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Eat Italian: Spring in the Lombardy Region

Eat Italian: Spring in the Lombardy Region

Posted by Will Nagengast on 25th Apr 2024

One of our side goals on our recent trip to Bergamo to visit the Franchi headquarters was to Eat, Eat, Eat! We love the Italians' culinary focus on using vegetables when they're fresh and in season, and we were particularly eager to attempt to identify vegetable varieties that we import. While Northern Italy was just starting to emerge from winter as we arrived, and the menus of the restaurants primarily consisted of hearty fare such as polenta and potatoes, the first bits of early season greenery were starting to appear.

Our first brush with the local produce was at a Trattoria (a small Italian restaurant, generally less formal than a Ristorante) near our hotel in Bergamo. We chose a starter of a fried cheese from the valleys north of the city, served on a small and colorful bed of  Radicchio Rossa di Verona. The delicious salty fried cheese, tempered slightly with a sour spritz of lemon, paired excellently with the bitter radicchio (right). I could eat this dish for every meal!

Amanda's dish was the star of the evening; A local buckwheat pasta called Pizzoccheri, with potatoes, cheese from the valleys, herbs, and very thinly sliced leaves of the  Chard Verde a Costa Bianca (below left). This dish was rich and savory, and the mix of chard and herbs imparted a unique flavor that we both really enjoyed.

The next day, we toured the Franchi facilities and Mr. Franchi gave us a nice walking tour of the Citta Alta (Upper Town) in Bergamo. This is the ancient walled city at the top of the hill that Bergamo is situated on, accessible only through narrow and busy switchbacking roads or via a Funicular, or Cable Railway. After this, he treated us to a magnificent lunch at one of his favorite restaurants. The incredible fried cheese/radicchio starter showed up again, thank goodness! Once again, Amanda chose wisely for her main dish, and her risotto with Prawns and the early crop of  Asparagus Argenteuil was truly excellent. 

I had been looking forward to our lunch reservation on the third day for months. My whole life I've wanted to experience a world-class restaurant, and Due Colombe in the Franciacorta wine region to the east of Bergamo was exactly that. I chose this Michelin-starred restaurant because of the excellent reviews, scenic and beautiful location surrounded by vinyards, and also because their classic tasting menu was actually rather reasonably priced when compared to other restaurants of similar quality. I can't possibly describe all of the dishes brought out to us; aside from the seven fantastic dishes that were listed on the tasting menu, there were several rounds of small and beautifully arranged bites both before and after the meal.

One of these small bites was a tiny waffle made of Focaccia, topped with a delicate tuft of the rare and unique  Agretti. This was our first time experiencing Agretti as prepared by an expert (I've never been able to do it justice when we tried to cook our own), and we were impressed by the delicate but distinctively salty flavor of this lightly pickled vegetable.

Another dish featured locally caught anchovies with fried sprigs of  Parsley Ricciuto, with a drizzling of a sauce made of more of the same parsley (top of page). These early dishes were paired with the best white wine I've ever had, a famous Chardonnay from the region. The sommelier described the qualities of the wine, and actually pointed out the window to the highest hill in the area, about a mile away, the top of which was reserved for the grapes that made up this wine.

Though it didn't feature any varieties that we carry, I would be remiss not to mention the first dessert course. Upon our first bite, Amanda and I both immediately agreed that it was the best thing either of us have ever tasted. The dish was in the form of a small sandwich - Shiso leaves (a Japanese herb in the mint family) sandwiched thin chips of fried polenta, with a white chocolate ganache in the middle. Topping the sandwich was a sprinkle of an Italian caviar salt. The salt on its own had a very concentrated fish flavor, but the flavor disappeared completely when the dish was eaten as a whole (above right). All of those unique flavors blended perfectly and seamlessly to create an incredible flavor that I have no frame of reference to describe. This was precisely the experience that I had been hoping for with a restaurant of such quality; to introduce me to flavors I had never even known existed!

The rest of the trip, we felt a bit over-fed and over-budget, so we primarily ate street pizza topped with  fresh wild arugula (Amazing), and bought ourselves food at local markets or groceries. The quality of food is so high even in an Italian supermarket, that I'd definitely recommend this as a way to easily prepare cheaper and higher quality meals than we could even do at home. We purchased bread, burrata mozzarella, tomatoes (from elsewhere in the world as they're still several months from being in season in Italy) and a big bag of the wonderful salad green Valeriana, sometimes called Mache. I've never seen this green in stores or markets where we live, as it is a cold weather green with a short growing season that makes it impractical or impossible to grow in warmer regions of the world, but we always seek it out when in Italy. One night, still feeling much too full for comfort, we sat in our hotel room watching Italian HGTV and eating handfuls of Valeriana right from the bag, as if they were potato chips.

In our brief 5 days in Italy, I cannot think of a single thing that we ate that wasn't fresh and excellent. I'm always impressed by the Italian ingenuity to use only products that are perfectly in season. Rather than import ingredients (other than Tomatoes!) to keep a consistent menu, every single food establishment, big or little, seems to use only what is available and fresh at the moment. I always leave Italy with aspirations of doing the same! If ever you are able, I highly recommend traveling to Italy to experience one of the very best cuisines and food cultures in the world!

Will and Amanda