Picnic at San Vigilio

San Vigilio Funicular

San Vigilio Funicular

With the idea that it’s possible to ‘do’ Bergamo in three full days I thought it would be useful to suggest that one of the lunches out of the three could consist of something a little less ‘formal’ than in a restaurant. I’ve already suggested the Autogrill in the Città Bassa and Il Circolino in the Città Alta so here I thought I’d offer some thoughts on snacking and organising a picnic at San Vigilio.

Obviously eating al fresco depends upon the weather. I don’t know if I’ve just been lucky but during all of my three visits to Bergamo I’ve hit good weather. Yes, it was cold during the winter but most days were bright and rain free. The worse I’ve had to deal with were overcast days and an almost persistent haze that seems to hang over the town and the valley, presumably caused in no small part to air pollution. But a picnic on a clear day in winter is still an option, just need to make sure you wrap up warm.

A starter in this al fresco eating experience could well be a bowl of polenta provided by the stall directly across Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe from the entrance to the funicular station. This advertises itself as the first polenta take-away in Italy – in English. I can’t verify that claim and it calls itself ‘Polenta One’ but whether there’s a ‘Polenta Two’ I’ve no idea.

Polenta Stall, Piazza Mercato della Scarpe

Polenta Stall, Piazza Mercato della Scarpe

Behind the window hatch of this tiny stall is a machine which dispenses piping hot polenta (it took the skin off the roof of my mouth when I tried it) and other containers of the sauce of your choice. The selection is up on a board in both Italian and English. The stall is open from 11.30 – 14.30 and from 18.00 – 24.00. It’s designed as a take-away but there are a few places where you can sit and eat under cover of the building – so protected from the wet elements.

I tried a bowl of the Taragna (that’s polenta with Parmesan cheese as opposed to the Gialle – which is plain, yellow polenta) with a wild boar sauce. Not too sure if I’m a big fan of polenta but it filled a hole and was tasty enough. This cost me €6. (I don’t normally photograph my food but thought to do so this time.)

Polenta and wild boar

Polenta and wild boar

If you have this snack soon after the place opens you can do some more visiting around Città Alta before heading up to castle and park for a picnic at San Vigilio.

There are plenty of places to get snack food depending upon how hungry you might be, how many people you are catering for, how adventurous you want to be and how deep are your pockets.

If you’re into pizza then the biggest selection is in the shop right opposite the entrance to the Teatro Sociale in Via Colleoni, just around the corner from the Piazza Vecchia. If you’re new to Italy remember that the price quoted is for weight (and not a piece). Also at busy times you order and get a bill, pay at the cash desk to get a receipt and then return to the counter to pick up your purchases.

Gastronomica Deli Via Colleoni 7

Gastronomica Deli Via Colleoni 7

If you want to try local meats, cheeses and other delicacies I’d recommend the delicatessen Gastronomia at Via Colleoni 7, heading in the direction of San Vigilio. There you’ll find a large selection of local cheeses and salamis as well as huge pies with meat and cheese fillings as well as vegetarian options. A slice of those pies that will make a reasonable meal will cost you in the region of €6. This is not a particularly cheap place but it was the best place I came across for such provisions.

There are a number of cake shops for those with a sweet tooth, one of the biggest being right at the end of Via Gombito, at the corner of Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe. This shop displays the local sweet speciality, the ‘Polenta e Osei’ a hand shaped cake that’s a speciality of Bergamo. There seems to be as many different recipes as there are people to make them but basically consists of a sweetened polenta mix with a jam filling of some sort, perhaps with the addition of ground almonds. There’s an icing on the top and the chocolate is supposed to represent birds (the osie), sometimes artistically made. They vary in size (and price) but if you just want a taste the smallest I came across was sold in the pizza shop by the Teatro Sociale for €1.80.

Polenta e Osei

Polenta e Osei

However, whichever place you choose to do your shopping it’s advisable to do so earlier rather than later as come lunch time some of these places are heaving.

But I’ve left out the most important ingredient for a picnic – what to drink? If wine is your drink of choice then a little bit of pre-planning is necessary. The mark-up on booze in Città Alta borders on the criminal so a visit to a supermarket in the new town prior to picnic day is recommended. I tried two or three different Chiantis during my last trip and if you paid something in the region of €5-6 you would be able to pick of a very acceptable bottle.

Here’s one tip people might find useful. Drinking out of plastic cups is never a good experience, whatever the contents. My suggestion is to buy one of the stainless steel cups that are often used for water in Indian vegetarian restaurants. These are light, sturdy and unbreakable and cost very little. Available in Asian supermarkets throughout the country.

Once you have all your provisions head for the bottom station of the San Vigilio funicular. This is just outside the Porta di San Alessandro and the Largo Colle Aperto (where the No 1 bus down to the new town has its terminus). It’s only a short 5 minute journey in the small train and the cost is covered by the Bergamo Card or the daily travel tickets. They run about every 15-20 minutes.

From the top station go up hill to the Castello di San Vigilio and go as high as you like when you run out of road. There are a few levels where you can look back down on the old town. On a clear day you’ll also be able to see into the high mountains, perhaps with snow – depending on the time of year.

Orobie Alps and Citta Alta

Orobie Alps and Citta Alta

If you fancy an overpriced beer before heading back into town the bar next to the funicular station has a pleasant, covered, outside seating area. A beer here (less than a pint) will cost €4.50.

You can either catch the funicular or walk down the obvious road back to Città Alta. If you’re in Bergamo mid-week and miss the regular opening times of the Santa Grata Inter Vites church, in order to see the macabre paintings behind the altar, you could make a slight diversion down the steps and see if anyone is around who you can try to convince to open up and let you have a look. On the way back into town have a look at the plaques with information about the town’s original basilica at the top end of Via Borgo Canale. A fitting end to a picnic at San Vigilio.

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Il Circolino Ristorante – Cooperativa di Città Alta

Cooperativa Citta Alta sign in Via Colleoni

Cooperativa Citta Alta sign in Via Colleoni

I was glad I persisted in my search for a reasonably priced ristorante in Bergamo’s Città Alta, and not restricted my search to the new town, otherwise I would have missed out on Il Circolino. This is the restaurant within the building run by the Cooperativa di Città Alta, to be found in the dead-end alley off Via Colleoni (opposite No 22) with the Cooperative’s sign on the corner.

It wasn’t till I was back home and did a bit more research that I realised I’d missed a few things during my lunch time visit – that’s the problem when you put together a programme, some things might just be missed out due to ignorance or time constraints.

The Cooperative was started back in 1981 to counter a trend which local people could see developing with increased tourism. Some might profit from the hoards of people with money to burn, and the general price inflation that normally accompanies such, but what about the local people who had lived there before tourism was so important and weren’t on the receiving end of this new income?

Although invited to sit outside (it was quite a pleasant day on my visit) I chose to eat inside, not least because you get a better idea of how the place is run when able to see the staff dealing with the customers.

I decided on this place based upon the menu posted in the information case situated to the left of the main entrance. This had the options for the day including a ‘il menu prezzo fisso’ of €14. For this you were able to choose one starter and one main from the 3 options that were highlighted in each category. On top of that you had bread and water, a drink (wine or beer) and a coffee to finish.

Il Circolino Restuarant Entrance

Il Circolino Restuarant Entrance

For the pasta course I chose the Casoncelli della Bergamasca (meat filled ravioli, garnished with bits of bacon and drizzled with butter). These were both tasty and filling and it was good to be able to try one of the local specialties.

I don’t drink water but asked for a glass of red wine. This was a very good wine which came in a large glass but (unfortunately) not filled to the brim, in fact the brim was a long way from the surface of the wine. This is one of the problems of the Città Alta, all the booze suffers from a massive mark up, even in a place that was established to counter this hyper inflation. Fortunately it was a good local wine, rich and with plenty of taste, so perhaps what I lost in quantity I made up for in quality – perhaps too much of a pleb to be a wine connoisseur.

For the main course I chose the salmon – I know I had that a couple of days before in the Autogrill but didn’t want more meat and had limited choice. But I was glad that I did go for the fish. There were two reasonably sized salmon steaks, which had been grilled and then served with a sauce of capers, cherry tomatoes and black olives then the whole lot sprinkled with ground cinnamon. This was a combination of flavours I hadn’t come across before and the contrast between the sweet and the sour really worked. This time there was no vegetable accompaniment. Both the dishes arrived hot so not a put off for some British travellers.

And that was adequate for what I wanted. Not too much but at the same time I wasn’t left wanting for more. At the price I think I would have been in that situation if I’d gone into the other places off the Vias Gombito or Colleoni. Some places offer a ‘reduced’ menu but that seemed to mean pared down to the bone and they didn’t appeal to me at all.

The coffee was the spoonful of caffeine in a tiny cup that’s the standard in Italian cafés. I’m not really a coffee drinker so didn’t bother to see if the coffee came in another format.

I had arrived just after 12.30 thinking that things might get a bit busy after 13.00 but that wasn’t the case. From what I could make out I was the only non-Italian eating in the large dinning room. A couple of tables had small groups of building workers and one table had a group of 8 or so, apart from that there were only a handful of singletons. As the arms of the clock approached 14.00 the waiters started to clear the tables of the glasses and the packets which contained the cutlery and serviette so I got the impression that the lunch time was really only from about 12.00 to 14.00.

Considering the location (just off the main street of the Città Alta) I thought this ristorante good value for money and I can’t say anything but good about the quality of what I was served. This is place I would return to on any future visit and have no qualms in recommending it to others.

I learnt more of the history of the location after having been there so at the time I didn’t realise at what I was looking. The building had started life as a monastery, then was converted into a prison from the time of the French Napoleonic invasion and maintained that role until relatively recently. If I had known then what I know now I wouldn’t have rushed away and would have explored the garden and looked for the frescoes from the time it was a religious building. If you think of going to Il Circolino Ristorante it would be well worth checking out the website of the Cooperativa di Città Alta. In that way you might get a bit more out of the visit than I did.

Location:

Il Circolino Ristorante

Cooperativa di Città Alta

SocietàCooperativaSociale a r.l.

Vicolo Sant’Agata, 19

24129 Bergamo

Tel. 035 218568 or 035 210545

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Autogrill Self-Service Restaurant, Bergamo

 

Autogrill - Piazza Vittorio Veneto

Autogrill – Piazza Vittorio Veneto

For lunch on my first full day in Bergamo (out of three) I decided to travel down into the new town and see what was on offer there. It gave me a chance to have another look at the Monument to the Partisan and, perhaps, take some pictures of the Città Alta from below – that didn’t work out well as the day was, and remained, overcast with even a dramatic thunder and lightning show accompanying torrential rain in the evening. Just as the bus approached the Porta Nuova junction, my planned alighting place, I noticed a sign for the Autogrill Self-service restaurant on the left hand side.

(To get from Città Alta to the new town there are two alternatives. If you find yourself at the north-west of the town then you can go for the No 1 bus which has its terminus at Largo Colle Aperto. All the versions of the No 1 go at least to the railway station. If at the southern end of the old town you can take the funicular down to the main road – it’s only a few minutes ride. On getting off wait for the next No 1 to come down the hill. These are all free with the Bergamo Card.)

It’s not that it’s hidden, there are big signs everywhere, including around the open air terrace on the first floor (not used the day I was there as it was a bit cool) but when you go through the door you have to go up a relatively narrow staircase and it appears you’re going into an office building rather than a restaurant. However, at the top of the stairs there’s an extensive menu, as well as the first part of the self-service – the trays.

There’s a beauty of self-service restaurants in a foreign country in that you can get by without understanding the language, that’s if you choose with your eyes and are prepared to experiment. The down side is that they can often offer down market but I don’t think that was the case here.

I arrived before 13.00 when most restaurants would start to get busy as the normal lunch time for workers tends to be between 13.00 and 14.00. Arriving early meant it was possible to take in all that was on offer, going back and forth, without creating too much havoc.

I was in Italy so the first section, and the only one that was offering hot food being prepared as you wait, was the pasta and risotto section. The risotto was being prepared in a pan and was advertised with pesto so thought that would be a good choice. When I requested the risotto I was asked a question – that’s always the problem when you are weak in a language, however much you prepare there will always be a question you had not taken into account. The questions was ‘Bis?’. I didn’t have a clue what it meant until I’d answered a couple of more questions with a ‘Si’.

‘Bis’ basically means half and half – i.e., half risotto and half pasta (of a choice of two). And that turned out to be quite a substantial plate in itself, especially when this was supposed to be a starter. So on a reasonably large oval dish I had a portion of risotto with pesto and king prawns together with spaghetti with a meat and black olive sauce topped with a generous scattering of grated Parmesan cheese. (I thought it was a no-no to have Parmesan cheese with seafood but obviously no one had told the woman serving the food nor the young man who was in the queue in front of me.) The cost? €5.70.

There was a salad bar but I’m not really into salads but what was on offer looked fresh and it was up to you to choose the number of the combination and the size of the portion, the price of all clearly marked up.

There was a small dessert counter and they looked good so I went for a tart I hadn’t seen before, Torta della Nonna (Grandma’s tart) which was a custard in a pastry base topped with chopped almonds. (There are a lot of almonds in Italian cookery but now, more than likely, they come from California. This has led to the destruction of many thousands of almond trees in Europe as a consequence of cheap imports but with the present drought in California that supply might be under threat and with no alternative close to home the price of almonds might be set to rocket.) Also on offer was cheesecake and fruit. The cost of my tart? €2.70.

To drink I chose a half bottle of of Chinati. One of the big downsides of eating in the Città Alta is the huge mark up on booze and didn’t think that the €4.20 for what was a quite pleasant and full-bodied wine was too excessive and, after all, May 7th was the 60th anniversary of the victory of the Vietnamese over the French at Dien Bien Phu so anything less would have been an insult on such an auspicious day.

I was just about to pay when I saw that the person in front had gone for the salmon, so I went out of the queue to do the same, in the process almost doubling my bill. Salmon with potatoes cost €8.90 but it, again, was a substantial dish. Both the fish and the potatoes (dauphinoise) were cold and that might be a problem for some Brits as, over the years, I’ve met many who consider that food should always be piping hot. If you’re one of them then this place might not be for you – if you want to go for the main meals.

That came to a grand total of €21.50, more than I was thinking of paying, but truthfully that would have been at the bottom end of the prices for any meal in the Città Alta and I don’t think I would have had half the quantity, whatever the quality might have been.

I had a bit of a struggle, I wasn’t going to waste it, but I had to take my time. There was no pressure as it’s a large place and I wasn’t taking up a potentially valuable table. On the other hand no museums or the like would be open again until 15.00 and I’d been walking around for more than three hours in the morning. It also gave me an opportunity to people watch, as the overwhelming majority of the other customers were local people on their lunch break from work or college.

The decoration was exactly what you’d expect of such a ‘workers canteen’ but clean and things that people didn’t take to the tray stands were collected as soon as they built up. Not as plush as some of the places in Città Alta but then there you’re often paying for the linen tablecloths and napkins, as well as the supercilious waiting staff, more than for the food.

I had learnt years ago that Italians go into a bar, drink, pay and leave much quicker than is the norm in other countries and as I sat taking my time over my meal it was confirmed that they have that same attitude to food, at least in a public place at lunchtime, tables close to me filling up and emptying a number of times during my stay.

Watching what other people were eating I was also able to learn, something I hadn’t picked up when selecting my food, that the restaurant takes orders for full 10/12 inch pizzas, which get cooked to order and then brought to the table – so that’s another option at the Autogrill.

This was a good find and I wouldn’t have a qualms going to this place if I were to find myself hungry in Bergamo in the future.

Location:

Autogrill, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, 15

This is the big square close to the Porta Nuova and the restaurant is across the road from the Torre dei Caduti, on the edge of the town’s banking district.

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