An Overview of Northern Italian Cuisine, By Region

  • 01 of 09

    An Overview of Northern Italy

    The 8 Regions of Northern Italy
    The 8 Regions of Northern Italy. Danette St. Onge/Creative Commons

    Northern Italy, comprising eight regions: Liguria, Val D'Aosta, Piemonte, Lombardia, Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and Emilia-Romagna, differs from the rest of the Peninsula in a number of ways. Most traditional North Italian recipes call for unsalted butter rather than olive oil, and though there are many kinds of stuffed pasta, in most northern regions, with the exception of Emilia-Romagna and Liguria, the flat and extruded forms of pasta that are so important further south are less prevalent, taking a backseat to polenta and risotto, and, in the winter, to rich, hearty soups.

    The North, especially Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna, has excellent cattle breeds suited to meat and milk production, and also excellent hogs; as a consequence beef, veal, and pork are the meats of choice, with lamb and other animals playing a lesser role. Cooking ranges from boiling and frying through slow braising and stewing, and northern cooks use much less tomato, instead using wine or broth as the liquid and chopped herbs for flavor. The results can be extraordinarily elegant, and the same holds true for roasts, especially those that contain winter vegetable stuffings.

    There is also an extraordinary variety of seafood and fish; Comacchio, south of the Po Delta, is renowned for its eels, while the Veneto's coastal lowlands provide mussels and clams, and the inland lakes and waterways yield a tremendous variety of freshwater fish, in addition to ducks and other wild birds.

    [Edited by Danette St. Onge]

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  • 02 of 09

    The Cuisine of the Val D'Aosta

    Costolette, Valdostana-style breaded veal cutlets
    Costolette, Valdostana-style breaded veal cutlets. Brian Hagiwara/Getty Images

    Because of its location, the cooking of the Val D'Aosta is more closely related to French, German and Swiss than to peninsular Italian. The traditional pranzo valdostano lunch was a substantial one-course meal, followed by bread and cheese if cheese wasn't the primary ingredient of the main course. Dinner was lighter: a soup, followed by rye bread and cheese.

    If the main meal didn't involve cheese, it was meat-based, consisting either of sausages and cured meats (which are now antipasti), roasts, or boiled meats. On holidays, boiled and roasted meats were followed by soup. Family meals were simpler, with dishes made with lesser cuts of meat, for example, carbonnade, beef or pork diced and stewed in wine with onions and served with polenta.

    Traditional side dishes consist for the most part of salads made from wild greens collected in the fields, and dressed with walnut oil, as it's too cold for olives to grow in the Valley. Potatoes also figure prominently, and in the past often took the place of bread. Polenta is also important.

    And finally, there is cheese. Much of Val D'Aosta is either too steep or at too high of an altitude to make planting crops feasible. But those highlands have wonderful pastures; herders take their animals up into the mountains after the snows melt, and spend the summers making formaggio d'alpeggio, cheeses from alpine forage. True Fontina cheese is a treat you won't easily forget and is used in Valdostana-style fonduta (fondue), which is often topped with thin shavings of white truffle.


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  • 03 of 09

    The Cuisine of the Piedmont Region

    Panna cotta with berries and currants
    A classic Piemontese dessert, panna cotta. Getty Images

    .Of the various Italian regional cuisines, the Piemonte (Piedmont) region's is one of the most multifaceted. On the one hand, the region was ruled by the future Kings of Italy, who enjoyed extremely refined dishes at court. A meal at a good Piemontese restaurant today will begin with a long series of antipasti, which may include, among other things, chopped raw beef with shaved white truffles (in season), creamy cheese tarts, a vegetable flan, and a delicate salad. These may be followed by agnolotti, stuffed pasta seasoned with the drippings from a roast, or risotto (Aborio rice is Piemontese), or tajarin, egg noodles seasoned with meat sauce or butter and shaved truffles, followed in turn by a rich main course along the lines of brasato al Barolo, beef braised in Barolo wine. Desserts are equally elegant, for example, panna cotta or hazelnut cake, and to finish up, with your coffee you may have Gianduiotti, creamy candies made from a chocolate-hazelnut paste, a specialty of Torino's chocolatiers.

    At the other end of the spectrum, there is a rich peasant tradition with much earthier dishes, including the extraordinarily garlicky bagna cauda, ravioli in Barbera wine (in the province of Alessandria), and bollito misto, a selection of boiled meats and vegetables for which Piemonte's crown princes were known to sneak out of court.

    And to tie it all together, Piemonte boasts some of the world's finest wines, including Gavi, Dolcetto, Barbera, Barbaresco, and Barolo.

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  • 04 of 09

    The Cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna Region

    Bolognese tortellini in broth
    Bolognese tortellini in broth. Svario Photo/Getty

    If the Campania region is the source of many of the dishes we consider to be quintessentially Italian, pizza, for example, Emilia-Romagna is the source of many of the ingredients, including Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, prosciutto, bologna (known as mortadella in Italy), Lambrusco, balsamic vinegar, and even flat pasta. Indeed, though southerners are known for their dried pasta, Italians consider Emiliani to be the masters at making fresh pasta, the sheets of which they either cut into strips to make tagliatelle, leave whole to make lasagna (both seasoned with sugo alla bolognese in winter), or use to make some of the most classic stuffed pastas, including tortellini and cappelletti.

    Nor does the bounty stop here; in addition to prosciutto, the region's hogs provide the meat for a prized salami from the town of Felino, zampone and cotechino, winter sausages from Modena, and culatello, a rump muscle cured in the mists along the banks of the Po river. And the beef and veal are second to none.

    As you move east from Emilia into Romagna, the landscape flattens, and the wetlands increase; Ferrara is famed for fowl and freshwater fish, and rice dishes as well, while the towns along the Adriatic coast are known for both their seafood and their nightlife.

    Romagna is also home to piadine; flat peasant breads street vendors will fill with all sorts of savory combinations.

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  • 05 of 09

    Cuisine of the Lombardy region

    Ossobuco and Milanese-style saffron risotto
    Ossobuco and Milanese-style saffron risotto. William Shaw/Getty Images

    Lombardia (Lombardy) and its capital, Milan, are less cohesive culinarily than some other Italian regions, though there are some common denominators -- it's a land of butter and lard, as opposed to olive oil, and many of the traditional recipes call for slow braising or stewing. Also, though Lombardi do consume pasta nowadays, the traditional starches were rice and polenta, and soups, both thick and thin played a major role. In other words, one could almost say it was a cuisine better suited to spoon than a fork. That said, in Lombardia, you'll find both alpine (game, braised meats, Alpine cheeses) and flatland (risotti, Grana Padano and other lowland cheeses, wetland game, lake fish, beef, and pork) cooking.

    And a number of superb specialties; ossobuco and risotto alla milanese immediately come to mind, but there's also mostarda di cremona, risotto alla pitocca, made with chicken (they make it in Emilia too), polenta e fasoi, polenta with beans, tortelli di zucca, Mantova's spectacular squash-filled pasta, and panettone, one of the Italian signature Christmas cakes.

    In short, the cooking is as varied as the region, and there's a great deal to discover.

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  • 06 of 09

    Venetian Cuisine

    Venetian grilled polenta with calf liver
    Venetian grilled polenta with calf liver (Fegato alla veneziana). Peter Williams/Getty Images

    The Veneto region is dominated by Venice, whose position as a great merchant city has had a tremendous influence on the region's cuisine; trade with the Arabs led to the introduction of rice, which rapidly became a dominant element in the regional diet. The same commerce also brought baccalà (salted, dried codfish) from the north, and it, too, plays an extremely important role in the Venetian diet, as do beans and polenta.

    The supporting elements for the major players in the regional diet vary within the Veneto; the lagoon is famed for the variety and quality of its seafood. Fish is also important inland -- freshwater fish, and also baccalà, which travels well.

    Inland, in addition to fish, you'll find meats, including beef, pork, and, in some areas, horse. And if you continue further inland, up into the Alps, you'll find some spectacular game. Don't be surprised if it's offered as a goulash, because following Venice's decline the region became an Austro-Hungarian Province, and there are many Central European elements in inland cuisine.

    Finally, wine and cheese: The inner highlands give us Asiago, one of Italy's finest sharp cheeses, and also Monte Veronese.

    As for wines: Bardolino is perfect for quaffing, while the Valpolicella's wines are among the finest in the world. There's Soave, a vastly underrated white, and Prosecco's merry sparkle.

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  • 07 of 09

    Cuisine of the Trentino-Aldo Adige/Sudtirol Region

    A bowl of traditional Sudtirol knodel/canederli dumplings
    A bowl of traditional Sudtirol knodel/canederli dumplings. Francesco Iacobelli/Getty Images

    Trentino-Alto Adige sits astride the cultural border between Italy and Germany; the southern half of the region (Trentino) is ethnically Italian, whereas the northern half (Alto Adige, or Südtirol) is ethnically (and linguistically) Germanic, and the entire region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until Italy annexed it at the end of WWI. There has been remarkably little integration, and the cuisines of the two areas are quite distinct.

    Trentino draws heavily from the Veneto and Lombardia, with polenta, both plain cornmeal and made with cornmeal mixed with a variety of other grains, including buckwheat, playing the role of both bread and pasta. Fish is also extremely important -- there are hundreds of other lakes in addition to Lake Garda, as is a wild game from the high Alpine valleys. Much of the land is better suited for meadows than crops, and there are many alpine cheeses. Trentino is also known for apples, as is the Alto Adige, and both provinces are known for speck, smoked prosciutto.

    If you visit the Alto Adige you may be served pasta as a side dish, so stick to local foods -- knödel, bread dumplings often flavored with speck or mushrooms (they're called canederli in Trentino), sauerkraut, wurst, and excellent stewed game. You'll also find superb German pastries and cakes in the Alto Adige.

    As for wines, Trentino's Teroldego, a red, is superb, as is the Alto Adige's Lagrein. And then there's Moscato Rosa, or Rosenmuscateller, a sweet rose-laced dessert wine.

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  • 08 of 09

    Ligurian Cuisine

    Ligurian trofie in pesto sauce
    Ligurian trofie in pesto sauce. Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

    Liguria boasts some of the most rugged landscape in Italy, a steady succession of high mountains plunging into the sea, and as a result the population lives mostly in the valley mouths, drawing what little substance they can from the flatter parts of the valley floors, and putting their boats to sea, both to fish and to communicate. Indeed, until the railway was built a little more than a century ago, it was much easier for people to go by boat than to travel overland, and even now what would be a quick drive on the highway can take hours on the old roads.

    Given the scarcity of arable land, it's natural that the Ligurian diet is primarily vegetarian and fish-based; Ligurians do enjoy pasta, but often add potatoes or string beans to the water, and tend to use simple sauces, of which pesto is the most famous. Ravioli are also a Ligurian creation; most of the traditional recipes are vegetarian, stuffed with wild greens (especially borragine, a herb gathered on mountain slopes) and ricotta, though they can also be meat-filled. And during the spring there are many savory pies stuffed with green vegetables, for example:

    Ligurians enjoy fish in all manner of ways, from hearty fish stews such as buridda and ciupin to more elegant dishes. Meats, on the other hand, play a lesser role; cima alla genovese, stuffed breast of veal, is reserved for festive occasions, as is tocco di carne, stewed beef.

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  • 09 of 09

    The Cuisine of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region

    A bowl of Friuli-style orzotto -- a risotto made with pearl barley (orzo)
    A bowl of Friuli-style orzotto -- a risotto made with pearl barley (orzo). Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

    Friuli-Venezia Giulia is located in the far northeast of Italy, and in many ways, it's distinct from the rest of Italy.

    For many years, the region was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and as a result the local cuisine reveals a great many Central European influences, for example, the use of sauerkraut (krauti in Italian), potatoes, and turnips; the preparation of savory and sweet strudels (and a local boiled variation of apple strudel called struccolo de pomi); and a custom of lightly smoking cold cuts, especially prosciutto (the smoked version is called speck), that one doesn't often encounter in other parts of Italy.

    Another significant characteristic of the cooking of the region is a relative lack of tomatoes; though you may encounter them, they are certainly not as important as they are further south.

    So what else will you find? Quite a bit of barley; Friuli-Venezia Giulia is known for orzotti, which are similar to a risotto but made with barley, and offer a delightful change of pace. An abundance of game, especially in the inland regions. Good beef, too. And superb wines; Friuli-Venezia Giulia produces many of the best Italian white wines, is no slouch with reds and also boasts Picolit, an extraordinary sweet wine developed in the 1700s, when a war prevented Hungarian Tokay from reaching Europe's courts.

    And for dessert? In addition to strudel, Friuli-Venezia Giulia boasts many other cakes, including Gubana, a spicy, sweet bread with a healthy shot of grappa. For that matter, Friuli makes some of the best grappa as well.