Chow Town

Visit reveals how culinary traditions helped create northern Italy’s culture

Roasted vegetables at Pizzeria Ristorante Woodpecker
Roasted vegetables at Pizzeria Ristorante Woodpecker Special to The Star

The brightly lit outdoor patio at Pizzeria Ristorante Woodpecker in drew me in.

Speaking broken Italian, I ordered a carafe of red wine, roasted eggplant, potatoes and peppers, and a large thin-crust pizza topped with long, bent asparagus spears. I drizzled fresh olive oil on top of the pie as black “dust” accumulated on my fingers from the crust char.

The evening took a truly magical turn when a priest dressed in full-length vestments led a long procession of congregants along the cobblestone street within 20 feet of my table. As I lingered over my simple meal, the candles they carried illuminated centuries-old buildings nearby.

Did everything taste better because I was in Ferrara, Italy, or because of the ultra-fresh ingredients? Perhaps it was some of both.

This was my first evening in the city after many hours of plane travel and then three hours on trains from Milan. And food had already played a pivotal role in my travels.

At the hotel restaurant in Milan I had savored rich breakfast pastries alongside fresh fruit, yogurt and scrambled eggs served on fine china amid ornate, antique decor. From a train mate who spoke very good English, I learned that Italy had no genetically modified organisms.

Then as I reached Ferrara’s historic town square and castle in midafternoon, I found a tiny gelato shop and nearly swooned over impossibly creamy, rich, deep chocolate goodness that melted slowly in the warm sun. More pedestrians and bicycles filled the cobblestone and brick streets than cars, and customers on crowded restaurant patios sipped wine or espresso.

The next day after hours of walking, a restaurant patio beside the castle — Giori Birraria & Pietanze — beckoned. As a warm breeze played with the folds of my napkin, succulent pumpkin ravioli dressed with a single large sage leaf and cool Sangiovese wine satisfied my appetite.

When night fell again, bright spotlights illuminated the castle, massive cathedral and other ancient buildings. People again spilled across sidewalks and cobblestone streets, and chatted over pasta or gelato. After walking for 20 minutes I finally found Hostaria Savonarola, a welcoming cafe where fresh hams hung from the ceiling.

An Austrian couple sat beside me, another couple conversed in Spanish, and Australians occupied a third table. Middle-age parents and their grown daughters spoke rapid-fire Italian while sipping wine and waiting for their meals. A small salad, crunchy, grilled Italian bread, sausage- and cheese-studded tagliatelle, and more wine were a perfect end to my final evening in the city.

Several days later I visited a legendary culinary outpost in Turin. Dating back to 1763, the tiny Caffé Al Bicerin is renowned for bicerin — its signature concoction of coffee, hot chocolate and foamy milk — served amid dark wood, eight marble-topped tables and dozens of customers.

One train, two buses and several requests for walking directions had taken me through more historic neighborhoods and a crowded farmers market full of bright, lush fall produce.

In a place where wine and gelato are food groups, quaffing midday espresso provides a brief recess for socializing, and pasta is a daily delight, northern Italy’s culinary traditions play an enormous role in creating its culture. And I felt blessed to be part of it — if only for a few days.

Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer based in Overland Park. She specializes in food and travel writing.