Let’s Get Smashed in Bergamo

bergamo 2You like polenta right?  . . . and you like cheese.

Then you’re ready to smoosh the two together in a Northern Lombardian dish from Bergamo called schisola (schisol) which means “squished” in the Bergamascan dialect. Bergamo is located in the scenic Italian foothills, a 45 minute train ride from Milan. The town is both modern and medieval. Bergamo Bassa, (Citta’ Bassa -the lower city) is the modern part of the town. Bergamo Alta (Citta’ Alta – the upper city) is the evocative ancient part with a panoramic view of the Italian Alps.

Preserved in time, rich in its medieval heritage of art and history, Bergamo is known as the polenta capital of Italy using the ingredient in both savory and sweet dishes. Polenta e Osei,  individual cakes shaped like mounds of freshly turned out polenta decorated with tiny pecking marzipan birds (osei) on top, is a pasticceria specialty of the city.

To make schisola roll the polenta into balls, squish pieces of cheese inside (a Northern Alpine cheese is preferred) and then broil or bake them. No time to make these polenta meatball then try polenta taragna, another “enriched” version of polenta made with a mixture of buckwheat flour, which gives the dish a typical dark color. When polenta  taragna is nearly cooked sizable bits of fresh alpine cheese (Branzi, Bitto or Fontina) and butter are added and then served topped with melted butter, sage and garlic.

Recipe for Schisola polenta Schisola

2 cups cooked polenta
4 ounces Italian Alpine cheese, divided into 12 pieces
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided, plus some for greasing the pan
¼ cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
8 sage leaves

1. When the polenta is ready, let it cool, wet hands and form with the help of parchment paper 12 balls of polenta, each 1 to 1½ inches in diameter. Make a depression in each polenta ball and press a piece of cheese into the dimple. Form the polenta around the cheese, rolling it between your wet palms into a neat ball. Place on a parchment-lined tray, cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.

2. Preheat the oven (convection if possible) to 500 degrees. Grease a baking sheet with some of the butter. Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter, arrange the polenta balls on the sheet and brush each one with butter. Bake until the polenta lightly browns and the cheese just starts to melt inside, 5 to 7 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, melt the remaining 5 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat in a small skillet and add the sage leaves. Cook until the sage lightly browns, the butter turns golden and the milk solids fall to the bottom of the pan and turn light brown, 6 to 7 minutes.

4. Sprinkle schisola with grated  Parmigiano cheese, drizzle with brown butter and garnish with the sage leaves.

Adapted from Eating Italy by Jeff Michaud

Springtime Near Bergamo Means Valcalepio Wine, Songbirds and Polenta

wine VALCALEPIOIn the wine valleys near Bergamo in Northern Italy, always the rules for the production of vino rosso Valcalepio remain the same and require that, in the spring following the vintage, the union of the two wines obtained by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is to be made. When spring begins wines are assembled as indicated – 40 to 75% Merlot, 25 to 60%  Cabernet to create Valcalepio rosso, an Italian “Bordeaux- style” blend. Such a mixture gives Valcalepio a special ruby red color and a pleasant scent, soft yet spicy it goes with a variety of meats and cheeses, butter-based dishes and the polenta specialities of the region.

Little known in the United States, Valcalepio is a wonderful wine growing area starting from Lake Iseo and ending near Lake Como. Bordering the city of Bergamo it is a perfect way to see and savor Italy following the Wine and Food Roads of the Valcalepio in Lombardia. Three different routes, about 100 km long, to enjoy the culinary and cultural history of a region of Italy that rests in the foothills of the Alps with some of my favorite Northern Italian dishes to pair with the local wines.

Must-haves include polenta e osei (polenta with songbirds now game birds) replicated as tiny little bird cakespolenta osei gilded a yellow gold to imitate polenta and stuffed with almond paste and chocolate mousse for those more likely to enjoy this marzipan version, coniglio alla bergamasca (braised rabbit with polenta)rabbit and crescent-shaped ravioli served with butter-fried sage.

The first itinerary known as The Road of the Convents (I Conventi) begins at the Capriate S. Gervasio exit on the A4 and ends in Bergamo. Along the way, you can visit the Abbey of Sant’Egidio at Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII, the Abbey of Pontida and the Church of San Tomè at Almenno San Salvatore.

The second itinerary is named the Heart of the Valcalepio (Cuore della Valcalepio). It starts in Bergamo and finishes in Grumello del Monte. This itinerary includes visits to the city of Bergamo, the Abbey of San Paolo D’Argon, the Oratory of Santa Barbara (inside Villa Suardi, at Trescore Balneatico), frescoed by Lorenzo Lotto, and several castles.

The third itinerary is named The Lake (Il Lago) and stretches from the Grumello del Monte exit on the A4 motorway towards Sarnico on Lake Iseo, returning via a different route and taking in the 15th century castle, Castel de’ Conti at Castelli Calepio.

Along the route, visitors will have the chance to taste typical dishes accompanied by the well-known regional wines.

*if you are not driving a visit to Bergamo is 45 minute ride from Milan

Alpha Italy

bestofitalyThere are some things in Italy that are over the top, the star of the group, the best investment, the cherry on the sundae, the most dominant person, place or thing you can see in Italy. I get asked ‘What is your favorite thing to do in Italy?” all the time and I tend to want to say everything because for the most part it’s true. Italy is the gastronomic epicenter of the world and 60% of the world’s most important works of art are in Italy with almost half of those in the city of Florence. Traveling in Italy will take you down Roman roads, past castles with Celtic altars and Etruscan ruins, through medieval walled cities and alpine lakes, visiting Renaissance chapels and Gothic cathedrals into family trattorie, vineyards and orchards to experience the food of Popes, princes, pilgrims and kings and wanting more.

It’s hard not to have the best time seeing and savoring Italy but it can happen. Many Americans have a narrowly defined, commercialized view of the people, places and food of Italy and pre-packaged tours often result in a show and tell version that can be less satisfying. If you’re planning a trip to Italy, take some time to “get off the bus”. There should be no excuse to come back from a trip to Italy boasting about the most wonderful food you ate, wine you drank and what you saw.

Here are some of our favorite alpha experiences traveling in Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria. Some are on and some are off the tourist flow. They are in no particular order and are just the beginning of your tour of a land perfectly constructed for the enjoyment of man. Where even after 15+ years and 15,000+ miles seeing and savoring Italy makes me come back for more.

Driving le strade dei vini  e sapori, the wine and food routes of Italy

Seeing 1800 statutes up on the roof of the Milan Duomo and the baptismal pools of the paleo-Christian archeological site hidden below

Stopping at an aperitivo bar in Milan for a struzzichini (nibble) and Campari and Soda

The Obika Mozzarella bar in La Rinascente  and window shopping on Via Monte Napoleone in Milan

An afternoon spent at Castello Sforza in Milan

The luminous crystal roof of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan centro

The Navigli canal district of Milan

Visit to CityLife,  Milan’s newest shopping and business district

Michelangelo Caprese

A dinner of costoletta alla Milanese and an authentic Milanese risotto

A plate of Milanese Osso bucco

An authentic Margherita pizza

Eating panforte in Siena

Panoramic landscape of The Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta near San Quirico d’Orcia in Tuscany

A bowl of Tuscan ribollita

A panzanella salad

A summer afternoon spent at the lake side resort town of Sirmione near Lake Garda stopping at every gelateria

Walking the promenade of Bellagio

Eating lavarello, a type of whitefish, on the shores of Lake Como

Off the tourist radar to see the Roman ruins of Veleia near Castell’d’Arquato near Parma

Tuscan crostini di fegato and fettunta

A panzerroti, a pocket of soft billowy dough that tastes like a closed pizza, down the street from Milan’s Duomo at Luini’s panificio

Milan’s Ambrosiana gallery and library to see Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus

Leonardo’s Last Supper in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

A taste of gelato at any Riva Reno Gelateria or Gelateria di Piazza in San Gimignano

The funicular to Bergamo Alta, (the upper part of the city), the capital of polenta for a taste of polenta e osei, tiny little bird cakes gilded a yellow gold to imitate polenta and stuffed with almond paste and chocolate mousse

A stay at Le Ginestre , a two-storied Tuscan farmhouse, on the grounds of Castello Bibbione, Machiavelli’s Hunting Lodge, San Casciano in Val di Pesa near Florence

The dramatic Camera degli Sposi  in Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, one of 500 rooms of Renaissance glory in the renowned court of the Gonzaga

The Great Fresco Cycle of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua

Eating a bistecca alla fiorentina (Tuscan T-bone) in the Val d’ Chiana

Radda in Chianti to visit the Chianti Cashmere Goat Company

A stay at the Hotel Tiferno in Citta’ di Castello in Umbria

Driving a Ferrari through the streets of Maranello

The Eugubine Tablets in Gubbio

Baci and chocolate at the Perugina Chocolate Factory in Perugia

Fidenza Village Outlet Shopping Center near Parma

Siena’s Campo and Lorenzetti’s allegorical frescoes of Good and Bad Government in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico

Eating a plate of cappellacci  di zucca (big hat pasta) with a butter and sage sauce in Ferrara

Assisi

The Franciscan Santuario of La Verna

A glass of Montefalco Sagrantino

The hot springs of Bagno Vignoni

The fish market of Treviso

A drive through Tuscany’s Chocolate Valley

Eating Tagliatelle al ragù Bolognese near Bologna

Tasting authentic Parmigiano Reggiano in Parma

The aroma of the grass, herbs and wildflowers of Italy

An insalata caprese made with authentic mozzarella di bufala, from Campania

The Luigi Fantini Celtic-Etruscan Archeological Museum near Monterenzio in the Bolognese Hills

The tri-lingual experience of the Northern Italian Trentino-Alto Adige (Sud-Tirol) and the towns and villages of the Dolomiti drinking Bozen beer, eating the local food  at Hopfen and Company  and seeing the Ice Man in Bolzano

The chimneys and Leaning Tower of Portogruaro near Venice

The seaside resort town of Carole on the northern Adriatic coast with beautiful winding streets, colorful houses and dinner at La Ritrovata Ristorante

La Rotonda; the Palladian Villas and the whimsical Villa of the Dwarfs along the Brenta Canal near Vicenza

A picnic lunch along Lake Trasimeno driving from Tuscany to Umbria

The medieval town of Castell Arquato near Parma with dinner at at Ristorante Don Ferdinando and the night at Hotel Leon d’Oro

A visit to a caseficio (cheese factory/dairy) to see the art of Italian cheese making

The Charlemagne Castello di Gropparello and “Parco delle Fiabe” for the fairies and elves of Vezzeno Gorge and the  Leggenda of the Ghost of Rosania Fulgosio

Driving through the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany

The city of Pienza for pecorino cheese and a visit to Palazzo Piccolomini

The hot springs at Terme Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme in Tuscany

A tasting of artisan crafted Italian beer at Birra Toccalmato near Parma

Stay at the Prisciana Suites in Ferrara and dinner at La Romantica with a visit to Castello Estense and Palazzo Schifanoia,

Museo di Tartufo in San Giovanni d’Asso for an addictive truffle experience

Abazzia Sant’Antimo only 9 km away from the Brunellos of Montalcino

Gregorian chants and the Great Cloister at Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore near Siena  

Driving the iconic landscape of Tuscany’s Crete Senesi

The authentic Northern Italian river town of Bassano del Grappa,  to drink grappa, eat white asparagus and walk across the Ponte degli Alpini (Bridge of the Alpini), a covered bridge designed by Palladio that commemorates fallen soldiers from WWII

A stay at the Lodole Country House in the Bolognese Hills near Monzuno

A visit to Tenuta di Capezzana for estate bottle extra virgin olive oil, world renown Vin Santo and Tuscan wine

Verona; the Arena, Casa Giulietta and dinner at La Greppia

The wines and cellars of Tenuta Vitanza Montalcino in Tuscany

A stop at the town of Valeggio sul Mincio with lunch or dinner at Ristorante Lepre, a Buon Ricordo member restaurant to eat papparadelle con lepre (papparadelle with hare) and a plate of tortelloni

Anything in Florence including Santa Maria del Fiore, the Baptistery, Giotto’s Tower, the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens and the view  at sunset from Piazza Michelangelo

The Medici Chapels and Church of San Lorenzo in Florence

An incensual slice of Lardo di Colonnata over warm toasted bread

A taste of coppa ferrarese bread

An order of Olive all’Ascolana, stuffed olives ascolana style a specialty of the Marche

The mosaics of Ravenna and the starry blue ceiling of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Titian’s altarpiece masterpiece in Venice’s Franciscan Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

A stop at a cicchetti bar in Venice for a nibble and an Aperol Spritz

A Venetian sgroppino, a refreshing prosecco lemon sorbet combination served in a flute

Venice period – walking tour through the Sestieri (districts)

Tour of the Consorzio Vacche Rosso to see the making of the famous Red Cow Parmigiano Reggiano in Reggio Emilia.

Attending Mass at San Cristoforo sul Naviglio (Navigli in Milan) dating from 1176.

Visiting an acetaia in Modena to discover the tradition and magic of the artisanal production of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena D.O.P.