With the exception of Japan, no other country changes my view of eating as much as Italy does. I think I’m familiar with Italian cuisine because I’ve been eating facsimiles of it my whole life – pizza, spaghetti, risotto, etc., but really, being in this country makes me realize that Italian cucina (cuisine) does not exist. It’s a striking revelation but it’s true. Italy spans 20 regions and its people are fiercely regional, expressing devotion to their region’s particular cucina. As a waiter who works in Milan but hails from Naples tells me in the characteristic thick Italian accent, “Signora, the pizza you order here is so-so. As far as I’m concerned, Italy ends in Naples. The pizza in Naples is buonissimo!”
Before I embark on my Italian escapade, I do my research. I’m aware that each region is renowned for specific specialties and corresponding wines, so I make a list. For a nation ruled by their bellies, I’m aware that there are certain rules that must be followed. I know for instance, that cappuccino and its milky ilk are only for breakfast and are never served after 11am. I do however, see some tourists enjoying a latte in the afternoon at places aimed at travelers, but I decide to adapt the mantra of “When in Milan…” So for me, only espressos in the afternoon.
When I’m tempted to have a caffeinated pick-me-up in the afternoon to fight the torrid heat, I ask for a caffe shakerato. It’s espresso, ice, and sugar shaken together, and in the version above, laced with amaretto. A similar, non-boozy version is a caffe freddo, cold sweet coffee.
Ah, la lingua Italia! (The Italian language!) I’ll be frank: the language barrier can be challenging at best and sometimes even frightening. The Milanese – as one guide book succinctly puts it – “don’t have time to play nice for visitors…” They remind me of New Yorkers with their impatience and bravado. A local tells me that Italians from the South are warmer – that may partly explain the surliness of those in Milan, which is situated in the Northwest. As a traveler, I do my best to communicate in my host country’s language, and it’s always greatly rewarding. Servers are surprised at first but then warm up when they hear me ask, “Signore, che cosa consiglia?” (“Sir, what do you recommend?”). On a bus, the driver nods in dawning recognition when I stutter, “Uno bigletto per andata e ritorno, per favore.” (“One round trip ticket, please.”) In the many shops I enter, I make sure to always greet the storekeeper with “Buon giorno!” (“Hello!”) and they let me browse at will when I explain, “Sto solo guardando.” (“I’m just looking.”); and because of these simple efforts of mine, their “Arrivederci!” (“Goodbye!”) always sounds warmer too. I have to work at committing these phrases to memory in the beginning, but soon saying them starts to feel like second nature.
In restaurants, the menus are listed as l’antipasto (appetizer); il primo piatto (the first course consisting of the foods that Italy is famous for such as soup, pasta, polenta, risotto, etc); il secondo (entrée or main course centered around protein); il contorno (a side dish eaten to accompany the second); and last, il dolce (dessert). I find that it’s not entirely expected anymore to have all five courses but each diner should have their own dish. Unlike other countries where sharing is the norm, most waiters ask me and my Bin individually as to what we’ll have and sometimes they’ll inquire, “Divisa en due?” (“Split in two?”) The ones more versed in English will ask, “For sharing?” This is not the country to be mixing and matching an appetizer with the main. And I discover that the succeeding courses really are served only after the previous one has been consumed.
A few more things I’m reminded of since my last trip to Italy:
There is no such thing as tap water here, since bottled water is the norm. Depending on the restaurant, it costs approximately €3. My Bin likes the “no gas”/natural water while I prefer the gas, fizzy sparkling water. There’s also something called coperto which is levied as soon as we sit down at a table. This pays for the costs of bread or grissini (bread sticks) and linens. The most expensive coperto we incur is €4 each, with most starting at €2.50 per head.
For my first meal in Italy, I treat myself to a Bellini. An Italian cocktail that hails from Venice and named for 15th-century Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini, the drink is an aromatic, lightly fizzy benvenuto! (Welcome!).
In the case of my first meal in Italy, it’s at the Galleria Café’ Restaurant Pizza (yes, that’s what it says on the receipt), located at the Galleria. My Bin has the Pizza Reale. Its medley of parmesan, mozzarella, and scamorza melt into each other since the latter two are curd cheeses. Pleasantly stringy, they’re rich with cream. It’s only the specks of gorgonzola, sharp and spicy, that introduces some interruption, and lavished over all are strips of speck (smoked ham).
My Cuore Bufala is as simple as can be, wedges of pomodoro (tomato) make a bed on which a ball of mozzarella di bufala lounges. I gasp at the sheer redness of the tomatoes, their blush fiery as their flavor is sweet, so sweet. These tomatoes rival those I eat in Switzerland. The mozzarella, because it’s made from the milk of water buffaloes, is more delicately flavored than that made from cow’s milk. It’s softer too, every bite surrendering moisture from the springy curd. Stark in its simplicity, this is a stunning dish that so takes me that I enjoy it several times more during my stay in Italy.
As the waiter in Milan explains to me, pizza is perhaps best in its birthplace of Naples but that doesn’t preclude the pizza elsewhere in Italy. At its simplest, pizza is nothing more than a yeasty flatbread spread with tomato sauce and/or olive oil and an imagination’s worth of toppings. In Italy, it bakes briefly in a wood-fired oven, the extreme heat of which cooks the pizza in under two minutes. As you can see in the marvelous specimen below, the smoke from the oven’s singeing wood flavors the pizza and blesses it with those burnt edges so characteristic of pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven.
The egg’s glowing yolk radiates like the sun, a supernova captured by strips of speck and molten mozzarella. Italian pizzerie (pizzeria) fall under two types. The first (seen in the first photo) is the fancier type ordered in a restaurant and eaten with a knife and fork. It still amazes me how seemingly svelte people can eat one entire pie each! The second type of pizzerie is that seen directly above, holes-in-the-wall spots selling pizza al taglio (by the slice) or by the meter, snipped with scissors.
An alternative to pizzas and paninis is something called a panzerotti. A specialty of southern Italy, these are semi-circles of dough stuffed with a medley of mixtures, most popularly tomato sauce and mozzarella. Folded then fried, it reminds me of a stromboli but with a more elastic dough. It’s blissful to bite into a panzerotti and be rewarded with a gush of hot cheese and tangy sauce. No one does it better than at Panzerotti Luini, located right behind the Duomo.
Via S Radegonda 16
Open January-November, 10am-3pm Mon; 10am-8pm Tue-Sat.
This is where I have my first coffee in Italy. Difficult to find but only because I think we take a wrong turn somewhere, this place is worth the walk for a firsthand – and old-fashioned – look at how the Italians have breakfast. Run by senior folk who look rather grumpy on this Sunday morning (hence, the lack of photos on my part), we pay for our cappuccinos at the la cassa (cashier) and then wait behind the bar for them. This wood-panelled pasticceria (pastry shop) has been around since 1824. Cookies and sugar-dipped fruit jellies sit daintily behind the glass displays and my Bin and I sip our hot drinks while standing at the bar Italian-style, sharing a cornetto (breakfast pastry).
Via Santa Maria alla Porta 11a
The outside of Peck. You can somewhat peer into the windows and get an idea of just how elegant it is.
Every food lover who goes to Milan knows about Gastronomia Peck, commonly known as Peck. It’s on Via Spadari, an area considered to be one of Italy’s great food districts. Peck is one of Europe’s most famous food purveyors, a temperature-controlled utopia of refined foods and distinguished looking people serving its customers. I walk around with my mouth half-open trying to take it all in, expressing involuntary gasps of awe alternating with moans of ecstasy. It’s all here, all the food in its finest form that Italy’s famous for – from the mozzarella to the cured hams to the antipasti plates, oh santo cielo! (Holy heaven!) My Bin protests at my fingernails digging fiercely into his arm in gourmet-induced giddiness. To my chagrin however, photos are forbidden as they often are in places like these. But if you’ve been to Harrod’s in London or Fauchon and the Galleries Lafayette in Paris, then you’re aware of the level of gourmet I’m referring to.
Thankfully, there’s a café on the top floor of Peck. It’s as genteel and refined as downstairs, focused on a meticulous selection of fine teas a la Paris’s Mariage Frères, and coffee beans, of which I buy a bag of Peck’s Espresso Casa.
My Bin and I stop for a revitalizing drink. He enjoys his il té la pèsca (peach tea), exclaiming, “It’s like they steeped an entire peach in there!” I sip and smell and have to agree. As for me, I decide to have a coffee unique to Milan, a marocchino. Oddly translating to “little Moroccan” – don’t ask me why – it’s served in a glass demitasse. This is a mini cappuccino, or rather, a mini mocha complete with a square of dark chocolate. I bite a bit of it, chasing it down with a sip of the coffee. The chocolate sits resilient to the rush of hot liquid then suddenly wastes away, leaving echoes of smoke and cocoa awash in milky foam.
Via Spadari, 9 (While you’re at it, check out Ladurée just across the street but it sells only their macarons, paling in comparison to the one in Paris.
Gelato is gloriously soft and is more than a revelation when eaten in Italy. The best gelati are obviously sold at a gelateria, and those that make their own proudly display signs that read artigianale (artisan/homemade) or produzione propria (production of the proprietor). After countless licks of this eminently soft and frozen sweet, my Bin and I agree that the best gelati are those served from covered stainless steel containers instead of plastic. “They’re more concerned with quality instead of showmanship,” my Bin elucidates between licks of his nth gelato in a coppa (cup).
The cono (cone) displays at gelaterias are often astounding and seem to defy architectural height and balance.
There are two gelateria in Milan that I think are outstanding and judging from the ever-present lines snaking out the door, many others share the same sentiment. The first is Grom, which hails from Turin, Italy but also has branches in the US. They take pride in sourcing the finest ingredients to mix into their gelato, thus the darkest cacao from Venezuela, hazelnuts from Piedmont, and coffee that tastes like it was just brewed. Thanks to DCF reader jayp for giving me the heads up on this before my trip.
It’s only on my third visit to cioccolat italiani that I’m able to fit through the door; Rain or shine, weekend or weekday, it overflows with people who can’t get enough of whatever “it” is.
The riveting exterior of cioccolat italiani. I love that display of flowing chocolate on the right. Photos aren’t allowed inside so I’m lucky to have gotten a few in “ninja-style” before being told off.
“It” is cioccolat italiani that happens to serve a gelato that is perhaps unparalleled in Milan, maybe in all of Italy. The gelato lab is within the premises (see photo above) and after paying at the la cassa (cashier), we’re given a number. Only when that number appears on the electronic screen do we get served. I gaze at the flavors on the backboard and stare, stupefied at the block and bars of chocolate that line the room.
cioccolat italiani is the only gelateria where one is asked if he/she prefers a white or dark chocolate bottom filler (see those spouts in the photo above?), and then the server fills the base of the cone with the liquid cacao of choice. The sight of that flowing chocolate and the resultant flavor sensation that awaits me after the gelato is all gone, is one of those food moments that embeds itself in my food memory. No wonder the lines are out the door.
Above, my nutty gelato cone with black cherry and pistachio. Below, my Bin chooses fragola (strawberry) sorbet and crema with lashings of Nutella. Best for last: liquid white chocolate at the very bottom; to plug any leaks, but really, to imprint the gloriousness of this gelato in my mind.