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No menus: A spontaneous weekend in Milan

Written by Emmy on 25 March 2014

Originally written in February 2013.

Spending the early part of 2013 in Switzerland had its ups and downs. The frequent flights were long and tiring, and being so far away from home had its drawbacks. But being in Europe is really nothing to complain about, and part of what makes it so wonderful is how close to the rest of Europe everything is.

So on the first weekend of February, I hopped on a train from Basel to Milan — a four-hour journey through the beautiful mountains and met my boyfriend Michael in the Northern Italian city for a quick weekend trip.

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Why Milan? Well for one, we could both get there. After my various traumas with flights in and around snowy Switzerland, I had a strong preference for a train destination. (And it was a good choice; it snowed in Basel that day and half the flights were grounded.) As a business metropolis, Milan also has frequent flights to and from the U.S. Milan also felt like the kind of city we would want to see in 36 hours — there would be enough to keep us occupied and interested, but not so much that we would be overwhelmed or feel like we had missed things. The allure of genuine Italian food didn’t hurt either.

Michael arrived early Friday morning, but I didn’t pull into Milano Centrale until the early evening. The train had been running with precision-like clockwork till we hit the Swiss-Italian border and then we seemed to putter around with no attention to schedule for a while, a true testament to the two nations’ stereotypes.

Determined to spend our few days as the natives would, we kicked our evening off with an apertivo. Italian bars traditionally put out a spread of appetizers, which a drink purchase entitles you to graze to your heart’s content. For many, this serves as a cheap alternative to dinner. We still fully planned to have dinner, but for experience’s sake, picked at a few different foccacias and antipasti while sipping our brightly-colored Campari cocktails.

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At the recommendation of an Italian friend of Michael’s, we found our way to the tiny Boccondivino for dinner. The restaurant is known for its incredibly expansive cheese selection, among other things, which was enough of an attraction for me on its own.

We arrived at the restaurant not entirely sure what to expect, were seated and immediately handed glasses of sparkling wine as a welcome gift. Our table was covered in a glass bowl filled with fresh vegetables — carrot sticks, bunches of celery, whole tomatoes. We were confused; was this decoration or consumable? We were promptly handed a small cup each, instructed to mix oil and vinegar in our cups, dip our vegetables, and repeat. (Passover-based jokes about dipping ensued.)

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Our waiter came over to greet us and more or less informed us that we would have no say in the food to come. He asked if we wanted to choose our wine; the right answer was clearly that we would leave it in his hands. When we responded by turning over responsibility, he smiled and told us we would enjoy our evening.

First, we were served a very large plate of cured meats. They were arranged in a specific order and they were explained, but that quickly went over both of our heads. Armed with a new bottle of wine, we dug into our meats. As I was struggling to finish my plate, our waiter came over with a new platter of offerings. And just as we started to make any sort of reasonable dent in them, he brought over an impressively large cutting board with a big leg of something on it, and artfully started slicing. I didn’t even know what to do at this point, but the wine helped.

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We digested our meat for a little while — one lovely thing about the dinner was that no aspect of it was rushed whatsoever — and continued to wash it all down with wine. After a short rest, the waiter came back with two kinds of pasta. One, pappardelle with lamb ragu, was served directly out of a parmesan rind — an innovative serving dish if I’ve ever seen one. The other came out of a normal chafing dish — a cheesy mushroom risotto. Both were rich and delicious, and a small serving of each provided a wonderful tasting.

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At this point, we were about two hours in — and it was time for the restaurant’s claim to fame. Out rolled the cheese cart, and I got extremely excited. (Anyone who knows me would not be surprised by this.) After ooh-ing and aah-ing over the spread, we took in two courses. First, the soft cheeses: burrata, ricotta and mozzarella.

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We picked out our own hard cheeses, selecting a gorgonzola (the local region’s claim to fame), a pecorino (because when in Italy…) and whatever else our waiter recommended. And yes, the cheese came with a new bottle of wine.

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By the time dessert came, we were thoroughly overwhelmed. We were first each given a small bowl of sorbet — a light palette cleanser — but that wasn’t enough. We were then given a saucepan, filled to the brim with small biscotti, and goblets of sweet dessert wine. We were instructed to give our biscotti a bath before eating them, which turned into a really fun activity, but after losing a good number of mine to the bottom of my glass, it was time for us to call it quits. We had originally had ambitions of going out after dinner, but nearly four hours after we arrived, it was officially time to retire for the evening.

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Waking up was a bit of a challenge the next morning. After we were finally able to get up and put ourselves back together, we headed into the old part of the city. Historic Milan was built hundreds of years ago, with stunning Gothic and Roman architecture; the rest of the city grew out around it and today serves as the center of business and industry for Italy. Despite the city’s overall largess, it was manageable to see in such a short time because we stuck to just the center.

Navigating down thin cobblestone streets with every designer label you have ever heard of, we made our way to the center, home to the Duomo and several other historic buildings — including a majestic mall with incredible architecture. So what if it’s filled with modern clothing stores now?

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We spent the morning getting our bearings, walking through the old cobbled streets – and through beautiful food stores. When we got hungry enough for lunch, we located Paper Moon, a classic lunch spot recommended by just about everyone we asked for Milan recommendations.

I ordered linguini with clams, delightful in its simplicity. It tasted just like linguini with clams is supposed to taste. I was reprimanded for even asking if I could have some parmesan cheese (it is, after all, a taboo to add it to the dish), and I’m glad I was disallowed.

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IMG_4182Michael ordered the margarita pizza, which also arrived exactly as it should — simple, beautiful, and delicious. But a bit more food than we were able to consume, and so we left Paper Moon with leftover food on the table, but a recommendation we were happy to continue passing on.

We spent part of the afternoon at the Museo del Novocento — the Museum of the Twentieth-Century. My sister Jessica has discerning tastes when it comes to museums; in her review of Milan from a past visit, she said she didn’t remember one of the city’s museums, but found the Novocento “surprisingly good.” Taking that as more or less a rave review, we paid the museum a visit.

The museum was tucked into a corner of the old square. A tall and skinny structure, we made our way through six or so little floors of artwork – among them, some of the more impressive names in European 20th century art. Its height and position also gave spectacular views of the nearby Duomo, which we planned to climb the next morning.

After looking at some art, we naturally needed a snack. Living like the locals, we picked up two cups of gelato.

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We spent the remaining daylight hours walking the city, blurring the line between the old and the new parts. On one street, you have majestic buildings and cobblestones; walk through an alleyway and you are surrounded by every designer you have ever (and never) heard of. We walked into a few stores, said “buongiorno” and looked around, but you need to be far more serious than we to shop among the Milanos. The most interesting stop we made was not at the native jewel Prada or at the hilariously named Car Shoes, but at a store-slash-gallery-slash-cafe called 10 Corso Como, where we browsed art books, extremely bizarre photographs, and fun modern furniture.

For dinner, we followed another suggestion of Michael’s friend, since night one had been such a success. Once again, we did not order any of our own food and we had a delicious meal, but it turned out to be wildly different.

We walked into Antica Hostaria della Lanterna and were greeted by an older man, presumably the proprietor, who was more or less just hanging out. We tried to explain that we had a reservation and he pointed toward his wife — who was running from table to table as the only server in the establishment — and went back to minding his own business. Every review we read had discussed how Signora Paula commands the entire establishment, so we determined this must be she.

After several minutes of waiting, she directed us to a table and left us for a bit. When she came back, she started to us in a rapid-fire fashion. Only problem? Neither of us really speak Italian. And to further complicate, she was speaking a local dialect — making my seventh-grade Italian knowledge particularly useless. Upon realizing that we did not follow a single thing she had said, she walked over to a large table of young Italians and asked them loudly if any spoke English. She located a woman who did, and dragged her over to our table to translate. After a bit of back and forth, we learned that we were each supposed to choose a pasta to start. To be fair, we had caught the descriptions of the pasta dishes — we had just been a bit mystified about the ordering procedure.

With that taken care of, we were soon served one penne bolognese and one gnocchi in a cheese sauce, alongside a small carafe of a table wine. I felt like how I would imagine eating in your Italian grandmother’s kitchen must feel.

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Both pastas were very simple — there were few frills to our dinner at all. But these were clearly Signora Paula’s home-cooked recipes. Both pastas were also very large — and yet, intended to be consumed as an appetizer. Looking around at the skinny Italians packing away their pastas and their main courses, we were amazed as we struggled to clear our plates. Still, do as the locals do. When Paula came back to clear our pasta plates, we made our best effort to communicate that we each wanted one of the main courses and that we would share. We had absolutely no idea what we had ordered, and only reasonable confidence that our order had been transmitted as intended.

And yet, after only a few more minutes, we received two heaping plates. With our translator gone, we were left to figure out what we had received. Based on my limited knowledge of the Lombardy region — the part of Italy that contains Milan — I knew we would encounter some heavier, almost Germanic food items. We deduced that what we had been served included a veal dish, sort of like a veal marsala, and some sort of meat stew, both with a side of polenta. We put them both in the center of the table and attempted to make a dent in the very large platters.

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When Paula came back to clear our plates and saw how much the two of us had been able to eat, she basically shook her head at us and nearly forbade us from ordering dessert. She conceded, but we were permitted only one item. (Truly — she had more options; she just didn’t trust we could do them justice.) She let us have a single tiramisu, which, OK, we didn’t even finish. But it was very good!

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Full and content, we went to bed.

We then started Sunday morning as any good Italians would: with cappuccinos and a pastry.

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Sunday turned out to be a beautiful day, making it perfect for climbing up the stairs of Milan’s duomo to take in a vista of the city. (I think duomo-climbing must be a required activity in any Italian city.)

On our way up, we encountered a few puzzling signs…

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…and some beautiful architecture.

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IMG_4242The climb was not all too strenuous — but everything else about it was pretty spectacular. Milan’s cathedral is the fifth largest in the world, and the largest in Italy. All of the old city was designed around the structure — and eventually the new city that grew out from it — putting us in the exact center of everything, and high, high above it. Streets radiated out from below us in every possible direction, with various religious figures looking out toward the horizon.

Despite having taken a train through them, I had forgotten just how close to the mountains we were. With the sky such a clear blue, we had a spectacular view.

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The top of the duomo was awfully spacious, and so we spent a fair bit of time exploring it along with all the other tourists.

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We eventually descended the stairs and strolled around square housing the duomo. We walked into Rinoscente, Milan’s major department store, where we zeroed in on the food floor, naturally, checking out homemade mozzarella, spectacular jarred vegetables and 100 euro bottles of water. (The bottles were covered in rhinestones, but still — we were confused.)

We waved goodbye to the duomo and Michael waved goodbye to Milan, off to the airport to make his way back to America.

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I had a few hours until my train back to Switzerland, so naturally, kept on eating. Given our wildly successful track record with suggestions from friends, I picked one last spot from our collective list, and one of the only open on Sundays. I navigated my way by subway to an adorable restaurant, filled with families coming from church. Not only was I the only solo diner, but I was the only person at a table smaller than six. But it still felt friendly to be among them. And to make it even better, I was once again welcome with a cup of crudite and instructions to dip.

I had been in the market for risotto — which Milan is known for more than pasta — but because it was Sunday, I was greeted with something slightly different. Risotto al salto is what you get on Sundays — it’s Saturday night’s risotto, packed into cake form, and pan fried till the edges get a little crispy. It’s a risotto latke! And mine came with sauteed mushrooms on top. It was not entirely what I was expecting when I went on a risotto hunt, but it was good all the same.

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Despite having just eaten my lunch, I was trained well. My departure was looming close and I had a four-hour train ride ahead, one that would land me in a country whose food I’m just less excited about. And so I sensibly did what my mother always taught me and got myself a packed dinner for the trip ahead. I headed back to Rinoscente and its spectacular rooftop food court, visited the Obika Mozzarella Bar, and got myself a to-go box. (One flaw: I forgot to get silverware and the train had none they would give me, save for a tiny spoon meant for stirring espresso. So I ate my cheese in very small bites.)

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As I sat in my train car, rolling north up through the Alps and passing spectacular landscapes before becoming blanketed in the darkness of the night, it was hard not to smile in reflection of a spontaneous, delicious and wonderful weekend.