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JBF Trip Planner: Milan

Mitchell Davis

February 02, 2016

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If you’re anything like us, the first thing you do when planning a trip—perhaps even before booking a plane ticket—is figure out where you’re going to eat while you’re there. Museums, sightseeing, and shopping are all well and good, but food is often the main attraction. To make trip planning a little easier, we’re compiling lists of our can’t-miss pit stops in some of our favorite places. Below, our executive vice president (and resident globe-trotting gourmand) Mitchell Davis shares his absolute must-eats in Milan for this special international installment.

Just because Expo Milano 2015 is over doesn’t mean you should take Milan off your list of places to visit. In the wake of last year’s World's Fair, the design capital of Europe has been reinvigorated with new contemporary art museums (Fondazione Prada, MUDEC, and Hangar Bicocca), fashion shrines (Armani Silos), and numerous restorations of historic sites around town. While Milanese fashion and furniture are famously cutting edge, you'll want to stick closer to tradition for the best dining experiences. Here are some of my favorite spots after eight months of living in the city that is home to not only the Last Supper but also to many delicious ones.

Latteria San Marco
Via San Marco, 24
Tel 02 659 7653

Imagine that you grew up in an Italian family with a grandmother and grandfather who were great home cooks and whose love was tough and enduring. That's Latteria, where Maria (in the kitchen by day, the dining room by night) and Arturo (in the kitchen during the week, his garden on the weekends) play the roles of your nonna and nonno, respectively. The ten tables are packed into a small tiled space. There's only house wine to drink. And the menu, which changes daily, features simple, soul-satisfying food. Appetizers, such as garlicky goose salami and buttery lardo di Colonnato (whence Arturo hails) are worth trying, even though they will take up space for the other dishes on the menu. Pace yourself. The house specialty of spaghetti with lemon and hot peppers is more than the sum of its parts—as is everything they serve, really. If you don't mix the spaghetti correctly before eating, Maria will grab your fork and mix it for you. Other favorite primi have been fettuccine with porcini, in season; black rice served warm with fresh mozzarella di bufala and tomatoes; gnocchi with meat sauce; and rigatoni alla Norma (with fried eggplant and ricotta salata). From the main courses, it's hard to chose a favorite. The meatballs are a must, rich with cheese and pan-fried until crisp. (Don't confuse the meatballs, polpettine, with the polpette—tiny octopus, which are also delicious). Other musts, if you see them, are sautéed sturgeon medallions in a white pan sauce, a thick-cut, juicy coteletta alla Milanese, and arista di maiale, a flavorful roast pork sliced paper-thin and served with oven-roasted potatoes. The vegetable side dishes are also a highlight—think puntarella (Roman chicory) in anchovy sauce, trombete (long, thin, dense zucchini) in mustard sauce, or mashed Jerusalem artichokes—many of the vegetables come from Arturo's garden and their flavors are pure. The best desserts are often the simplest: peaches cooked in caramel and served with vanilla gelato, or fresh persimmons, in season. Note: the restaurant is only open on weekdays (lunch and dinner, same menu) and they do not take reservations or credit cards.

Cantina Piemontese
Via Laghetto, 2
Tel 02 784 618

This quiet, 100-year-old restaurant south of the Duomo is known for specialties from Piedmont, as the name suggests. But the reason to eat here is the best coteletta alla Milanese in town. Pounded thin on the bone, crisp-fried in butter, and topped with arugula and cherry tomatoes or served plain with lemon and roast potatoes, this simple veal chop is a revelation. The other menu items are also delicious, including fresh, seasonal pastas; traditional dishes like brasato al Barolo and bolito misto, which is served with an assortment of traditional condiments, including salsa verde and mustards; and homemade desserts. Their long wine list is celebration of Nebbiolo and other lesser-known northern Italian grapes. 

Contraste
Via Giuseppe Meda, 2
20136 Milan
Tel 02 4953 6597

Contraste is the newest place on my hit list and by far the fanciest, most expensive, and most modern. The young chef, Matias Perdomo, made a name for himself at Pont de Ferr in Navigli, Milan's canal district, where he won a Michelin star for his contemporary cooking. At Contraste, his own restaurant in the same neighborhood, Perdomo is pumping out whimsical, creative, and delicious tasting menus in an elegant setting. (Note there is no physical menu; the chef chooses with input from his guests.) Where most creativity by Italian chefs leaves me hungry for a meal at Latteria (see above), Perdomo's food satisfies. (One local critic reminded me Perdomo hails from Uruguay, which might explain why he excels by playing with Italian tradition.) Imagine a lasagne bolognese doughnut, for which the elements of the lasagne are separated and recombined in a toroidal pasta shape. A fine wine list and good service complete the experience.

Cantine Isola
Via Paolo Sarpi, 30
Tel 02 3311 5249

This sliver of a wine shop has become a popular wine bar in the center of Chinatown, steps from Milan's trendy Isola neighborhood. The crowd spills into the street, even on a cold, rainy winter's night. The walls are lined with bottles of impressive wines at reasonable prices. Many of them are open behind the bar for drinking and you get the sense they will pop the cork of just about anything you might want to taste. As you drink, platters of crostini with different salumi, cheese, and vegetable toppings emerge from a back door. It's a friendly place, where people talk to strangers (in English and Italian) and where you will be shocked at the how little it costs to sample some of the finest of Italy's regional producers. 

Princi Cafe
Piazza XXV Aprile, 5
Tel 02 2906 0832

Located on the Piazza XXV Aprile, opposite Eataly, this outpost of the formidable Milanese artisanal bakery chain Princi has the most seating. The selection of breads and pastries is impressive, and like many things in Italy, it changes with the seasons. For breakfast I can never decide between the savory salumi and cheese panini on freshly baked rolls or the sweets; I usually have both. The coffee is good. At lunch and dinner, pan pizzas come out of the oven every few minutes and are snipped into bite-sized pieces with scissors. Other homey hot food is served from steam trays. Come aperitivo time, the cafe basks in the orange glow of Aperol spritzes, Milan’s favorite cocktail. 

Focaccia Manuelina
Via Santa Radegonda, 10
(In the Rinascente)

Milan is one of the rare cities where you can eat well and cheaply even smack dab in the historic center, in the shadow of the duomo. Still, I will never understand why the line for panzerotti (fried pizza pockets) at Luini wraps around the corner, while this amazing focacceria located just down the block in the Rinascente department store annex remains largely undiscovered. The only outpost of a century-old bakery in Recco, the focaccia di formaggio (known everywhere else as focaccia di Recco) is a wonder. Made from paper-thin dough stuffed with runny, flavorful cheese, the focaccia is cut into squares while still piping hot from the oven and served on paper plates. I am embarrassed by how many of those squares I can and have eaten. No seating. 


Cioccolatitaliani
Via San Raffaele, 6
Tel 02 8909 3820

Since there is always room for gelato, even if you have eaten an entire focaccia di Recco (see above), head back down the street to this popular gelateria, where the chocolate-based favors are divino. Their chocolatiness is enhanced by your choice of melted dark, milk, or white chocolate with which they fill the cone before they pile the ice cream on top. There is always a line—morning, noon, or night, winter or summer—so take a number and be patient. It moves fast. There are a few other branches around town, including one in Navigli, where the lines are much shorter. 

View our complete archive of Expo Milano coverage. For more information about the USA Pavilion, visit USAPavilion2015.net. 

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Mitchell Davis is executive vice president at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.