The specialities that sell, from the cold of the Alps to the capital
Winter is the season of the heart, of time to oneself and of good food, and in Italy the temptations are generous and appetising. Indeed, it seems that nothing symbolises Italy better than its culinary traditions, exported all over the world for many years. And it is in winter that these traditions become even more evident and lively, turning a few simple ingredients into a genuine triumph of flavour. So here’s a journey in search of the perfect winter dishes and the best places to eat them; they might even keep the frost and the grumpiness away.
We’re in the capital of risotto alla milanese, the world’s most famous yellow rice dish which continues to evolve even today. From the historian Pietro Verri and the legend of saffron, first known as a colourant and used for decoration, to the use of beef marrow and brain (nowadays almost disappeared), right up to the gourmet versions of the great chefs. Among the most outstanding are undoubtedly risotto alla milanese con ragù ngoppa by Andrea Berton at his award-winning restaurant Berton (Via Mike Bongiorno 13, tel. +39 02 67075801) and the gold-hued but minimalist simplicity of the ingredients used by chef Carlo Cracco in his Ristorante Cracco (Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, tel. +39 02 876774). Not forgetting the purely traditional version of the legendary risotto at Trattoria Masuelli (Viale Umbria 80, tel. +39 02 5518 4138), a historic address imbued with the Milanese spirit of bygone days. The city’s other great speciality - but far less globalised than the risotto - is Cassoeula, a hearty and filling main dish made using the less noble cuts of pork, Luganega sausage, ribs and cabbage. In recent years this has become a dish even top chefs want to revisit. As is the case with triple Michelin-starred Davide Oldani at D’O in Cornaredo, just outside Milan (Piazza della Chiesa, 14, San Pietro all’Olmo, tel. +39 02 9362209) and Carlo Cracco. For the classic version, the address is Antica Trattoria della Pesa (Via Pasubio 10, tel. +39 02 6555741), a historic restaurant dating back to 1880.
Around the lagoon the big winter dish is baccalà mantecato, salt cod cooked and creamed with olive oil, salt, pepper, parsley, garlic and milk. You’ll find it in any self-respecting bàcaro, served on polenta or bread croutons along with other mouthwatering cicheti and glasses of local wine: for the perfect start to a trip on the lagoon, here’s where to enjoy them. Al Covo (Campiello de la Pescaria 3698, tel. +39 041 5223812) or, in more casual chicheti form, aperitif snacks including the ubiquitous baccalà mantecato tempt the visitor into the traditional bàcari Al Ponte (Cannaregio 6378, tel. +39 041 520 2747) or the Enoteca Mascareta (Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa 5183, tel. +39 041 523 0744).
Casunziei are the true speciality of Cortina: pasta filled with beetroot and lashings of mountain butter. They’re eaten everywhere, from mountain huts to fine restaurants. The name - casoncelli - comes from casereccio, meaning home-made, indicating the nature of this dish made with a handful of simple ingredients which were once available to all. It’s a dish that’s still widespread today, and much loved by Cortina residents and visitors alike. The parcels are made with very thin fresh egg pasta, and they’re filled with beetroot and served with melted butter, plenty of grated parmesan and poppy seeds. Some cooks like to include ricotta in the filling; traditionalists use white beetroot instead of red, rare these days but the secret ingredient in many kitchens. Fabio Pompanin is one of them. To try the very best, don’t hesitate and head to his restaurant Al Camin (località Alverà 99, tel. +39 0436 862010), Villa Oretta (località Ronco 115, tel. +39 0436 866741) or Baita Fraina (località Fraina 1, tel. +39 0436 3634).
One of Florence’s most ancient and typical dishes is ribollita, a winter speciality because the main ingredient is cavolo nero which requires frost if it is to be picked at its best. It’s a thick soup made with stale bread and vegetables (onion, carrot, celery, cavolo nero, cabbage and white beans. This is more a dish for a trattoria than for fine dining. Unmissable ribollita in the city centre can be found at Trattoria Mario (Via Rosina 2r, tel. +39 055 218550), but only at lunchtime and on weekdays; at Cibreo (Via del Verrocchio 8r, tel. +39 055 2341100), or the less expensive Cibreino, where Fabio Picchi leaves half the beans whole and purées the rest, and serves the dish dressed with olive oil, pepper and a scattering of parmesan. On the northern edge of Florence there’s an excellent ribollita at Burde (Via Pistoiese 154, tel. +39 055 317206).
The other pillar of traditional cooking on the banks of the Arno is the celebrated bistecca alla fiorentina. This is the fillet and sirloin of beef, and includes a T-shaped bone with meat on either side. It’s an expensive and very tender cut which must be cooked quickly over charcoal embers; although this method is dying out, replaced by specialist ovens and hotplates. An exception is Trattoria Sostanza (Via del Porcellana 25r, tel. +39 055 212691), where the steak is cooked in the simple kitchen over wood embers, and Buca Lapi (Via del Trebbio 1r, tel. +39 055 213768) which serves a genuine Fiorentina, almost too thick, cooked on olive wood embers. For an award-winning steak, go to Il Palagio at Four Seasons Hotel Firenze (Borgo Pinti, 99, tel. +39 055 26261) where chef Vito Mollica serves only genuine Chianina beef from the Fracassi butchers shop in Casentino.
Carbonara, amatriciana and gricia are the three iconic starters in Roman cuisine. Simple and filling, perfect for the winter cold. Pasta alla gricia is basically an amatriciana without tomato, and it’s excellent at the classic trattoria Da Armando al Pantheon, where it’s made the traditional way: thick spaghetti with guanciale and pecorino romano DOP, not too mature (Salita de’ Crescenzi 31, tel. +39 06 68803034). Another Oscar-worthy gricia is at Salumeria Roscioli, near Campo de’ Fiori. The secret? They say it’s the red-hot iron pan used to sizzle guanciale from Montecorvo (Via dei Giubbonari 21, tel. +39 06 6875287). Even the Michelin-starred Moma offers this traditional recipe, interpreted by the talented young chef Andrea Pasqualucci: Verrigni square-cut spaghetti, guanciale from Amatrice and cacio sbronzo, in other words pecorino aged in grape must, which gives the finished dish a smooth delicacy (Via di San Basilio 42, tel. +39 06 42011798).
Coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew) is another cult dish from authentic Rome. The tail of the animal is nearly always discarded because it’s difficult to cook, But over the course of centuries in Rome, it has become the star of one of the best-known local dishes: coda alla vaccinara. For a timeless experience, try it at the tiny and classic trattoria in the heart of Trastevere, Da Enzo al 29. They don’t take bookings, so be patient and get ready to queue…it’s worth it (Via dei Vascellari 29, tel. +39 06 5812260). At Checchino dal 1887, a restaurant founded at the same time as the nearby abattoir more than 130 years ago, the oxtail cooked by the Mariani brothers seems to have an extra dimension, as it does at the Osteria del Velodromo Vecchio, a neighbourhood trattoria serving generous traditional food (Via Genzano, 139, tel. +39 333 5855055).