The Food Of Northern Italy

Nov 19, 2018 | Food and Culture

What is Italian food? This is a question that seems like it has a simple answer. Pizza, pasta, tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, meatballs, etc. These are Italian foods, no question about it. But, saying Italian food is those five Items is only part of the story. It’s like opening a book reading the first chapter and thinking you know how the whole thing is going to play out. There is more to the story.

Culinarily, Italy is broken up into five regions. North, Central, South, Sicily, and Sardina. All of these regions share a lot of foods and dishes in common. You’re going to find pasta everywhere. But today, I want to talk about won’t you find in all of the regions. Today, I want to break Italian cuisine down a little further.

To focus on everything that falls under the blanket term “Italian food” would be next to impossible. So, we are going to take a look at one specific area of the country. Today we are talking about…

The Food Of Northern Italy


Northern Italy is unique from the rest of the Italian peninsula and the surrounding Islands Sardinia and Sicily. The area is defined by mountains, valleys and lower temperatures than the rest of the country. This has led to the development of a cuisine that stands apart.

The food of Northern Italy has less Mediterannian influence than the Southern and Central areas of the country. This has led to the exclusion or limited use of some ingredients we think of as ubiquitous in Italian cooking. Northern Italy has more influence from the rest of Europe, bordering Austria, France, Slovenia, and Switzerland.

The food of Northern Italy is heartier than that of Southern Italy. A focus is placed on corn, rice, butter, cream sauces, soups, and meats such as beef, pork and wild game. Northern Italy has it’s own cheeses as well such as Fontina, Gorgonzola, Mascarpone, Taleggio, and Asiago just to name a few.


While the sauces of Southern Italian cuisine are largely tomato based, the sauces of Northern Italy are more often based on wine or stock. This gives Northern Italian sauces a more subtle and delicate flavour and reflects the French influence on the region.

There are also many cheese sauces made with the cheeses of the area such as Fontina and Gorgonzola. This reflects more the Swiss and Austrian influences.

Oils and Fats

We may think of olive oil as a ubiquitous Italian ingredient but in Northern Italy, it is more common to use butter or lard as a cooking oil than olive oil. Northern Italians do use olive oil but not nearly as much as the Central and Southern Italians.

This lack of olive oil is due to the fact that Italian food is still very regional. The climate of Northern Italy is mostly too cold for olive production and since they don’t produce a lot of olives, they don’t use a lot of olive oil.

It may seem odd to think of butter as an Italian ingredient but it is very common in the Northern Region. It may be in part due to the French influence, but more than likely it is just because that is what they are able to easily produce.


The cuisine of Southern Italy is largely defined by pasta. There’s no question about it. Where wheat plays a major roll in the foods of Southern Italy, the North use much more corn and rice.

Dishes like polenta and risotto are more often found in the North. While they enjoy pasta, it is much less common than in the rest of Italy.


The flavours of Northern Italian cuisine are defined by the herbs they use. As opposed to the South that uses more basil and oregano, the North uses heartier herbs like sage and rosemary.


The meat of Northern Italy is beef, pork, chicken, wild game and seafood but less than in the South. The difference really comes in the preparations. More braises, and long cooking. Again, less tomato more wine and stock. And bolder flavours than you may find in other areas of the country.


When we think of Italian food we more typically think of the food from Southern Italy. Tomato-based pasta, lots of olive oil, garlic etc. Although this is absolutely part of Italian cuisine, and a great part of it, it is not the whole story.

There is more to discover on that boot-shaped peninsula. Maybe next time you are craving some Italian food, think of trying something new. Maybe, something from Northern Italy.

Here are a few of my favourite Italian Cookbooks.



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