Milano is certainly one place where the food scene speaks volumes about the local culture.
When researching eating establishments in this fashionable city, it seemed to me that 50% of those that came highly recommended were sushi joints or vaguely Asian-themed restaurants. Known for having the best style in the world, the Milanese are consumed with maintaining their modern, cutting edge image, and this fashion sense extends to their choice of where to dine. I suppose that Asian is “in” this year, and super sleek spots certainly have a hold on the upper midrange dining market. Am I crazy that this surprised me, even in an Italian metropolis as tragically hip and forward-thinking as Milano? From my experience, Italians are gastronomically traditional and fiercely proud of their local food culture. And rightly so. In most Italian towns, you couldn’t find a Thai place (or even a place that kinda sorta resembles a Thai place) to save your life, and the kitchens of my Italian friends have never seen a box of pasta or a can of tomatoes that they didn’t love. Indeed, when I stayed with my Italian friend and his three mid-twenties male roommates in Rome for a few weeks some years ago, one of the boys made me pasta for lunch – everyday – and each night brought bread, cheese, salami, prosciutto, and red wine to the table before the requisite pasta and meat courses. (Not to mention the room temperature, flat sparkling water that they drank instead of ice-cold tap water, as we Americans are wont to do.) When I made a seafood paella for the crew one night, it was like the most special occasion dining experience they could remember, not because I was using exotic or unavailable ingredients, but because I had thrown what was available in the local market together in an exotic, ie Spanish, sort of way. And, have you heard about the Tuscan town of Lucca that recently banned the opening of ethnic restaurants within its city walls? My point is that I don’t think my Italian friends would know what to with a sheet of nori or a bag of bonito flakes or a bottle of fish sauce if they were the last ingredients available on earth. So you can see why the ubiquity of Asian restaurants in Milano came as somewhat of a surprise.
What about the other 50% of restaurants in Milano? Well, from what I could tell, these eateries were of the outlandishly expensive and too-cool-for-school sort, evidence of the economic prosperity of the city and a overwhelming desire to see and be seen in the most expensive fashions you can(‘t) afford. Now, I would love to say that these places didn’t interest me, but truth be told, I just couldn’t bring myself to blow my student loan money on a meal that could never live up to its price tag. And, if we’re being honest, I don’t think the rumpled khakis and H&M clearance sweater I’d been lugging around in my dirty backpack would have made the grade amongst all the suits and fashion victims who patronized these restaurants.
So. I certainly didn’t come to Italy to eat sushi in a landlocked city, and I most definitely couldn’t afford a meal of the Cracco-Peckish sort. I made it my mission to try and find some old-school Milanese establishments. What about dishes like risotto alla Milanese, or osso bucco, or polenta? I may be exaggerating about 50% of restaurants being Asian and the other 50% being for billionaires or models, but I truly did have to conduct some major research to find the sorts of places I was looking for.
By happenstance, I ran across a review of a little joint called Luini Panzerotti. Its prime location on a side street around the corner from the Duomo and its pedigree as one of the oldest bakeries in Milano mean Luini has a line outside its door at almost any time of day.
The nostalgia that many Milanese show for this unassuming place proves that they really do have a soft spot for local culinary traditions. In 1949, Giuseppina Luini opened the bakery and soon thereafter brought the panzerotto, a specialty of her native Puglia, to the shop. Panzerotti proved to be a popular sell and have remained a beloved treat for subsequent generations. Indeed, the light, slightly sweet, donut-y dough that encrusts fillings of mozzarella, cheese and salame much like an empanada makes for a unique and satisfying goody.
We opted for three panzerotti: one filled with salame piccante e mozzarella, another full of prosciutto e mozzarella…
and my favorite, the appealingly simple pomodoro e mozzarella.
Panzerotti are small packages perfect for an afternoon snack. Two would make an ideal lunch portion. We weren’t stuffed to the brim, and since panzerotti are only 3 euros each, we had room left in our travel budget to enjoy some afternoon outdoor cocktails at a café on busy via Dante. Being an Americano in Italia, I thought I would do as the Italianos do and drink an Americano. The bitter-sweet combination of Campari bitters, sweet vermouth, and club soda is to some an acquired taste, but since I quite enjoy bitter flavors, the Americano was my drink of choice throughout much of the trip.
As we watched the beautiful people pass by on pedestrian via Dante, we nibbled on a platter of roast beef with tomatoes and arugula splashed with oil and vinegar and topped with a mound of shaved parmigiano.
This café also provided us with a preview of a local gastronomic phenomenon: the aperitivo. A boon to cash-strapped locals and travelers alike, the Milanese aperitivo is one of the world’s best ways to fill up on a budget. For merely the price of a cocktail or glass of wine, most cafes and bars (and even some restaurants) in the city offer a complimentary spread of nibbles for a few hours in the evening. Ranging from a few bruschetta on a passed platter to gargantuan displays of pastas, salads, Panini and assorted vegetables, this Italian equivalent of a food-lover’s Happy Hour is universally a favorite local pastime.
Unfortunately we were unable to fully participate in the aperitivi experience due to a last minute reservation we scored to see Da Vinci’s Last Supper. I guess we couldn’t complain, since we were trading aperitivi for a chance to view the fresco that depicts the most significant food event in Western history and is certainly the most recognized gastronomic moment in the history of Western art. I suppose it was a fair trade-off.
With our appetites sufficiently perked from a day full of panzerotti, aperitivi, and food contemplations quite literally of the Biblical sort, we scrambled to make our 9:30pm reservation at one of downtown Milano’s last-standing traditional trattorias. We arrived at prime dinner hour and had the pleasurable experience of waiting in Trattoria Milanese’s tiny entry hall with a host of other hopeful patrons, dodging scurrying waiters laden with plates piled with fritters and enormous meatballs and mounds of steaming polenta. This may not sound pleasurable to everyone, but the patrons sharing the miniscule space with us were by all accounts the most interesting of people: impossibly tall, thin ladies with the smoothest chocolate-colored skin and keenest fashion sense, older women laden with diamonds and accompanied by grumpy dates, locals and tourists, some casual, some cool, and all immensely entertaining. By the time we were seated a half-hour later, we were more than ready to leave the people watching behind and enter the atmospheric dining room of the bustling Trattoria Milanese. We were seated in one of the many dining spaces near a window at the front of the restaurant, and from here I had a view of the well-stocked bar and overall elegant, no-nonsense casualness of the place that trattorias outside Italy mimic but rarely ever achieve.
We started with the house-made ravioli, tender pockets stuffed with beef and parmigiano and simmered in a rich beef broth.
I couldn’t come to Milano without trying risotto Milanese with osso bucco, creamy saffron-scented risotto crowned with a slow-braised veal shank. I happily cleaned my plate and found myself licking my fingers after noisily slurping the marrow from the center of the veal bone.
One of my companions opted for the polpettone, three prodigious meatballs simmered in a simple tomato sauce served with polenta.
Owing to the spring season, the featured contorni, or vegetable side dishes, were artichokes and asparagus. Carciofi alla romana, or artichokes in the Roman style, were bathed in the white wine, garlic, and parsley sauce in which they were cooked.
Yet I preferred the steamed asparagus, crisp and thicker than my thumb and generously showered with olive oil and parmigiano.
While I am not usually one for desserts, we wanted to lighten our palates after such a hearty meal. We ordered a French vanilla gelato with strawberries and were delighted to discover that the berries were the itty-bittiest mini strawberries, some no bigger than the tip of a cotton swab and surprisingly tart in flavor.
My quest for traditional Milanese food experiences was infinitely rewarding. No 300 euro meal could have come close.