Good Food and Unusual Things to do while in Milan
Milan is not a name evocative of wonders such as Rome, Florence, Venice or Sicily. But there is much to see and enjoy, culturally, gastronomically and otherwise.
Ok, maybe we're biased because... this is where Savors Of Europe was born ! We have lived in Monza, a beautiful historic medium sized town a few miles north of Milan, and used to work in Milan and when we are in Europe for meetings with our partners and tours of their facilities, we conduct our business from there. So we know what we are talking about!
We have scouted food artisans from the regions Lombardy (Milan) and Piedmont (Turin) and we found the best ingredients to import in California from Cascina Santa Marta, Azienda Agricola Mariangela Prunotto and Inaudi, part of a great Milan gastronomy experience.
We're often asked to provide tips to our American friends traveling to Europe and last year (for the first time!), quite a few were traveling to Milan to visit Expo 2015 so we were finally able to dispense our advice on a region we know particularly well and which is close to our hearts. We ended up compiling on a map a list of our "Top Suggestions of places you won’t necessarily find in your travel guide", in no particular order. We’re leaving out the area around lake Como, a favorite and well documented destination of Hollywood stars...
Risotto alla Milanese con Osso Buco. Derby Grill, Monza
Lago Maggiore, 2 hours north of Milan, view from the Angera Castle
Cascina Santa Marta, producing rice for Savors Of Europe, just a few miles South of Milan
The Expo 2015
Milan is usually associated with business and fashion, but last year it became a top tourist destination because of the Universal Expo, quite appropriately focused on food. (“Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”). From May to October, 20 million visitors from all over the world traveled to Milan to discover food specialties and new culinary concepts and technologies presented by over 150 countries in an impressive setting that combined tradition with modern architectural design.
Each participant country had the option of building its own pavilion to showcase its products and know-how. One of our favorites was the Russian pavilion, but many others were absolutely remarkable, the British and the Chinese in particular.
The Russian pavilion at Expo 2015, outside and inside (no photoshop trick)
It's all dismantled now, sadly, but there are many many other things to do.
Things to see
Less known tourist attractions in Milano: Casa degli Omenoni, Museo della Triennale: after all, this is the city of fashion and design; Museo Bagatti e Valsecchi if you want to get a glimpse of how Milanese aristocracy used to live and check out some very interesting works of art.
The Iron Crown of Lombardy, that dwelt on excellent heads such as Charlemagne’s and Napoleon’s. Monza, Museo del Duomo.
Crespi d'Adda, a UNESCO World Heritage site where you can visit a "factory village" built in the 19th century by liberal industrialists seeking to grant access to higher living standars to the workforce they employed. Also worth visiting nearby an hydroelectric plant from the beginning of the XXth Century.
Rocca di Angera, the castle of the Borromeo family.
Or, you can head south and see how monks used to live by paying a visit to the impressive Certosa di Pavia.
Still south of Milan is Lodi, a typical medieval town where you can spend half a day admiring old palaces and the astonishing Tempio dell’Incoronata.
Our favorite restaurants
Anadima Bistrot, in the pictoresque Navigli neighborhood of Milano. Pictured: Carne Salada with beans and parmigiano reggiano.
Da Vic - Ristorante Guerrini, in the neighborhood Amendola/Fiera. Pictured here is Vittorio, the Chef. In our opinion the best “non traditional” restaurant of Milan.
An iPhone picture, not great but a wonderful dish from Vic, pasta with saffron, asparagus and guanciale.
Il Castagneto, in Montirigiasco di Arona close to Lago Maggiore. Good luck finding it: don’t even try if you don’t have a GPS, but it’s definitely worth the effort!
Le Cinque Terre, a seafood restaurant in Milano, in the very exclusive neighborhood of Porta Nuova, that recently underwent a massive renovation and is home to some amazing skyscrapers (“grattacieli”). The best fish restaurant in Milano, period. Unassuming from the outside and not super fancy inside, but what matters is what’s in the plate, right ? Incredible seafood buffet… and “millefoglie” (mille feuilles) dessert.
We mention three other places on the map, the Derby Grill in Monza with excellent local dishes revisited; and in Milano: Il Delfina, a great Sardinian restaurant with outstanding seafood, and Solferino.
A source of profound disbelief we had to face more than once is when we explain that yes, we lived in Italy but no, we can't say we are used to sunshine. Lombardy can be scorching hot in July/August, decently sunny the whole summer and parts of the fall, but for the rest of the year it's characteristically overcast, rainy, pretty cold to freezing in the winter when you also get to enjoy an all-enveloping, thick fog.
This will explain why most of the local specialties are so highly caloric: they are meant to keep you warm! This was particularly true for the peasantry: most of Lombardy’s traditional dishes originate in recipes developed by the common people to endure living in cold weather; they are also dishes that were conceived for special occasions or religious holidays, usually the only time when most people would actually eat a full meal.
Since you will endure sustained physical exercise as a tourist, we're sure you can afford one or two of the following:
Forget pasta and indulge yourself with all the possible ways you can cook and enjoy risotto, even reheated: risotto al salto is a typical dish from Milano. Our favorite place for this delicacy used to be Trattoria Milanese in Milano.
This is very much in line with the recommendations made at Expo 2015: if you want to save the planet, stop wasting food. In Italy, there’s a flourishing industry of books and blogs educating on what is referred to as “cucina degli avanzi” (ie leftovers cuisine) and “risotto al salto” is obviously a good example. Leftover rice fried in a pan with butter and parmesan until a crunchy crust forms on both sides (yes, there’s flipping involved).
We are partnering with Cascina Santa Marta, just a few miles of Milan in Zibido San Giacomo, to offer very high quality artisan arborio and carnaroli rices, and fantastic risotto, such as "alla milanese" with saffron, or with artichokes, including all the ingredients you need.
A Cascina is a very typical rural structure, a group of buildings rising in the middle of a large extension of land, still visible in some parts of northern Italy, particularly in the valley of the river Po. Nowadays, most are abandoned or have been destined to other uses, but from the 14th century until the recent past they were the beating heart of rural Italy. The buildings include the farmhouse, the stables, the private dwellings of both the landowner and his laborers, and most times even a small chapel. Entire families lived and worked in these self-sufficient units, not only farmers but also carpenters and blacksmiths.
In 1996, five young local entrepreneurs decided to revive the ancient splendors of Cascina Santa Marta, one of the largest in the area south of Milan. They restored the buildings, dating back to the 18th century, and restarted the production of local crops (rice, mostly, but also fruits and vegetables) according to the strictest principles of eco-responsible farming, which has earned Cascina Santa Marta a national award. The presence of live stocks also allowed to develop workshops for children, who discover the ancient ways of producing food in the very place where this happened centuries ago.
Today Cascina Santa Marta is a farmers co-op that offers its own products as well as those of small producers who can sell directly to the public from the shop adjacent to the main structure.
Rice is the typical crop of this area: until the early 20th century, the valley was covered with workers manually collecting this delicate plant. At Cascina Santa Marta, the husking is still manual, which accounts for the presence of darker streaks on the grains that preserve their original nutritional properties and allow for a better cooking yield.
In Lodi try Raspadüra, originally a by-product of a typical local cheese, Grana Padano, which is very similar to parmesan cheese. The name is due to the fact that the cheese is scraped from a large wheel of Grana Padano before the end of the seasoning process. Originally this operation was just a stage of the standard processing of Grana Padano which needs to age 9 to 18 months to acquire the taste and consistency desired. Before the end of the 6th month, farmers used to check the shape of the wheel and instruct their laborers to carefully remove any bumps or imperfections with a special knife, so that it could age in a perfect, round shape. The scrapes thus removed were given as bonuses to the laborers. Today, Raspadura is a gourmet food produced - exclusively by hand - by master cheese makers and enjoyed as an appetizer, usually to accompany cold cuts or to top off a smoking hot risotto.
In Lodi still: La Tortionata, a traditional almond cake that is exclusively produced in Lodi. Created by a local pastry chef, Carlo Tacchinardi, in the first half the 19th century, it was patented by his grandson Alessandro in 1885. There are several explanations for its name: some say it comes from “tortijon” which is local dialect for “twisted” and probably refers to a twisted wire used – in lieu of a regular knife - to slice the cake without causing it to crumble; a more colorful explanation has it that young Alessandro was born on the year his grandfather invented the recipe and was so proud of the occurrence that he used to call the cake “torta di (quando) io (sono) nato”, in short “torta io nato” and thus patented it under the name Tortionata.
Picture By Rollopack via Wikimedia Commons
Specialties that you will have problems finding if you’re visiting in the summer: they really are meant to provide calories to fight the cold weather while working in the fields…
Typical of Lombardy and Piedmont, this energy dessert is made with egg yolks, sugar and a bit of Marsala wine. It’s been around since the Middle Ages, when Italy was divided in several kingdoms and duchies and every single one of them seems to have a plausible story to claim zabaione as a local creation.
The most common story is the one about Saint Pascal of Baylon (San Bayun as locals called him) a Spanish Franciscan friar living in Turin who started feeding it to pilgrims on their way to Saint James of Compostela, a traditional pilgrimage which, even nowadays and all the more in the 16th century, is supposed to be done exclusively on foot so an energy drink would be more than welcome.
In Lombardy there’s also a “light” version of zabaione, called rusumada (from the dialect for red, “russ”, which refers to the egg yolk which italians call “rosso d’uovo). Rusumada is made exclusively with extra fresh egg yolks and sugar and for people of our generation it was the universal remedy that mothers and grandmothers would feed them, whatever the reason : l’ovetto sbattuto (whipped egg) would treat a cold, provide energy for an important test at school; cure a romantic setback; help win a sports competition….
If you’re visiting in November you may find in traditional “trattorias” a Lombard specialty that is becoming more rare but is closely linked to the history and tradition of the peasantry in the last century.
The end of the fall was a time when peasants would celebrate the conclusion of the harvest and the work in the fields. The occurrence of All Saints/All Souls day was also the occasion for an exceptionally abundant family meal, where by family we mean all the families sharing a dwelling in the landlord’s estate.“Cassoeula", a name that probably refers to the casserole where the meat was prepared, used to be prepared at the end of the season of pig butchering; the less noble parts of the animal were given to peasants and laborers who would put absolutely everything (meat, lard, trotters, head, tail, ears) in the pot and let it stew with Savoy cabbages. Then, they would enjoy it with polenta, a staple food that replaced bread, while sharing stories and singing.
A great place where to try Cassoeula is the restaurant Camp di Cent Pertigh in the middle of the zone called “Brianza”, North of Monza. You can eat outside in a beautiful garden.... but that would hardly be in the season when they have cassoeula on their menu...