The forthcoming food-focused 2015 World Expo has propelled Milan and its “new energy” into the spotlight. However, global food cognoscenti can vouch that Milan’s energy is hardly new — and will persist indefinitely after its “moment” has passed.
Milan is hidden. One has to know and live the literal and figurative city of giant closed doors and spectacular interior courtyards in order to love it. Most non-business travelers pass through Milan for a night or two to kick off, or wrap up, an extended Italy trip. They view Da Vinci’s Last Supper, visit the Duomo, eat in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, stroll around the Brera and believe they have seen Milan. Whether you’re planning to stay in Milan long-term or just passing through for a night or two, here are 10 essential restaurants where you’ll not only eat well, but also — in most cases — stray from the historic center.
If there’s one Milan restaurant that’s as inventive as the néo-bistrots that have taken Paris by storm, it’s Rebelot. It’s the most exciting place to dine in Milan, hands down. Chef Mauricio Zillo’s whimsical menu of eight to ten small plates changes quite regularly, having featured 200 dishes last year alone. Don’t let straightforward menu descriptions such as “roasted octopus and lentils” fool you; the beautifully executed preparations are striking, elegant and thoughtful. You’d fare well to let Mauricio decide dinner for you by opting for the gastronomic menu — three courses costs €26; four, €36; and five, €48. Couple your repast with one of mixologist Oscar Quagliarini’s clever libations. Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 55, Milan 20143, rebelotdelpont.com
The beautiful 19th-century industrial building that houses Ratanà is, not unlike the old man’s house in the movie Up, the only remaining historical construction in a neighborhood razed to the ground and completely rebuilt to become the futuristic Isola-Garibaldi project. The name of the restaurant is itself a tribute to the old times: Ratanà was the nickname of a half-priest, half-healer who cured the poor people of the quarter more than 100 years ago. Born and bred Milanese chef Cesare Battisti offers a modern take on Lombardy’s traditional recipes. While his saffron risotto is arguably the best the city has to offer, it’s his love for oft-neglected freshwater fish that has singlehandedly started a mini-revolution in the city. Via Gaetano de Castillia 28, Milan 20124, ratana.it
3. Dry Milano
Even in Italy, finding really good pizza is hard. Despite what Neapolitans would like you to believe, it’s not about having the perfect water. The number-one rule? The dough — not the toppings — is what pizza is all about, and Dry Milano’s delicate, flavorful dough is exactly what makes its pizza stand out. Go for a “less is more” approach and try the marinara, with just tomato sauce. By the way, pizza is just half of what makes this sleek, industrial-chic venue popular: Dry serves outstanding Prohibition-era cocktails. Call ahead or be prepared to wait in a line of beautiful Milanese. The people-watching will keep you busy. Via Solferino 33, Milan 20124, drymilano.it
4. Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia
Chef Aimo Moroni and his wife, Nadia, made history in 1962 when they launched what became their venerated Michelin two-starred restaurant. The affable 81-year-old Aimo, today a regular dining-room presence, has passed the torch on to his daughter Stefania, while chefs Fabio Pisani and Alessandro Negrini oversee the kitchen. Their elegant, regionally inspired Italian menu includes sweet rhubarb ravioli as well as spring-onion spaghetti, a dish Aimo created more than 40 years ago. The fine-dining restaurant swings to the pricier side of the spectrum but is worth every euro. You’ll be wowed. Via Privata Raimondo Montecuccoli 6, Milan 20147, aimoenadia.com
When Joia first opened 25 years ago, the idea of a gourmet vegetarian restaurant sounded like pure folly. Today, Joia is still going strong — it boasts a Michelin star — and recently started leaning toward vegan cuisine. The chef, Pietro Leemann, believes in a “cooking as medicine” philosophy, with some Buddhist wisdom thrown in the mix. Expect the occasional quirky twist: The dessert “gong,” for instance, is meant to involve all senses, so to make sure that your hearing takes part in the fun along with your tasting buds, your server rings a gong before you start eating. Via Panfilo Castaldi 18, Milan 20124, joia.it
Über-talented chef Carlo Cracco catapulted to TV stardom when he became one of the judges on the Italian edition of the popular talent show MasterChef. After that, scoring a reservation in his eponymous Michelin two-starred restaurant has become no small feat, despite the fact that the intellectual, personal cuisine of the chef is not a crowd-pleaser per se: His love for offal and his penchant for pure, unsubtle flavors have always made him somewhat of a chefs’ chef. Via Victor Hugo 4, Milan 20123, ristorantecracco.it
Alice, Italian for anchovy, is a Michelin-starred labor of love between longtime friends and collaborators chef Viviana Varese and her dining-room consort, sommelier Sandra Ciciriello. For both of them, a fondness for fish flourished at an early age — Varese at her family’s Salerno seafood restaurant and Ciciriello at Milan’s esteemed fish market. Their enthusiasm for their craft radiates from a menu that showcases imaginative Mediterranean-inspired seafood such as “Rosemary’s Ceci,” a chickpea curry with rosemary extract, blanched squid and squid broth, and “Pis + Love,” a take on pasta e fagioli with mussels and octopus. Eataly Smeraldo Top Floor, Piazza 25 Aprile, 10, Milan 20124, aliceristorante.it
8. Un Posto a Milano
Visiting Milan today, it’s difficult to imagine that until a century ago, parts of the city now almost central were considered “countryside.” Yet Cascina Cuccagna, an 18th-century farmhouse, offers such proof. Three years ago, following an extensive renovation, the Cascina reopened to the public with one of the most interesting restaurants in town, Un Posto a Milano — literally, “a place in Milan” (quite the understatement). Un Posto a Milano serves unpretentious farm-to-table food, always fresh and delicious, with a lot of vegetarian options and a focus on local ingredients. As soon as the weather warms up, the beautiful courtyard with its vegetable garden becomes one of the most frequented places in town. Via Privata Cuccagna 2, Milan 20135, unpostoamilano.it
9. Mangiari di Strada
Getting here is certainly not easy, but a street-food paradise awaits you following the onerous trek to the dismal Milan outskirts. Take your pick from chef Giuseppe Zen’s glorious array of street-food specialties that span all of Italy, such as panino con lampredotto (a cow’s fourth stomach), native to Tuscany, fried Neapolitan pizza, and jota, a bean-and-sauerkraut soup typical of Trieste. Because it’s open for lunch only, it’s best to arrive early, as seats can be few and far between, particularly during the cooler months, when the outdoor garden is closed. Via Lorenteggio 269, Milan 20152, mangiaridistrada.com
The cheese doesn’t stand alone, but it certainly steals the spotlight at LadyBù, a collaboration between the chefs of the aforementioned Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia and Anteo, a mozzarella producer in Lazio. Chef Nico Rizzi, an Aimo e Nadia alum, serves crave-worthy dairy-centric dishes that you’ll mull over long after the cows — or in LadyBù’s case, the buffalos — have come home. One of the few places in Milan offering excellent bang for your buck, the generously portioned pastas don’t exceed €12. You’d be remiss if you didn’t start with the stracciatella- and prosciutto-topped housemade focaccia. Via Michelangelo Buonarroti 11, 20145 Milan, ladybu.com
Jackie Degiorgio and Sara Porro are cofounders of Sauce Milan, an English website dedicated to Milan’s food and beverage culture. Sauce Milan covers everything from where to dine near top attractions to restaurants in both popular and lesser-known neighborhoods to finding the best risotto alla Milanese, cocktails and even fried chicken. The Sauce Milan team arranges food tours of the city’s Historic Center, Isola, Navigli and Brera neighborhoods.
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