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.
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.