Delicious drives in Italy: along the SS 470 to Cespedosio

Welcome to the second installment of our Bergamo foodie road trip around the Bergamo province in collaboration with Hertz!

So far we’ve driven our shiny Fiat 500 from Milan to the top of Val Brembana, tasting delicious food on the way. We’ve already told you all about Moscato di Scanzo, a unique ‘meditation wine’, and today we’ll take you for lunch in a mountain hut, easily accessed with the help of our nippy little Fiat!

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As a lifelong hiking lover, I’ve come across several mountain villages in the Italian Alps. Some are abandoned, with houses and buildings slowly being reclaimed by the elements. Many still living a kind of in-between life with only a handful of full-time residents but several holiday homes, mostly owned by former residents. While driving our Fiat 500 down SS 470, running the length of Val Brembana, we saw several of those villages, clinging on the mountainsides between rocks and sky.

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Cespedosio is one of them. The turnoff from the SS470 is hard to see and isn’t even marked, as if locals wanted to conceal a secret. After a turnoff, 6 km of switchback began, then a narrow, potholed road running along the mountainside, past a marble quarry, through a forest and finally reaching the village – a smattering of houses, half of them uninhabited, built around a church, and surrounded by mountains as far as we could see.

Our destination for the day was Rifugio Cespedosio. The Italian term ‘rifugio’ refers to mountain huts, a place where people exploring the mountains can find food and shelter for the night. Most rifugi can only be reached on foot, whereas Rifugio Cespedosio can also be reached by car – I found driving a small car like the Fiat 500 was perfect to negotiate the twisty mountain road.

‘Welcome to Cespe!’ Piero, the rifugista, greeted us warmly as soon as we walked in. I’ve been to a fair number of rifugi in my life to learn that oftentimes, meeting the rifugista is half the fun. Usually, rifugisti are either locals or mountain lovers that have moved to the mountains in search of a better life.

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Piero belonged to both categories – his family was originally from Cespedosio but moved away. Fifty years later, Piero returned chasing his dream to run a rifugio and live in the mountains, the same mountains where his father was born, and where he spent all his holidays as a child.

‘I left my home in the valley, but I went to my other home in the mountains.’ Piero explained.

The rifugio was packed with locals. Next to us, a group of laborers poured the house red into white ceramic bowls that I had mistakenly assumed were going to be for soup.

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Drinking wine from ceramic bowls is a very old mountain tradition, typical of Lombardia – even though when I asked, no one really seemed to know where the tradition came from.

We started our lunch with a cured meat and cheese platter. ‘I made this, and this’ said Piero, pointing to paper-thin slices of pancetta and a coarse salami studded with peppercorn. Every single slice of cured meat was absolutely mouthwatering.

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There’s no set menu at Rifugio Cespedosio – every day Piero cooks what’s available, and there are generally three pasta dishes and three or four main courses to choose from. ‘You have to try my famous casoncelli!’ he stated, handing us two plates of ravioli shaped like wrapped candies, topped with crunchy sage and browned butter. ‘We make all these by hand, me, my mum, my dad, my wife, my daughters… everyone helps’. I’m a big fan of casoncelli, and I’ve had them several times – I can tell you that the ones that Piero served us were by far and away the best – the strong flavour of the salami filling was ever so slightly set down by the sweetness of the brown butter. I polished the plate in two minutes flat.

 

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Piero served us a second pasta dish, homemade maccheroncini in salmì – a sauce usually made with game and red wine, but we had a beef version. When I told Piero how delicious it was, he boomed ‘But of course! This is my Fiorella!’ Piero raises two cows at the time, providing enough meat to feed his family and the guests at Rifugio Cespedosio.

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As we headed back to our trusty Fiat, I could hear the sound of prayer coming from the tiny church next door. Two children pushed bails of hay up a hill, while a donkey and a goat grazed in a paddock. I asked Piero if the children were living in ‘Cespe’ full time. ‘No’ he replied ‘But they love it here. Maybe one day they’ll follow my footsteps, who knows, and they’ll move back, too.’

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Hertz.

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