Italian food traditions: Exploring flavors of the North


Traditional Italian food has often been identified with pizza, pasta and fresh ingredients growing under the sun of the Mediterranean. However, there’s a tradition of rich dishes typical from the North of the country.

Few regional cuisines are as rich and as the one from the north of Italy. Italian food has a reputation of being healthy, full of genuine flavors, but also fresh, colorful and aromatic. Yet, when it comes to the tradition that identifies the north, things change. Tastes are stronger with a unique character. Italian food turns into a box of surprises worth to try, especially in colder months. Not everything is pizza!

These are some of the most interesting Italian dishes, in which fresh ingredients give place to savory ideas from the North. Give them a try this winter!

Italian Food: Red meats with rich sauces (Photo: Edgardo Rovea).

Italian food from the North: General characteristics

The north of Italy comprises several different regions, all of them with distinctive cultural characteristics. Several traits distinguish them from popular Mediterranean recipes. The north is generous with butter; people enjoy risotto as much as pasta and love roasted or stewed meat. Plenty of herbs, seasonal vegetables, and red wine result in refined sauces and dips.

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Strong tastes

A fine example of this regional Italian food is the bagna cauda (also bagna caoda). This dish, typical from the Piedmont Region, is a kind of sauce made from garlic, oil, and anchovies. Bagna cauda needs a long cooking time so that everything melts inside the dian, a special pot where it cooks. Some people add cream to make it softer while others prefer nuts. To eat it, dip different seasonal vegetables into the sauce. Bagna cauda is a rite among friends that includes laughter, conversation, and a glass of local red wine, such as Barbera or Nebbiolo.

Italian Food: Bagna Cauda (Photo: The Tiny Book).

Risotto and polenta

A thick, creamy risotto is a trademark of Lombardy. The classical risotto allo zafferano (saffron risotto) is very simple to cook, rich in color and in flavor. Risotto is a perfect starter for cold winter months, which can be cooked with mushrooms, strong cheese, and vegetables.

Being rice such a versatile ingredient, risotto has been adopted around the world. Restaurants propose very creative versions of the dish, including ingredients like champagne, fruit and even honey.

Italian Food: Risotto with Gorgonzola (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Taste of Vail).

Mostly in the region of Veneto, polenta is another staple of Italian food. It’s simply boiled cornmeal served, for instance with tomato sauce and meat. In other regions, some prefer to bake, fry and even grill it.

Pasta is always there

In case you’re wondering about pasta, some northern regions still consider it a main dish. Pasta is key in Liguria, with the traditional pesto sauce, a worldwide favorite.

Going towards the south, Emilia-Romagna is the land of fresh pasta. Delicacies such as taglolini, tagliatelle or tortellini populate Sunday tables all over the region. Tortellini are similar to ravioli, with stuffing changing according to the season.

Italian food: Pesto from Liguria (Photo by Joe Kohen/Getty Images for The Italian Culinary Academy at The International Culinary Center).

From the Alps… bread, cheese and apples

Cooking in Val D’Aosta bears a strong resemblance to Swiss and German cuisines. Different Alpine cheeses – for instance, Fontina – are the main ingredients of soups as well as the typical local fonduta (fondue). Other favorites include rye bread, cured or boiled meats, but also sausages and potatoes.

In the Alps, rustic soups are a must during winter, locals often cook soups using legumes, potatoes, and bread. Some add a touch of grated truffle for special occasions.

Italian Food: Fonduta Valdostana (Photo by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi).

Trentino-Alto Adige is a region offering many varieties of apples. Despite its German name, apple strudel is an authentic dish on the Italian table. The local tradition wants Italian strudel to include raisins, pine nuts, sugar, cinnamon, and apples all wrapped inside a soft layer of puff pastry. A Perfect combination with a hot cup of tea. Which dishes of Northern Italy are you planning to try next winter?