A mere taste of a traditional Milanese dish and you are already in Milan, with its thoughts, moods, characters and its inhabitants ready to pass on philosophy and culture through its food.
Some aspects of the city’s traditional cuisine, that identify themselves with certain flavours and even colours, have not only resisted the assaults of fashions and the trends of the moment, but have come out the other side even stronger. At the most, it surrenders to an attempt at modification, in an environment that has always been naturally receptive to novelties and experimentation, even the more risky and extreme.
Risotto alla Milanese, incomparable and divine, with its splendid and inimitable yellow colouring, is delicate and sophisticated and even profound and intense in taste, as though it reveals its own very characteristic Milanese trait.
Then there are the dishes that warm you up, dishes of “survival”, for those who were obliged to stay out in the cold, or do laborious work and needed to consume vast quantities of calories. These are the casserole with meat and vegetables,
Ossobuco and even minestrone, rich with vegetables and intense in flavour. All these can all still be suggested, recommended, sampled, tasted and savoured in a triumphant kaleidoscope of flavours.
Risotto alla milanese
The secret of this traditional Milanese dish resides in the simplicity of its ingredients that come together to create a flavour that is refined and velvety. The onion is browned with butter and oil, the rice toasted and wet with white wine and then cooked al dente in beef stock. Towards the end of the process, it is made creamy with butter and parmesan cheese and then the saffron is added, the very ingredient that gives this speciality it precious colour. The final touch is that the dish is served soft and a little runny, and is garnished with a gold leaf.
The magic of Risotto alla Milanese, a real icon of the city, is held in the temple of elegance and good taste, the restaurant Savini, located in the Galleria.
The origin of this dish is quite curious. It seems it was born in 1574 out of an experiment by an eccentric painter. Wishing to impress his guests, he decided to colour the risotto by adding a bit of saffron, a spice that he used to create a special yellow shading in his painting. Those more imaginative have hypothesized that this idea was born from the fact that the alchemists of the day considered gold to have a magical influence on the heart.
Cotoletta or costoletta alla milanese (Cutlets Milanese style)
Also known as cotoletta (cutlets), from the French côtelette, this is one of Milan’s oldest traditional dishes, although the Austrians also claim to have created it with their Wienerschnitzel (which actually comes from the haunch instead of the sirloin). It is mentioned as lumbulus cum panitio, or breaded veal loins, in a document from the year 1148 preserved in the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio.
Its preparation calls for the veal chop to be tenderized (although not too much – it should not be thinner than the bone), then covered in breadcrumbs after being dipped in beaten eggs which help the breadcrumbs to stick well. Finally, it is cooked in a pan using melted, clarified butter. For purists, there are some very strict rules: only the first six cutlets from milk-fed veal sirloin are considered suitable for this recipe as they are neither too fatty nor too lean and the most basic elementary requirement for a true cotoletta alla milanese is that it must include the bone.
There is some rivalry between Milan and Austria over the origins of the “cotoletta”, however it is almost certain that the recipe became known by the Austrians during their occupation in Lombardy and Veneto. A letter from Radetzki to the emperor Franz Joseph seems to confirm this. He describes the recipe of a certain “cotoletta” so that the sovereign may also try such a delicious and typically Milanese dish..
Panettone (dome-shaped cake with sultanas and candied fruit eaten at Christmas)
Thirty centimetres tall and mounted by a dome, the typical Milanese sweet has predominated on the table at Christmas from the 15th century because of its softness and elegance. In the past, it was a typical Christmas sweet used exclusively by the Milanese and today it can be found on tables throughout the world. Garnished with raisins or candied fruits, the panettone is today one of the most loved Christmas sweets.
This simple dough is derived from yeast, butter, eggs and flour and it endears itself to the most gluttonous of palates. It is delicious when accompanied by coffee, sweet wine or spumante, custard, chocolate or zabaglione. It is custom to eat panettone on the 3rd February, on the holiday of Saint Blaise. According to legend, Saint Blaise saved a young man who was choking on fish bone and hence became the protector of throats.
There are many legends that have reference to its beginnings that attest to the origin of the name as “pan di Toni” (Toni’s bread). It is said that the boy who worked in the kitchen of Ludovico il Moro, invented a sweet bread with butter, candied fruit and leftover dough to correct a dessert that had been burnt on Christmas Eve.
A more credible version is that this “Christmas bread” would be brought to the table at the end of Christmas dinner and was said to be auspicious and healing. Its size led it to be called “pan grande” or “large bread” and finally it became known by its current name “panettone” (also “large bread”).
Mondeghili Mondeghili, known as polpette or meatballs outside of Milan, were described as “a kind of polpette made with ground beef, bread, eggs and similar ingredients” by Francesco Cherbini in his Milanese - Italian Dictionary (1839).
The name is originally derived from an Arabic word which later evolved into the Spanish albondiga. In fact it was the Arab people that taught the Spanish how to make a ball of minced meat and then fry it.
The recipe itself is rooted in the traditional peasant practice of letting nothing go to waste. It is a tasty way to use up leftover beef (boiled or roasted), which is minced and mixed with sausage, raw salami or mortadella (often from liver), eggs, milk-soaked bread, grana padano cheese, garlic and nutmeg. This flavoursome mixture is rolled into large balls that are slightly squashed before being coated with breadcrumbs and fried in butter.
Mondeghili make an excellent second course that go well with a light salad or potatoes, and are sometimes served in a tomato sauce.
Cassoeula Cassoeula is the elaborate, high-calorie dish made from pork and cabbage that best typifies Milanese cuisine. Variously known as cassouela, cazzoeura (derived from cazza, pan), its name refers to the casserole dish in which it is prepared.
While not exactly delighting lovers of culinary nuance and sophisticated combinations of flavours, its strong, decisive flavour makes it a real winter warmer of a dish. Cabbage firmed by a good frost, tomato purée, lots of onion, celery, chopped carrots, black pepper and pork meat in every form: ribs, sausage, tails and trotters.
A curious legend is linked to the origins of this dish. It is said that during the Spanish dominion of Milan towards the end of the 16th century, an army official taught this pork and cabbage recipe to his lover, who worked for a noble Milanese family. The dish was so well received that it spread quickly through the Lombard capital, and many years later it even came to be Arturo Toscanini’s favourite treat.
A drink with an intriguing, almost mysterious name, the “Barbajada” is actually and quite simply named after its inventor, Neapolitan Domenico Barbaja.
The drink was invented in the Café “Cambiasi” that was located next to the La Scala Theatre (and was also called Caffè del Teatro or Theatre Café) and it was the meeting place for singers, musicians and spectators. The inventor, Barbaja, was a waiter in the café and later managed singers and performances at La Scala.
In the mid-1800s, at a time when it was probably colder and the fog more intense than it is today, he came forward with this drink, asserting that it would warm and pamper the palate of the Milanese.
The Barbajada was comprised of cream, coffee and chocolate. It remained in vogue up until the 1930s and survived for a few years after that before completely dying away. Today, however, if you ask a real Milanese what the Barbajada is, they will certainly know the answer.
Furthermore, the Barbajada also owes its fame to the fact that the idea was probably conceived by impresario and gourmet Gioacchino Rossini.
Ossobuco Ossobuco (marrowbone) is a typical speciality of Milanese cuisine, and is often served on a bed of yellow Risotto alla Milanese. The name comes from , which means a ossbus ‘bone with a hole’ in the local dialect and refers to the cut of veal that is used: a slice of the shin in which the round section of bone is surrounded by tender meat. The bone is filled with tasty marrow that can be scooped out with a spoon or the customary tool, a small scooper, which is referred to with some irony as the “esattore” (tax collector).
The recipe for Ossobuco, which is lightly coated in flour before being put in the pan to fry, appeared in cookbooks as early as the 18th century. Over the centuries it has been elaborated and modified in a variety of ways, such as the addition of a tomato sauce.
An essential ingredient to this dish is the so-called “ gremolada ”, a finely-ground paste of garlic, lemon peel and parsley that is added just before serving for an extra dash of colour and taste. Other variants include side dishes such as peas, carrots, beans or potato puree, or the addition of diced bacon to the butter and onion in which the meat is fried. Ossobuco also goes well with polenta, another staple of the Lombardy cuisine
Minestrone alla milanese Legumes of all types, cabbage of any variety, beets, lettuce, celery, spinach, parsley and fennel. The original recipe for Minestrone alla Milanese cannot easily be found because in the past, when vegetables where rigorously seasonal, the ingredients varied depending on the seasons. Therefore, hot minestrone made in winter was prepared with ingredients different from those used for the cold or tepid soup in summer.
The origins of the inexpensive dish do not reach that far back in time, but have roots in the farming-food tradition of Milan in the early 1800s. In 1858, the “New Dictionary of Synonyms of the Italian Language” was produced and the word “minestrone” was not cited, most likely because the dictionary was not in current use outside of the Milanese city. But the dish soon imposed itself on the cuisine of the whole peninsula, and then the world in 1891 as a bulwark of the Italian cuisine, when Pellegrino Artusi, literary, history and Italian gastronomy critic, inserted “minestrone” in his cooking manual “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”. Artusi claims to have come across “minestrone” for the first time in Livorno in 1855.
Even Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Luigi Colombo, artistic name Fillia, in “The Futuristic Kitchen” that was published in Milan in 1935, described lunch citing the “five pyramids, 40 centimetres high, of cold minestrone”.
Empty or stuffed, sweet or salty, the michetta has an easily recognisable taste, that of genuineness and tradition. It is a typical puffy panini that is usually empty inside and has a star-like shape. It is defined as the bread of the Milanese, called the “rosetta” in Rome, and is famous throughout the world gastronomy scene.
A widespread theory attributes the invention of this bread to the officials of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, who ruled over Lombardy and brought to Milan in 1713 the “kaisersemmel”, a small panini of about 50 to 90 grams. From here the Milanese obtained the famous michetta, eliminating some of the bread inside and in this way, creating a light and fragrant Panini.
Its name has origins in the Latin term “mica” which means crumb. Perfect at the table or on a picnic, this panini has obtained the assurance of controlled origin that the municipality confers upon characteristic recipes.