Dishes to Die For Part 1 – dining out in traditional Milanese style
With well over a hundred restaurants recognised in the Michelin Guide in Milan alone, there is no shortage of extraordinary and innovative places to eat throughout the city. Along with a legion of top quality mixology cocktail bars and exciting chefs offering modern, international dishes, it’s possible to eat around the globe every night of the week. That’s not to say that you can’t find the perfect Neapolitan pizza here either, or enjoy a typically Ligurian plate of pasta al pesto on request, but Milan also has a wealth of its own culinary traditions up its sleeves that have been served up in family kitchens since time immemorial.
For a genuine taste of some seriously satisfying local fare during your stay, don’t miss the opportunity to slip off the busy main streets and wend your way through the atmospheric Cinque Vie roads just off the bustling Via Torino to try some unforgettably traditional meneghino recipes.
The Trattoria Milanese is tucked away off the beaten track on via Santa Marta at number 11, and has been feeding its local and very loyal customers since 1933. Passed from generation to generation, the restaurant was originally founded just around the corner from where we live at the Colonne di San Lorenzo, a stone’s throw from where they now reside. Folklore has it that the very smart hotel just opposite used to be a less reputable house in times long gone by, so the trattoria was formerly frequented by a less than illustrious clientèle, but there’s not a trace of anything so risqué these days, although the heavily veiled façade does make it impossible for idle passers-by to peek inside the windows. A coincidence, surely…
On a truly typical Milanese menu you’re likely to find that the recipes call for rich butter from the north rather than the more commonly preferred olive oil that is sourced in the southern part of the country, just as you’ll see that meat is far more prevalent than fish in this landlocked part of the world. The historical wealth of this finance-oriented city has also meant that only the most expensive select milk-fed veal cutlets were chosen in the past to make the iconic cotolette, while simple risottos were transformed into something far more noble, using a spice which is commonly held to be worth its weight in gold.
Saffron is of course the main ingredient of il risotto milanese, the most famous dish of them all, and indeed as soon as we sat ourselves down for dinner the waiter informed us almost confidentially and even before handing us the lista del giorno that the risotto had just that minute finished cooked to perfection. It felt only natural to order a portion, and looking around the other tables it was quickly apparent that everyone else who was arriving shared the same bright idea. When it arrived, it smelled as good as it tasted and had just that slight bite to it that any respectable Italian would insist upon. Our only slight hiccup came on learning that what appeared a vegetarian choice was also basted in bone marrow, so that put paid to ‘Veganuary’ – although the amount of butter on my choice of starter automatically disqualified me anyway.
Much of the joy of eating out is picking dishes you know you could make at home, but which never taste quite as good in your own kitchen. This was the case with the dish of the evening. My starter would have fed a platoon, but was seriously too delicious to share. I was cheating slightly by straying slightly off the local path and ordering a typically Mantovan speciality, but it’s akin to the search for the perfect omelette in Paris, and a bit of a prerequisite in the Collarile household: pass the mustard tortelli di zucca test, and the restaurant’s a keeper. Tonight’s appraisal? With the faint scattering of freshly grated parmiggiano sprinkled over the top of the buttery pumpkin and sage pasta parcels, it was heaven on a plate.
Choosing the main course was a tricky affair: opt for the time-honoured veal shank osso buco in umido, plump for the slow-cooked polento e brasato or go for one of those enormous costoletta alla Milanese that pass by and only just fit on the plate?
I confess to a faintly sanctimonious feeling when my small but perfectly formed mondeghili Milanesi are placed before me. A kind of meat patty, which back in the olden days would have been a way of using up left over beef, these variations on the oven-cooked polpette which are a household staple are also enriched with sausage, salami, mortadella and liver. Thankfully three turns out to be more than enough, given that they’ve been liberally deep fried.
Across the way, the appointed dish of the day is cassoeula, a hearty one-pot meal chiefly composed of pork and cabbage, traditionally served during the colder winter months. The jury’s out as to whether this very distinctive Lombard dish was named after the pot it’s cooked in (“la casseruola”), or because of the ladle used to patiently mix the ingredients (“il casseou”), but whatever the true ancestry of its namesake the large serving is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Opinions differ as to the origins of this famous bottaggio speciality as it is sometimes called; some anecdotes go back to the feast day of Saint Anthony marking the end of the period of pig slaughter, while the waiter suggests the more romantic version, namely that it was a Spanish officer in the 16th century who invented the recipe for his sweetheart-chef, whose kitchen cupboards were bare and who desperately needed to find something to dish up to the noble Milanese family she worked for.
Either way, the dish was largely served up on a poor man’s plate, because it used up all the less valuable parts of the pig which the lords and ladies of yore refused to accept on their tables, together with healthy doses of the Savoy cabbage that was growing profusely in the fields. Pork ears, tail, feet, rind and ribs all still make their way into the pot these days, although knowing this hopefully won’t put you off tasting this strong, decisive flavour for yourselves.
You’d imagine there would be no recourse to any more food at the table, but it proves impossible to resist the offer to bring us a portion of zabajone caldo e panettone to share. Far more alcoholic than we’d anticipated and steeped in dessert wine, it’s probably a bit too cloying to go down as a favourite after a couple of mouthfuls, but for anyone with a sweet tooth it ticks all the right boxes, and the biscuits were melt-in-the-mouth divine.
Reasons to return? For more of those tortelli, to be sure, and so many people have recommended the house speciality liver and kidneys that one of these days it would be good to find out what all the fuss is about, although the cervella di vitello fresca may be a bit of a stretch. After a fairly lukewarm welcome at the door (for which the restaurant is renowned), waiter service at the table is brisk but very warm and friendly, and while the menus appear only in Italian with any explanations in English halting and possibly approximate, that is all part of the charm and you do feel you are in very good hands. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Trattoria Milanese, Via Santa Marta 11, open Monday-Saturday 12:00-15:00, 19:00-22:45, closed on Sunday, advance reservations recommended, particularly in the evening. Please contact [email protected] for assistance with phoning ahead for your table.
All photos by Nicola Collarile