Milan is not just the fashion capital of Italy—it is one of the country’s biggest industrial centers and, as such, not necessarily one of the more evocative Italian cities. Most visitors to Lombardia gravitate to the shores of Lake Como, to the north of Milan, or Lake Garda, to the east, and while these "great lakes" offer beautiful vistas, good restaurants and luxury hotels, there’s so much more to the region than that. In the southeastern corner of Lombardia, near its borders with both Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, the city of Mantova remains a relatively unexplored gastronomic gem. Just west of Brescia, the wine region of Franciacorta—famous for its Champagne-method sparkling wines—is an increasingly international destination, equipped with a spate of stylish hotels and even a golf course in the hills surrounding Lake Iseo. And in the far north, on Italy’s border with Switzerland, the Alpine heights of the Valtellina zone take you to another country altogether.
Probably the most "resort-y" area of Lombardia (outside of the Lake towns of Como and Garda) is the Franciacorta wine zone. Not only are many wineries equipped with modern visitor centers (Ca’del Bosco and Bellavista heading the list), but there is a golf course as well (not exactly everyone’s idea of "Bella Italia," but what the heck). The place to be in Franciacorta is a Relais & Chateaux property owned by Bellavista called L’Albereta, in the little town of Erbusco. This beautiful spa hotel has a two-star Michelin restaurant on site and is in striking distance of all the Franciacorta sites (L’Albereta can be reached at 011-39-030-776-0550 or at www.terramoretti.it). Also worth checking out is the website of the Franciacorta wine producers’ association at www.franciacorta.net.
Between Cremona and Mantova
That said, the hard-core foodie is more likely to head for Cremona and Mantova, to the southeast – two stops in Lombardia that are absolutely essential for the gastrovoyager. It's here you'll find perhaps my favorite ristorante in all of Italy, Ambasciata in Quistello. Located about halfway between the two cities, Quistello is a tiny borgo with a quaint little hotel and two restaurants, both of which appear to be rather simple county inns. On closer inspection of Ambasciata, you will notice a lot full of cars with international license plates and a heliport. This is because the restaurant has an international reputation for serving some of the best traditional cuisine in an exquisite setting, all with a bit of a quirk. The Tamani brothers run the restaurant with spectacular quality and style and, most important, a sense of humor that makes the sturdy local cooking not only delicious but fun. The hand-rolled pastas are everything Emilia-Romagna can make (Emilia is just 9 miles away) and the homemade salumi are without peer. The cellar is just off of the dining room, and if you are friendly Francesco will take you on a tour of their vintage-rich collection. Romano runs the main event in the dining room and is justly proud of the riches the kitchen can provide.
Cremona was the home of Antonio Stradivari, the world's most reknowned craftsman of violins, and is famous for its quiet, pious belief in commerce and order. Mantova is an ancient city inhabited since neolithic times and was important during etruscan times before the Romans arrived and made it a government outpost. It is said that Virgil was born here, but Waverly Root disputes that, on what basis I have no idea.
The food of Mantova is rich and sweet, most of Italy's sugar production happens in and around the city. Other great places to eat in this corner of Lombardia include La Sosta in cremona for a classic rendition of bollito misto and the mostarda served with it. In Goito, Al Bersagliere serves simple elegant river and lake fish, perhaps the best tortelli di zucca I have ever tasted and has a killer wine list. In Mantova, Aquila Nigra, near the ducal palace, serves beautiful food in an elegant setting with the feeling of royalty part of every breath... truly extraordinary.
Magnificent mountain terrain, secluded tiny villages and locals wearing the lederhosen of their ancestors, the Valtellina is a million miles away from the world of the Tuscan sun or Sophia Loren, or virtually anything else the American traveler could possibly recognize. It is spectacular in its scenery and nearly impassable in its terrain in the winter, but for the main drag (the 38) between Colico and Sondrio and a little more difficultly so along the smaller road (the 39) from just west of Aprica up north east to Bormio. The food is rich and delicious and from a time when a working farmer might need to consume 3000 calories just to hold his weight in the deep winter.
In Bormio, home to some of the last truly regional butchers producing real Bresaola, particularly macelleria Boscacci where venison, pork and beef are cured to perfection and the Bresaola is poetry.
The best resto in town is Taula
via dante 6 tel 0342 9044771), elegant and simple and strangely enough closed October and November as well as in May and June which leads me to believe it must be more of a hobby than a financial prospect. My last meal there started with slinzega and sciatt, a kind of cured horse meat bresaola with raw porcini and a light vinegar called agresto and a little fritter made with buckwheat flour and local mountain cheese which was so good I really buckled in for the ride. Next was a rabbit filled ravioli sauced with the cooking juices of braised goat that was sweet and tangy and perfect with red wine called (help me here Lynchie!!!). The main course was a venison called cervo and was served with puff ball mushrooms and soft creamy polenta, on top of which was a sausage stew called tocchi that could have easily been the main course itself. Desserts are based on mountain foraging, the best of which was creamy semifreddo with rhododendron honey and a pile of preserved wild blueberries that would make Maine yankees cry.
Half the way down toward Sondrio in a little town called Grosio is a must stop called Sassella (via Roma 2 tel 0342847272) which is conveniently located in its own hotel, thank god, because the wine list is extensive and almost exclusively local. The food is an expression of place and has everything right, from the game terrine with wild berries, the tripe soup, to the risotto with mixed game ragu and the classic pizzocheri, properly crisp on top and succulent and cheesy beneath. Two kinds of rabbit and three kinds of deer on the main course menu followed by a killer cheese called scimudin served with crunchy sweet apples, followed by a bowl of roasted chestnuts, a walnut tart and a pitcher of hot zabaglione scented with local grappa and you will need a nap of the 8 hour variety.
Into Sondrio another great resto/hotel combo is a place called Sozzani de l’Hotel de la Posta
(piazza garibaldi tel 0342 510404). A massive menu with both tradition and innovation, I started with a salami called mocetta di camoscio
, made from a chamois goat that was so soft and rich I nearly wept, until I tasted the local liver based mortadella and really cried tears of joy. A dish of baked pumpkin tortelli
cheese followed, and then a crunchy chunk of polenta with an unctuous stew of snails and tiny grey mushrooms. I felt as if I should be finished and they brought over a stag chop with huckleberries, horseradish and chard and the meal was perfect. A little taste of some local hard goat cheese and a dish of the local grape sorbetto
and I was ready to ski down the mountains in the middle of July.