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Northern Italy: a gourmet guide

IF YOU ARE ever at a dinner party and someone mentions the fine wines and foods of the main places along the A4, don't be confused. Rather than Bristol, Reading and Maidenhead, they are probably referring to Turin, Milan and Venice - places to enjoy the gastronomic delights of Northern Italy.

Bearing in mind that just as important as good food and wine, is the setting in which to savour them, what follows is a guide to some of the highlights of the regions and restaurants of northern Italy.

Piedmont: Turin

With views of the snow covered Alps to the south and west, Turin is situated on one of the most beautiful stretches of the River Po. Most people, like Hannibal, pass straight through on their way south but Turin is definitely worth a bit of time. Elegant boulevards, great squares and magnificent buildings have proffered an air of reserved majesty since it became the capital of the Savoys in 1574.

Today Turin is capital of the Piedmont, a region whose cuisine has been heavily influenced by its close proximity to France.

The opulent Cambio, at Piazza Carignano 2 (tel 011 534 760), is Turin's oldest restaurant. It is the best place to sample regional specialities such as fonduta, a hot dip made with Fortina cheese, milk and golden egg yolks; bagna cauda, a saliva inducing hot spicy sauce with garlic and anchovies used as a dip for raw vegetables; and bolliti misti con salsa verde, a selection of carefully stewed meats served with a delicious herb sauce.

The cellar is well stocked with all the best wines and a good place to start might be with the reds from the local Barolo and Barbera vineyards.

Lombardy: Milan

To the east of Piedmont is Lombardy, Italy's richest and most developed region, and Milan, its economic and social capital. Although, out of envy, few who come from outside the city would ever admit it, the name Milan is synonymous with style. Indeed, as might be expected of the fashion capital of the world, shopping for clothes has taken on an almost religious significance.

Savini, in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (tel 02 805 8343), is rightly recognised as a culinary institution for the classical dishes of Lombard. Here the specialities include risotto alla Milanese, which is local rise cooked in broth with saffron; stracotto or brasato di carne, succulent meat baked in a rich sauce; and menghina, a sweet cake - best served with warm Grand Marnier.

Fine local wines for the discerning palate include the reds from Valltellina and Frianciacorta's crisp dry whites.

Veneto: Venice

A century ago Henry James noted; "Dear old Venice has lost her complexion, her figure, her reputation, her self respect; and yet, with it all, has puzzlingly not lost a shred of her distinction". The very same is true today. As its crumbling buildings slowly succumb to the Adriatic, its charm grows.

Venice has something of a poor reputation when it comes to restaurants but at Antoco Martini, on Campo San Fantin 1983 (tel 041 522 4121), you will be far from disappointed. This classical Venetian restaurant, in what started out as a Turkish coffee house back in the early 18th century, has evolved into a place of elegance and romance.

Dishes to die for include fegato alla Veneziana, calf's liver thinly sliced and fried with onions in butter; baccala alla vincentina, salt cod gently simmered in milk; and polenta, a simple maize flour cake served with a creamy sauce for freshly caught fish.

Antoco Martini carry prosecco and the bardolino red wines. These are recognised as amongst the finest wines of Veneto.

The places we have suggested will be more than a little expensive, but you are guaranteed an experience your stomach will not forget.

Gareth Lloyd