Some Milanese blame the weather; they argue that lashings of veal, cream, butter and rice are needed to fight the city’s winter chill. Others blame their prodigious work rate and need to constantly refuel by way of polenta and taleggio cheese. Either way, you don’t come to Milan to diet – not with cannoncino cream horns for breakfast and risotto for lunch.
In Italy’s industrial capital there is a feeling that other regional cuisines are for wimps. Sure, prosciutto and sardines are delicious but real men eat bones (ossobuco being a local classic). After all, why put only spinach in the zuppa when minestrone of potatoes, carrots, beans and pancetta will do just fine? The heartiest and tastiest of all Italian ingredients, from unctuous Gorgonzola to white truffles, find their spiritual home here in Milan.
But from upscale ristoranti down to humble osterie, a twofold change has occurred.
Firstly, huge immigration from Southern Italy has added regional specialties to citywide menus– such as ’nduja spicy salami – as factory workers from the Olivetti plant demand a taste of home.
Secondly, the fashionistas that form a huge portion of Milan’s dining clientele have dictated a healthier change in dining habits. That means olive oil not butter to sauté the contorni (vegetable side dishes), chased down by a glass of aqua frizzante in place of a shot of hard liquor.
It's up there with panettone and saffron risotto as the Milanese classic. Better still it’s made with two certified local ingredients – veal and butter – courtesy of a recipe that pre-dates the Duomo. Simply take one veal chop, batter it senseless into a wafer flat orecchia di elefante (elephant's ear); roll in breadcrumbs, then salt and fry like you’re on the Elvis diet. Meat never got more melt-in-the-mouth than this.
Too muscular? Add a soupçon of vitamin C by squeezing the lemon segment that’s habitually served alongside the cutlet.
We know what you’re thinking: sounds like a weiner schnitzel, right? Wrong, because the cotoletta derives not from Milan's former Viennese overlords, rather it was exported to Austria from here.
The dish was mentioned in letters a millennium ago, and thrives across South America as the buttery battered milanesa steak.
In veal-land, changes are afoot. As Milanese are major fans of Japanese and Argentinian food (respectively the world’s most aesthetic and meaty cuisines), classics like cotoletta alla Milanese are being reworked by the city’s top chefs. Carlo Cracco’s version reimagines cotoletta in cubist form, with each breaded veal cube squarely sautéed to ensure even cooking. It tastes as good as the original, which is served in every trattoria across town, including Antica Trattoria della Pesa. A former weight station for ingredients coming into Milan, Antica now busts out cotolettas larger than the heavy china plates they are served upon. A favourite with the locals, the menu here doesn’t include English translations so be sure to bring an Italian-English dictionary or put your trust in the waiter!
It’s the golden dish that every Milanese boy dreams of his mamma making when he lands at Malpensa Airport.
Moreover, this dish’s history mirrors Milan’s greatest sight, the Duomo di Milano. It’s said that back in 1574, a young glazer named Valerio di Fiandra was working on the cathedral’s stained-glass windows, and he’d managed to achieve his golden pigment by adding saffron to the paint. His boss joked that young Valerio would even colour his food a golden hue – so he did exactly that by adding saffron to his rice stew.
The dish was then cemented in cookbook history 200 years ago.
Its recipe, a simple medley of onions, rice and Parmesan that owes more to method that ingredients, was inscribed in Il Cuoco Maceratese by Antonio Nebbia, the Mrs Beeton of his day. 20 years later, local chef Felice Luraschi namechecked the recipe as risotto alla Milanese in his own cookbook, Nuovo Cuoco Milanese Economico.
So popular is risotto that Italy is currently Europe’s largest producer of rice. The homemakers’ favourite type is Arborio, which is starchy enough to soak up the liquid goo of a Milanese. For a posh risotto grab a bag of Carnaroli, a firm rice from the banks of the Po.
Feeling lazy? Have it served to your table at the incomparable Trattoria Milanese. The authentic trattoria looks like a ristorante from the 1950s, not least due to the uniform of the waiter who wanders the dining room every 30 minutes with a steaming pot of fresh Risotto alla Milanese. An insider’s tip: always make a reservation, whilst this gem is still relatively unknown to tourists; it’s a much loved favourite with everyone else in the city.
This is the pinnacle of cream pastries: a puffy horn so delicious it should come with a warning. Cannoncini – which translates as little cannons – are shot through with vanilla, mint or coffee cream that has the potential to fire out onto your napkin/scarf/shoes in a creamy cascade.
Although not as strictly Milanese as cotoletta, the city has taken this Northern Italian staple to heart. First take a puff pastry horn; fill with crema pasticcera or a creamy concoction of Amaretto, chocolate or zabaglione. Then shake with as much sugar topping as decency allows; the flaky conclusion is a Last Supper request that tastefully embodies the world’s guiltiest ingredients: white sugar, white flour and white cream.
In true Milan style, super-sized cannoncini can be purchased at pasticcerie across the city. You can even bring about your own calorific demise by pairing them as locals do with a tankard of cioccolata calda (hot chocolate). If you’re feeling fancy, the patisserie of choice for fashionistas, editors and wealthy elderly ladies (with even older dogs) has to be Cova. Gucci is across the street. Enough said.
This tale is more rare than a bottle of tomato ketchup in a trattoria, so bear with me. The story begins a century ago with Count Cavalli. This dilettante noble asked his bartender, Fosco Scarselli, to add something stronger to his Americano cocktail. Scarselli obliged and the result was an alcohol-crazed confection of vermouth and Campari – with added gin: the Negroni was born.
The Sbagliato, the Negroni’s lighter cousin, was christened by accident fifty years later. It was a harried night at Bar Basso, the most authentic of Milanese bars in the Piola district. In the evening rush, barman Mirko Stocchetto fluffed an order for a Negroni by switching the gin with sparkling wine. The punters loved his spritzer mix and, heh presto, the Sbagliato (which means ‘mistaken’ or ‘false’ in Italian) was born. The 1/3 spumante, 1/3 vermouth and 1/3 Campari mix spread across town faster than a speeding Prosecco cork.
Some bars added a dash of Angostura bitters, a favourite cocktail garnish of Secret Agent James Bond.
Bar Basso, now run by Mirko’s relative Maurizio Stocchetto, is still the must-sip spiritual home of the Sbagliato. During the Salone del Mobile, architects flock here to try their signature 1.2-litre glasses of the red nectar.
And Basso’s recipes aren’t the only things left unchanged from the 1960s. The bar’s décor is grandmother’s sitting room meets cabaret lounge.