eating our way around bergamo

Bergamo is a fabulous city in Lombardy, northern Italy, not too far from Milan. It’s often overlooked for Milan, but don’t make that mistake – you’ll only regret it. With a medieval walled upper town, a cosmopolitan lower town and views across to the (often snowy peaked) Orobic Alps, it is a stunner. But, if history and beauty don’t float your boat, maybe eating out will. And, Bergamo does this in the best of style. From takeaway pizza shops to high end restaurants, it does everything. And everything, very, very well.

We spent last weekend in Bergamo with friends who’d flown in from Manchester. It was their first visit and we were keen that they were impressed. It was a short visit so we had to choose places to eat, wisely. One place we knew we had to visit though, was Vineria Cozzi, a quirky, thoroughly original and totally bonkers (decor wise) restaurant in the heart of Citta Alta, where we were staying. This restaurant has been operating since the 1840s and it’s clear to see why it’s still thriving and very popular. As well as the restaurant – lots of little nooks and crannies and rooms, winding their way back from the entrance – the bar is open to non-diners and when I say it is a veritable Gin Palace, I am not exaggerating. Beautiful old walnut mirrored cabinets house hundreds of bottles of gin – and if this is your tipple of choice, you will spend quite a long time placing your order.

However, it is the food which is the stand out star of the show, at Vineria Cozzi and it’s the food which keeps bringing us back, time and time again. The menu is so inventive, with many nods to local produce and Lombardy inspired dishes. But, all with a twist. This is no ordinary Italian restaurant. Pizza is not available on the menu, and whilst pasta does feature, along with red meat dishes, they are not what you would normally be served. The dishes are quite magical when they arrive – even a “hamburger”, normally to be avoided at all costs, is a sublime work of art. Often with vegetarian options, nowhere near as much attention is paid to them as with their meat counterparts, but not so at Vineria Cozzi. There is a real variety of dishes and all are given as much love as the non-veggie options.

Vineria Cozzi is a real special occasion restaurant – when we last visited it was our friend’s birthday and so we knew that it was the perfect choice – but it is not overly expensive. It’s not the cheapest place to eat in town, but for four people with two bottles of wine, we paid just over €120, which for a birthday meal, was more than reasonable.

We also took the funicular up to the highest point in Bergamo, the stunning San Vigilo, and just outside the small station is Baretto di San Vigilio, described on its website as “the most romantic restaurant in town“. Without doubt, it has the most splendid view of the city of Bergamo, with the Orobie Mountains in the background, and to the front, a large terrace where you can enjoy the shade of the lime trees of the summer or the warmth of blankets and heaters – as we did – in the winter. Housed in an old Bergamasque villa, the restaurant has a feel of English charm, mixed with French bistro, serving generous traditional cuisine reinterpreted with a modern twist. We decided that we’d have a Sunday afternoon bite to eat here, as the winter sunshine still had a little heat in it and we were lucky to get a table right on the edge of the terrace.

The menu is not extensive, but wow – it’s amazing! We were initially slightly concerned that there weren’t any real options for our two veggie friends, but our concerns were soon allayed when we were advised that they could indeed be catered for. So, the decision was made to stay – and how glad are we, that we did. Prior to our food arriving, we were presented with a basket bulging with fresh breads, of various kinds and a big dish of home-made whipped butter. I don’t normally eat butter but this looked just too good to pass on, and it was indeed delicious. We were also each given a small, complimentary dish from the kitchen – tomato paste, topped with whipped ricotta, and sprinkled with pink salt. The tomato paste was utterly delicious – cold, but filled with flavour, and complemented perfectly by the ricotta, especially when swirled into it and mopped up with fresh crusty bread.

The main courses were just beyond our expectations. We’d thought we’d have a little Sunday snack which would satisfy us until we ate out in the evening – but these dishes were really verging on fine dining. Two of us opted for the maccheroncini di pasta fresca alla carbonara di gamberi (fresh macaroni pasta, carbonara style with prawns), whilst our friends opted for mezzi paccheri dei pastai Gragnanesi con carciofi, pasta di salame e formaggio stagionato di Cristian Locatelli (half paccheri of Gragnano pasta with artichokes, sausage and local cheese), without the sausage. All four of us were in agreement that although definitely not cheap – each dish was €21, so a little more than we were expecting to pay on a Sunday afternoon – the food was utterly exquisite. And with the views we had, it was agreed that this was a perfect way to spend a sunny winter afternoon in December…

The funicular is the best way to travel between the different levels of Bergamo, and the art deco station in Citta Alta is absolutely beautiful. As well as being able to hop on and off the cable car, the front of the station, which is another vantage point with spectacular views of the lower city and mountains beyond – and the airport, for plane spotters – is now a bar and restaurant, with a glass fronted terrace if you want to get even more of a view. Previously, this restaurant was a part of the Lombardy Slow Food Movement and the food was inspirational – and we were really sad on our last visit, when we found it to be all closed up. However, it’s now open again, but with a different identity. We were just glad it had re-opened, and  we’d settled ourselves in, on the terrace, before realising it was now part of a chain called The California Bakery. Not having heard of this before, we were a bit disappointed that it was now part of a chain – but then we remembered we were in Bergamo and Bergamo does food brilliantly, so we needn’t have worried. Two Salty Omelettes were ordered, with sides of French Fries and Rosti – and once again, we were pretty much blown away by the quality and attention to detail.

The portions were very generous, and with the additional sides – plus a side salad of fresh fruit, which complemented to omelette beautifully – we were a bit overwhelmed initially. However, when food is this good, you try your best and suffice to say, clean plates were collected away.

But Bergamo isn’t just fabulous for sit-down eateries. If you fancy a quick slice of pizza, on the go, you couldn’t find a better place than the famous Il Fornaoi, located in the heart of the action, Via Bartolomeo Colleoni. Open from 7am – 8pm every day, you won’t miss this place. Just look for the crowd of people, drooling outside – either queuing to be served or taking photos of the most incredible array of pizzas (and pastries and cakes) on display. These aren’t your average round pizzas – these are huge pizza slabs, cut with scissors and wrapped in paper for you to take-away. And, with so many varieties on offer, you can be sure there will be at least one to get your taste buds tingling…

If you have a sweet tooth, Bergamo will definitely satisfy your sugary cravings, as you will never be too far away from an exquisite chocolatier or patissierie.

It’s safe to say that our latest weekend in Bergamo didn’t even scratch the surface of culinary delights. It was great to see old favourites still thriving, as well as some new additions which we just didn’t have time to try. And the whole of Bassa, as equally full of wonderful restaurants, is still to be revisited. Luckily we are back in this amazing city twice around Christmas time, so I’m sure we’ll have more to report on. Oh, and just a little snack to accompany our Prosecco at Bar Flora, on Piazza Vecchia…

Published on 12th December 2023