The thing that is most interesting about the Northern Italian states is the fact that they border other countries which really effects their cuisine. Liguria rubs shoulders with Monaco, Switzerland and Austria neighbour much of the North and Venice is known as the gateway to the Orient.
This has all had a huge effect on the food and drink from these areas, as it has been greatly influenced by things which are not Italian at all, which, through time, have been adopted and appropriated into the Italian cuisine we know today.
This region has the capital of Bologna- and we do not have to be Italian speaking geniuses to work out what comes from there. The humble bolognese has been appropriated into the British culinary repertoire over the past fifty years or so- and was at one point in the 1970’s considered ‘ethnic’. It was the first thing I ever learnt how to cook and is always my go-to when I am in need of a little cheering up.
I was going to write an entire stand-alone piece on authentic Bolognese (or ragu) but my research just brought me onto the three same key points; it has to be slow cooked (up 4-6 hours); it has to be made with the finest ingredients including a decent wine; and it has to be served along lovingly handmade pasta. Every family in Emilia-Romagna will have a variation of a ragu and it is really comfort food at its best.
I like the Bolognese from Salvis– they make it with a hearty concoction of beef and pork mince with pancetta which really gives it a meaty sustenance. They use the finest tomatoes too which are shipped over directly from Italy and topped with freshly grated Parmesan. This dish is as about as genuine as you can get this side of the Amalfi coast. The Venison Ragu from Pasta Factory is also completely out if this world and if this was the last thing I ever ate I would die happy.
Veneto resides in the top right hand corner of Italy, on the upper thigh. It’s the region where Venice is- which is like nowhere else you have ever been in your life. This area historically was Europe’s gateway into the Middle East so the cuisine here has been traditionally dictated by those trade roots. Venetian food can be heavily aromatic with spices and ingredients from the orient such as raisins, pine nuts and mace. Be that as it may, the food of Veneto is still strictly Italian at heart and has a heavy focus on fish and seafood from the waters that all but surround it.
An ingredient which you will come across again and again in Veneto is squid ink. It is commonly stirred through risotto rice (which comes from the wetlands of this area) or made into pasta. Our brains tell us that if something is black we should not be eating it, but once you get over how alarming it looks it actually has a distinct briny taste which is delicious.
If you want a taste of this you can head to Vero Moderno for a plate of their Gnocchetti al Nero. Vero are well known for their modern approach to Italian cooking and this dish is no different. They take the squid ink and make it into gnocchi with fish of the day, prawns, baby squid and cherry tomatoes. Belissima!
Lombardy is right in the north and home to Milan and the food can be best described as rich AF. First off, it is completely landlocked, so you do not see a lot of fish on the menus here and instead see lots of meat like pork and veal.
Ossobucco (veal stew) is my favourite dish from this region, but I couldn’t find anywhere that served it- so if you are really desperate I guess you’ll have to come round to mine. Other than that, they are big into their Bresola in this region of Italy- which is an cured and air-dried beef with a deep purple complexion. It is at its best on its own on a antipasti board so you can head to Veeno and munch on some Bresola over a few glasses of wine, or have it on a pizza over at Cibo.
Italians from this region also have quite a sweet tooth and we can thank them for such delights such as Panatone (big Christmas vibes) and Tiramisu. Nothing is like the real thing, but they make it fresh every day in the window of Don Giovanni which mesmerises me on my way to work roughly three times a week.
Trentino is famous for its mountains, and where there are mountains there is a cuisine which is heavy on game, legumes and green vegetables- in Italy anyway. Because it is close to the Alps and the borders of Switzerland and Germany, there are often things on menus which might surprise you- like Sauerkraut, cheese, buckwheat and potatoes.
Polenta is pretty big in this region too- which is a store cupboard staple. It is made by grinding corn into flour, or meal and has a rich yellow, yolk-like colour, and has a slightly sweet flavour. It can be cooked into a creamy thick substance or left to set and sliced (and fried if you‘re feeling extra naughty.)
It isn’t something which crops up on a menu very often (excluding polenta chips, of course) but if you head to Rosso you can tuck into their Coglio– confit of rabbit with mustard cream and a griddled polenta cake with is crisp and cooked to perfection. This is not a restaurant I go to often, but this dish alone is a really good example of food from Trentino.
This is one of the larger Italian regions which resides in the North East of Italy. The flavours here are bold but used in simple dishes. There is a focus on meats, mushrooms and cheeses with Swiss influences – they even have their own version of fondue.
One of the most famous exports from Piedmont would be the elusive white truffle. The white truffle or trifola d’Alba Madonna are even more expensive than the black variety that are native to Tuscany and have a slightly more subtle taste. They are their best stirred into risotto or shaved on top of fresh pasta. You can buy it from the food counter at Harvey Nichols up on the second floor in both whole and in the form of white truffle oil- which is a decadent treat when drizzled on salads or in soup.
Italians from this region equally enjoy the strong flavour of porcini mushrooms which are often used in soups, stews and sauces. I think porchini mushrooms are paired the best with steak. Don’t believe me? Head to Al Bacio and tuck into their Filetto a Tartufo e Procini and come back to me with notes.