After living in Italy for nearly 30 years, I finally spent a weekend in Milan.
I have already traveled nearly the entire peninsula, visited every (other) large city, spent gobs of time in smaller towns, isolated mountain tops and many beaches. I had been to Milan a few times, mind you. Getting a new passport or making a quick day trip with relatives to see the cathedral or taking advantage of a long layover at the massive central train station (Milano Centrale) to take a walk. But I had never spent the night, never dined in a proper restaurant and never stepped into one of the famous museums.
Why it took almost three decades to really visit the most important city in Italy is a mystery, but it’s what happened. Now I have finally visited and what I will remember the most is the eating. This is the story of my 72-hour food fest in Milan.
(Orientation note: everything I did, everywhere I ate was “inside the ring” of Milan. Look at a map; you will understand right away what I mean.)
Friday’s evening meal, shortly after I arrived, was at the very traditional Ristorante Solferino. I say very traditional because of the heavy silverware and spotless linen tablecloth, but also because in spite of showing up on time for my reservation, I waited close to 15 minutes to be seated.
Once at the table though, things got better in a hurry. I started with an artichoke flan on a bed of spinach dressed in a strawberry sauce. I followed that with a spicy orecchiette (“little ears”) pasta with sautéed mixed greens. Solferino has a superb wine list with selections from all over Italy. My meal started with a Prosecco from Valdobbiadene (the only place Prosecco should be made) and then a Nebbiolo from the Langhe growing region. The meal was divine, the restaurant beautiful and the service without fault.
For Saturday lunch I decided to go international. I’ve lived here a long time and one gripe I have is that finding non-Italian cuisine has always been a challenge. For sure things are improving on this score – especially in the three largest cities (Milan, Rome and Turin). Still, the chance of finding an excellent foreign restaurant is not great.
Vasiliki Kouzina, the charming Greek bistro, is an exception. I ate the mixed starter plate, asking for a vegetarian substitution for the calamari. The owner, Vasiliki Pierrakea, was happy to arrange that. She told me she gets ingredients each week flown in from Greece. The advantage is freshness and quality but the disadvantage is that she’s never quite sure what will arrive – and therefore what she’ll offer to her customers! In my case, what was offered was excellent and I washed it down with a glass of white from the Sclavus winery on the island of Kefalonia.
Saturday evening was time for pizza. I found a place called Lievita’. There are three branches of this artisanal pizzeria and you can’t go wrong at any of them. They follow the traditions of genuine Neapolitan pizza making (I lived in Naples five years, so can tell the difference) but have added a modern upgrade. The dough is left to rise 24 to 48 hours before becoming a pizza. This leaves the crust light, airy and very digestible. I eat a ridiculous amount of pizza and have done so since I arrived so long ago. What I had at Lievita’ was one of the best.
Sunday featured a pre-lunch Second Breakfast (those Hobbits are clever folk). I stopped at Knam Pastry Shop for a treat. Ernst Knam is German by birth but has been a star of the Milan food scene for years. He has won many prestigious awards for his pastry, his chocolate, his finger food and his gelato. Trust me on this – just go there!
After that chocolate dream, I headed off to the Navigli area in the southwest corner of Milan’s inner ring. This is the latest cool and lively part of the city to hang out. You’ll find plenty of bars, restaurants, music venues and more to keep you well entertained.
I found Osteria del Gnocco Fritto (it means “fried gnocchi”) right along the canal. Now, most Italians will grudgingly admit the best food in Italy comes from the Emilia Romagna region in the north central part of the country. Gnocco Fritto serves traditional dishes from Emilia in generous portions and at (for Milan) an uncharacteristically reasonable price. The place felt alive – crowded, with friendly conversations but not too loud. Food was excellent and service timely.
On Sunday night I went to the Blue Note jazz club (yes, it is associated with New York’s Blue Note) to listen to the phenomenal Joey Alexander Trio (he is 16 but plays the keys like a master). They serve food at the Blue Note. I had a plate of pasta with a spicy oil sauce that was fine. The steaks being carried by looked good enough, but the Blue Note isn’t about the food, it’s about the music. Go get yourself a Joey Alexander CD, or listen to him on Spotify or do whatever it is you do to hear music.
Monday was my final day in town as I was catching a 3:00pm train back home. That meant only lunch so I tried the Thai Gallery just off the impressive Gae Aulenti square. To be honest, I thought it was good but nothing special. The space inside is beautifully decorated, but the service was hesitant and the food seemed just average after the previous days of excellent meals.
No matter, though. Once back at the monstrous central station, I stepped across the street into the Ha Long Bay Vietnamese restaurant (and bar). I didn’t order any food, just a glass of wine before the journey home. The wine choices were fantastic for a small restaurant next door to the insanely busy train station, and the aroma coming from the kitchen convinced me I’ll dine there on my next trip back to Milan.
Final notes and observations now:
Milan is Italy’s largest and most important city. Among the good things that means is an excellent bus, tram and underground network. Among the bad things it means is it is expensive and restaurants are crowded – so book in advance.
I visited the Brera Museum, recognized as perhaps the top art collection in Italy. Go see it.
I visited the Villa Necchi Campiglio, a Frank Lloyd Wright style house right in the center of the city. Also worth a visit.
As I mentioned at the beginning, in 30 years of life in Italy, I had never spent the night in Milan. Now I already have reservations for the next trip back.