Keen for a weekend away, the Bidmead girls (my mum, sister and me) snapped up a deal for three nights in the style capital of Italy – Milan. It might have not have to romance of Rome, but it’s still in Italy, and that means….food!
A friend from work is from Milan, and she sent me off with an amazingly extensive list of must-dos and mainly, must eats (see her incredible list here…thanks, Giulia!). We headed to her recommend spot for the ‘best pizza in the city’ for our first dinner, a swanky cocktail and pizza bar called Dry.
Dry is distinctly different to the traditional Italian trattorias that line the streets of the city, marking itself out as a dimly lit, minimally decorated bar that serves up proper adult cocktails (not a piña colada in sight) and thin crust pizzas, beautifully topped with finely sliced cured meats, veg and fresh herbs.
My sister is a veggie so we skipped the meat options, but this was no hardship. With a fresh courgette and basil pizza and a spinach, fior di latte cheese and tomato number, our pizza cravings were more than met, albeit it meatlessly. As my mum and sister sipped their classic Italian Aperol spritz’s, I went for a short, sweet red vermouth. Similar to a jäger mister, this still had a slightly medicinal note to it, but with a lighter, sweeter aftertaste.
The next day, we hit all the sights and after a morning moseying around the city, the strong midday sun beamed upon us and it was time for a pit stop. On my friend’s suggestion, we found the little side street behind the city’s impressive Duomo cathedral, on which the equally famous Milan landmark Luini is located.
Luini is a Milanese institution, serving up panzerotti; filled pockets of bread, sealed up and deep fried. A quick and cheap lunch option, I tried two panzerotti: one baked with anchovies, cheese and tomato and one deep fried, filled with spinach and ricotta.
The baked panzerotti had a strong fishy flavour which verged on overwhelming, but was toned down by the melted cheese and tomato accompaniments inside the fresh warm bread. The fried ricotta cheese option, however, was a combination of sweet bread and savoury filling, which I didn’t like at all – if I wanted a sweet option, I would have chosen the Nutella one.
For Saturday’s dinner we headed to the traditional Italian trattoria Damn Atra’, another one of my friend’s suggestions. Located in the buzzing canalside area of Navigli, this restaurant is worlds (and decades) away from the hip, young joints that surround it, serving nothing but traditional Milanese dishes.
Saving all potential ordering doubts and distress, it seemed like the ‘done thing’ was to order the menu degustazione, a three-course meal with proper, Milanese classics. Very meat heavy, my mum and I opted for the menu, while my sister had tortellini di zucca for primi plati and a mixed vegetable and cheese grill for main.
Tortelli is just another name for ravioli, and my sister’s first dish consisted of pumpkin filled pasta parcels, coated in a buttery, sage sauce. The sweetness of the pumpkin was brought out against the intense savoury taste of the sage, and the rich buttery sauce brought the flavours together perfectly.
The starter for the degustazione was mammoth; cured meats, fried bread, soft cheese dip, Russian salad, fried potato skins, crispy onions, and…nervetti.
What’s nervetti, you might ask? Looking deceptively like pickles, I probed them and knew something was not quite kosher. I asked the waitress what these curious jellied little nibbles were, and with a smile on her face she replied “nervetti!”.
Upon studying them closer, I saw their resemblance to bacon lardons, made the phonetical link and asked “nerves?”. “Yes! Nerve endings“.
Suspecting a translation fault, I later looked this up – nervetti are actually gelatinous cubes of pressed calf’s foot. Not the veins, but the extremities of the animal instead. Even for an offal enthusiast such as myself, this was an animal part too far. There’s a clear reason the Italians exported pizza and pasta and jellied animal feet stayed home.
Starter over and done with, and nerves safely off the table, what landed in front of me next can only be described as a real contender for an eating challenge, of professional standard. What could be more Milanese than it’s namesake dish? Presenting, my milanesa main.
Full name going as Cotoletta alla Milanese, this is a thinly sliced fillet of veal, breaded and fried. Actually hugely popular in Argentina too, I’ve tried many a milanesa in my time, and despite loving my meat, this bashed and breaded beige beast has never been my dish of choice.
This milanesa was the size of a steamrolled baby bear, breaded and fried. My mum had gone for the far more manageable mondeghili , Milanese meatballs, although with the two dishes combined we had enough food to feed a family for a week.
Like a thinner, pork filled chicken nugget, my opinion on milanesas was not swayed by this version. With no sauce, it’s extremely bland as a dish. Although the meat wasn’t dry I found myself aggressively squeezing more lemon on top in search of some extra taste. I much preferred the Milanese meatballs, which had the crunch of the breadcrumbs on the outside and the soft, herb filled mincemeat on the inside.
However, Damn-Altra was exactly what I wanted for a Saturday night in Milan. As traditional as an upmarket trattoria could come, it was a definite education in traditional Milanese food, even if the end result may be that this just isn’t my favourite kind of meal.
Having learnt I wasn’t mad for a milanesa, more room was freed for pasta and pizza – no bad thing at all. On Sunday we headed out to visit Lake Maggiore, an hour away from Milan city. We took a boat trip to visit Isola Bella, after arriving at Isola dei Pescatore – our lunch spot.
The tiny island is filled with restaurants, all serving up fresh catches of the day as well as the classic and much loved Italian dishes – please no more veal milanesa, though. We sat down at a restaurant right on the lake’s front and started our lunch with a mix of grilled vegetables served with salsa verde and burrata.
Burrata is made from mozzarella and then filled with a curd cheese and fresh cream, and in this dish it was firm and perfectly rounded, yet under the weight of a fork the cheese oozed out its dense, dairy sustenance. Ignoring the Italian status quo and power ordering three first course primi plati dishes as mains, after our burrata we asked for mussels, spaghetti alla vongole (clam spaghetti) and linguine pescatore (seafood linguine).
Seafood linguine has long been a favourite of mine – it’s simple, not much more than tomato, garlic and fresh seafood. But when the seafood contingency of the dish is made up of whopper king prawns and meaty mussels, these simple flavours totally shine.
My sister had chosen the spaghetti alla vongole, which I never normally go for. Literally just a sauce of clams, garlic, white wine and olive oil, the clams were tiny yet bursting with flavour, happily swimming in their garlicy liquid. The mussels shared a similar sauce to the linguine, but in this dish it seemed slightly thicker and richer in flavour. All together this was a standout meal of the holiday, and the joy was…we still had room for dessert!
Many people associate tiramisu with overly boozy, soggy bottoms, although when properly done it can be light and soft, with subtle hints of alcohol and shavings of chocolate. Opting for this potted pick me up to round off our lunch, my mum and sister converted themselves into tiramisu fans with this rendition, which was distinctly booze-free but heavy on the chocolate, and topped with creme-brulee style shards of burnt sugar, which added a nice crunch to the whipped creamy filling.
Despite such a huge lunch with a tiramisu on top, with an hour left in the lakeside town of Stresa before our train back to the city, I saw a pasticcicceria that looked like something out of a 1950’s Italian film, and just had to peak inside. Drawn into a tardis, taking me back in time, not only was I surrounded by red velvet cushioned chairs and old fashioned tablecloths, but I also found myself spoilt for Italian pastries. Torn over what to order and tempted by it all, it was the ricotta-filled, chocolate-lined shell of this cannolo which most caught my eye.
The rich ricotta cheese, sweetened and stuffed into the shell, was as light as a cloud, yet also densely rich with a texture that happily covered the whole inside of my mouth. This, mixed with the crunchy outer cone, was pure,= pastry bliss.
Getting back into Milan, after such a hard day’s work eating and drinking, it was time for an aperitivo, or pre dinner drink. Typical tipples for an aperitivo include bitter beverages, such as campari, vermouth or fernet. You could go for the all-out alcoholic negroni, a dangerous combo of gin, vermouth and campari, or opt for the more drinkable sbagliato.
Sbagliato means “mistaken” in Italian, and this drink supposedly originated from a busy bartender using sparkling wine instead of gin in a Negroni. The prosecco lightens the alcoholic load, and I had no problem sipping my way through a goblet of bitters.
Post potent-cocktails, we stumbled down the street and found what looked to be a classic neighbourhood pizzeria – Portabello. So old-school I’ve now realised it doesn’t even have a website, it’s down the road from Bar Basso at Via Plinio, 29.
The pizzas came fresh, thin and crispy, with a whole host of toppings, from the classic quarto formaggio to the distinctly less traditional ham and pineapple. This margherita with basil was nibbled along with a caper and anchovy pizza, washed down with an €8 litre of red wine. If that’s not value, well I don’t know what is! The whole of this pizzeria was miles away from the fancy, cocktail and pizza joint Dry we had visited on our first night, but both served up exceptionally good food. This is perhaps my main reason for loving Italy as much as I do. Go to a fancy restaurant, and you’re sure to eat well. But find a local little place, where the food and wine is cheap as chips, and you know what? It’s also delicious! Lord praise good, Italian food.
Sad to leave what I’ve now know to be my the home of my gluttonous heart, I said ciao for now to this beautiful (and delicious) country. Italia…ti amo!