No Italian city’s culinary offerings can be summed up in three dishes – believe me, I know this. But when travelers have only a limited amount of time to visit, it’s important to make sure the absolutely-can-not-miss dishes are at the tippy-top of your dining priority list.
This, therefore, is my attempt to guide you toward the quintessential dishes of Milan.
I am, obviously, leaving out a million amazing things to eat in Milan. I’m not mentioning the famous cotoletta alla Milanese, fried and crispy and and perfect. I’m not telling you about Milan’s cassoeula, the very definition of comfort food. I’m skipping panettone, that delightful Christmas bread. And I’m restraining myself from divulging the details on the very best gelato I have ever had, bar none, at a Milanese gelateria. I’m leaving plenty of deliciousness out, but eating in Italy is like sightseeing in Italy – you can’t do it all in one trip.
With this list of three things you must try in Milan, at least you’ll be well on your way to having three memorable culinary moments during your stay in Milan.
Here’s a popular misconception about Italian food – pasta is dominant throughout the country. In reality, pasta is not as common in the north as in the south. Yes, you’ll find pasta dishes on menus all over Italy today, but when you’re talking about regional specialties, pasta takes a back seat in the north to things like risotto and polenta.
And in Milan, the risotto wears a golden crown, in the form of saffron.
Risotto alla Milanese is the city’s quintessential dish, the perfect marriage of rice, cheese, butter, white wine, (usually) beef marrow, and that most prized of all spices, saffron. The vibrant red saffron threads give the whole dish an almost neon yellow color and a distinctive flavor.
The first mention of a Lombardy risotto dish with saffron (though it wasn’t yet called risotto alla Milanese) was in an 1809 cookbook called “Cuoco Moderno,” though rice has been a northern Italian staple since the 14th century. The addition of saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, turns what might be an ordinary stick-to-your-ribs dish (a must-have in any colder climate) into a meal fit for royalty.
Note that while risotto is typically a primo piatto, or first course, on a menu, risotto alla Milanese is sometimes served alongside other Milanese staples like ossobuco (see below) or the aforementioned cotoletta.
Ossobuco is one of those dishes that you may have seen on the menus of Italian restaurants worldwide, so beloved is the dish. You may have even ordered it – it may be a favorite of yours. And all along, you probably have no idea what it means.
The Italian word “osso” means bone and “buco” means hole. Bone with a hole. That’s what’s at the heart of ossobuco, after all, so why get all fancy when you can be direct, right?
(Okay, yes, it sounds better in Italian. Duh. Everything does.)
The particular cut of meat that is used in an ossobuco recipe, cross-cut veal shanks, slice right through the leg bone, and it’s the marrow inside the bone that most diners consider the real prize of this dish.
Shanks are a cheap cut of meat. They’re lean, which makes them tough if not cooked properly, but they’re ideal for preparations that involve long, slow cooking in liquid – which is precisely what ossobuco is. The cross-cut shanks are stewed in a bath of tomatoes, onions, celery, and carrots until the meat is tender enough to fall away from the bone. The marrow itself can be spread like butter on any accompanying bread (and believe me, you want to do that). Gremolata is a common garnish, a bright and flavorful mixture of finely-chopped parsley, garlic, and lemon zest that goes well with the richness of the meat.
This is, as mentioned, such a traditional Milanese dish that it’s often served alongside another Milanese staple, risotto alla Milanese. It’s a delicious and hearty combination and gives you a chance to eat Milan in one plate.
Just like when I included cicchetti on my list of what to eat in Venice, I’ve got to round out this Milan list with aperitivo – a dining experience, not a dish.
To set the stage for aperitivo‘s place in the Milanese meal schedule, you need to know that while the lunch hour starts at 1:00pm, the dinner hour doesn’t get going until 9:00pm or even later. Which means you’ll need a little something in your belly between when you leave work and when you eat your evening meal. Enter aperitivo.
Aperitivo begins between 6:00-7:00pm and lasts for 2-3 hours. It’s often likened to “happy hour,” but that’s not quite right. Drinks at aperitivo bars are not steeply discounted, nor are there discounts on normal menu items, as you might expect from a typical happy hour. Instead, aperitivo drinks might be their usual price or even a bit more expensive. So what’s the appeal, you ask? It’s the free buffet.
Every aperitivo bar has a different spread, from simple bowls of chips and maybe some bite-sized cuts of pizza all the way up to long tables overflowing with salads, cured meats, cheeses, veggies, pasta dishes, and desserts. And yes, once you buy a drink, you get to go through the buffet line at no additional cost.
Before you get too excited, though, this is not an excuse to load up on heaping plateful after heaping plateful of aperitivo food on your one purchased cocktail. If you want a second chance at the buffet, you buy another drink. And don’t pile food on your plate, either. Aperitivo is specifically meant to whet your appetite so that you’re hungry for a larger meal. Remember that the Milanese are headed to dinner later in the evening, so they’re not making a complete meal of aperitivo. Follow their lead.
Of course, if you want to experience a fun Milanese evening without exhibiting the bad form of repeated trips to the buffet, you could always do what I call an “aperitivo crawl,” visiting a few different bars throughout the evening. Buy a drink or two at each spot and enjoy their buffet. By the end of the evening you’ll undoubtedly be full, and you’ll have mingled with the locals all evening long. Just be sure to scope out the buffet* offerings before you sit down and order a drink so you’re sure you want to spend some time (and stomach real estate) there.
Note that while cocktails are common aperitivo orders, you can also get a glass of wine or a beer if that’s more your style – and your beverage need not be alcoholic, either. And yes, aperitivo is a thing in many parts of Italy now, but nowhere in Italy is cocktail culture done with more flair than Milan.
* Some bars skip the self-serve of a buffet and simply bring out a set plate of nibbles to everyone with their drink. So if you don’t see a buffet, look at the tables. If everyone’s got more or less the same plate of food items (like you see here and here), that’s what’s going on.
Tell me, what three things would be on your must-eat list in Milan? What three things are you most excited about tasting when you go to Milan?