Getaway: A taste of Italy's Lombardy region

Alison Arnett

The day had been long, and the weather in Italy's Lombardy mountains chilly. After many adventures and many miles, my companions and I were weary.

As we sat around a cozy table at Azienda Aricola Al Rocol in Franciacorta, a creamy vegetable soup with farro sent a lovely warmth down to our toes, and a crackling fire illuminated the room. We wanted to stay the night.

Actually, we could have if our itinerary hadn't led us further into Lombardy. But I mentally booked this bucolic hideaway for my future travel plans.

Agritourismo - farms and wineries in rural regions of Italy that are open to paying guests - is all the rage in Lombardy and offers a reasonably priced option to city hotels. The family that owns Al Rocol makes sparkling wines, operates a small restaurant where the owner cooks and offers cooking classes and welcomes overnight visitors.

To American tourists, Italy often means Tuscany and Florence, Rome and Venice. Mention Lombardy, and you're likely to get blank stares.

But in this northern region, you'll find Milan, famed Lake Como plus five other lakes and handsome old cities such as Mantova and Bergamo. Like so much of Italy, the history goes back to Roman times and then veers wildly through the centuries with tales of shifting Italian politics, treachery and the rise of the trades.

Lombardy is also farm country. Cattle, pigs, wheat, rice and rows and rows of grapes dot the meadows and hillsides.

For budget-conscious travelers, the region is a fine alternative to more touristy areas, offering lower prices and the feeling of discovering a less-traveled area of Italy.

For our small group, which included food writers, this experience included lunching with a count. As we sampled golden risotto flecked with mushrooms at the home of Count Emanuele Medalago Albani, a distinguished-looking man with a courtly manner, he talked of weather, vines and soil like any farmer. His family has been making wine since 1524, he explained, in the hills above the ancient city of Bergamo. The vineyards encompass about 550 acres in Redona, up a winding road from Bergamo.

That morning, we'd roamed the narrow streets of Bergamo Alta, the old city high on a hill, where beautifully preserved Renaissance houses are still festooned with frescoes from when the city was a Venetian holding, and the chapels and Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore display impressive artwork.

But the count's 16th century cellars - where sausages are hung to dry amid the oak barrels of wine - easily outdid the city. In fact, in this region, every other building seems to be a 16th century monastery or farm turned into a winery with rooms for rent in outbuildings (even the count offers stays at his place).

A trip up winding roads to Valtellina, high above Lake Como, the almost impossibly gorgeous resort area, led us another day to Triaca, a monastery-turned-winery near the Swiss border. Here the wines and the food are hearty.

We watched as a cook kneaded a stiff dough of buckwheat flour to make pizzoccheri, a specialty of the area. She layered the cooked thick noodles with Swiss chard and potatoes, and then sprinkled on plenty of grated Parmesan and a local white cheese called casera before finishing the dish with butter browned with sage. This was a creation for the mountains, a dish that could fortify a hiker or a skier; both activities are popular in these mountains.

Hearty food is a standard in much of Lombardy, in fact. As we traveled through other areas, sampling sparkling Franciacorta wines and sturdy merlots and cabernets, almost every meal began with platters of salumi (Italian for all sorts of sausages). We sampled cottechino (a pork sausage), prosciutto and lean bresaola (a delicious dried, lean beef). Each table included a massive round of Grana Padano, the region's answer to Parmesan. We learned to chip away at the surface of the cheese with blunt knifes to release golden shards, and to compare the different varieties of salumi.

In Mantova, one native explained, the cubes of fat in their sausages are smaller than in Cremona, which makes the sausage more delicate. Another town nearby might pride itself on a slightly different ratio of fat to pork.

These kinds of minute culinary distinctions make all the difference in Italy, a country so dedicated to its regional foods that a distance of six or seven miles can mark a distinct cuisine.

The pride in what is produced is encouraging.

At a cheesemaker, Dede' Alberto & C near Lodi, approximately 10,000 big wheels of Grana Padano, marked "Tipico Lodigiano" to signify the highest quality, rise to the ceiling in a cool room. The cheese is made from milk from the Dede' family's own cows, which feed on hay and grass from their land.

Three generations of the family are involved in the cheesemaking operation, watching over the long aging to produce its fine grain and delicate flavor. The cheesemakers, Alberto Dede and his son Ferrucio, carry on a tradition started in 1945 by grandfather Arturo, and the father and son beam with pride as visitors taste the pale golden cheese and gaze across a muddy yard to cows grazing in a field.

Of the many interesting sights in Lombardy - from a violin museum in the beautiful city of Cremona to the picturesque ruins of a Roman villa on a peninsula on Lago di Garda to the high-fashion shops of Milan - none seemed as close to the spirit of the region as glimpses of farm life.

At Azienda Agricola Al Rocol in the Franciacorta hills, the mother of the family, Daniela Vimercati, leads the kitchen and the cooking classes; daughter Francesca is the sommelier and leads wine tours; and son Gianluigi runs the business.

Settling into one of the agriturismo's 35 beds would give a visitor a base to explore Lombardy and venture farther to Venice, Verona or even Genoa. But waking up to the sound of the farm's roosters, strolling the surrounding hills, and dining on that wonderful vegetable soup brings one to the soul of Italy.


STAYING THERE: Agriturismos range from full farm stays to farms renovated into bed and breakfast lodgings. Lombardy also serves up more traditional hotels and resorts. Here are three options:

Azienda Agricola Al Rocol, in Franciacorta, is a working farm/winery. Prices are from about $51 for a single to $141 for a quadruple, per night, with breakfast. All rooms have private baths.

Villa San Pietro B&B (, in Montichiari, is a fancifully decorated B&B not far from Lago di Garda, double rooms with breakfast, $118-$144. Each room is individually decorated; all have private baths.

Iseolago Hotel, on Lago d'Iseo, in the Francicorta area, is a modern resort with a spa, swimming pool and other recreational activities. Double, $182-$234, depending on season. Private baths, restaurant, bar.


- Many of the wineries in Lombardy are open to visitors and for tastings. For listings of wineries, e-mail the Federazione delle Strade dei Vini e dei Sapori di Lombardia, ; for Medolago Albani, visit

- Hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities are plentiful in Lombardy. Check or for suggestions.

- In addition to better-known Milan and Lake Como, Mantova, Bergamo, Brescia, and Cremona are all cities with colorful histories, beautiful churches and restaurants. Check out the Roman ruins preserved in the Palazzo Te in Mantova, the violinmakers' shops in Cremona, the medieval Museo Santa Guila in Brescia and the old center of Bergamo.

- Seeing how Italy's wonderful food products are made is a special part of a trip. Many offer tours by appointment. Try Dede' Alberto & C, cheesemaking, (; Rivoltini torrone candy factory, Cremona, (; Azienda Agricola Manestrini olive oil producer, Lago di Garda (

Foodie find in Mantova

There's nothing like seeing - or tasting - a place through the eyes of someone who loves it.

On a tour of Lombardy, we had a little free time in Mantova for shopping or basking in the sunshine. But Giovanna Cornelli, who had lived in the city for two decades and now resides in Boston (running a business giving advice for Italians visiting the U.S.), had other plans.

"Come with me,'' she said, as she led three of us through streets crowded with midday shoppers. It was quickly apparent that to Cornelli, nostalgia was closely linked to food.

A whirlwind ensued: Tasting exquisite torta elvezia (an almond cake) at the bakery, La Tur dal Sucar; and cottechino (pork sausage) and cherry mostarda (mustard) at Salumi Bacchi, a deli.

And then to Cornelli's favorite restaurant, Il Cigno Trattoria dei Martini, where we were met at the door by Gaetano Martini, the owner. His wife, Alessandra, poked her head out of the kitchen, her domain.

In a dining room filled with light and antiques, and after toasts with white sparkling wine and a taste of frothy red Lambrusco from the region - our meal started with pasta filled with beef - the tender agnoloni, floating in a clear, deeply-flavored meat broth.

Next was guinea hen stuffed with mushrooms and served with the region's most famous mostarda, apples preserved in mustard laced with honey. Pear torta and cake with cream and tiny cups of dark espresso finished the meal.

Sophisticated and subtle, rich yet restrained, this was a meal to remember. Now we, would join Cornelli in thinking of Mantova with fond nostalgia.

-- Alison Arnett