Milan is Italy’s Big Apple, a cosmopolitan capital known for its Manhattan-like pace and style. Unlike New York, however, Italy’s finance, fashion, and design hub was not considered an A-list destination for culture or cuisine until just recently. Instead, most visitors used the city as a jumping-off point to head east to Venice or the Lakes—or at the very most would make a quick run downtown to gape at the spectacular Duomo between connecting flights.
A series of international events like the 2015 World Expo paired with urban renewal projects to make the city’s downtown more inviting to visitors and locals alike fueled a small local renaissance, and an increasing number of travelers to Italy were drawn to the vibrant new food scene, dusted-off cultural sights, and, of course, world-class shopping.
Even “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” dedicated an episode of its six-part epicurean journey to Milan, which may have come as a surprise to anyone who hasn’t been following the city’s growing culinary reputation. Once dominated by rather uninspired “Mediterranean” fare, Milanese menus have pivoted in two directions, either towards celebrating authentic local specialties (yes, Milan does have its set of historic dishes) or towards pushing the envelope with experimental fine dining that may not suit everyone’s taste, but does capture the edgy, dynamic vibe of this northern city.
“We haven’t eaten out that much in Milan,” says Brian, “but when we have, we’ve enjoyed it. We’ve had a great meal at The Small, in particular. Though we haven’t visited Ratanà in person, Cristina gave me ‘Cucina Milanese Contemporanea’ for Christmas this year, featuring recipes by the restaurant’s award-winning chef, Cesare Battisti.”
Whether you’re in Milan for the high-end shopping, world-class art collections, unparalleled opera season, or simply to experience the verve of Italy’s most forward-looking metropolis, you’ll want to dip your toes into the city’s culinary offerings. Here are a few pointers to navigate Milan’s food scene from traditional to contemporary.
Traditional Milanese Dishes
Milan may be a modern city, but if you fancy sampling old-school dishes, you won’t be disappointed. There are a number of landmark eateries downtown where you can try these classics:
Risotto alla milanese – Perhaps the most iconic Milanese dish, this rich, creamy risotto is made with butter and saffron, which lends it a deep golden color and distinctive flavor. “I personally love risotto and make it often for dinners,” says Brian. “My first cooking job in NYC was at the Upper East Side edition of Sarabeth’s Kitchen. They had a risotto on the menu and I’m embarrassed to say that we were taught to par-cook the rice so that we could spin out single plates of risotto on the fly during service. I now know the error of my ways. A risotto takes around twenty minutes of concentration and making single portions of it just isn’t done.” Simple yet elegant, risotto alla milanese embodies the city’s sprezzatura-imbued flair.
Cotoletta alla milanese – Another beloved classic, this dish dates from the 12th century and is made by pounding a veal cutlet until thin and tender, breading it, and frying it in clarified butter. The most authentic version has the rib or sirloin bone in the cutlet.
Osso buco – These cross-cut veal shanks are slowly simmered in a wine-tinged broth and served topped with “gremolata”, a bright sauce of minced parsley, lemon zest, olive oil, and garlic. The most prized part of the dish for connoisseurs is the rich, creamy marrow, which you can dig out with a special long, shallow spoon (or the tip of a bread knife) to spread on bread. Osso buco is generally paired with either risotto or polenta, another northern classic.
Cassoeula – Not a dish for the faint-of-heart, this traditional winter stew was a way for families to use pork odds and ends leftover from the annual slaughter, and still today features B-list parts like the rind, head, nose, ears, trotters, and tail cooked in a casserole (or “cassoeula” in the local dialect) with sausage, onions, carrots, celery, and cabbage. According to local lore, this humble peasant dish was a favorite of Toscanini.
Trippa alla Milanese (Busecca) – Another challenging winter classic, busecca is a tripe and bean stew that was once a menu mainstay of city inns. Traveling merchants would fill their bellies cheaply when passing through to sell their wares and local markets, and the stew became such a symbol of the city that Milanesi became known as mangiatrippa or busecconi (“tripe-eaters”).
Insalata di Nervetti – If you think offal is a winter-specific culinary adventure in Milan, think again. This local delicacy is made by boiling beef or pork cartilage, bones, and tendons from the kneecap and feet with carrots, celery, and onion until the meat falls away from the bone. The resulting stew is poured into a mold and left to cool into a solid, gelatinous brick. It is then finely sliced and served as a cold antipasto tossed with onion, wine vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, parsley, salt, and pepper.
Mondeghili – Most Italian cities have their special version of polpette, or meatballs, and Milan is no exception. This dish was brought to Milan by the Spanish during their reign from 1535 to 1706, and both the recipe and name are derived from the Spanish “albóndigas”. Mondeghili are usually made with ground pork and mortadella mixed with milk-soaked bread, parsley, Grana Padano cheese, garlic, eggs, salt, and pepper. They are then rolled into small balls, coated in bread crumbs, and fried in clarified butter.
Contemporary Dining in Milan
Milan is one of the most international cities in Italy, where you can choose between traditional dishes or a vast variety of modern alternatives, from innovative creations by Michelin-starred chefs to international dishes from South America to East Asia.
Fine Dining – Milan is home to almost 20 Michelin-starred restaurants, from celebrity chef Carlo Cracco’s elegant Cracco in the spectacular Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II near the Duomo to the landmark Il luogo di Aimo e Nadia, founded in 1965 and today led by young upstarts Fabio Pisani and Alessandro Negrini. Milan-based chefs have the advantage of a sophisticated clientele with adventurous palates to push the boundaries of contemporary Italian cuisine, so the city is ideal for getting a sense of what’s next on Italian menus.
International Cuisine – Though you can find the odd “ethnic” restaurant in many major Italian cities, Milan offers international cuisine that is both authentic and refined. The Chinese community in Milan is one of the oldest in Europe; Milan’s Chinatown is crowded with new-generation Chinese restaurants for everything from fresh dumplings to excellent dim sum. You can also find high-end sushi and Japanese restaurants, gourmet Peruvian, Vietnamese fusion, and anything else that may spark your curiosity.
Apericena – “We absolutely love the aperitivo culture in Milan,” says Brian. Milan is the epicenter of the Italian aperitivo cocktail hour, and the spreads at many of the trendiest spots in hipster outposts like Navigli and Brera are so generous that they have been dubbed an “apericena”, or a cocktail hour + dinner. The aperitivo hour is such a deeply-rooted part of Milanese life that you could argue that it has become a more “authentic” way of dining than tucking into a plate of osso buco, and is by far the best way to experience the city’s vibe and rub elbows with the well-dressed locals.
Italy’s Happiest Hour: L’Aperitivo