First-time travelers to Italy may be surprised on finding such a diversity of regional food. Unlike your typical Italian restaurant in the States, Italian food has much more variety than spaghetti and meatballs or Eggplant Parmesan. Even though you can find Italian specialties like pizza and tortellini all over Italy, it is well worth sampling the local dishes for a bit of authenticity. When eating foods grown or raised in the surrounding countryside and complemented with the local wine, both your Traveling and eating experiences are taken to a whole new level. The pride that Italians have in their locally grown produce, regional specialties and exceptional wine is something you cannot find in a supermarket.
Italian Regional Specialties: The North
Northern Italian cuisine is characterized by less use of olive oil, pasta and tomato sauce and more use of butter (or lard ), rice, corn (for polenta) and chesses for cream sauces. Of course there are exceptions to these rules such as the olive oils of the Liguria and the Lakes regions. Pasta in the north is by no means non-existent, but it does have to share time with delicious risotto and polenta. Northern Italian main courses often reflect the people's pride in their unspoiled countryside and are likely to include some sort of game or wild fowl such as rabbit, quail or grouse. Seafood and shellfish are very popular on the coasts and rivers and streams provide carp and trout. Of course the overall rule being if it grows well in the area, it will usually be on the plate.
Val d'Aosta: The region produces Fontina cheese and is used in local specialties like Costoletta alla Valdostana - a veal chop covered in Fontina. Capriolo alla Valdostana is a hearty venison stew made with wine, vegetables and grappa. The rocky crags of the Alps help make Aostan wines unique and the region is home to the DOC recognized Reds Donnas, Chambave Rosso and Nus Rosso. Whites include the simply named and crisp Bianco and the Blanc de Morgex with its hints of alpine meadows. Val d'Aosta is also home to the dessert wine Nus-Malvoisie Fletri as well as locally made Grappa.
Piedmont- Piemonte - A popular dish is fonduta, a melted cheese dip of milk, eggs and white truffles (tartufi bianchi). Fine cheeses include Robiola, Caprini and Tumin electric, a white mountain cheese soaked in red peppers. Cardi alla Bagna Cauda is a dish of locally grown chard served with hot sauce, anchovies, garlic and white truffles. Other regional dishes include local game such as rabbit and boiled meat dishes like Vitello Tonnato (veal tongue) and ox tail. Grissino are thin and crispy breadsticks that have become popular throughout the country. Piedmonte is also the home to two wild fungi that are prized the world over: Porcini mushrooms and white truffles. Piemonte produces the Asti white wines that include Moscato and sparkling Asti Spumante. The region is also home to full-bodied reds that include Barbera, Barolo and Barberesco.
Lombardy -This region is known for its rice dishes including Minestrone alla Milanese, made with vegetables, rice and bacon. Risotto alla Milanese is a creamy dish of braised short-grain rice blended with meat stock, saffron and cheese. Other favorites include ravioli with a pumpkin filling from Montova, small quails with polenta from Bergamo. Osso bucco is a traditional main course of a knuckle of veal with the marrowbone intact and braised with rosemary and sage. The excellent cheeses of the region include the rich blue Gorgonzola, Grana Padana (a rival of Parmigiano-Reggiano), the alpine Bitto creamy Crescenza and gluttonous Mascarpone. Lombardy wines hail from the Valtellina area, known for its well-aged reds that include Valtellina Superiore, LombardyÃ¢â‚¬Ëœs best. Franciacorta is the home to sparkling white wines in the tradition of the Champagnes of France, but with the character of Italy.
Veneto - As in the Po River Plain, cooking in the Veneto incorporates polenta and rice in their dishes along with wild fowl, mushrooms, or seafood. Traditional courses include Risi e Bisi (rice and peas), and Fegato alla Veneziana (calf's liver fried with onions). Seafood ranging from prawns, shrimp and clams to fresh fish and eels play an important part of the local diet and are proudly displayed in the markets and restaurants. Wild game such as rabbit, duck, pigeon and guinea fowl are also favorites, found in the protected marshes of the Lagoon. Radicchio di Treviso is a bitter red chicory served as a salad but more often grilled and served with salt and olive oil. Asparagi di Bassano are white asparagus that are boiled and served with vinaigrette or eggs. Asiago is the best and most popular cheese that comes from the Veneto. Pandoro, a star-shaped cake delicately flavored with orange-flower is a specialty of Verona. The region is known for some of Italy's best known reds such as Valpolicella and Bardolino. The whites include Soave, Gambellara, Bianco di Custoza and Vigne Alte. See also a series of recipes and more descriptions at Venetian style Food
Trentino-Alto Adige - This region shares culinary traditions from both the Italian and German sides of the border. Canederli is made with bread and flour and served in a broth is just one of several types of gnocchi (dumplings) popular in Trentino-Alto Adige. Polenta is very popular around Trentino along with wild fowl, river trout and Germanic sauerkraut. Speck is a salumi style cured meat that is similar to bacon and has become available throughout Italy. The most popular cheeses include the fresh Tosela, Spressa delle Giudicarie (DOP) and Puzzone di Moena. Red wines include the full-bodied Marzemino and the fruity Teroldego White wines excel in this pre-alpine climate and include Nosiola, Pino Blanc, Chardonnay the Spumante Talento Trento and the traditional sweet dessert wine Vin Santo.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia - The region is known for its vast cornfields, which feed the areas demand for polenta. Prosciutto di San Daniele is a sweet cured ham that is hung to absorb the fresh mountain air. Montasio is a aged hard cheese that is sold at different levels of maturity. The cuisine of the Venezia Giulia portion, especially around Trieste reflects German/Slavic traditions . Iota is a soup made of beans, potatoes and white cabbage. Porcina is a mix of boiled pork with sauerkraut, mustard and horseradish. Slavic goulash and dumplings are also local favorites. The coastal areas love their seafood including cuttlefish (sepia), mixed fried fish and Boreto Graesano, a fish and white polenta soup. Regional desserts have a Germanic touch such as apple strudel, Cuguluf (a ring cake) and Gubana (made from dried fruit and raisins). Friuli wines are well known, with Ramandolo protected by a DOCG designation. Other reds include Refosco dal Peduncolo and Schiopettino. Friuli is best known for its whites with the very popular Tocai, Malvasia Istriana, and Ribolla gialla. Vitoska is a white wine served as an aperitivo and Picolit is a white dessert wine.
Liguria -The most famous of all culinary masterpieces from Liguria is its basil Pesto sauce, served with either Trofie (favored in Cinque Terre) or Trenette (favored in Genoa) pasta. The olive oil of the region is an exception to most of Northern Italian cooking and plays an everyday role along the rocky coast. Seafood plays a large role in the local diet with fresh caught anchovies being a favorite as well as Swordfish, Tuna, Sardines and Sea Bass. Zuppa di Datteri is a shellfish soup made in the port of La Spezia. Popular meat dishes including Tomaxelle (Veal rolls) and Coniglio in Umbido (Rabbit stew). Ligurian desserts include Pandolce Genovese, a sweet bread made with candied fruit, raisins and nuts, and sweet pizzas made with walnuts, chestnuts and candied fruit. Red wines include Rossese di Dolceacqua, Ormeasco, and the dessert wine Sciacchetra Rosso. The white wines of Liguria are ideal for seafood and include Cinque Terre, Sciacchetra and Colline di Levanto. Sprits range from Grappa to the citrus based Limoncello Ligure to walnut-infused Nocino.
By Justin Demetri & Paolo Nascimbeni