After a pasta, panettone and polenta fuelled tour of northern Italy, you’ll realise it’s not so much Lombardy as NOM-bardy. Here are 9 local specialities not to be missed if you’re planning to fly to Bergamo to explore the Lombardy region.
Whether simply flavoured with salt and butter, spiked with anchovies or lightly fried and served á la triangular-shaped chips, you can expect to find Polenta as a lunch and dinnertime staple in Lombardy. Originally considered peasant food, this hearty side-dish has been popular in northern Italy for as long as anyone can remember.
Where to try: Il Circolino restaurant, Bergamo. Located in a former prison (which incidentally was also a church complete with spectacular ceiling frescoes) and soon-to-be-opened roof terrace, Il Circolino offers a truly unique dining experience. P.S. The restaurant operates an admirable give-back policy, training and employing disadvantaged locals as chefs and serving staff.
A red wine that’s both sparkling and served chilled? Meet Lambrusco Frizzante, Mantua’s cheeky little upstart. Lambrusco Frizzante complements just about any traditional Lombardy dish, from sweet pumpkin tortelli to creamy mushroom risotto.
Where to try: Osteria delle Erbe, Mantua. Set right in the centre of Mantua’s Piazza delle Erbe, Osteria delle Erbe exudes cosy charm– think white linen table cloths, exposed brickwork and a soundtrack of mellow jazz music. In the summer, a table on the terrace with a carafe of Lambrusco Frizzante is living, breathing proof of ‘la dolce vita’.
Most definitely an acquired taste – mostarda is a candied fruit and mustard flavoured preserve. Often paired with cheese and charcuterie, its fiery kick is a rude awakening for taste-buds. All over Lombardy you’ll spot the colourful jars of preserved fruits in delicatessens and pasticceria. In restaurants, it’s dished out at starter and main courses as a condiment similar to chutney.
Where to try: Hosteria 700, Cremona. From the outside, this city centre gem may appear unassuming, but venture inside and you’ll discover a labyrinth of elegant rooms featuring beautiful ceiling frescoes, chandeliers and antique timber furniture.
Nothing says Christmas in Italy quite like Panettone. Traditionally served as a breakfast dish, the dome-shaped sponge cake is studded with juicy raisins, sultanas and lemon and orange rind. Panettone originated in Milan and has been considered a Lombardy speciality since the 19th century when it featured in Giovanni Felice Luraschi’s 1853 cookbook, Nuovo cuoco milanese economico. The first mentions of Panettone are much earlier however and can be traced back to 15th century manuscripts.
Where to try: Pasticceria Cova. This pasticceria in Milan freshly bakes a selection of sweet Panettoni since 1817 and it was Giuseppe Verdi’s favourite pasticceria. If you’re visiting Lombardy in the winter, pull up a chair in the café section and enjoy a generous wedge of oven fresh Panettone.
Torrone is a type of traditional Italian nougat which comes from Cremona in Lombardy. Typically made from honey, almonds, pistachio and/or hazelnuts, take your pick from a selection of textures, from morbido (soft and chewy) to duro (brittle) and various fruit and chocolate flavours. Torrone is said to have been first produced in Cremona in 1441 to celebrate the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti and Francesco Sforza. The Visconti chefs modelled the sweet into the shape of the city’s distinctive tower, the Torione, which is where Torrone derives its name.
Where to try: For more Torrone than you can shake a nougat stick at, head to Cremona’s Festa del Torrone. An open air celebration of the sugary treat takes place annually in late November on Cremona’s Piazza del Comune.
Deliciously sweet and savoury all at once, pumpkin tortelli have been a popular dish in Lombardy since Renaissance times, when the first pumpkins arrived from Central America. Order this dish and you can generally expect a plate of four or five square ravioli-style parcels stuffed with pumpkin and flavoured with sage and butter. Pure comfort food.
Where to try: Osteria dell’ Oca, Mantua. This restaurant is the epitome of a traditional Italian Osteria, offering a tasty regional menu and warm, old-fashioned ambience
Lombardy is not only famous for its lakes but also for its mountains so it’s no surprise that nourishing, carb-a-licious dishes such as pizzoccheri are loved by locals. Pizzoccheri is a dark, flat ribbon pasta, made with 80% buckwheat and 20% wheat flour cooked with cabbage, cubed potatoes and - wait for it, pieces of Valtellina Casera cheese as well as grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Post-lunch snooze optional.
Where to try: Restaurant San Pietro, Teglio. Located at the foot of mount Combolo and surrounded by parks and lakes, is the perfect spot to indulge after a ramble around Sondrio.
Appearances can be deceptive. Brutti ma buoni – which translates as ugly but good – are chewy and crunchy biscuits made of meringue and hazelnuts. Although you’ll find these in bakeries throughout Italy, Brutti ma Buoni are a typical speciality of Varese, and a favourite amongst locals. As Italians say, “uno tira l’altro” – one leads to another, so if you have the chance to stop in Varese, the Brutti ma Buoni are a must-eat!
Where to try: Pasticceria Zanoni, Gavirate (Varese). The sweet treats made by pasticceria Zanoni are famous all around the world. Enjoy a truly unique taste-experience while admiring the Lago Maggiore surrounded by chestnut trees, botanical gardens and stunning villas.
Casoncelli, also known as casonsèi is one of those typical dishes that will make your lunch memorable. The origin of this recipe comes from the old name ‘casonsei’ , referring to a very little Italian calzone shape that you will find it in almost every restaurant. Casoncelli are two sheets of pasta pressed together at the edges and were originally stuffed using leftover pork and beef. Through time other ingredients have been added and you can now enjoy Casoncelli filled with a mixture of bread crumbs, egg, parmesan, ground beef, salami or sausage.
Where to try: Restaurant La Tana, Bergamo. Great Italian atmosphere and gorgeous food. The restaurant is worth a visit for its outdoor tables and the pleasant view overlooking the city wall.