The Magnificent Menus of Milan

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.

Artichoke flan with spinach, ricotta cheese and a strawberry sauce. YES.










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.

True buffalo mozzarella, fresh tomato and basil, topped with a spicy green called friarielli – a kind of broccoli rabe.











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!

I am pretty sure this requires no further description.









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.

Navigli is both charming and fun!









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.


Ask a Local: Three days in Zagreb, Croatia

In mid-October, we traveled to Zagreb, Croatia for a long weekend. We had never seen it, but had heard plenty of good things about it, so it was time to see for ourselves. My advice: go there. Do it soon!






Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, a county teeming with beautiful scenery, terrific beaches and exciting cities. In Zagreb, you’ll find very nice 18th and 19th century architecture from the Austro-Hungarian empire. There is a majestic Gothic cathedral in the center of town, and the charming and lively Tcalciceva Street, full of bistros, bars, and cafes.

Zagreb Cathedral








Our lodging was at a place called Zig Zag Zagreb. It offers either traditional hotel rooms or small apartments right in the center of the city. We drove to Zagreb, so it was a bonus they had a private parking garage, as well. We chose one of the apartments as it was equipped with a kitchen where we were able to make breakfast each morning.

We found the reception office, located with their hotel rooms and the parking garage, with no problem. Check in was fast and easy, and getting to our apartment was a three minute walk. The young woman working there was Neda Pontoni.  She was born and raised right in Zagreb so became the local we would ask for advice. Since it was our first visit, our questions dealt with restaurants and museums. Unfortunately we had come to the city on the weekend of a national holiday AND the annual Zagreb Marathon, meaning many of the museums were closed. No matter, the restaurants were open, so our main focus was dining.

We also found some cool graffiti.








And that dining did not disappoint at all. Here is where we ate.

Pod Zidom (Pod Zidom 5, +385 99 3253 600)

Yes, the restaurant shares the same name as the street, just a few steps away from the city’s main market. I loved my stuffed eggplant while my wife had a couscous dish with a mint yogurt topping. Yum.






Vinodol (Teslina 10, +385 1 4811 427)

We had lunch here and returned later in the day to enjoy a glass of wine. The bar was a little smokey, but the wine was a nice (and inexpensive!) Malvazia.


Mundoaka (Petrinjska 2, +385 1 78 88 777)

Small, very cozy, and a very inviting place to eat just around the corner from Zagreb’s central square.  A delicious pumpkin curry soup was just off the charts great! You must try the fresh made bread, too. The service here was really terrific.


Royal India (Ivana Tkalcic 1000, +385 1 4680 965)

We always like to try foreign cuisine when we travel. As the name implies, this restaurant serves Indian cuisine. The kitchen is staffed 100% by folks from India, they use Indian imported spices, cook nine different kinds of naan bread right there, and use only seasonal fresh veggies and produce. I have lived in Europe more than 25 years, and outside of London’s Brick Lane scene, this was the best Indian meal I have found.

We also found a terrific wine bar called Basement Bar (Tomiceva 5, +385 1 7774 585). It’s not really in a basement, although you do go down a few steps to enter. The vaulted ceilings make a nice setting to sample from a very impressive selection of (mostly) Croatian wines.

The very cozy Basement Bar is at the foot of one of Zagreb’s funicular trains.










We did manage to find one art exhibit open. We rode the funicular train (just outside Basement Bar – very convenient!) up to the Galerija Klovicevi dvori. They had a retrospective of wood carvings by Vasko Lipovac. Fun and funky, to say the least!

What happens in Croatia stays in Croatia, right?









So we saw some art and ate very well. In other words we had a good time and will return soon!




Ask A Local: A Night in Cormons, Italy

To celebrate a friend’s birthday, four of us took an overnight trip to the tiny village of Cormons, nestled in Italy’s upper right hand corner just a few hundred meters form the border with Slovenia. I had contacted my friend Elena Orzan (I wrote about her in this eBook) and asked her to help me set up a wine and food visit to remember.

Elena Orzan is an expert on wines from northeast Italy. In this photo, she is sitting on the border of Italy and Slovenia.

Elena Orzan is an expert on wines from northeast Italy. In this photo, she is sitting on the border of Italy and Slovenia.










After checking in at the Bed and Breakfast Casa del Riccio (riccio means hedgehog in Italian), Elena picked us up in a bright yellow jeep.  First stop was an old favorite, the cantina of Edi Keber.  Edi’s son Kristian pretty much runs the show here now, and he led us on a tour through his facility before inviting us into his tasting room.

The view from the Edi Keber winery is into Slovenia, and it is spectacular.

The view from the Edi Keber winery is into Slovenia, and it is spectacular.


He let us sample three vintages of his white blend called Collio. This is his signature wine, and part of an effort among local producers to brand the wines with the area rather than the grapes they use (think of Chianti or Valpolicella – areas, not grapes). As is always the case with wines from this historic cantina, each was simply marvelous; refreshing, crispy citrus notes with an elegant feel.






We loaded a box of bottles into the jeep and Elena took us to lunch at Osteria La Subida. I’ve eaten here many times and always know I will leave well fed. The kitchen does not skip a beat with my being vegetarian, although I will say the meat dishes others at the table were served also looked delicious. The owner, Josko Sirk also makes his own vinegar, growing the indigenous grape Ribolla Gialla specifically to produce it.

The Osteria la Subida has a simple look but serves an outstanding meal.

The Osteria la Subida has a simple look but serves an outstanding meal.









Next stop was a winery called La Rajade (a local dialect term meaning the sun ray).

Diego Zanin, owner of La Rajade Winery, met us and offered some excellent wines.

Diego Zanin, owner of La Rajade Winery, met us and offered some excellent wines.


Owner Diego Zanin met us and walked us into his fields. His grapes had already been harvested, so he talked about the importance of good maintenance of the vines during the winter. He took us next on a walk through his production center and led us into his tasting room. Here we sampled his Pinot Grigio, Ribolla Gialla, and Sauvignon.  We bought bottles of each!






We then piled ourselves back into the jeep to visit our last winery of the day, called Ronchi Ro. I am not sure how to translate that, but based on our experience it might mean “the nicest place ever.” The owners, Romeo Rossi and his wife Carolina Qualizza called Elena as we were heading there to say they had to leave to take their son to his sporting event. Not to worry, though, the door was open and we could sample whatever we wanted. We did just that, trying his Sauvignon Blanc and his Friulano while sitting on his terrace overlooking his vines. We stopped by the next morning to pick up some bottles and thank him for his hospitality.

Ronchi Ro is both an active winery and a guest house. Yum.

Ronchi Ro is both an active winery and a guest house. Yum.

This was our view while tasting wine. Life is very good indeed.

This was our view while tasting wine. Life is very good indeed.









So far, everything was perfect. But we were in for an epic meal at Ristorante Al Giardinetto, right in the center of Cormons. These pictures will give an idea, and each course was matched with an expertly selected wine. Dinner started at 8:00pm and we walked (using the term loosely) out well after midnight. I did not know it at the time, but chef Paolo Zoppolati is so highly regarded in the culinary world he flies to Rome once a week to appear on a national TV show to discuss elegance in dining. Oh yes.

Sautee of raddichio and onions

Sautee of raddichio and onions

Fresh porcini mushrooms with pumpkin seeds and sun dried tomato.

Fresh porcini mushrooms with pumpkin seeds and sun dried tomato.

Carpaccio of watermelon with wafer-thin almonds.

Carpaccio of watermelon with wafer-thin almonds.

Potato gnocchi with walnuts and a zucchini puree.

Potato gnocchi with walnuts and a zucchini puree.

Barley with zucchini, asparagus, and mushrooms.

Barley with zucchini, asparagus, and mushrooms.








Some kind of Chocolate Heaven.

Some kind of Chocolate Heaven.

Real espresso.

Real espresso.








Each of the wineries we visited exports to North America and Europe so ask your local wine shop about them. Even better, if you have a trip to Italy in your plans, you can contact me through my Wine Friends web site or contact Elena Orzan at the Enoteca di Cormons. Either of us would be happy to set you up for a similar fabulous tour.


Cin Cin e Buon Appetito!


Ask A Local: Venice

Well, OK. full disclosure here.

I did not actually stop a random local on a Venetian street and ask where to have a decent meal.  That is exactly what I have done in the other “Ask a Local” blog entries, and will continue to do things that way – it’s just that I go to Venice pretty frequently and have learned to accept the advice of Michela Scibilia.  She is a local author passionate about the search for high quality at a fair price.

While I have not had (yet) the chance to meet her, I have read some of her books. After using them for about 20 years now, I get the feeling she (like me) is unhappy with the theme park atmosphere Venice takes on, particularly during summer months.

When I say theme park atmosphere, I am talking about crappy souvenir stands, the junk in stores that pretends to be Venetian or Italian, but so clearly comes from someplace – let’s just say to the East – and restaurants or osterie or even bars where not a single person working there is Italian, let alone from Venice.

But good quality and fair prices do exist in Venice, and Michela is likely the best source to find that rare combination.

So today, with her book “Venezia Low Cost” in hand, we stopped by two new (to us) places, and had lunch at an old favorite.

First stop was at Vecio Biavarol (Fondamenta dei Tolentini 225). Two glasses of prosecco and four classic Venetian cichetti (fancy bar snacks) set us back only 10.20 euro. I know a place in Venice where a single glass of prosecco costs 10 euro. Outside, the owner’s son (maybe 5 years old) was working with the owner’s father (in his 60’s is my guess) attaching little tables to the railing along the canal.

Trattoria Bar Pontini is an old favorite

Trattoria Bar Pontini is an old favorite

We then went to lunch at one of our old favorites – Trattoria Bar Pontini (Cannareggio 1268). We’ve probably been here ten or twelve times now. Plates are pretty simple, but always good. They have a terrific wine list, and the service is warm and welcoming and friendly.

This little trattoria is right off what we call the Tourist Death Route – the wide street leading from the train station. It’s always crowded and busy and full of not very good but overpriced restaurants. Both sides of the avenue are lined with way too many sleazy looking guys selling schlocky looking souvenirs.

But do not despair; cross the first bridge (called Ponte Guglie) and turn left. You’ll find it in about 50 meters.



After lunch we needed a coffee, of course. Right around the corner from Trattoria Pontini is Torrefazione Cannareggio (Cannareggio 1337). It is the last authentic coffee bean roaster in Venice. Yes, almost every bar in the country serves excellent espresso, but for me nothing beats the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans! They have 8 or 10 different blends available, which will rotate occasionally (giving me reason for a return visit!)


torrefazione 1


Torrefazione Cannareggio smells so good!

Torrefazione Cannareggio smells so good!


They also sell beans (whole or ground) so you can take this treasure home with you.


In fact, I take a treasure home pretty much every time I visit Venice – especially if I ask advice from Michela Scibilia.

A Terrific Wine Weekend

Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to visit Italy’s northeast corner, specifically the wine production area called Collio. I spent three days tasting five varieties of a local white wine. Read my thoughts about it here.


WHen visititng Collio, one must be prepared at all times!

When visiting Collio, one must be prepared at all times!