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Milan for a Sunday/Monday - some specific recommendations sought

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Hi all, next month I'm taking advantage of a return flight connection in Milan to finally see more of the city than just passing through it. As you might guess, I'd like to find something about the food while there. If you've seen my requests before, you'll probably be aware of my typical profile, but here goes anyway.

First, I want to state factors that absolutely do *not* matter in choosing where to eat, because peoples' priorities are often different and stating what you don't care about broadens the scope.

I do not care about the price. Be careful - it means that yes, cost is no object, but on the other hand it doesn't mean high cost is specifically desirable, which is often the connotation attached to "cost is no object". It means that it really doesn't matter whether the place is 10€/head or 100€/head; that's immaterial.

I don't care about having particularly friendly or congenial service. As long as they take my order and get me the food to the table, they've done the critical part.

I don't care about whether a place is "undiscovered" or a universally-known institution. On the one hand, I don't get any particular satisfaction out of the feeling I've found somewhere completely off the tourist radar; on the other hand I don't have any particular need to have eaten in somewhere "iconic" (Again, this doesn't mean that I'm looking for something between the 2 extremes; either extreme is also perfectly fine)

I don't care about atmosphere, bar scene, tourist quotient, or other elements related to the overall "feel" of the restaurant. It doesn't have to be like a stereotype of expectations of Milan, or Italy, nor for that matter completely undistinguishable from any restaurant anywhere else.

And I note also that it's my strong belief that none of these factors need have any *necessary* impact on the food. Which hints at what I do care about: I'm looking for the best quality food possible, excluding all other considerations. A restaurant which makes no compromises when it comes to what they put on the plate - and this doesn't mean luxury ingredients necessarily; it means that whatever they do use, they make the best. A pizza, for example is hardly luxury unless you do something unusual and bizarre, but they should start out from the most flavourful, high-protein wheat flour they can find, use the sweetest, reddest tomatoes possible, etc.

So here's what I'd like to find:

1) Somewhere serving classic Milanese dishes; risotto and costoletta are the critical ones. Osso bucco would be interesting too. Possibly 2 restaurants if possibilities exist. They should be unswervingly authentic.

2) A great place for morning brioches (usually called cornetti further south). My reference standards here are Cristalli di Zucchero in Rome and Luca Mannori in Prato. That level of excellence. They MUST use all butter; no marg or other vegetable fats allowed.

3) Somewhere high-end for a celebration meal. I've been debating whether in fact to abandon that while in Milan and instead go to my favourite standby in Rome (where I'll be the night before) - Il Pagliaccio - but the idea of trying something new that represents the elite of Milan is appealing.

4) A great caffe. Coffee quality here is everything. If this can be combined with 2) great, but I'm happy to go to one place for the coffee and another for the brioche, if ultimate quality is found in 2 different places.

At least 2 other "random" choices, representing the best Milan has to offer; I'd prefer Italian cuisine, though.

Thanks for any suggestions. I'll report comprehensively on my return.

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  1. Alex, I was about to write the EXACT post, when I stumbled on yours. Its uncanny how our tastes/interest/timeframes coincide. May I ask where you went and what you would recommend? I see you may not have gone yet and if that is the case I will wait impatiently for your review. I am travelling to Milan at the end of June, and will be there for Sunday and Monday.
    Thanks, Cary

    1 Reply
    1. re: CaryS

      Ok, I'm back now. My visit was interesting, for very interesting reasons. Here's the rundown from the food point of view.

      I arrived Sunday morning. Went straight from Centrale station to relatively nearby Pave for brioches and a coffee. The brioches were very good, but it will be said that slight bit less ethereal than Cristalli di Zucchero. Heavier and more rustic. The atmosphere was strangely Scottish or perhaps Scandinavian. Coffee was on the better side of acceptable, but I've had much better.

      On Sunday, my plan had been to try Trattoria Milanese for lunch, which seemed to be open from what I could tell by looking at guides, sites, etc, but in fact was very definitely shut. Can anyone confirm whether they're shut in a more permanent sense? When I tried calling to make a booking (on Saturday), the line kept ringing with no answer. Suspicious. I ended up in the Navigli area and, with Premiata Pizzeria already my target dinner choice, decided that the expedient thing was to do it for lunch instead. I took both a pasta (a simple tagliatelle al pomodoro e basilico) and a pizza (con salsiccia e salame piccante). This is, of course, much more typically Neapolitan than Milanese, and in fact I didn't think either was anything special. The pasta sauce was more like a passata, completely smooth and textureless. At least the basil was fresh. Competent but no better than you'd find in a million places. The pizza was again uneventful. Their oven isn't hot enough; the result was doughy and slightly undercooked. The sausage wasn't the best either. On the whole while I didn't feel like the food was dismal or unacceptable, I didn't find anything special about it either.

      Late in the afternoon I went to Grom for an ice cream; Grom is - what can you say? - Grom. Good, sometimes inspired, but not always. The hazelnut I got here was in the "not always" category, although still not too bad.

      Trattoria Milanese showed no more signs of life in the evening, so I went with a recommendation straight out of the Time Out guide, corroborated with good reviews on TripAdvisor: Papa Francesco. It helped that it's in a central location close to my hotel (and very close to La Scala) which meant that if there were some fundamental problem with it I could change plans without further logistical complications. Time Out needs to do their research more thoroughly. They call it "Milanese" in cooking style, but in fact it's a Sardinian specialist with some Milanese dishes in there as well. Bizarrely, I'd just come from Alghero, which made it quite strange to see all the dishes I was used to there showing up on a menu in Milan. It's clear, from my experience, that they do the Sard stuff a lot better; I split my order between a Sardinian dish - a mussel soup (zuppa di cozze, although billed as zuppa di cozze e vongole) - it was excellent an absolutely typical; I felt transported back to Alghero; and a Milanese one: Ossobucco con risotto alla Milanese. This was less achieved. The ossobucco itself came (shock, horror!) with tomato sauce over it, and it was less falling-apart than it could be. The risotto was OK, and bursting with saffron flavour, but hadn't been cooked optimally (slightly undercooked), although serviceable.

      Then the bizarre part began. I ordered a panna cotta all'caffe. But instead I was brought a plain panna cotta. When I enquired about this they said they were out of the coffee version. Fine, but why didn't they say this at the time I ordered? I tried to explain this concept but they seemed genuinely mystified - as if typical practice is that if what the customer orders happens to be out, the proper way to proceed is to substitute randomly with something else, rather than saying they're out. As it happened, the panna cotta was fine anyway, so I took it, but the whole experience was surreal.

      Monday was on the whole a more successful day. I started the day with coffee and brioches at Pasticceria Martesana. A bit of a trek from the city centre, but this is the quintessential Milan experience, delivering what you expect: an achingly modish, trendy space filled with stylish women and business-suited men scoffing brioches that are much closer to the Cristalli di Zucchero standard than Pave was. CdZ still is that marginally better, but these were very accomplished and the coffee was very good, if still not perfect.

      Lunch saw me go to the place consistently listed as the most authentic traditional in Milan: Antica Trattoria della Pesa. My prime target here was the Costoletta alla Milanese. But to start I took as antipasto Culatello allo Zibello, which was good but not the height of excellence. Not really wanting risotto this time, I got another version of tagliatelle al pomodoro e basilico, the principal interest lying in the fact that the pasta was billed as being fresh and hand-made. That it was, but the sauce was no better than mine of the previous day, and in fact considerably worse, the basil not being really fresh. Still, all would have been forgiven if the costoletta had been excellent, but...it wasn't. Somewhat overcooked, lacking in flavour, and with poor frying technique (they didn't use a hot enough pan, thus the breading was soggy and somewhat greasy), I really got the feeling this was something I could have had anywhere. I don't really see where Antica Trattoria della Pesa is getting their reputation from, unless there is a very radically different treatment for regulars.

      Late in the afternoon I located a truly great coffee at Bastianello, one of the elegant caffes in Piazza San Babila. It was easily the finest I had while in Milan and contends very favourably on a national scale. They also have an interesting aperitivo selection if you're interested in that.

      Luckily, as fortune would have it, my quest for authentic Milanese ended up fulfilled, from a perhaps-surprising source: the high-end choice. Acting upon a recommendation from an Italian friend, I went to Cracco. He's known for experimental and bizarre stuff, but in fact, the menu also lists most of the traditional Milanese staples. So I ordered:

      Antipasto: Bresaola
      Primo: Risotto allo Zafferano
      Secondo: Costoletta alla Milanese
      Dolce: Crocchette all'cioccolato fondente con chinotto e caviale.

      and in addition they brought as additional dishes:
      Mixed canapes
      Fritti - specifically, anchovies, Japanese seaweed, rice and corn crisps
      Caper mousse with pistachio
      Quinoa "Polenta" with tomato sauce
      Truffles, chocolate-covered hazelnuts and sugared almonds, mignonettes, and dried fruits.

      Let me first deal with the additional dishes - each of which were "free", although the actual price of these is clearly absorbed into the (expensive) alla carta prices.

      The canapes were all excellent; some were sublime. I remember particularly one with a jellied pate atop bread with a pistachio, and a chocolate bread with salmon caviar. The fritti were world-class. Cracco is masterful at frying. The crispness level was unbelievable, the flavour impeccable; I could have eaten this all night, as a sort of aperitivo. The caper mousse wasn't really my thing; I'm not especially fond of capers, but the texture was lovely and I can't criticise it. The quinoa polenta, though, was troublesome. Quinoa is better done slightly dry, like basmati rice, and while tomatoes do indeed go magnificently with quinoa the sauce here had an odd, difficult-to-place flavour. If ordinary maize polenta had been used, or if the dish had had a drier consistency, it could have been a real winner. As it is it needs some tuning. As for the end-of-meal sweets, I'll comment on that a bit later.

      Now on to the core of the meal. As you can see, it's possible to go for a traditional Milanese meal, which, after the disappointments of earlier I was very much in the mood for.

      The bresaola was unbelievably good. Powerful in flavour, silken in texture, never too dry, and it came with a lovely rice salad interspersed with flowers; the flavours really came together and I must say I found the whole thing delightful.

      The risotto. Was. Definitive. Canonical. Perfect. I dare say this must be considered the reference standard for all of Milan. The texture was ideal, the rice perfectly cooked, the bit of marrow in the centre impossibly unctious, the saffron unmistakeable and generous. You just can't get better than this, and the quantity is meaningful rather than tiny and precious.

      The costoletta did make a departure from the canon, in format only (cut into cubes rather than a single on-the-bone slab) but as I've mentioned already Cracco really excels at frying so like the risotto it was world-class. Not at all overdone like Antica Trattoria della Pesa, and with lovely flavourful veal. I would like to see more quantity; this was the only dish of the evening where portion size veered towards the precious, but again I feel like I've experienced costoletta as good as it can ever get. Cracco could improve the presentation if they want to, by ensuring that the traditional bone is left attached to the cubes, and plate it with the bone standing upright like a mast; the effect would be very stylish. They served it with a mix of courgettes which formed an ideal contorno without distracting.

      And then you have the pudding. Here I did go for the unusual - in part because I had to try something chocolate, in part because it piqued my interest. This is an example of a dish which works, but in a strange "the sum of the parts is more than the whole" way. You can't really take in the flavours simultaneously, so they reveal themselves in stages, the chocolate coming on first and with a flavour and a texture that is simply divine, the caviar appearing last, and surprisingly cleaning the palate for the next chocolate taste. I won't say that it was the best chocolate concept I've ever experienced, but it was worth the (expensive) experience.

      Furthermore, the mignonettes and other sweets immediately following acted as a sort of "second dessert". The chocolate pieces were especially good, with the truffles real winners. It should be noted however that Cracco could improve these still further by sourcing from Dolci Liberta in Busto Arsizio, who are probably the finest chocolatiers in Italy for both truffles and chocolate-covered hazelnuts. In fact, I'm going to write them with my specific recommendation.

      But as you can see, the upshot of all of this is that Cracco is not just a place for experimental, unusual dishes but a very good choice if you want the *ultimate*, no-compromises-whatsoever traditional Milanese meal, although of course this comes at a price.

      That same evening, I also ventured out to Gelateria Marghera, a good way west of the centre, with a reputation for superb ice cream. The crowds would suggest something special but honestly I didn't see what the hype was all about, the chocolate I selected being only good, not great. I get the feeling great ice cream may be challenging to find in Milan.

      Finally, as I was leaving Tuesday morning, I also managed to snatch colazione from Marchesi. This is a bar-pasticceria that, from look and character, would seem more at home in Rome than Milan. But the product is definitive. Their brioches were a solid second to Martesana, and the coffee was better. At rush hour, when I was there, it's jumping. The location in the city centre also makes it more convenient than Martesana, and thus as a default choice perhaps the one of the 2 to choose.

      A few other notes:

      Peck, the deli, is legendary but I think less impressive than, e.g. Dallmeyr, the awe-inspiring deli in Munich on the other side of the alps. They have a completely irrational system, furthermore, where items on shelves need to be handed over to the people behind counters, while you pay separately at a separate till, then pick up the items afterwards. I defy anyone to come up with a defensible argument for this system.

      Ernst Knam has a strong reputation in chocolate, but could be better. If you have the time, rather go up to Busto Arsizio to the aforementioned Dolci Liberta.

      The area around Via Spadari is a good food nexus, with Peck, Cracco, Cafe Peck, and Giovanni Galli all in the same place. In fact, I found that venturing outside the centre didn't really yield much reward for the additional distance travelled or time taken; other than Martesana, I'm not convinced it's worth the effort. Or at least, exhaust the central choices before venturing further afield.