Milan, Italy: The Best Dishes I Eat (3rd in a 5-Part Series)

Exceptional dishes eaten at restaurants recommended by Milano locals.

My Italy Series:
Milan, Italy, Day 1: Sightseeing, Shopping, & Some Fancy Cars
Milan, Italy: The Food
Milan, Italy: The Best Dishes I Eat
Ravenna, Italy: Small But Marvelous
Bologna, Italy: Bliss

I mention in an earlier post that since Italians are fiercely regional, it’s important to me to eat their piatti tipici (regional specialties). I’ve got a reliable list of restaurants to hit here in Milan but I decide to ask the locals where they eat, and they’re always eager to share their recommendations. I think it’s entirely apt that the Italian il ristorante literally means “the place at which one is restored” because the Italians know only too well that dining is about nourishment and passionate interaction with one’s dinner companions.

Ristorante Nabucco

Ossobuco alla Milanese is a great regional specialty and though it’s eaten more frequently in the winter, I’d like to try it. One local enthusiastically recommends Nabucco – “It’s famous here,” Signora says.

At Ristorante Nabucco, this is their ossobuco. It looks underwhelming at first but hidden underneath that somewhat pale sauce is a core of bone marrow, soft and succulent. The veal is equally so, singing in a sauce reduced with wine and aromatics. The risotto by its side, fervent in its yellow hue, exemplifies al dente, “to the tooth,” truly. I feel like my eyes – and taste buds – have been opened to what risotto is really supposed to taste like.
Our meal goes with a bottle of I Frati’ Lugana (DOC). Honey-sweet, it’s pleasantly acidic, great with the fish dish below.
Highly recommended by our fatherly server, this is a branzino (similar to sea bass) stuffed with a creamy mixture of shrimps. Notes of white wine wend its way through the tender seafood flesh and baby tomatoes beneath covered by a parsley and Parmesan crumb.
Yet another exquisitely simple but no less stunning plate of mozzarella di bufala and spears of asparagus lounging in layers of crudo di Parma.

This photo doesn’t capture the perfection of this panna cotta. The best of all I eat on this trip, it shimmies when stroked. Silky-soft, I spoon some in and instantly, it dissolves. It devastates and leaves me with only a memory of its lush creaminess. It’s as good as the one I miss terribly from Caffe Maestro.

Ristorante Nabucco
Via Fiori Chari, 20121 Milano

il Cestino

Just like Nabucco, il Cestino is also located in Brera, a neighborhood with a treasure chest of outstanding dining options. It’s also a very pretty place with its cobblestone streets and old buildings, vestiges of Milan’s past. Glasses tinkling and muted laughter filter out like music as my Bin and I walk past the restaurants.

In the emerging twilight, a glass of the rosé looks almost surreal.

We end up at il Cestino simply because the extremely jovial waiter presses a glass of the wine above into my hands, and then into my Bin’s. I tell him one is enough but he replies in Italian with a resolute shake of his head, “It’s two or nothing!” A delicate blush in color, this sparkling wine is too easy to love, fruity and refreshing with nutty end notes.

This dish kills me, its flavor and my enduring memory of it. Sheer slices of lardo, so thin they’re almost luminous are draped on beds of bruschetta brushed with olive oil, and graced with needles of thyme. The herb cushions the almost devastating but lustrous lardo, lustful licks of salt and smoke. Oh god. Ohhh, god.
The lighting is off on this photo since we’re outside at twilight. But dimness can’t disguise this dish: carbonara with homemade noodles – fat, wide tubes – cosseted in egg yolk and a light cream sauce tinted with saffron. Canoodling in corners are chunks of pancetta, injecting the dish with salt and sealing its fate as one of those dishes to remember.

Il Cestino
Via Madonnina, 27
Brera, Milano

al Grigliaro

This is a restaurant farther away from the historic center. It’s known for its seafood and is heartily recommended by one of our cab drivers. Al Grigliaro is a family-run place with that characteristic homey feel.

Here’s the family’s treasured prosciutto slicer. Massive and impressive.
The waiter asks me in Italian if I want some pecorino, and he brings me this. The disarming charm of this wooden board and its cargo takes my breath away.
This is only the second time in my life that I eat fresh figs and the wait is worth it. A sweetness similar to molasses, the fig’s delicate flavor is perked up by the pecorino’s robust tang. We also enjoy this with willowy sheets of Parma ham.
Pappardelle alla sbornia: homemade pasta with Parma ham, Cognac, cream, and tomatoes. Everything the description promises it to be.
This is a dish highlighting an Italian fish with a texture similar to swordfish. Chunks of it gambol with potatoes, olives, and fresh artichokes. The lot is bathed in a sauce just barely touched with cream and white wine.

After countless bastardized versions, I finally get to try tiramisu in Italy. My dinner companions fall all over themselves with this genuine article: ladyfingers soaked in real Marsala-flavored mascarpone showered with cocoa. I take one bite and decide that no, me and tiramisu – even in Italy – aren’t meant to be.

An après dinner habit I take up on this trip: swigs of ice-cold limoncello. Sudden sweetness is sucked in by a smack of alcohol that surges up the nostrils and sends down sensations of warmth through my body.

al Grigliaro
Via Archimede, 43 ang Via Fiamma 19
20129 Milano

obika Mozzarella Bar

This mecca to the mozzarella has outposts all over the world and the one in Milan is no less special. Balls of it bob about in whey contained in deep receptacles placed on the counter: presentations of provocation and proposition.

Glass-box displays showcasing the simplest ingredients at their peak. Note the prosciutto slicer on the left.

There are four kinds of specialty mozzarella to choose from, sweet to smoked, all ball-shaped and made from buffalo milk. We choose a protein to pair it with – hmm, a type of prosciutto? antipasti? perhaps even a pasta?

After much deliberation – a meal like this is no small matter – my Bin and I choose the Bufala Classica Pontina (‘strong taste’, the menu describes), and the Stracciatella di Burrata (described as ‘deliciously creamy.’) We partner it with Prosciutto Crudo di San Daniele DOP, the sweetest of prosciuttos. It possesses a fervent perfume and melts in my warm, waiting mouth.

Our server gives a us a free plate of the Prosciutto Crudo di Parma DOP (plate on upper right) because she’s charmed by our efforts to converse with her in Italian. “For you to try,” she says shyly but she presents the plate with a flourish.

The Stracciatella (above)  “little shreds,” an edible jigsaw on a distinctive background of milk and cream, whose parts and pieces have been ripped apart but fit so intimately in the mouth.

In this place of pleasure, the reverence accorded to a single fine ingredient is palpable on every plate and in every mouthful. The Fontina is a precious orb of cream suspended – light, not rubbery, sublime in every conceivable way. A glass of Gewürztraminer to go with my mozzarella plate. Sweet and spicy, it has shades of apricot on the nose.

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