10 Iconic Dishes To Seek Out In Milan, Italy

The forthcoming food-focused 2015 World Expo begins tomorrow in Milan. With that in mind, here is a look at 10 iconic dishes in the Italian city.

Arguably the single most fitting adjective to describe traditional Milanese cuisine is "rich" — which applies to the city's food in more than one sense. First, the Po River acts as an informal border between the north, where butter is the fat of choice, and the rest of the country, where olive oil reigns. Since Lombardy is a landlocked region, fish doesn't appear in any Milanese staples: meat is the undisputed star of the Milanese table.

The combination of meat and butter sure makes for rich cuisine, but there is much more to the story. Milan has always been one of Italy's most affluent cities, happy to leave the intricacies of politics and church matters to Rome so that its business-oriented bourgeoisie can thrive. The most iconic dishes of Milanese cuisine reflect the luxurious tastes of its upper class: Saffron — sometimes pricier than gold — is the ingredient that sets the Milanese risotto apart from the competition, while cotoletta calls for veal meat, making it the single most expensive item you're bound to find on a traditional Milanese menu. In the heavily populated countryside near the city walls, however, people have been eating simple peasant fare for centuries. As of today, some of the most popular dishes are actually the humblest, such as the ubiquitous polenta — beloved by chefs — and minestrone, a nondescript vegetable soup. Here are 10 dishes to seek out in Milan.

The traditional risotto alla Milanese is characterized by a distinct, saffron-infused golden hue.

1. Risotto alla Milanese at Ratanà

Characterized by a distinct, saffron-infused golden hue, risotto alla Milanese is without question an important dish to seek out in Milan. There are hundreds of variants that range from terrible to mediocre to good to great...and everywhere in between. At Ratanà, chef Cesare Battisti — a Milan native known locally as the king of risotto — prepares an outstanding risotto alla Milanese that adheres to tradition, meaning copious amounts of butter. The creaminess, coupled with the flawlessly cooked top-notch riso carnaroli by Riserva San Massimo, makes for textural perfection. Via Gaetano de Castillia, 28; ratana.it

Cotoletta alla Milanese — popularly known as veal Milanese in the U.S. — is found in a variety of restaurants.

2. Cotoletta alla Milanese at Trattoria del Nuovo Macello

Another dime-a-dozen Milanese dish is cotoletta alla Milanese, also called costoletta, or veal cutlet. Just like the city's signature risotto, good and bad preparations materialize at a high-end and no-frills restaurants. What makes a cotoletta truly a cotoletta is not so much the meat's girth (or lack thereof) — there are different cotoletta schools that encompass thin, thick, boneless, etc. — but that the cutlet has been pan-fried in clarified butter and that the meat comes from milk-fed veal. At Trattoria del Nuovo Macello, chef Giovanni Traversone's modern cotoletta is thick, juicy and rosy-hued inside, a fitting metaphor for the juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary that characterizes Milan. Depending on the best available cut, Trattoria del Nuovo Macello's cotoletta may or may not be on the bone. Via Cesare Lombroso, 20; trattoriadelnuovomacello.it

3. Cassouela at Manna

Cassouela is a pork and Savoy cabbage stew traditionally prepared in early January, the time of the pig slaughter. Surprisingly, there's not a lot of meat in it: What goes into it is mostly used to flavor an otherwise boring cabbage stew. And it's not the best cuts, either: pig ears, feet, tail and nose give this dish its distinctive chewy texture (full disclosure: many people hate it!). Matteo Fronduti, the talented chef of the inventive Manna Ristorante, offers his modernized take on it. Cassouela, he explains, is really good but unbearably heavy for today's standards — it used to be a dish for people working in the fields from 6 a.m. to feast on occasionally. He uses the same cuts (save for the ears — nobody likes those, apparently) but cooks each of them separately, roasting some for added taste. Plus he adds vinegar for a splash of acidity to cut through the fat. Piazzale Governo Provvisorio, 6; mannamilano.it

4. Polenta at Masuelli San Marco

After being introduced to Italy in the 17th century, corn became a staple of the peasants' diet in Northern Italy — sometimes to the point of being the only thing people were eating, which led to widespread pellagra, a disease caused by the lack of fresh produce in a diet. Today, polenta is a beloved wintertime recipe. Given its simplicity, it is only as good as the quality of the corn flour used and the patience needed to cook it — it takes several hours of continuous stirring to cook it to the point where it's fragrant and unctuous to perfection. Some of Milan's best polenta is found at Masuelli San Marco, a delightful old-style trattoria still managed — with enviable stamina — by the elderly Pino Masuelli. Normally just a side to a meaty counterpart, polenta shines in this recipe, where it is served with a raw egg yolk and cheese fondue. The restaurant's terrific pasta and borlotti bean soup served with "a standing spoon" (because of the thickness) was also a contender for a slot on this list. Viale Umbria, 80; masuellitrattoria.com

5. Minestrone at Refettorio Simplicitas

There is no recipe for minestrone, a vegetable soup made with whatever one has on hand: the basics are beans, potatoes, onion, carrots and celery. Sometimes nothing else goes into the pot! Italian children hate it with a passion, then grow up nostalgic for the vapor that clouded their childhood kitchen window on cold winter nights. With a little extra effort, though, minestrone can step up its game: Add minced lard and rice for creamy, scrumptious results. Refettorio Simplicitas, right by the Teatro alla Scala and one of our favorite options in the heart of the city, makes a lovely minestrone with 100 percent organic vegetables. The place is true to its name: Just as in a monastery's refettorio (refectory), quiet is highly prized. Although you don't have to remain completely silent during your meal, a decibel meter sitting in the center of the room implores you to talk softly. Via Dell'Orso, 2; refettoriomilano.it

6. Crudaiola all'Arturo at Latteria San Marco

Traditional Milanese cuisine, with its stews and polenta, is well suited to the winter. The Latteria San Marco's crudaiola, though, has attained modern-classic status. In summer, minestrone is traditionally served cold, but this unassuming eight-table joint, which looks suspiciously like a nonna's kitchen, takes it up a notch by making it raw: carrots, lettuce, fennel, ripe tomatoes and basil leaves are processed in a blender for a few seconds, then served with bulgur wheat. Chef Arturo always manages to score the meanest-looking, yet tastiest, produce on the market. Via San Marco, 24

7. Michetta (aka "pane e salame") at Taglio

Pane e salame ("bread and salami") is such a basic and simple plate that the Milanese use the expression as a colloquial descriptor for something or someone that is — well — basic and imple. Traditionally, bread and salami is a popular after-school nosh for partakers of the merenda, a cherished Italian mid-afternoon snack ritual. Taglio serves a luscious michetta, a Milanese take on the Kaiser roll that originated during the city's 19th-century Austrian rule. Milan's higher humidity led to less fragrant Kaiser rolls that dried out within hours, so the recipe was adapted to suit the climate. Capocollo of Martina Franca, a pork salami from Puglia's celebrated Salumificio Santoro, accompanies Taglio's michetta. Via Vigevano 10; taglio.me

8. Cannoncino at Pasticceria Supino

Every parenting book out there tells you that you shouldn't give food to kids as a reward, but countless Milanese children have been successfully bribed into cleaning their rooms and eating their minestrone with the promise of a cannoncino from Pasticceria Supino. The combination of a buttery, flaky puff pastry with the opulent crema pasticcera makes for one of the best pasticcini — bite-sized fine pastries that in Italy are practically synonymous with any sort of celebration. Via Cesare da Sesto, 28.

9. Panettone at Pasticceria Martesana

Made from eggs, butter, sugar, raisins and candied fruits, panettone is a fluffy brioche whose demand peaks during the holidays, as it is a Christmas-table staple. The soft, sweet bread has sadly gone so industrial that mass-produced boxed loaves appear on sale in the unlikeliest of places, but a handful of establishments still get theirs right. Since 1966, Pasticceria Martesana has been kneading, mixing and baking some of the city's most sought-after artisanal confections, including their panettone, which earned a coveted place on the Best Panettone in Italy list, an annual competition organized by GazzaGolosa, the food platform for the national La Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper. Via Cardinale Cagliero, 14; martesanamilano.com

The Negroni Sbagliato — made with prosecco instead of gin — was born at the old-school Bar Basso.

10. Negroni Sbagliato at Bar Basso  

Equal pours of gin, Campari and red vermouth comprise a classic negroni, and when barman Mirko Stocchetto mistakenly mixed a negroni with prosecco instead of gin more than 40 years ago, his erroneous libation became known as the negroni sbagliato. Today, this "incorrect negroni" is just as indispensible as the original, having inspired mixologists far and wide to shake up traditional and innovative versions of their own, and there's no better place in Milan to imbibe on a Negroni Sbagliato than where it was born: the legendary, old-school Bar Basso. Via Plinio, 39; barbasso.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.This post is brought to you by our friends at MasterCard Priceless Cities.

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