1950s Archive

A Gastronomic Tour of Italy

Originally Published January 1956


The charms of Lombardy, the industrial stronghold of Northern Italy, are rather variable. Along its Hat lower stretches, punctuated by factor)' chimneys and beribboned by sign-infested autostrade, Lombardy makes a somewhat hesitant appeal to the eager visitor. But immediately above this plain rise a series of ridge-like mountains framing one of the world' tourist treasures. the Italian lakes. Ac first sight. Lombardy is a blend of the brash and the beautiful. Few contrivances of man are as shattering as a busy traffic intersection in its capital, Milan, resounding with open cutouts and the staccato beat of Vespa scooters. Bur in contrast, hardly anything is as restful as a trip along the shores of Lake Como on a small, sleepy steamboat. But if the Italian lakes sell themselves on sight, the hidden fascination of the plain soon comes to light, especially for those civilized souls sensitive to music, painting, Romanesque architecture, and fine cooking. For all its buoyant commercialism. Milan has time to stop and enjoy the good things of life, as any visitor to La Scala can testify. Today' prosperity is reflected in resplendent shops, ultramodern hotels and a culinary standard which is a pure joy to the visiting voluptuary. Lombardy has earned a gastronomic rating as high as any in Italy, we think, not excepting the rich bounty of Bologna. So some pleasant paragraphs lie ahead.

One reason for this opulence is the immense fertility of the Lombardy plain, whose close-packed gardens, meadows, and orchards are moistened by an intricate network of canals. Fruit, vegetables, and cereals burgeon from this dull-looking land of abundance, which also provides a rich tapestry of green for a flourishing dairy industry. The cheeses of Lombardy-Gorgonzola, Bel Paese, and Stracchino all come from here-are known all over the world. And it goes without saying that a trout from Lake Garda or a veal cutlet alla milanese is invariably prepared in rich, golden butter.

The glittering cheese tray from this region deserves some elaboration, especially for those who may encounter it some day in a Milan restaurant. Bel Paese originated in the Lombard town of Melzo, and is now manufactured in other countries as well, including our own. The famous flat cylinder of soft, yellow Cream richness has imitators, of course, but retains its immense following. One worthy rival comes from the picturesque hill town of Lodi, and is called Fior d'Alpe. This flower of the Alps is a fragrant one indeed. Gorgonzola, first perfected in a town of the same name near Milan, is produced in many places along the plain, and many makers abroad copy it. The original savory, piquant cheese, its creamy color punctuated by green spots caused by the introduction of Penicillium glaucum, is incomparable at its peak of goodness. Less well known is a white Gorgonzola, somewhat sweeter and not so piquant, for less robust palates. Stracchino is a melt-in-your-mouth soft cheese, square shaped, which flourishes in autumn and winter. The most famous brand comes from the little town of Taleggio, and, when it is properly ripened, can hold its ground with the world' best. Sprinkled on the top of countless Lombard dishes is the local version of Parmesan, called Grana, which comes in a huge, husky, hundred-pound disk. Then there are white cream cheeses, Mascherone, Robiolina, and Robiola and a toothsome square one called Crescenza. We've tried them all, with entire felicity, and only hesitated before one called Caciocavallo. That name seemed to hide a horse, and we would have none of it.

If the cheese tray is imposing in Lombardy, the wine list, by contrast, is meager. There are no wines grown here to compare with the superlative Valpolicella of neighboring Verona or with the sturdy Barolo of next-door Piedmont, Bur some creditable vintages come from the slopes above the narrow Italian lakes, in this respect reminiscent of our own Finger Lakes in New York State. The wines of the Valtellina district on the slopes of Lake Garda will reward the explorer who seeks them out on a wine card. They are vivacious reds, pressed from the Nebbiolo grape, and they go under the names of Sassella, Inferno, and Grumello. Prom the vine-thick slopes south of Lake Iseo comes a limpid and subtle red wine called Franciacorta. It is pleasing, light, and fragrant. And there you have the highlights of Lombard wine.

The cookery of this bustling segment of Italy cannot be dismissed in such a debonair manner. The substantial fac is that a whole squad of famous Italian dishes originated here. Some of them are absolutely basic—risotto, minestrone, costoletta alla milanese, osso buco and panettone, for example.

In Milan, the most opulent city in Italy, a rich repertory of regional dishes has won international acceptance. The classical, saffron-tinted, ambrosian favorite, risotto alla milanese, has conquered the most fastidious of French gourmets. The Milanese insist that their own version of minestrone is the first, and the best. It is so good that they eat it hot, cold, or lukewarm with equal gusto. Whoever coined the phrase, “Dreaded Veal Cutlet,” would be his blasphemous pun if he experienced a genuine thin, tender Milanese cutle of young veal, dipped in egg and finely sifted bread crumbs and cooked in rich Lombardy butter. It is as golden as an autumn leaf, and very simple to prepare. The tibia of Lombardy veal provides the ingredients for osso buco, one of the most original of stew dishes. The bones are sawed crosswise, with the mea and marrow clinging to them, and arc cooked for long hours until the meat is tender. Served with risotto and a gremolada sauce rich with lemon, garlic, rosemary, parsley, and sage, it is magnificent in its robustness and savor. The fame of panettone extends all over Italy. This large cake, resembling an over-grown brioche, is light and not too sweet, and made from the simplest ingredients—flour, butter, egg yolk, sugar, candied fruit peel and raisins. Some Italian housewives make these great golden-brown mushrooms of goodness, but only for their families. Commercially, the market appears to be cornered by such huge bakeries as Motta and Alemagna, who produce it by the ton for the Christmas season, in sizes from medium to Gargantuan,

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