Northern Italy

Although tomato sauces, as we think of them in the U.S., are not common in Northern Italy, tomatoes are still used frequently.

Deliciously Diverse

This part of Italy is comprised of eight regions – Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Aosta Valley, Liguria, Lombardy and Piedmont--and, as is the case throughout Italy, the cuisine varies greatly from region to region (even from town to town).

Each region’s unique culinary landscape has been heavily influenced by both geography and history. While generalizations are often made about what distinguishes Northern Italian Cuisine from the rest of Italy, such as the predominant use of butter and cream, a focus on risotto and polenta over pasta, less of a reliance on tomato-based sauces, and a prominence of meat-based dishes, they tend to oversimplify a complex subject.

Pasta, Pasta, Pasta

There may be less of a pasta culture in Northern Italy than in Central and Southern Italy, but this in no way means pasta is nonexistent. Pasta still plays a large role in certain areas of the North, including Emilia-Romagna, the gastronomic heartland of Italy, sandwiched between Tuscany and the Veneto. Here, the making of fresh hand-rolled egg pasta has been elevated to an art.

The fresh sheets of pasta are used to make a variety of stuffed pastas such as tortellini, cut into tagliatelle and sauced with the famous meat sauce Ragu alla Bolognese, or used whole in Lasagna. Pasta is important in Liguria, where the egg is replaced with olive oil to make a lighter version than that of Emilia-Romagna. The most famous Ligurian pasta dish is Trenette al Pesto made with the abundant basil that is grown in the fertile soil of the region. Other examples of pasta in the North are Lombardy's squash-filled Tortelli di Zucca, and Agnolotti stuffed with meat and vegetables, found in the Piedmont.

Risotto and Polenta

As you move north from Emilia Romagna into Veneto, the home of Venice, pasta gives way to risotto and polenta. While in other regions, the rice of choice for risotto is Arborio, Venetians consider Vialone Nano and Carnaroli to be ideal for the many unparalleled risottos of the region, which include Venetian Black Squid Ink Risotto and Risotto with the prized red radicchio of Treviso.

Risotto is also prominent in Lombardy, with the most famous variation being saffron-flavored Risotto alla Milanese. Some of the finest rice for Risotto is grown in Piedmont, where the simple preparation, Risotto Bianco, showcases the flavor and texture of high-quality rice, which is cooked in a basic meat or chicken broth with only butter and cheese.

For Those Who Prefer Meat…

Beef, veal and pork are integral in the Northern Italian diet, due to the excellent breeds of cattle and pigs. Lombardy is home to classic veal dishes such as Costelletta alla Milanese (breaded veal chops fried in butter), and Ossobocco (slow braised veal shanks), which are typically served with the aforementioned Risotto alla Milanese. In Piedmont, prime cuts of beef will be sliced thinly or minced and served raw as an appetizer dressed with olive oil and white truffles, while larger cuts are braised slowly in Barolo wine to make Brasato al Barolo.

Pork is king in Emilia-Romagna, home of the world famous air-cured ham, Prosciutto di Parma, a true gastronomic masterpiece. The small town of San Danielle in Friuli-Venezia Giulia is the source of a prosciutto that is lesser known than that of Parma, but Prosciutto di San Danielle is every bit its equal.

While fish often takes a backseat to meat in the North, there is still a wealth of wonderful seafood dishes, especially around the lake areas and in the Veneto. Venetian Cuisine actually strikes a perfect balance between fish from the Adriatic Sea and meat from the inland portions of the Veneto. Lombardy may be a land locked region but its home to almost half the lakes in Italy, which provide an abundance of fresh water fish that figure prominently in the menu.

There are Austrian influences in the cooking of Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige and French influences in Piedmont and especially Lombardy, where butter and cream are used more than anywhere else in Italy. Butter and lard are the fats traditionally used in cooking throughout the North with exceptions in Liguria and Emilia-Romagna where locally produced Ligurian olive oil is used extensively.


Although tomato sauces, as we think of them in the U.S., are not common in Northern Italy, tomatoes are still used frequently.

Tomato paste and/or puree is used as a flavoring in classics like Ragu alla Bolognese and Ossobucco Milanese. Whole, peeled tomatoes, typically canned, are crushed or run through a food mill and used in soups such as Minestrone, or combined with wine and broth to braise meat, poultry, and game.

Return To Top