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-y” area of Lombardia (outside of the Lake towns of Como and Garda) is the Franciacorta wine zone. Not only are many wineries equipped with modern visitor centers (Ca’del Bosco and Bellavista heading the list), but there is a golf course as well (not exactly everyone’s idea of “Bella Italia,” but what the heck). 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 (L’Albereta can be reached at 011-39-030-776-0550 or at www.terramoretti.it). Also worth checking out is the website of the Franciacorta wine producers’ association at www.franciacorta.net.
That said, the hard-core foodies is more likely to head for Cremona and Mantova, to the southeast–two stops in Lombardia that are absolutely essential for the gastrovoyager. It’s here you’ll find perhaps my favorite ristorante in all of Italy, Ambasciata in Quistello. Located about halfway between the two cities, Quistello is a tiny borgo with a quaint little hotel and two restaurants, both of which appear to be rather simple county inns. On closer inspection of Ambasciata, you will notice a lot full of cars with international license plates and a heliport. This is because the restaurant has an international reputation for serving some of the best traditional cuisine in an exquisite setting, all with a bit of a quirk. The Tamani brothers run the restaurant with spectacular quality and style and, most important, a sense of humor that makes the sturdy local cooking not only delicious but fun. The hand-rolled pastas are everything Emilia-Romagna can make (Emilia is just 9 miles away) and the homemade salumi are without peer. The cellar is just off of the dining room, and if you are friendly Francesco will take you on a tour of their vintage-rich collection. Romano runs the main event in the dining room and is justly proud of the riches the kitchen can provide.
Cremona was the home of Antonio Stradivari, the world’s most reknowned 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. Other great places to eat in this corner of Lombardia include La Sosta in cremona for a classic rendition of bollito misto and the mostarda served with it. In Goito, Al Bersagliere serves simple elegant river and lake fish, perhaps the best tortelli di zucca I have ever tasted and has a killer wine list. In Mantova, Aquila Nigra, near the ducal palace, serves beautiful food in an elegant setting with the feeling of royalty part of every breath… truly extraordinary.