Saturday, July 28, 2007
Impressions of Bergamo
I will go anywhere in Italy at the slightest opportunity, but I have a special relationship with Bergamo. I've been travelling to this small city about 45 minutes north of Milan for about 10 years to visit my Canadian friend Roisin, who teaches medieval Italian history.
Italians don't think of Bergamo as the most romantic destination - let's face it, they have Venice and Verona to compare it to - but you will see chic Milanese strolling its cobbled medieval streets on weekends, jostling for gelato and window-shopping in the high-end clothing shops that are gradually taking over the walled upper city.
I've always loved the upper city, with its direct connection by funicular to the surprisingly lush surrounding hills, but this time I also spent a few very pleasant hours in the increasingly up-and-coming lower city. I can personally live without the sleek new lounge bars that are popping up everywhere, but they are a sign that Bergamo is keeping up with the times. Luckily, some things haven't changed: Angelo, the frutti vendolo (fruit seller) in the upper city, was so pleased to see us that he gave me a packet of Bergamo's famed stone-ground polenta, adding that a previous pope insisted it be made with water from Bergamo. (Perhaps a certain historian who might be reading this could remind me of which pope it was?)
To celebrate my arrival Roisin and I made our usual pilgrimage to the café La Marianna for an aperitivo. We both indulged in the Negroni, a cocktail made of equal parts Campari, gin and sweet vermouth. These are not diluted with anything, so when you see the size of this glass you can understand why I felt extremely cheerful afterwards.
I learned for the first time, thanks to a Slow Food article posted on the door, that stracciatella ice cream was invented here in 1962 by Enrico Panattoni, who was the owner at that time. He apparently named it after an egg soup, as the soft chocolate in the creamy gelato reminded him of strands of egg floating in broth. I resolved to come back and taste their stracciatella but, as you'll see later, got sidetracked by a new gelato shop.
The nostalgia trip continued with dinner at Donizetti, a wine bar that I love for its terrace under arcades that might once have been a market. The German Shepherd that could once be seen lounging outside the door (and is still pictured on the business card) is no longer there, but the salumi misti (cured meats) plate is still as succulent as ever. I honed in on the culatello, a deluxe cured ham made from the pork buttock rather than the shoulder, which gives it more marbled fat.
The next morning I wandered off on my own into the lower city and quickly came across a new gelato shop, Grom. A glance at the list of flavors told me this was no ordinary gelateria: first, they were referred to as "July flavors," and second, some of them had the Slow Food snail next to them. Little bells went off in my head reminding me that I had read about Grom on various blogs - founded in Turin, it now has 15 shops around Italy and the world including one in New York.
With only a slight pang of guilt at not sharing this experience with Roisin, I asked for the pistachio gelato made with the prized nuts from Bronte. Unlike most pistachio ice creams this one was not exactly green - in truth, it was closer to brown. Most surprising was the texture, so soft that the conista was able to swirl it around itself like a ribbon. Passers-by stared at me, at first because I was photographing my cone and then because I was so obviously enjoying this solitary ice cream (sorry Roisin).
I made it up to Roisin with lunch at Enotica la Lanterna on a cobbled pedestrian street in the lower city.
The people of Lombardy have no qualms about eating heavy food all year round - polenta with cheese was on the menu at Donizetti - but with the temperature approaching 35 C we felt like something a bit lighter. At this inviting wine bar with arched brick ceilings and contemporary art, we both ordered the sea bream with octopus, cherry tomatoes and capers. It tasted at least as fresh as anything I might eat in Nice.
I then dragged my not-so-reluctant friend back to Grom so that she could try the gelato made with lemons from Amalfi. I could hardly just stand by and watch, so I ordered the lemon granita. I've always thought that lemon was a good test of a gelateria's worthiness, and Grom passed with flying colors - neither of us could detect any bitterness.
Then it was time for a walk in the hills to build up our appetite for dinner. As one Italian guidebook puts it, "There are many wonderful paths, but it is best to discover them on your own." We took the funicular from the upper city and wandered up and down paved roads and stony paths, with views of the valleys beyond. On the way we admired the well-tended gardens - look at this lavender.
Shopping for dinner is at least as much fun as eating in a restaurant in Bergamo, so we picked up some casoncelli - bonbon-shaped ravioli stuffed with various meats and cheese - along with a thick slice of pancetta, top-quality Italian butter and some parmesan that the man in the shop happily grated for us. To complete the dish all we would need was fresh sage and salad from Angelo down the street.
Before heading back to the apartment we treated ourselves to a Bellini at a café on Piazza Vecchia. I love the aperitivo ritual in Italy, with its little toasts and sandwiches - if I lived there I'm convinced I would gain a lot of weight and drink far too much. But I would also be extremely cheerful all the time.
The next morning, by a weird twist of fate, I missed my train to Milan and therefore to Nice (note to future travellers: the 1A bus does not always stop at the train station!). I spent little time bemoaning my plight, as this meant there was time for one last coffee. At a café next door to Grom, whose closed door I stared at longingly, I was reminded that even when things go wrong in Italy, someone always seems to care.