From the mountains to the plains

Statistics tell us that Lombardy is the largest, most highly and densely populated region in Italy, home to a vast number of small, efficient, and often family-run, industrial enterprises mainly scattered over the endless plains that stretch out from the metropolis of Milan. As such, it would not seem a very likely source of gastronomic pleasures, though this being Italy we know that firmly rooted culinary traditions can live and indeed flourish even in the most modern commercial and industrial surroundings. And despite its industrialization, Lombardy is blessed with a variety of landscapes that are perhaps the main reason for the surprisingly great culinary diversity found within its borders. While not particularly famed for its pasta dishes, Lombardy offers mouthwatering first courses, including endless versions of risotto, flavored with everything from frogs to strawberries, and steaming heaps of golden and buckwheat polenta. In the very north of the region, the peaks of the pre-Alps and Alps bring us the typically hearty and substantial dishes needed to endure mountain climes. Here the first courses include “polenta taragna,” buckwheat polenta oozing with melted butter and cheese, and “pizzoccheri,” a variety of buckwheat pasta cooked with potatoes, cabbage or other green-leafed vegetables and then served with layers of local cheeses such as Bitto and Taleggio. Main courses will usually reflect the territory and are equally filling: “brasato” (beef braised in red wine), “stinco di maiale al forno” (roast shin of pork), and all types of game often feature in menus. To finish up a meal, open pastry pies filled with delicious homemade jams are another treat (elderberry and blueberries are two of the best) or in season you can enjoy chestnuts cooked in milk, served with mountains of whipped cream. Moving down toward the famous lakes of Como, Maggiore, and Garda (Lombardy owns one shore of each of the latter two), you will be able to feast off freshwater fish such as carp, pike, and perch, while a popular antipasti is “pesce in carpione,” filet of lake fish soused in a vinegar marinade. Lying on the plain, the region’s capital Milan bestows its “alla milanese” tag to some celebrated dishes. The most popular are risotto enriched with saffron and bone marrow, breaded veal cutlet (the ubiquitous “costoletta alla milanese”), and tripe in a saffron-flavored soup, a dish that uses the sort of “old-fashioned” ingredient you could not expect of a modern bustling city in any other country but Italy. The plains of the Po give rise to Grana Padano, the region’s answer to Parmigiano Reggiano, which is becoming just as famous on foreign markets. The variety known as Grana Lodigiano, made around the town of Lodi, is particularly esteemed. Other great cheeses that have their origins in Lombardy include Gorgonzola, Mascarpone, and Crescenza. The region’s many historical towns, some of which were capitals of duchies in the past, each have their unique specialties. For example, Bergamo offers “casonsei” (large ravioli usually served with butter and sage) and “foiade” (pasta served with a duck or mushroom sauce), while Lodi serves “cassoeula,” a slow-cooked casserole of mixed pork cuts with cabbage. Mantua is famous for “tortelli di zucca,” pasta stuffed with a sweet-and-sour filling of pumpkin and Amaretti, and “risotto alla pilota,” featuring salsiccia and lots of Parmigiano Reggiano. For those with a sweet tooth, its crumbly cornmeal and almond cake “sbrisolona” can be found in every pastry shop in its lovely center. So, as you can see, a visit to modern Lombardy also involves a plunge into the true flavors of the past.