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-ish” area of Lombardia, excluding the laketowns of Como and Garda, is the Franciacorta wine zone. Not only are many wineries equipped with modern visitor centers, with Ca’del Bosco and Bellavista heading the list, but there is a golf course as well.
Cremona was the home of Antonio Stradivari, the world’s most renowned 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.
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 three thousand calories just to hold his weight in the deep winter.
In Bormio, home to some of the last truly regional butchers producing real Bresaola. More particularly, they produce macelleria Boscacci, in which venison, pork and beef are cured to perfection, and the Bresaola tastes like poetry.
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.
Perhaps my favorite ristorante in all of Italy, Ambasciata is located about halfway between Cremona and Mantova in a tiny borgo called Quistello. Despite the quaint surroundings, Ambasciata has an international reputation for serving some of the best traditional cuisine (hence the EU license plates and heliport), albeit with a bit of quirk.
Start with delicious air-filled ricotta and anchovy fritters which set the tone for a beautiful lunch of includes monkfish polpette, and mussels in a sweet pepper stew with olio santo that could soothe any savage beast.
Aquila Nigra serves beautiful food in an elegant setting with the feeling of royalty part of every breath… It’s truly extraordinary.
The food at Sassella is everything right, from the game terrine with wild berries, to the tripe soup to the risotto with mixed game ragu.
Sozzani de l’Hotel de la Posta is another great restaurant/hotel combo. A massive menu with both tradition and innovation, try 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.