Despite being one of the major cities of Italy, Milan has culinary traditions that are distinct from Rome, Florence, Bologna and other cities and regions to the south. Milan's geographic location, in northwestern Italy near the border with Switzerland, and closer to France and Austria than it is to Tuscany, has tremendous influence over its cuisine. While olive oil and tomato sauce form the base of much of the food of the rest of Italy, Milan's cuisine is dominated by rice, cornmeal polenta, butter, and other forms of dairy, as well as beef, all products of the flat farmlands that surround the city on three sides.
Visitors to Milan who have toured other parts of Italy will soon notice significant differences between Milanese food and that of the rest of the country. The city has long and storied culinary traditions, as well as its favorite dishes that are best eaten in their city of origin. Here are the top foods to try on your next trip to Milan.
Risotto alla Milanese
Saffron is the secret ingredient in this creamy rice dish, made of white rice (Arborio is considered the best type), butter, beef broth and marrow, onion, grated cheese and saffron, the precious spice that imparts the dish's deep yellow color. The best—and most expensive—versions will be served with a few bright orange-red sprigs of saffron on top.
Often served with mascarpone cheese and eaten as an antipasto or with aperitivo (happy hour), marbled blue Gorgonzola cheese comes from an ancient town of the same name, now a suburb of Milan. While some people turn up their noses at this pungent dairy product, for lovers of sharp, ripened cheese, its sweet or piquant versions are all moldy, goodness.
Cotoletta alla Milanese
A staple of Milanese restaurants, from simple trattorias to high-end establishments, cotoletta alla Milanese is a veal cutlet, breaded and fried in butter, which is the preferred cooking fat in the region, as opposed to olive oil further south. Veal in Italy is most often not the meat of very young (baby) cows as it is in the U.S., but rather from adolescent animals. A cotoletta may be served bone-in or boneless, often with a side of fries or with risotto alla Milanese.
Osso buco—which translates to "bone with a hole"—is another meat staple of Milan. It's a veal shank braised for hours in a sauce of vegetables, beef broth, and wine until it's ultra-tender and falls off the bone. Osso buco is traditionally served over risotto to polenta, or sometimes just with the vegetables it was stewed with.
Panettone, which loosely translates to "big bread," is a ubiquitous Christmas dessert all over Italy. The tall, round, puffy-topped bread is found everywhere, from mass-produced versions sold in supermarkets and bars to more delicate versions fresh from bakers' ovens. The sweet bread, filled with candied fruit, nuts, and spices, was allegedly invented in Milan. If you're here at Christmastime, do yourself a favor: skip the cheap stuff and splurge on a real panettone from a bakery.
This hearty stew, whose principal ingredients are cabbage and leftover pork parts—which might include feet, ears, and snout—may not sound too appealing. But don't knock it till you've tried it. Simmered for hours in a vegetable broth, this is Milanese comfort food, especially when served over a helping of creamy polenta.
Though it has many names and is consumed in far-flung parts of the world, in Italy, cornmeal mush or porridge is called polenta. It's a savory dish, usually served with a meat sauce or as the base for a meaty entree. The abundant cornfields of Lombardy, the region of Milan, mean that polenta is a perennially popular dish here. While it can be mixed densely and then sliced and fried, the creamier version is more prevalent.
Vegetarians take heart; you can eat traditional fare in Milan. The city's version of hearty, warming minestrone (thick vegetable soup) takes an everything and the kitchen sink approach—whatever vegetables are in season get tossed in the pot. The big difference between Milan's version of minestrone and that of the rest of Italy? It's served with rice instead of pasta.
Trippa alla Milanese (Busecca)
Tripe, the lining of the cow's stomach, may not be your cup of tea. But trippa alla Milanese, which will also show up a busecca on menus, is a time-tested favorite of this northern city, harkening back to the era of cucina povera—poor people's cooking—when everyone had to make do with what they had on hand. The filling soup, a favorite dring Milan's chilly winters, is made of the tripe as mentioned above, stewed with beans, seasonal vegetables, and possibly a little tomato sauce.
This star-shaped, white-flour bread roll is thought to have been introduced during the Hapsburg/Austrian era, and it's since become the vehicle of choice for sandwiches and even sweet fillings. It's light, bulbous, and hollow on the inside.