style ragù includes ground beef, tomato purée, vegetables as well as white wine, whole milk and butter (or extra virgin olive oil.)

Ragù Bolognese, the essence of Northern Italian comfort food, is wonderful stuff. So much so that it reigns as the national dish of Italy. (And in a land that has gifted the world with ravioli, lasagna, and pizza, that’s saying something.)

 

Linguine al Pesto

From Genoa in Liguria ~ comes a country-style cuisine where herbs and vegetables are major, as in this dish of linguine with pesto, potatoes, and peas. The image, "Linguine with pesto, potatoes and peas," is by Shariel.

From Genova (Genoa) in Liguria. Maybe it’s no surprise that the Mediterranean port city of Genoa, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, is known for its freshest of fresh seafood. Wherever you go in the region is less than two hours away from the sea.

But did you know that aromatic herbs and country-style vegetables are major in Ligurian cuisine as well? Linguine tossed with potatoes, peas, and pesto ~ a basil sauce original to Liguria now savored throughout the world ~ is an excellent example of this flavorful fact.  

Now then, you have before you a world of choices that are beyond tasty.  Fresh seafood, rich risottos, satisfying desserts …! So here’s a question that may be hard for you to answer  (but there’s no way you can go wrong):

In which region would you begin your Northern Italian cuisine tour? Leave a comment below.

PHOTO CREDITS

Fonduta con crostini by alexandra; Grissini ai semi di sesamo by Alessio Orrù; Italian saffron risotto by kuvona;  Knodel con lo speck by comugnero silvana; Frico by comugnero silvana; Tagliatelle with ragù bolognese by uckyoLinguine with pesto potatoes and peas by Shariel.