Italy, the birthplace of mouthwatering recipes known throughout the world, has been on my foodie bucket list since the first time I sunk my teeth into fettuccine. I recently crossed it off my list when I visited three regions in Northern Italy. History, high-end fashion, and 14-16th century Renaissance architecture surrounded me, but my feet moved towards as many ristorantes as possible.
In fact, I asked for culinary advice from a taxi driver during my first moments in Milan. I absolutely needed to discover which dishes were must-tries, and who better to ask than a native? After a few minutes grappling with the language barrier and resorting to a translation app on my phone, the young man laughed and fired off rapid Italian, but I managed to understand “risotto alla Milanese.” I also picked out the words “lasagna,” “pizza,” and “spaghetti.”
Italian cuisine conjures thoughts of comfort foods, accompanied with olive oil, garlic, and fish in true Mediterranean fashion. We may not realize, however, that while pasta and cheese are the glues that bind each region, the stereotypical dishes that we’re familiar with are more representative of southern Italy.
A few rules to learn about northern Italian cuisine: Butter substitutes olive oil; sauces are creamy; rice, potatoes, and polenta replace pasta in many recipes; and while Northerners love their fish, menus are also filled with beef and poultry. My visits through the Lombardia, Venetto, and Piedmont regions opened my eyes to another side of Italian cuisine, which I am sharing here with you.
A Daily Food Routine in Northern Italy
Coffee is integral throughout the day and Italian roasts produce robust, aromatic, and amazing flavor. Drinking caffè begins in the morning (topped with steamed milk) and continues until late evening.
To blend in with the Italians, it’s crucial to learn the myriad of coffee drinks and the appropriate times to savor each. While this blood-pumping elixir did not originate in Italy, it’s safe to say that Italians helped to perfect it.
Caffè: an espresso, to be enjoyed throughout the day, after meals and during a quick break.
Cappuccino: equal parts of espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam, in that order. This is usually a breakfast beverage.
Caffè latte: one part espresso, two parts steamed milk, and half part of milk foam, in that order. Can be drunk as an alternative to cappuccino at breakfast.
Macchiato: espresso topped with a thin layer of steamed milk, which can be enjoyed at any time.
Italy’s daily meal structure is like most other countries around the world, comprising of breakfast (prima colazione), lunch (pranzo), and dinner (cena), with a mid-afternoon snack (merenda) thrown in the mix. The passion Italians have for food, however, is one of a kind.
Prima Colazione – Breakfast
My first breakfast in Milan was a simple affair. I skipped over the eggs, bacon, and toast at the hotel, and opted for a cappuccino and slice of chocolate marble cake in a traditional coffee shop.
Brioche (known as a cornetto outside of Lombardy) is the breakfast pastry of choice for many, and I mistakenly referred to it as a croissant on my second morning. Luckily, I met welcoming people throughout my trip who forgave many of my bloopers with warm smiles.
In addition to coffee, I soon discovered the rich Italian chocolate, and a few mornings were spent enjoying small cakes topped with this creamy delight.
Pranzo and Cena – Lunch and Dinner
Northern Italy has much to see, from the business-centric streets of Milan surrounding the Piazza del Duomo (the cathedral that took approximately 500 years to construct, beginning in the 14th century) to the historical Piazza Castelo in Turin (Italy’s first capital), and the breathtaking 13th century Casa di Giulietta in Verona (“Juliette’s House” where the Capulet family from Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet may once have lived).
Rushing from one landmark to the next will work up an appetite, but luckily lunch is the heartiest meal in an Italian day. While it’s possible to order a simple panini (a toasted sandwich made with Italian bread) in a laid back osteria or trattoria (a homey eatery), or rush to a fast food restaurant, some prefer to relax and enjoy a two- or three-course meal. A traditional full-course meal is also offered for dinner at many ristorantes.
Primi (first course) followed by a secondi (second course) and contorno (side dish) is the classic set up, and I had the opportunity to satiate myself with one of these meals in Turin. First came out a simple antipasti (starter) of a hard boiled egg atop a bed of spinach and drizzled with sweet balsamic vinegar.
A primi is usually a rice or pasta, and I chose a rich alternative to penne with pesto. Instead of the deep green, basil-rich nutty sauce that I imagined, I enjoyed a couple spoonfuls of cream-based butter and cheese sauce infused with the chopped herb.
The secondi appeared upon finishing the primi, and this is typically a meat-based dish. Since I had been melting in the hot summer sun, I decided on juicy melon covered in prosciutto (thinly sliced, dry-cured ham). The combination of sweet and savory in this dish has haunted me since. Alongside the secondi was my choice of contorno, marinated vegetables.
Despite being too full for dolci (dessert), the lovely language barrier once again intervened and muddled the conversation with the waiter, resulting in an infusion of gelato, coffee, and chocolate in place of regular caffè. Yes, I happily finished the entire glass, along with the surprise complimentary digestif (an alcoholic after-dinner drink) that reminded me of Kahlua mixed with hot espresso.
This traditional before-dinner cocktail hour began in Turin during the 18th century, but took off in Milan during the 20th century, and is a popular custom in this part of the world. The word aperitivo means “to open” in Latin and describes an “opening of appetite” by beginning the eating and drinking process.
During the summer evenings, it’s hard to miss the flocks of happy people enjoying refreshing orange cocktails in the middle of piazzas, alongside canals, and everywhere in between. These Aperol spritzers, made with prosecco and the orange-flavored Aperol spirit, are a popular aperitif that will entice the senses and tantalize your hunger. Served over ice and a slice of orange, they are a wonderful treat on warm summer nights.
Don’t be surprised if your drink comes with a complimentary dish of appetizers, similar to Spanish-style tapas. Small bites of ossobuco (braised veal shanks) hit the spot alongside my cool cocktail.
While adventuring across northern Italy, I also indulged in pizza, homemade spaghetti, gnocchi, and ravioli. And a second trip is in the works to try winter dishes, like hearty minestrone soup, hot fonduta (cheese fondue, sometimes flavored with truffles) and comforting polenta porridge.
Yes, I also recommend losing yourself to cheesy, saffron-infused risotto alla Milanese, which I ordered on the taxi driver’s recommendation as my first Italian dinner.
And as the famous Italian quote says,
“La cucina di un popolo è la sola esatta testimonianza della sua civiltà.”
– The cuisine of a country is the only exact attestation of its civilization.