Being a food writer in Milan carries both perks and discouragements–the Lombard capital plays host to Italy’s most electric food scene, so those of us lucky to call this vitalizing city home are spoiled. But as far as big Italian cities go, Milan remains overlooked and undervalued.
Admittedly, Milan isn’t “in your face.” She doesn’t fit the mold for most travelers’ (and editors’) expectations of Italy, so they’re quick to dismiss her without giving her a chance. I always say that if Milan were a person, she wouldn’t kiss on the first date or put out until at least a few weeks into the relationship–you have to be patient with her. Take the time to get to know her, and you’ll find her just as irresistible as I, and my fellow Milan enthusiasts, do.
Milan’s food scene warrants just as much love as its Fashion Week city counterparts, so I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands while also responding to a T Magazine article on Paris’s 25 essential dishes. You’ll find the first half here on Ciao Bella, and you can head over to my blog, A Signorina in Milan, for the other half.
Risotto alla Vecchio Milano at Ratanà
Why not begin with a classic? Situated on the ground floor of a restored early 20th-century train station, Ratanà itself and the menu both exemplify the juxtaposition of the old and the new that defines the city. Chef Cesare Battisti adds a contemporary flair to northern Italian cuisine, emphasizing his native Milan and Lombardy. His ever-changing menu features an evergreen section where you’ll always find the Risotto alla Vecchia Milano.
Battisti’s risotto alla milanese is the dish to try in Milan. The saffron aroma envelops you as soon as the plate hits the table, and it’s intoxicating. The golden rice is drizzled with gremolata, a parsley, lemon, and garlic condiment traditionally served with ossobuco. Per the vecchia Milano canon, Battisti tops the risotto with a veal shank–dislodge the bone marrow and slosh it around the rice before digging in.
Costoletta alla Milanese at Da Martino
After World War II, hordes of Tuscans headed north to booming Milan–hundreds opened restaurants, and Da Martino’s namesake was one of them. In 1951, Martino inaugurated his trattoria and today, his second and third generations run the show. Da Martino’s menu showcases some of Italy’s finest and eclectic ingredients, sourcing heavily from the Slow Food Presidium. And though the menu changes daily, the costoletta alla milanese (Milanese veal cutlet) is a stalwart.
Pounded thin all’orecchio d’elefante (elephant-ear style), served on the bone, and topped with traditional mixed greens and tomatoes, Da Martino ups the ante on costoletta by accompanying the cutie with a fried marrow-filled veal shank. Yes. But don’t make the same amateur error I did by trying to tackle it with a fork and knife. Instead, pick it up and eat it with your hands. It’s also worth noting that Da Martino has one of the most prolific wine lists in town. Though, go easy on the liquid intake if you’re not into squat toilets.
Tagliolini at La Sala Bistrot
A new wave of Italian cuisine has engulfed the Lombard capital, eschewing traditional antipasto, primo and second format, for a more open menu of dishes that couple Italian traditions with international influences. La Sala Bistrot is one of the places to try it. Chef Tommaso Sorgentone proffers a dozen or so ever changing dishes of varied portion sizes such as melon, skyr, butter, herbs, and smoked heron; tuna steak with salsa verde and marinated radishes; and roasted romaine lettuce with egg yolk sauce and bottarga – and changes up the menu routinely. Constant, however, is Sorgentone’s tagliolini.
Often the only pasta on the menu, the homemade tagliolini always makes an appearance but different configurators. Sorgentone may toss it with anchovies, sour butter, and broccoli rabe, jumble escarole, capers, and salmon roe, or however else he chooses. Whatever the preparation, go for it. Bonus shout out to La Sala Bistrot sommelier Carlo Maldotti –he’s never led me astray on the wine front.
Mondeghili at Røst
I’m going old-school with my rec here because I know it’s a guarantee: mondeghili (Milanese meatballs) at Røst. Another spot showcasing la nuova cucina italiana, Røst doubles down inventiveness. You may ask why I would mondeghili when Røst’s menu has featured fried cardoons bathed in melted taleggio cheese and flecked with fresh dill, or Tarocco orange with walnuts and bitter chocolate. It’s simple. Like La Sala Bistrot, the menu changes so frequently that I can’t guarantee these fleeting dishes will be here when you’re in town.
Crispy outside with a soft, tender, and delicately compact inside, chef Piermaria Trischitta presents some of the finest mondeghili in town. Close your eyes and take a breath, these mondeghili are undercut with a vibrant lemon note that infuses a refreshing touch into the finish.
Neighborhood: Porta Venezia
Ragù at Ciciarà
If the two spots above represent the new wave of Italian cuisine, then Ciciarà has secured a slot as a new classic. The unfussy food is rooted heavily in Lombard tradition – it looks to the past but represents a new modern: uncomplicated plating that lets the flavors and textures speak for themselves. Think eggplant topped with tomatoes that conceal a layer of hazelnuts or linguine in a delicate, creamy parsnip and celery sauce finished with lovage oil.
Like Rost and La Sala Bistrot, Ciciarà’s menu changes daily, which means I don’t want to disappoint by suggesting a dish that might not be there during your visit, but the ragù is a sure bet. Whether alla bolognese (slow cooked beef-based ragu, using another meat like goat or deer or even corada (veal lung), chef Michele Mete’s ragu will always amaze. Tradition calls for serving this old Lombard recipe with ris e curada (rice, in Lombard dialect), which Ciciarà does indeed offer from time to time.
Cherry Tortelli at Trippa
If you’re visiting Milan during stone fruit season and manage to nab a Trippa reservation – no small feat! Trippa may have shot out of the gates with a carne focus, but owners Pietro Cairoli and chef Diego Rossi have steered the restaurant in a new direction, curbing meat into more of a supporting role and featuring dishes like the must-have cherry and ricotta tortelli. (Trippa traditionalists, don’t worry, the vitello tonnato, bone marrow, and trippa fritta (fried tripe) aren’t going anywhere!)
These divine tortelli are coated in sage butter and finished with flurries of Parmigiano. Though filled with the sweet-tart fruit, there is, dare I say, meaty consistency with a pronounced savory note while still packing the unmistakable flavor of cherry. Stone fruit season or not, you will ALWAYS eat well here. Case in point: Rossi fills the tortelli’s winter counterpart with pero misso, a Slow Food Presidium pear from the Veneto that’s reminiscent of quince.
Neighborhood: Porta Romana
Almost Too Beautiful to Eat (But You Will)
Spaghetti alla Chitarra with Yellow Tomatoes, Stracciatella, and Red Shrimp Crudo at Pastamadre
You know those dishes that appear in your Instagram feed that are so beguiling you have to try them for yourself? This is the case for my inner pasta fiend when it comes to chef Francesco Costanzo’s menu at Pastamadre, a decade-old Porta Romana institution. One, in particular, is the fresh spaghetti alla chitarra coated in a yellow tomato sauce and topped with a blob of stracciatella that nests a crown of red shrimp crudo. There’s something immensely gratifying in gently demolishing the presentation and stirring it all together to savor one glorious forkful after another.
Neighborhood: Porta Romana
Spring Onion Spaghetti at Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia
Like the afore-mentioned Martino, Aimo Moroni left his native Tuscany for Milan after World War II and opened a restaurant in the spot where the 60-year-old Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia stands today (it took on its current name a few years later). In 1965, Aimo decided to elevate the aglio, olio, and peperoncino pasta preparation, adding a few elegant touches that include a Tropea spring onion–it’s been on the menu ever since.
Today, Stefania, Aimo and Nadia’s daughter, looks after the dining room while chefs Fabio Pisani and Alessandro Negrini oversee the two-star Michelin-rated cuisine. And, during your visit, you just may have the pleasure of the 89-year-old Aimo greeting your table. Note: the pasta is usually on one of the tasting menus, but they’ll let you order it à la carte. If you’re going to splurge on one meal in Milan, do it here.
La Cipolla Rossa at Contraste Matias Perdomo
Before Matias Perdomo opened the Michelin-starred Contraste, he was the chef at the late Al Pont de Ferr on the Naviglio Grande, earning the historic restaurant its first Michelin star in 2011. He left in 2015 to open Contraste with partners Thomas Piras and Simon Press, where he serves one of the dishes that put him on the map: La Cipolla Rossa (the red onion).
Yes, this is a candied Tropea red onion. The blown sugar is filled with caramelized onion relish and goat cheese, then served atop a bed of black sesame and bread powder–unforgettable. You have to taste it yourself to believe it, and once you do, you’ll be thankful that it’s part of a tasting menu–you’d be livid if you had to share.
Pizza but not what you’re thinking
La Ventricina Pizza at Crosta
Pizzeria Crosta hallowed ground for dough lovers but what does a world-acclaimed pizzaiolo in Italy do when a Champagne house asks him to whip up a pizza with pineapples to pair with one of its wines? He drinks a lot of Champagne, and in a state of blissful tipsiness, he has a stroke of genius inspired by his Mexican mother’s recipe for tacos al pastor. Simone Lombardi’s Ventricina pizza infuses the Abruzzese pork sausage with orange, couples it with roasted pineapples, then finishes with fresh cilantro and spring onions once the pie emerges from the oven. This tops the delicate, flavorful dough that has garnered Lombardi recognition as not only one of Milan’s but one of Italy’s most esteemed pizzaioli. To sum up the pizza in a single word: orgasmico.
Neighborhood: Porta Venezia
Focaccia di Recco with Mortadella at Osteria alla Concorrenza
Osteria alla Concorrenza is Trippa chef Diego Rossi’s second establishment in the Lombard capital, co-owned with restauranter Josef Khattabi and host-with-the-most Enricomaria Porta. The ample eats are so ridiculously enticing that you don’t even realize the osteria and natural wine bar lacks a kitchen–nor will you miss it.
A blackboard on the wall near the entrance lists myriad crostone, focaccia, and single dishes, and one splendid perennial is the focaccia di Recco con mortadella. For the uninitiated, this yeast-free PGI cheese focaccia originated in Recco, a comune in the province of Genoa. It comprises two paper-thin layers of flour and olive oil dough filled with stracchino, crescenza, or prescinsêua cheese and topped with salt – it’s baked, and the result is gently crispy, salty, gooey, and enthralling. At Osteria alla Concorrenza, the team gets playful, morphing it into a pita, then rolling it into a wrap stuffed with mortadella.
Neighborhood: Porta Venezia
Alternative pralines at Pasticceria e Dessert
It’s easy to just walk right past Marcello Rapisardi’s Pasticceria e Dessert, nestled into a nondescript corner of Piazzale Bacone. Yet, you’d be remiss if you did because this is no ordinary pastry shop. Hiding in plain sight among classics like cannoncini and cassata are whimsical array of treats that reflect Rapisardi’s motto: forma antica, contenuto moderno (old form, modern context).
Don’t be deceived by the pralines’ dainty appearances. Chocolate perfection conceals unconventional flavor fillings such as carbonara, where Rapisardi replaces butter with guanciale and fuses it with egg yolk, pepper, and pecorino before adding white chocolate, and another filled with samphora-aged balsamic vinegar from Acetaia San Giacomo. It coats the mouth and finishes on a magical almond note–just make sure to consume it in a single bite to avoid any vinegar spillage. And, of course, there’s more where these came from.
Neighborhood: Buenos Aires