Food is different in Italy. It’s not just the flavours; it’s the mentality. Italians simply love food. Good food, that is. Once I asked for a decent place to eat something (I don’t remember what anymore). The reply I received was “any place will serve great food, because if they don’t, then they won’t last long in Italy”. Simple as that.
Now Bergamo is a tiny place in northern Italy but that doesn’t mean the cuisine isn’t worth exploring. On the contrary, in fact. However, northern Italian cuisine is quite different from the one most of us outsiders usually imagine as “Italian”. For instance, butter is used in cooking instead of south’s olive oil. Similarly, potatoes are scarce in northern Italian cuisine. On the contrary, “poor man’s” polenta is the ubiquitous side dish in northern Italy.
The meal typically starts with what the French would call an “amuse bouche”. In other words, a small bite that serves as a pre-appetizer that “teases your mouth” and prepares your appetite for the rest of the meal. In northern Italy, this is usually a light puff pastry filled with either cheese or mushrooms.
In Italy, pasta is considered an appetizer or rather, first course. The most typical pasta in the area of Bergamo is called casoncelli. It’s pasta shapes filled with meat, ham and cheese. Usually served very simply with melted butter and some extra grated cheese or perhaps a bit of sage. Another option that I tried was casoncelli served with truffle sauce. I loved it, it was a delight.
Following a first course of pasta, one usually gets a second course of some kind of meat, usually pork with a side of, you guessed it, polenta. Rice isn’t a side dish at all; it’s an alternative to pasta as a first course. Polenta can be found in practically every dish. What is polenta, you might ask. It’s a dish of boiled cornmeal, usually of the consistency of mashed potatoes. But it can also be baked after being boiled, which results in a more flavoured and thicker dish.
Bergamo loves desserts and baked goods. The most characteristic dessert of Bergamo is called polenta e osei. Not to be confused with the polenta served as a side with main courses. It’s not really a polenta nor is it made of cornmeal. Polenta e osei is really a -wait for it- cake. Yep, it’s a classic cake with hazelnuts, rum and almond paste (marzipan). It’s covered with white and dark grated chocolate to resemble a bird’s nest.
However, it is another sweet that has outgrown the borders of Bergamo and became world famous: stracciatella ice cream. Indeed, stracciatella, the famous vanilla ice cream with chocolate morsels was created in 1961 at gelateria La Marianna in upper Bergamo. Still the place to go for the best stracciatella you’ve ever had.
Finally, if you’re a fan of meringue, then you’ll love spumiglie. They are balls of baked meringue, often covered with chocolate or with other added flavours. Absolutely delicious!
Which is your favourite Italian food or sweet?