As a self-confessed foodie I thought I was pretty well acquainted with Italian cuisine when I first moved to Milan. Oh how wrong I was.
I distinctly remember my first experience in a Milanese restaurant shortly after arriving in the city. As I unsuccessfully scanned the menu for recognisable dishes I felt my face flush with embarrassment and confusion while the waiter stood waiting for my order.
Being bewildered by a menu is a common challenge in Italy because dishes, ingredients or names vary by region, city and season. Since that first experience I’ve overcome my innate British over-politeness and realised that there’s no shame in asking about dishes. It lets Italians do what they want to do the most in the world… that is talk about how great their local food is.
The cuisine in Lombardy tends towards heartier, richer dishes, perhaps influenced by the colder climate and the proximity to Switzerland or Austria. Here are some of the most common local dishes you might see on a menu:
Risotto: Milan is surrounded by rice-growing fields, making risotto one of the most common local dishes. The most famous of which is the yellow risotto alla milanese, a deceptively simple dish that uses saffron, butter and bone marrow to create a fabulously rich flavour. According to legend it was apparently invented during the building of the Duomo by a tradesman who used saffron to colour the glass in the cathedral and as a joke decided to add it to a risotto instead. Other risotto variations include local vegetables and meat like risotto alla monzese, a white risotto that combines cheese and a typical pork sausage called luganega.
Cottoletta at Taveggia, www.taveggia.it
Cotoletta: This breaded veal cutlet is similar to Austria’s wiener schnitzel. Cotoletta alla milanese is traditionally served thick cut with bone-in but in some restaurants you’ll also find a more modern version (cotoletta a orecchio di elefante) that uses a thinner, larger deboned and tenderised cut.
Ossobuco: Perhaps one of the most well known abroad, this dish combines braised veal shanks with vegetables, wine and stock. Ossobuco literally means ‘bone with a hole’ referring to the marrow-filled centre of the bone that helps to create a rich meaty flavour. It is often served with risotto alla milanese or polenta making a hearty one-dish meal.
Sbrisolona a Pavè, www.pavemilano.com
Dolci: In terms of dolci (desserts), Milan is most famous for panettone, the yeast-leavened sweet Christmas loaf that is only sold in December. Other local specialities include the torta meneghina (Milanese cake) made with hazelnuts and apples, castagnaccio, a chestnut flour cake, and sbrisolona, a crumbly biscuit cake with almonds, from nearby Mantua.
Cheeses from Lombardy
Grana Padano: This hard crumbly cheese was created by monks over 900 years ago in the Chiaravalle Abbey near Milan. Overseas Grana Padano has sometimes been mistakenly seen as a poorer cousin of Parmigiano Reggiano, perhaps because it is younger, costs less and has a more subtle flavour. In Italy this cheese is incredibly popular as it’s perfect for adding flavour without overpowering a dish.
Gorgonzola: Sometimes shortened to zola on menus, this world-renowned blue-veined cheese is named after the village of Gorgonzola, 22 kilometres east of Milan. There are two varieties; the younger milder creamy gorgonzola dolce and the more mature intense crumbly gorgonzola piccante.
Taleggio: Named after Val Taleggio, a valley in the Province of Bergamo in the region of Lombardy, this semi-soft cheese has a strong aroma, but a surprisingly mild and tangy flavour. A popular cheese, you may well find this served in salads or melted in risotto or polenta.
Must try Milanese restaurants
Antica Trattoria Della Pesa: With a great wine selection this traditional restaurant serves up all the classics, including a fabulous risotto al salto. www.anticatrattoriadellapesa.com
Trattoria del Nuovo Macello: Renovated in 1998 this family restaurant offers traditional dishes with creative twists. www.trattoriadelnuovomacello.it
Ratanà: Classic Milanese flavours using locally sourced ingredients served in contemporary surroundings. Via de Castilla 28, tel. +39 02 8712 8855, closed Monday and Tuesday www.ratana.it
Trattoria Arlati: Near Bicocca University this trattoria is famous for its roast beef. Via Alberto Nota 47, tel + 39 02 6433 327, closed Sundays, www.trattoriaarlati.it
Trattoria Masuelli: This traditional restaurant serves up fabulous dishes from Lombardy and nearby Piedmont. San Marco Viale Umbria 80, tel +39 02 5518 4138, closed Sundays, www.masuellitrattoria.com