When I asked my Italian co-worker what he thought about Italy, Giuseppe answered with his thick Italian accent,
You Americans probably think Italy’s all about pizza and pasta.
As ignorant as that sounds, it’s rather true, plus a few things like gelato, the Vatican, fashion, and “futbol” culture. Oh, and saying “Mama mia” with pinched fingers.
I have been to Positano, a little seaside village in Italy known for its huge lemons and limoncello, but being in Milan was quite different from a small rural area. The pizza was different, and the pasta was different. Yet, these differences only reaffirm my American ignorance: even I only pay attention to pizza and pasta. (But then again, that’s probably because I love food and notice these things more carefully.) Regardless, being in Milan, the fashion and financial capital of Italy, provided some great cultural insights and introduced me to my favorite coffee maker in the world.
We arrived through one of Milan’s smaller airports (no passport check at all) in the afternoon, so we decided to take lunch in a nearby local cafe next to our friend’s apartment, Koban Cafe. What did we have for lunch? Yes, we had pizza…I had the prosciutto cotto, and sadly, these were regular brick-oven pizzas, so they didn’t taste much different from brick-oven pizzas found elsewhere. After a bit of research, I found that there are two main branches of pizza in Italy: neapolitan and lazio. What we know as thicker crust, brick-oven, or Pizza Hut pizza is considered lazio pizza. Neapolitan pizzas are made from fresh local ingredients usually including mozzarella and tomatoes, and there is even an association that governs what is considered an “authentic” neapolitan pizza. I suppose it was presumptuous of me to think that all pizzas were made the neapolitan way based on my one trip to Positano - but, those pizzas were amazing. If you ever get a chance, definitely have real neapolitan pizza, its an unforgettable experience.
After lunch, we walked around the touristy square of the Duomo and the galleries where we popped into one of the best gelato places around - Tre Gazzelleand I was the HAPPIEST little girl in the whole wide world when my eyes feasted on the mountains of gelato.Should I mention that there were two more of those displays filled with unique flavors? Oh. My. Goodness. No one could wipe the wide grin off my face. I felt like my life was complete.Did I go back for seconds? Uh, duh. And the next day, too.
That evening, we discovered a poster advertising an international burlesque award show, so we decided to go on a whim and check it out. It was probably the best decision I ever made my whole trip - the show was something I have never experienced before (I have a ton of photos), but this is a food blog, so I will keep those thoughts to myself. Before the show, we grabbed dinner around the area, and we chose a restaurant called Trattoria Trinacria. I was completely enthusiastic about the place because there were three Michelin stickers on the window, and we had to ring a bell in order to enter.(Note: never expect free water in Italy.) We had some bread and foccacia before our mealand I had the ricotta-stuffed squid with artichoke and pine nuts.When I started on my main course, I thought to myself that there was no way this restaurant was a Michelin restaurant. My artichokes and squid were bland, and there was no salt available on the table. The pine nuts were almost invisible, and I didn’t taste any of its flavors at all. At the end of the meal, I went back outside to examine the stickers and found that it was included in the Michelin guide, but it wasn’t actually a Michelin-starred restaurant.
The next morning-afternoon, we attempted to visit the Risotteria, a restaurant that only served risotto, but it was closed because anything non-touristy is always closed during weekends. Grocery stores do not open on Sundays, so a Milano is screwed if they forget to stock their fridge. We walked into a nearby hotel and received directions to Il Nodo, a lovely Sardinian restaurant. Although not Milanese, the food was quite delectable.Bread as per usual, and Tagliolini al Nodo (pasta with shrimp and zucchini) for lunch.The wine sauce was very basic: I could taste the broth, white wine, olive oil, and butter. The puzzling thing was how they used the tomatoes. The tomato skins was an obvious sign that they were used in the dish, but I am still mulling it over. I will experiment one day.
After some more gelato, we spent the afternoon at an outdoor cafe where we sipped coffee and cappuccinos. I ordered a lovely mocha.I always wondered why European coffee was so good, and that’s because American have got it wrong. We are used to drip coffee makers. In Italy, it’s about the moka pot, also known as the macchinetta. The beauty of this stove top coffee pot is that the water is filtered through the coffee grinds. The pressure from the heat forces the boiling water to travel through the grind compartment, then spigots out into the collecting chamber. (See Wikipedia for more information.) If you are into good and efficient coffee, definitely worth investing in. I bought one from the local supermarket as a souvenir. And now, I don’t always have to use fresh ground beans for my French press just to get good flavor.
What we call “happy hour” of cheap two-for-one drinks from 5-7pm is not what “happy hour” is in Italy. Happy hour, or more accurately, aperitivo, is a pre-dinner drink served alongside a buffet of appetizers from around 7-9pm. Aperitivo is quite popular in nothern Italy, so we were definitely determined to give it a try. A friend recommended Exploit, a bar in a younger area of Milan. I ordered a simple gin and tonic for the night and checked out the appetizer bar.The appetizers change continually, so there were different dishes each time. My first round consisted of smoked salmon, foccacia, cheese pizza, and some kind of bird meat - it might have been quail.Had some more pizza and bread, but also some frittatas, mozzarella balls, and some yummy fried mashed potato balls. Although the buffet was a bit unorganized and hard to reach for a short girl, all in all, it was a very enjoyable dinner.
When they say that Italian food can be quite heavy, whoever “they” are, at least they’re pretty accurate. I woke up each day with a stomach ache from over-stuffing myself. In Italian culture, pasta is only the first plate! Most Italians have a second plate of meat as well, along with an appetizer and dessert! Before heading back to London, I took it easy with some soothing black tea and a mozzarella, tomato, arugula, and prosciutto sandwich.
I don’t know if I would return to Milan, it was nice, but it was a bit pretentious for me. After all, it is the fashion capital of Italy, and that says a lot. When we walked down the streets, people seemed to be dolled up with their plastic surgery noses - very prim and proper. Perhaps that’s a shallow observation and requires more cultural immersion. Although I got a taste of the city outside its ornate and baroque squares where real people live, Milan may not be my scene. However, I guess I must do it justice by going back and definitely having some real risotto.