Renowned for its food, wine, culture, and natural beauty, Italy is a bucket list destination for travelers worldwide. But modern Italy is made up of culturally and linguistically distinct regions that were historically isolated by mountains or seas and were parts of different kingdoms and empires. There is a fierce regional pride and identity—called campanilismo, meaning loyalty to the steeple or bell tower in one’s neighborhood—and this extends to local food and wine. Just as wines are protected by appellation laws, many Italian foods have their own protected designations of origin (PDOs), such as the famous Parmigiano Reggiano or Prosciutto di Parma.
While every region is distinct, it is possible to make some generalizations about the north and south. The food journalist Waverley Root wrote of Italy’s “gastronomic Mason-Dixon line,” dividing the cuisines of the wealthier and more industrial north from those of the poorer and more agrarian south. Richer meats and coffee are more prevalent in the north, while the south leans toward fish, pasta, and vegetables. Even Italy’s universal food, pasta, takes on different shapes and forms: fresh pasta made with eggs in the north, dried pasta without eggs in the south. The northern regions rely on butter and cream as cooking fats, while southern regions use olive oil. In the north, there are fertile pasturelands for grazing cattle, while olive trees thrive in the Mediterranean south. As Root notes, “It costs more to maintain a cow than an olive tree.”
The differences are about not only economics but also geography and tradition. Northern Italy borders France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia and has historic and cultural links to the rest of Europe. The use of butter and cream emulates French cuisine, while the potatoes, sausages, and stews recall the foods of Germany and Eastern Europe. Contrast this with Italy’s southern regions and their culinary influences from Spain, Greece, and the Middle East.
In both northern and southern Italy, however, wine is considered an essential part of the meal. The Italian palate leans toward bitter—think of coffee, amaro, arugula, and radicchio—and the bitter, herbal freshness of Italian wines can make them extremely food friendly and versatile at the table. Italy’s hundreds of native grape varieties—frustrating and exciting to many wine students—provide a wide range of pairing options for an equally wide range of cuisines, many of which evolved together as partners in every corner of Italy. This article covers some of the classic foods and wines in the northern part of Italy’s boot.
Piedmont is home to two of the world’s most famous fine-wine regions, Barolo and Barbaresco, where the Nebbiolo grape reaches its classic expression. Beyond Nebbiolo, with many other grape varieties and styles—whites such as Arneis, Cortese, Erbaluce, and Timorasso, and reds such as Dolcetto, Freisa, Pelaverga, Ruchè, and Grignolino—Piedmont is an exciting place to explore lesser-known and emerging wines. Agriculture is also widespread in Piedmont, and corn, barley, wheat, hazelnut trees, and other crops dot the landscape.
What many people think of as Italian breadsticks originated in Piedmont in the form of grissini. The long, thin, crispy sticks of wheat are rolled by hand and can be up to 80 centimeters (2.5 feet) long. They were apparently invented by a Turin baker in the 17th century to aid the digestion of the duke of Savoy and later became a favorite of Napoleon, who had them shipped regularly from Turin to Paris.
Bagna càuda (hot bath) is a Piemontese dish of heated olive oil, butter, garlic, anchovies, and often truffles and salt. It is served over a small heater to keep it warm at the table, like fondue, and accompanied by raw vegetables for dipping, such as celery, carrot, fennel, and the local cardoon. A tablemate such as Barbera has the high acidity to cut through the rich oil, but low tannin that will not clash with the anchovy or the bitterness of the cardoon.
Piedmont’s wide range of red wines provide local matches for Piemontese meat dishes, which often feature offal. The bright, fresh, herbal Pelaverga is a companion to lighter beef dishes and carne cruda, a Piemontese version of steak tartare. The light-bodied, highly structured, peppery Grignolino can match lingua con salsa verde, veal tongue served with a green parsley sauce, or agnolotti pasta, pockets of fresh dough often stuffed with chopped meat, nutmeg, and spinach. The tannin of Dolcetto, especially a more full-bodied expression from Dogliani, can counter the richness of a dish such as bollito misto, a boiled stew of mixed meats in broth. With finanziera—a sweet-and-sour stew of chicken livers, sweetbreads, calf’s brain, and other animal parts in a tomato or marsala sauce—the funky and pungent flavors of organs and offal can match an intensely floral, spicy, aromatic Ruchè or contrast with a straightforward, fruity Dolcetto.
Piedmont’s most famous Nebbiolo-based red wines are generally reserved for richer meats, game, and stews, such as brasato al Barolo, a hearty, thick cut of beef marinated and slowly braised in red wine and served over creamy polenta. Barolo and Barbaresco are also the classic accompaniment to dishes featuring the most famous Piemontese food of all: tartufo bianco (white truffle). Native to the Alba area, the prized fungus grows wild in the forests of the Langhe around the roots of oaks, willows, and other trees. It appears only in the fall and is more fragrant and perfumed than the black truffle. Truffle-hunting dogs can detect the delicacy as deep as a foot underground. The white truffle is shaved over polenta, risotto, carne cruda, fried eggs, or the rich egg pasta called tajarin, served with butter and sage.
As for white wines, Roero Arneis can complement the creaminess of Piedmont dishes such as agnolotti served with a butter sauce, or vitello tonnato, a cold dish of thinly sliced veal with a creamy, mayonnaise-like tuna sauce.
The famous hazelnuts of Piedmont are used for cakes, nougats, and other desserts as well as products ranging from Nutella to Frangelico. Piedmont’s sweet sparkling wines are also versatile at the table; Moscato d’Asti is a particularly good pairing for fruit-based desserts, and Brachetto d’Acqui for dark chocolate.
Italy’s smallest and least populated region, Valle d’Aosta, is nestled in the mountains between France, Switzerland, and Piedmont. It has Italy’s smallest wine production but a wide range of varietally labeled wines from native and international grapes. Styles include traditional method (metodo classico) sparkling wines made from Prié Blanc, fruity and easy-drinking reds of Petite Rouge, structured reds of Picoutener (the local name for Nebbiolo), and sweet passito wines (locally called flétri).
Valle d’Aosta shares cuisines with its neighbors across the borders, with hearty stews and bread soups providing comfort during the alpine winters. Capriolo alla valdostana is a rich venison stew, often served over polenta or egg pasta. The tannic and structured red grape Cornalin, authorized in Valle d’Aosta DOC, is a favorite local pairing for venison, with smoky and spicy flavors.
The region’s most famous cheese is fontina, made here since the 12th century and today recognized with a PDO. Large wheels of the unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese are aged in stone buildings high in the mountains and develop an orange-colored rind. The nutty, tangy cheese is featured in many of the region’s dishes, such as risotto alla fontina, and pairs with light, fruity red wines, such as Petite Rouge, found in the Valle d’Aosta DOC subzones of Enfer d’Arvier and Torrette.
On the Italian side of the border, Swiss fondue becomes fonduta, a dish of melted fontina cheese mixed with milk, egg yolks, butter, flour, white pepper, and, sometimes, shaved white truffles, enjoyed in both Valle d’Aosta and Piedmont. It can be served in a communal heated dish with diced bread or, like soup, in individual bowls and eaten with a spoon.
The narrow, coastal strip of Liguria is second to last in wine production among all Italian regions, and much of its wine is consumed locally at the seaside resorts of the Cinque Terre and Italian Riviera. While there are a few local specialties, such as the red Rossese (known as Tibouren across the border in Provence), Liguria has staked its claim on Vermentino. The herbal and briny white, with flavors of fennel, pine, lilac, and salinity, complements Liguria’s herb-driven and aromatic cuisine.
The Republic of Genoa was a maritime empire, and Ligurian cooking was shaped by its sailors. When ships were out at sea for months, sailors would subsist on bland foods that could withstand the long journey, such as dried fish and ship biscuit. Their eagerness for fresh food on returning home led to the extensive use of aromatic ingredients, such as basil, oregano, and garlic as well as onions, said to protect against diseases brought back from sea. Ligurian food is known as cucina del ritorno, or “homecoming cooking.” Its freshness is exemplified by the famous Genovese pesto, a combination of basil, garlic, pine nuts, salt, olive oil, and aged Parmigiano Reggiano or Sardinian cheese, ground together with a mortar and pestle. The fragrant and delicate pesto is often served over potato gnocchi or minestrone soup.
Ravioli, the ubiquitous stuffed pockets of pasta, also has a Ligurian origin story. Rabiole, in Genoese dialect, refers to things of little value, such as rubbish or leftovers. Food was not wasted on a ship during a long journey, and anything left after a meal was chopped up and stuffed into envelopes of pasta for the next day.
Italy’s most populous region, Lombardy, is home to the large financial hub and cultural center of Milan. Outside the city, Lombardy’s terrain is varied, from the mountainous Alps to the flatter plains of the Po River valley, and its grape varieties and wine styles are likewise diverse. The structured, alpine Chiavennasca (the local name for Nebbiolo) is grown on steep, mountainous slopes in Valtellina, while French varieties, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are used for the region’s Franciacorta and other traditional method sparkling wines. The light, tart reds and fresh, high-acid whites of the Lake Garda area are especially useful for balancing Lombardy’s rich and hearty cuisine.
The Po River valley was historically a key trade route, which influenced Lombardy’s access to ingredients and international cooking methods, including the French reliance on butter and cream and the Austrian technique of frying in breadcrumbs. The importance of rice cultivation here is evident in dishes such as risotto, and many other crops grow in the Po River valley, including asparagus, wheat, and corn. The plains are used for grazing cattle for milk, cheese, and butter as well as raising pigs for sausages. There is even a goose farming industry, established centuries ago for the local Jewish community that did not eat pork. Lombardy’s lakes and rivers are abundant sources of trout, perch, and other freshwater fish.
Historians believe saffron came to Lombardy either from Abruzzo as a gift to the Milan-born Pope Celestine IV in the 13th century or from Spain with Duke Philip in the 16th century. Either way, it became incredibly popular in Milan. It is a key ingredient in Lombardy’s signature dish, risotto alla milanese, in which rice is slowly cooked with butter, onions, broth, saffron, and the local Grana Padano, a PDO cheese. The saffron gives the rice a golden color, and the dish is sometimes called risotto giallo (yellow risotto). Milanese chefs tend to prefer carnaroli rice, a superfine variety with high starch content.
The meat-based dishes of Lombardy include cotoletta alla milanese, a breaded veal cutlet fried in butter. Its similarity to Wiener schnitzel recalls Milan’s historic link to Austria, although Italian and Austrian chefs debate which country can claim the origin of the dish. Another famous dish, osso buco, is a Milanese braised veal shank often served with risotto or polenta and garnished with a gremolata of chopped parsley, lemon zest, and garlic.
The blue cow’s milk cheese Gorgonzola is named for a town near Milan where herds would stop to rest between the mountain pastures and flat plains. It is made today in a PDO that stretches across several provinces in Lombardy and Piedmont. The funky and pungent cheese pairs well with the heady intensity of a spicy and floral Ruchè from Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG, in Piedmont, or with non-Italian sweet wines that classically partner with blue cheeses, such as Port and Sauternes.
Farther north, in the alpine Valtellina region, where the land is less fertile, Nebbiolo-based wines cut through the richness and earthiness of mountain cuisine. Valtellina is especially known for buckwheat, used in the local polenta taragna and the short, flat pizzoccheri pasta. The dark polenta is often served with sausages, salami, and cured meats, and the earthy buckwheat pasta is baked with potatoes, leeks, cabbage, sage, butter, and cheese.
Valtellina’s mountain cheeses include Bitto, named for the Bitto River, a tributary of the Adda. It is a PDO cheese made from cow’s milk mixed with a small percentage of goat’s milk, and it is an essential ingredient in Valtellina dishes such as sciatt, a cheesy buckwheat flatbread. The cheese becomes crumblier as it ages, and a rare version called Bitto Storico (“historic”) or Bitto Ribelle (“rebellious”) is aged for a decade or longer and sells for thousands of dollars. The region’s cured meats include bresaola, also with its own PDO, an air-dried, salted beef, sliced very thin and served as an antipasto.
Milanese café culture is also a dessert culture. Panettone, meaning “large loaf” or “big bread” in Italian, the tall cake with candied fruits and raisins consumed all over Italy at Christmastime, originated in Milan. It is often served with crema al mascarpone and accompanied by coffee or a sweet sparkling wine. The province of Pavia has its own local version for Easter, called colomba pasquale, baked into the shape of a dove.
The large, northeastern Veneto region is known to tourists worldwide for the fabled city of Venice, St. Mark’s square, Murano glass, and the city of Verona, home to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The region also produces Italy’s largest volume of wine, driven mainly by the global popularity of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio.
Beyond what’s commonly found in supermarkets, Veneto produces a variety of wine styles, providing a range of food pairing options. The fresh, Garganega-based whites from the volcanic hillsides of Soave can match salads, seafood, risotto, and vegetarian dishes, while the rounder, fatter Friulano is at home in Venice’s bacari (similar to tapas bars) alongside cichéti (small plates) such as fried sardines. The light, fruity red wines of Bardolino are a traditional accompaniment to dried cod or lake trout with polenta. While the powerful, full-bodied Amarone della Valpolicella is often thought too rich for the table, it is a classic pairing for pastissada de caval, a Veronese horse meat stew, and can accompany non-Italian dishes with a sweet glaze or raisinated flavors, such as Peking duck, barbecue, and steak with dried figs or prunes.
The Republic of Venice built its power and wealth through its dominance of the eastern Mediterranean Sea and its trade in imported seasonings and foods, including pepper, saffron, tarragon, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and sugar. The Venetian cuisine features spices and fine sauces but also simple preparations of local fish, legumes, rice, and fresh produce. Wild duck and frog’s legs are found in the interior, along with beans, pumpkins, and squash. Bittersweet red radicchio is a local specialty of Treviso, and asparagus from Bassano del Grappa is prized.
Risi e bisi is a dish of rice and peas, especially popular in the spring when peas are in season. Pasta e fagioli, pasta and bean soup, originated in Venice, and this humble dish is now ubiquitous on Italian menus. The Po River valley is the largest rice production area of Italy, and risotto comes in many forms in Veneto. Among them are risotto nero, dyed black with squid ink; risotto di mare, with lobster and shrimp; risotto alla marinara, with clams; risotto all’Amarone, with the famous red wine of Valpolicella; and versions including asparagus or red radicchio.
A seafaring people would naturally have a seafood tradition. Scampi alla veneziana is a simple preparation of shrimp in olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Moeche is a rare soft-shell crab from the Venetian lagoon, served fried. Baccalà, dried, salted cod, can be browned in oil, butter, onions, milk, and flour, or it is mantecato (worked) into a creamy spread, with milk, oil, and garlic, and served over grilled or fried polenta.
The Venetians introduced sugar to the rest of Europe, and this is reflected in the region’s cuisine. Frìtole are small fritters associated with the Venetian carnival and flavored with raisins, cinnamon, pine nuts, and rum or grappa. The small, oval cookies called baìcoli are named for the shape of a sea bass and were favored on ships because they lasted during sea voyages. Pandoro (golden bread) is the Veronese version of panettone.
Veneto also has a long tradition of sweet wines, influenced by its historic ties to Greek ports and islands. The rich, luscious Recioto della Valpolicella matches dark chocolate and nut-based desserts, while the white Reciotos of Soave and Gambellara pair with pastries, cookies, fruit tarts, and pandoro. The passito Moscato Giallo wines of Colli Euganei Fior d’Arancio, intensely floral and perfumed, with flavors of orange blossom and sweet spices, partner with apple-based desserts and the orange-flavored baìcoli.
The northernmost Italian region, Trentino-Alto Adige, is nestled in the Dolomites, with vineyards planted on valley hillsides up to 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) above sea level. The region is known for high-quality, varietally labeled wine, much of it from co-ops. Grapes include Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio as well as local specialties, such as Schiava, Lagrein, and Teroldego.
Called Südtirol by its German-speaking population, the northern province of Alto Adige borders Austria and was formerly part of the Habsburg monarchy and Austro-Hungarian Empire. The influence is shown in its food, wine, culture, and language. Potatoes, sauerkraut, goulash, and dumplings are all common dishes.
The valley of the Adige River allows for the cultivation of many crops, fruits, and dairy products. German-style beers, such as pilsners, bocks, and hefeweizens, are made here with the local barley and wheat. Alto Adige also grows 10% of all apples sold in Europe. Apple strudel, another Austrian import, is popular, along with other fruit-based pastries featuring cherries, pears, plums, and raspberries. The sweet Moscato Giallo wines of Alto Adige (labeled as Goldmuskateller) and Trentino are partners for apple strudel, as in neighboring Veneto.
The signature meat of the region is speck, smoked and thinly sliced ham with a sweet and spicy flavor. It is used in recipes such as canederli (dumplings) and served with a side of crauti (the local name for sauerkraut) but is also an integral part of the marende (snack) served at local taverns. The charcuterie board of speck, sausages, and cheese is typically accompanied by schüttelbrot, a crunchy rye flatbread flavored with cumin and fennel, and a glass of Schiava. Meraner wurst, a street food sold at kiosks, is the local version of a frankfurter made from beef and pork.
Nestled between Veneto, Austria, and Slovenia, at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, Friuli is a crossroads of cultural influences. Wine is grown in the hillsides and flatter plains of southern Friuli, as the north is generally too cold and mountainous for viticulture. The highest-quality wine regions are in the hills (colli) near Slovenia on both sides of the Judrio River, the former border between Italy and Austria. Friuli produces high-quality, varietally labeled wines from international grapes, such as Pinot Grigio, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc (here called Sauvignon), alongside native grape varieties, such as the reds Pignolo, Refosco, and Schioppettino and the whites Moscato Giallo and Picolit.
The cuisine of the region comes from both the mountains and the sea and includes grilled meats, fried cheeses, dumplings, stews, and rich, buttery pastries, recalling its Slavic and Eastern European culinary traditions. Cjarsòns, or cjalsòns, are Friulian dumplings that resemble agnolotti or ravioli. The pasta is made with potato, like gnocchi, and is stuffed with both sweet and savory fillings, including raisins, cinnamon, cocoa, dried figs, ricotta, and herbs. Montasio is an alpine cow’s milk cheese used for dishes such as frico, a frittata-like tart of cheese, onions, and potatoes. Gulasch is Trieste’s version of the traditional Hungarian stew, and jota is a hearty bean soup with bacon.
Friuli is home to one of Italy’s most famous dry-cured hams, Prosciutto di San Daniele, which has its own PDO and rivals Emilia-Romagna’s Prosciutto di Parma in popularity. (Unlike the speck of Trentino-Alto Adige, prosciutto is not smoked.) Friuli’s San Daniele version can be recognized by the pig’s hoof still attached to the ham. It is served as part of aperitivo or wrapped around figs or melon.
Like Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli has a beer tradition, and the brewing company Moretti (today owned by Heineken) was founded here in the city of Udine. Grappa also has a major presence in Friuli, as exemplified by the Nonino family, known for its monovitigno (single-variety) bottlings. After the fall harvest, grape pomace is used not only to make grappa but also for traditional Friulian dishes such as brovada, a turnip sauerkraut fermented in pomace, wine, and vinegar and served with muset (sausage) at Christmastime.
At the center of Friulian homes and restaurants is the fogolar, a hearth where food is cooked over an open flame. It’s the ideal place for sharing a tajut (small glass) of wine, the local custom when meeting a friend. The most common house wine at osterias and trattorias, Friulano, is fuller bodied than most Italian whites, and its oily texture and savory flavors are a great match for the region’s prosciutto, cheeses, and stews. Friuli is the birthplace of the modern orange wine movement and a source of phenolic, skin-macerated whites that provide versatile pairing options for bitter, sour, and vegetal flavors, extending to non-Italian dishes, such as uni and pork belly.
Italian meals often end with a bitter digestivo to kick-start the digestive system after a heavy meal. There are several important categories of beverages made with a base of wine or spirits and infused with bitter flavors, many of them associated with northern Italy.
From the German wermut (wormwood), or artemisia (mugwort) in Italian, vermouth is a fortified wine with added sugar, herbs, and botanicals. The sweet red style originated in Piedmont in the 18th century, when the bankers and merchants of Turin had access to global markets, and the trade in exotic herbs led to their maceration in the local wines. Originally consumed as a tonic for digestive health, today vermouth is an essential part of the Italian aperitivo, in cocktails such as the negroni or Americano, and paired with olives, nutty cheeses, and cured meats.
Barolo wine is fortified and flavored with cinchona bark, along with other ingredients such as rhubarb, orange peel, ginger, clove, and cardamom, to make one of the few aromatized wines that use fine wine rather than basic table wine as a base. Traditionally consumed as a tonic, both cold and as a vin brûlé, today it is known as a digestivo, with bitter and sweet flavors that pair especially well with dark chocolate and blue cheese.
A category with no legal definition, amaro—Italian for “bitter”—generally refers to the bittersweet liqueurs served as a digestivo at the end of a meal. While there are no official categories, producers often use local ingredients, such as citrus peel, alpine herbs and flowers, carciofo (artichoke), and rabarbaro (rhubarb). Styles vary widely in both sweetness and bitterness, so it is difficult to generalize about pairings, but the balance between bitter and sweet can match a wide range of desserts, including tiramisu, pecan pie, and those based on chocolate, cheese, or candied citrus.
Italy is the world’s top wine-producing country, and nearly one-third of the world’s grape varieties are native to Italy. This incredible diversity is an asset at the table for wine professionals and food lovers. From fresh, crisp whites to structured, herbal reds to luscious sweet wines, northern Italy provides a bounty of options for pairing with its own regional dishes and with global cuisine. Buon appetito!
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All photos via Adobe Stock.
This is awesome, Michael!