In February, we ate and drank our way through Italy’s 4 North Western regions, today we will tempt our taste buds as we journey through the 4 regions in the North East, bordering Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. Starting in Trentino-Alto Adige, we will head south to Veneto, north east to Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and finally south west to Emilia Romagna, the gateway to Central Italy.
Two gastronomic traditions coexist in this mountainous region, in Trentino one with Venetian roots, while in Alto Adige, one entrenched in Austrian Tirolese roots. Trentino-Alto Adige is above all an area whose environmental and climatic offerings, result in a culinary tradition with a particular elegance, not to be found in any other region.
This is a region characterised by glaciers and ever-running streams, forests and meadows, but also influenced by a warmer Mediterranean climate. This region is home to ‘The Dolomites’, also called ‘Monti Pallidi’, which means ‘Pale Mountains’.
Local produce, such as wine, cheese, honey, fruit, and vegetables are world class. Should you be interested in the history of farming in Alto Adige, from the Middle Ages to the present day, you cannot afford not to visit the ‘Museo della Frutticultura Sudtirolese’ located in Lana in the province of Bolzano and remember, if you do not speak Italian, but can speak German, you will have no issue, as everyone is bilingual.
Just imagine walking into a mountain chalet, sitting down by an open fire, and enjoying a steaming plate of ‘Polenta’ with some melted ‘Casolét’ cheese from Val dl Sole spread on top, served with cep and chanterelle mushrooms and a nice glass of wine, that’s what the ‘Dolce Vita’ is all about.
If that is not to your taste, how about walking along the shores of one of the region’s many lakes, stopping in a trattoria or osteria to taste ‘Trout Caviar’ spread on lightly toasted and freshly made mountain bread such as ‘Pane de Fiè’ or ‘Schuttelbrot’ in German. Another mouth-watering delicacy is ‘Salmerino’ [a member of the salmon family], dusted with flour and fried in butter, or simply steamed and accompanied with boiled potatoes and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil from Lake Garda.
If you are lucky enough to see a bunch of flowers, on the threshold of a house in Alto Adige, remember that is how mountain people invite visitors to taste their ‘Vino Novello’; it is an old tradition called ‘Toerggelen’ and still practiced today from late September to early November. In addition to good wine, ‘Speck’, ‘Keschtn’ [roasted chestnuts], walnuts, barley soup, and ‘Strauben’ [typical South Tyrolean pancakes sprinkled with jam] are our backdrop.
Another specialty of this region are sausages, which have always been an important food resource in the colder months. In the Valsugana area, unique sausages, flavoured with wild herbs and spices are a must try for any visitor. Traditionally these sausages are cooked in tomato sauce, then served with Polenta and a glass of red wine.
You are also bound to come across ‘Moretti’, matured sausages seasoned with woodland aniseed, and the famous ‘Carne Salada’, slices of prime beef or horse thigh, cured in brine with bay leaves, black pepper, juniper berries, garlic and rosemary. Originally from the Alto Garda area, this cured meat has ancient origins and is still prepared in the traditional way. You can enjoy it accompanied by beans or broccoli from Torbole, sliced thin and eaten raw, or charcoal-grilled and served with a few drops of vinegar.
In this region, the list of dishes ranges from those with Austrian Tyrolese influence to excellent classic Italian cuisine. Needless to say, the choices are never ending, and there are surprises to be enjoyed in elegant restaurants as well as on long tables in an ‘Alpine baita’ [a mountain refuge], which in the warmer months normally become a basic agritourism lodge. If you find yourself in Obereggen in the province of Bolzano, we strongly recommend you spend one night at 'Rifugio Oberholtz' at the astonishing height of 2096 m. From these panoramic terraces, you can admire spectacular landscapes and breathtaking views over an expanse of alpine peaks, while tasting exquisite local dishes. Remember that this refuge is only open from November 30, till April 19.
Other delicacies not to be missed, include ‘Speck’ [smoked raw ham], mountain cheeses, homemade bread, ‘Weinsuppe’, a soup of meat broth with cream and Terlano or Termeno white wine, fresh radishes and crisp salad leaves. Dessert is ‘Strudel’, a traditional pastry filled with fruit, cinnamon and breadcrumbs, usually served hot.
Wines & Liqueurs
This alpine region, where wines have been grown since ancient times, is characterised by significant variations in temperature throughout the year, even between day and night, a phenomenon proven to be highly beneficial to viticulture. White wines include ‘Chardonnay', 'Pinot Bianco', 'Pinot Grigio', 'Gewürtztraminer', 'Müller-Thurgau’, and ‘Traminer’. The best-known reds include, ‘Teroldego Rotaliano DOC’, ‘Marzemino Trentino DOC’, ‘Val d’Adige DOC’, ‘Lagrein Dunkel’, and ‘Shiava’ or ‘Vernatsch’ [DOC means Denominazione di Origine Controllata]. Tired of tasting these amazing wines? If such a thing exists, don’t worry, the great spirits, such as ‘Grappa’, and sweet wines like ‘Moscato Giallo' [Goldenmuskateller] and 'Moscato Rosa' [Rosenmuskateller], are calling your name.
If you truly wish to immerse yourself in this region’s viticulture, you must travel along the famous ‘Alto-Adige Strada del Vino’ [Weinstrasse], running along the right bank of the Adige river for approximately 40Km, from Salorno to Bolzano and believe me when I say this: this is one trail which cannot be satisfactorily completed in one day; at least, not without the luxury of a non-drinking driver who also hates breathtaking scenery. For the more adventurous types, you can also cycle, or hike for the whole trail.
If you are a beer enthusiast, make sure you venture into the Val di Fiemme and Val di Non, where cultivation of hops after WW2 has created a microcosm of family owned breweries.
Every year, in May, Bolzano, the provincial capital of Alto-Adige, hosts the ‘Festa dello Speck’ [Smoked ham festival] right in the historical centre. Here, at every corner you will be able to enjoy folklore events, with groups of musicians and dancers wearing traditional costumes. But the real attraction, and what most come to enjoy is the speck market; here visitors can taste this traditional smoked ham, served with fresh bread, and baked the traditional way in a stone oven. During the second weekend of September, the town of Vipiteno, near Bolzano, hosts the ‘Sagra dei Canederli’, where the Canederli or ‘Knödel’, this region’s most traditional dish, is celebrated. Here, dumplings made out of bread, eggs, and speck served in a hot meat broth are eaten on a 300m long table in the middle of town, while sipping on a variety of traditional beer.
A vast region raising from Venetian lagoons and coastal areas, to the plains and soft rolling hills of the Prosecco region, right up to the high mountain peaks of the Dolomites. Veneto gastronomy is dominated by polenta, rice, beans, and salt cod, also known as ‘Baccalà’, all of which are imported. Ancient Venetian influence as a trading superpower, is reflected through the region’s use of various ingredients.
Venice is known in every corner of the world and everyone has heard of San Marco and the Grand Canal, but how many have seen the Venice of today’s Venetians? The little restaurants and café in the ‘Calli’ and ‘Campielli’, the local names for streets and squares?
Fish from the northern Adriatic Sea is of exceptional quality and used in a wide and often surprising variety of dishes. Spider Crab, cooked in boiling water and then served with olive oil, salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice, becomes your delicious antipasto. A dish which demonstrates an oriental influence is ‘Sarde in Carpione’ also known as ‘Sarde in Saor’, which consists of braised sardines marinated in a sauce of onions, sultanas, candied peel, pine nuts, and vinegar, in a characteristic sweet and sour combination. One of the best places to taste this dish is at 'Osteria Ae Botti' on the small island of Giudecca. Make sure you arrive on time because it is the main dish of the house and everyone orders it.
‘Frittura Veneziana’ [A mixed friend fish serve] is another internationally famous dish, as is ‘Baccalà Mantecato’, in which salt cod is made into a soft mousse with a surprising flavour. Perfect dish for an Aperitivo served on grilled polenta slices, resulting in a crunchy layer but soft on the inside.
Venetians do not only eat fish, other dishes include ‘Fegato alla Veneziana’, one of Venice best known specialties, which you can easily find in any Italian restaurant the world over. This dish consists of slices of calf’s liver cooked with oil, onions, butter, and parsley, and is something you cannot afford not to try. After all “When in Venice, be like a Venetian”. Another famous dish is ‘Risi e Bisi’ [rice and pea beans], this was the traditional first course during the festivities of St Mark’s Day on the table of the Doge of Venice.
Veneto cuisine is generally based on rice and polenta. Locals will tell you that in Veneto there are 40 different dishes based on rice, which are then personalised by combining with a variety of other ingredients such as meat and fish, but above all with vegetables such as courgettes, cabbage, asparagus, peas, and cauliflower resulting in hundreds if not thousands of variations. If you pass by Noventa di Piave in the province of Venice, make sure you stop at either 'Agriturismo Settecentoalberi' or 'Agriturismo Antiche Tradizioni'. Sabrina head chef of Settecentoalbery, in January, won the gold medal in the video category of the Vegetarian Challenge, while Paola chef at Antiche Tradizioni, was a finalist in the traditional category in the 2017 World Gourmet Society Challenge.
Polenta, and mostly the white and very fine variety, is used as a bread replacement. A must try is Vicenza’s ‘Polenta e Osei’, served with small gamebirds sautéed over a low heat, flavoured with fatty bacon, sage, and olive oil. Birds and above all poultry, are the basis of most meat dishes. Remember that in Veneto, as in all of Italy, there are many edible wild herbs from pour distant past, which can add delicious flavours to any dishes.
‘Gallina Padovana’ is a wide breasted breed of chicken which features in many regional dishes, such as ‘Paeta al Malgaragno’ popular in the Vicenza province; the chicken is covered with pork fat, cooked on the spit, and then covered with pomegranate juice.
Wines & Liqueurs
This is a land of ancient winemaking traditions, dating back to pre-roman times, and claims Italy’s largest production of DOC wines, and of wines in general, including whites, reds, and sparklings. In the Verona area, you will find wines such as ‘Valpolicella', 'Recioto', 'Bardolino', 'Amarone’ and ‘Soave’. Around Treviso, you will find world-famous ‘Prosecco’, with the best found around Conegliano and Valdobbiadene.
One of the locations where vines have been grown since ancient times is Colli Berici, which is south of Vicenza and this is where you will find one of the regions many wine trails, the ‘Colli Berici DOC Wine Trail’, which starts in Vicenza and heads south-east between splendid villas and wineries. To taste some of Veneto’s best reds, don’t miss the 'Strada del Vino Valpolicella' wine trail: crossing the Val d’Adige all the way towards Lake Garda, you will be able to taste the Recito and Amarone reds.
In addition to exclusive wines, and ‘Grappa’ the most famous from Bassano del Grappa [yes, Italians name towns after their liquor], there are a vast array of liqueurs flavoured with fragrant Alpine herbs.
In a region so enamoured with its fermented drinks, beer has always been a very important product, making Veneto one of Italy’s most vibrant beer cultures, with some breweries like ‘Via dei Birrai', 'Ofelia', 'Birrone', 'Mastino', and 'Crak’ becoming a national icon.
A fantastic event for wine lovers is ‘Vinitaly’, held every year in April in Verona; the event attracting over 4,000 exhibitors from all over the world.
One of the oldest gastronomic festivals in Veneto is the ‘Sagra del Sedano Bianco’ [White Celery Festival] and it takes place on September 8th in Rubio di Conco, a small town in the province of Vicenza. This festival celebrates traditional local dishes using locally grown white celery, a delicacy being celebrated since when the Roman Legions were in the area. If you are in Veneto in late February, make sure not to miss the ‘Carnevale di Venezia’, one of the world’s oldest and most famous carnivals. Don’t miss out on the famous Venetian carnival food, like the ‘Frittelle’, the ‘Galani’, and the ‘Castagnole’, all of which are fried sweets only prepared during that special occasion.
What is most fascinating about this region and its gastronomy, is that in little over an hour’s drive, it is possible to travel from the mountains of Carnia, through the green hills of Friuli, and find yourself off the shores of Trieste Bay. In this region, customs, culture, and gastronomy have for thousands of years, merged to bring to life a super range of delicacies.
Flavours, aromas, colours, and dishes from contrasting cultures and traditions enrich this region’s gastronomy. The region’s cuisine also expresses the simple, strong and at times rudimentary, but always pleasant character of its inhabitants.
Beans are one of the main gastronomic ingredients, and key to two of its typical dishes: ‘Jota’, a soup with beans and Sauerkraut, and ‘Zuppa di Fagioli’, a beans soup, in which the beans are cooked twice in water, with the addition of milk, pasta or rice, and then seasoned with butter. Tasting these hearty mountain soups in one of the many alpine farmhouses in the Carnia district, which are open in summer, is a unique way to experience the essence of Friuli. If you find yourself in Tolomezzo in the province of Udine stop at Fornas Farmhouse in the heart of Carnia, at 1,000 m above sea level and in lush forests and meadows, where you can taste various traditional dishes.
Most of the specialties served inland, have simple but strong flavours, such as ‘Goulash Friulano’, derived from Hungarian goulash. In Friuli, ravioli, a little pasta parcel, with a sweet and savoury flavour and based on a century old recipe, is called ‘Cialsons’ and is a true gastronomic specialty of Carnia.
A culinary adventure to Friuli-Venezia Giulia also presents you with an amazing opportunity to discover the famous ‘Prosciutto Crudo di San Daniele’, a mild raw ham with ancient roots and renowned around the globe, which since 1970 holds the denomination D.O.P [Denominazione di Origine Protetta]. The ham must be machine sliced and exceptionally thin, almost transparent, so it immediately melts in your mouth, releasing all its aroma in a flash. Antonia Klugmann, Friulian doc and Michelin starred chef with her restaurant 'L’Argine in Vencò' in the province of Gorizia, suggests pairing it with ‘Fior di latte’ [mozzarella] gelato flavoured with sage, rosemary, or basil. Otherwise as most Italians would do, with a nice slice of toasted bread and a glass of Sauvignon wine from Pitars.
As everywhere in northern Italy, polenta accompanies a whole range of dishes. Particularly appetising is ‘Polenta Pasticciata’, where the polenta is prepared with various meats, such as mutton, pigeon, or pork. When it comes to sweets, if you are lucky enough to find yourself in Cividale del Friuli, you cannot go past ‘Gubana’, a mille-feuille pastry with walnuts, liqueur, and spices. If you truly want to blend in with the locals and enjoy the Dolce Vita, ask for it to be soaked in grappa before it is served and enjoy a nice slice for Christmas, Easter, weddings, or at any festivals.
While inland areas culinary tradition has much in common with other Italian mountain regions, the cuisine of the upper Adriatic Sea coast is characterised by a tendency to fuse Venetian, Austrian, Slav, Jewish, and Greek recipes. It is not unusual in Trieste to find dishes such as ‘Riso alla Greca’ [Greek rice], ‘Sanguinaccio alla Boema’ [Bohemian blood sausage], or ‘Cotoletta alla Viennese’ [Wiener Schnitzel].
‘Gnocchi di pane al prosciutto’, which is a huge dumpling of dried bread, fried in a mixture, including ham, and ‘Gnocchetti di fegato’, liver gnocchi of Austrian origin are very popular as a first course. Fish is also very popular and local specialties include ‘Brodetto’, a sauce based on vinegar, tomato, and wine, with the addition of mantis shrimps and crabs. The most traditional version of this dish is found in Grado and includes toasted garlic.
Sweets in Trieste are influenced by the Austro-German tradition. If you get a chance, try ‘Struccoli [strudel], ‘Chifeletti’ [Walnut cookies], and ‘Krapfen’ [donuts] with various fillings. But when it comes to sweets, the best is ‘Presnitz’, a puff pastry spiral, stuffed with dried fruit, nuts, and spices
Wines & Liqueurs
This region is considered ‘the land of great whites’, sometimes referred to as ‘superwhites’; here you can enjoy whites such as ‘Savignon’, ‘Riesling’, and ‘Tocai’; but also reds such as ‘Merlots’ and ‘Cabernets’ and all able to satisfy even the most demanding connoisseurs. DOC wines include: ‘DOC Grave’, ‘DOC di pianura Aquileia', 'Annia e Latisana’; ‘DOC Isonzo’, ‘Colli Orientali del Friuli e Collio’, and ‘DOC Carso’.
But let’s not forget the exceptionally smooth and aromatic ‘Grappa’ and here, alongside the traditional version, you can try some flavoured with fruit or herbs.
While in this region, try some of the wine trails, where you will experience all the complexity of this region locked between the sea and the Alps; one not to be missed is the ‘Collio Goriziano Wine Trail’, one of the itineraries of the ‘Strada del Vino del Friuli-Venezia Giulia’ which encompasses more than 1500 different wine producers. It is characterised by a series of slopes protected by the Prealps of Giulia and stretching down towards the Adriatic Sea. This trail starts in Gorizia, climbs up to San Floriano del Collio, and then descends towards Gradisca d’Isonzo to then travel through vineyards on the way to Cormons and Dolegna del Collio. On this trail, you can taste the complex ‘Collio Bianco’ white wine, which is made of different native grapes like the Friulano, Ribolla gialla, and Malvasia istriana.
In late August, in San Daniele del Friuli, the town’s famous raw ham is put on display during the ‘Aria di Festa’. This delicacy can be tasted in the piazzas, in the local ham producers’ shops and in the town’s restaurants, but book early, it does get busy. Various forms of entertainment can also be found spread all over town. In Sauris, near Udine, during the second week of August, you can taste cheesy delicacies at the ‘Festa dei Formaggi di Malga’, where different cheeses from various ‘Malga’ [mountain pastures] are made and served as they once were. Still with the taste of mountain herbs originating from the natural diet the cows are fed during summer months.
This region is a plethora of surprises ranging from products grown on its sweeping plains to those from the Adriatic Sea. Each city has its own robust and hearty specialties, all real treasures and many well known around the world, a real treat for any taste bud.
The outright winner is without a doubt the humble ‘Tortellino’. Bologna is its hometown and tasting tortellini in one of the traditional trattorias of the old town, somewhere between Piazza Maggiore and the ancient porticos, near the Asinelli and Garisenda towers, famous for leaning like the one in Pisa, is a luxury you should not overlook. ‘Tortellini alla Bolognese’ are served with meat ‘ragù’ [sauce] or in a rich chicken stock. According to tradition, the tortellino represents Venus belly button, but I must be honest “the jury is still out on that one”. If you can reserve your table several months in advance and have money to spare, you can taste the best Tortellini in Parmesan cream at the 'Osteria Francescana' in Modena, prepared from the Michelin starred chef Massimo Bottura. The restaurant ranked second in 2017 and first in 2018 in the ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ awards.
Variations on the theme of stuffed pasta, include: ‘Cappelletti’, where the filling is made of turkey and pumpkin, are found in Ferrara and the whole of Romagna, while in other parts of Romagna fresh ‘Raviggioli’ cheese is used. It is also worth noting that here, ravioli is called ‘Cappellacci’.
Tortellini of Piacenza are filled with ricotta cheese and greens, in Modena ravioli are filled with roast meat, while Parma is the home of ‘Anolini’, which are served in a ham sauce and covered with grated parmesan cheese.
The traditional cuisine of Emilia is a celebration of fresh egg pasta. In addition to tortellini, another is ‘Lasagne’ [pasta sheets with ragù and bechamel] and the various sizes of ‘Tagliatelle’, always served with rich meat sauces.
Pork specialties are one of the great gastronomic treasures of Emilia Romagna where pride of place, goes to ‘Prosciutto Crudo di Parma’ and simply the gift of the gods if accompanied by flakes of ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’. Did you know that this is the most copied cheese in the world?
Then there is ‘Culatello’, a raw ham made using pork loin, a specialty of Busseto and ‘Zampone’, which is cooked with braised lentils as a traditional New Year’s Eve dish. In Modena, where Zampone was invented, it is often served with mixed boiled meats, such as veal, beef, and turkey, accompanied by tasty herb sauces. Modena, is also the home of the world famous ‘Modena Balsamic Vinegar’, which is sometimes aged for 25+ years
‘Mortadella’ from Bologna, children’s favourite school recess snack, ‘Coppa’ and ‘Pancetta’ from Piacenza, ‘Salami’ from Felino and many other mouth-watering delicacies will tempt you to stay “just a few extra days”. The best way to enjoy the salami and hams of Emilia is by filling a ‘Piadina Romagnola’, a flat unleavened bread, or a ‘Tigella’, which is a specialty of the Apennines area. If you are in Bologna, we recommend you stop for lunch at the 'Osteria dal Nonno', where the Natali family has since 1901 followed the Bolognese culinary tradition.
In the Rimini Riviera, you will be able to experience the region’s seafood, ranging from the classic ‘Brodetto’, with squid, rascasse, and grey mullet, to ‘Pesce Fritto’ [fried fish], and ‘Pesce arrosto allo spiedo’ [Spit roasted fish], cooked over wood or vine charcoal. If you can, go for the vine charcoal, as it produces a distinctive aroma, second to none. Rimini specialties include ‘Seppie in umido con piselli’ [stewed cuttlefish with peas] and ‘Canocchie alla griglia’ [grilled Mantis shrimps]. In Comacchio, a coastal town, famous for its marshlands, ‘Anguille’ [eels] are a real delicacy and usually prepared on the spit.
Wines & Liqueurs
The region is culturally divided into two: Emilia on one side, home to the wine flying the regional flag, ‘Lambrusco’, a sparkling produced in both dry and sweet versions and there are 4 distinctly different varieties. There is also ‘Gutturnio’ and ‘Malvasia’, from the hills around Piacenza and Parma; and ‘Cabernet’ and ‘Pinot Bianco’, from the hills around Bologna. Romagna, on the other hand, also has real personalities such as the red ‘Sangiovese’ and the whites ‘Trebbiano’ and ‘Albana’, ideal with seafood.
Amongst the liqueurs are ‘Laurino’ and ‘Nocino’, respectively made with bay leaves and green walnuts.
Don’t miss out on the ‘Strade del Vino’ [Wine trails] this region offers, like the ‘Strada del Sangiovese e dei Sapori delle Colline di Faenza’, where you can taste wines like ‘Albana di Romagna DOCG’, ‘Sangiovese di Romagna DOC’, ‘Trebbiano di Romagna DOC’. Also, the ‘Strada del Prosciutto e dei Vini dei colli di Parma’, where you can taste the ‘Colli di Parma DOC’ wine, along with the ‘Parmigiano Reggiano DOP', 'Prosciutto di Parma DOP', 'Tartufo nero di Fragno', 'Salame di Felino’, all traditional products from this area.
In Emilia-Romagna, beer is the second favourite beverage after wine, so it isn’t surprising to find such a large number of award-winning local breweries, like ‘White Dog’, ‘Statalenove’, ‘Vecchia Orsa’, ‘BiRen’, ‘Toccalmatto’, ‘Dada’, ‘Buttiga’ and ‘Beltaine’.
For over 30 years in Borgotaro, a small town in the Valle del Taro, in the province of Parma, the ‘Sagra del Fungo Porcino’ [Cep Mushroom Festival] has celebrated this fragrant fruit of the earth. This is one of the must do stops on the ‘Emilia Food Trail’ specifically dedicated to the cep mushroom. This festival, which takes place in September, includes public tastings at pop-up stores in the streets, cultural events, and traditional entertainment. Every year since 1967, in the first weekend of August, in Veghereto, the ‘Sagra del Tortello’ is held; here you can try fried potato dumplings made in the traditional Romagna way.
Last month we visited the North West of Italy, today our culinary adventure took us to Italy’s North Eastern regions, next month we will travel south and explore Italy’s central regions.
I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Vegetarian Chef Paolo Baratella, and brothers Carlo & Camille Asmar, all members of Italian Dining Summit Florence chapter, for their editorial assistance in bringing this article to fruition.