Arguably one of the main pulls for visiting Italy is its legendary cuisine. Let’s be honest: To many of us, that means pizza and pasta, whether or not the region we happen to be visiting specializes in it or not. So, when I decided to take an October mini-break, needing to use some annual leave from work (I know, they encourage you to take holidays in the UK!), I scrolled through Skyscanner and discovered that the cheapest flights available were to Milan.
Prior to booking the trip, I had no idea about what Milan had to offer; all I knew was that it’s famed for its fashion houses—Gucci, Prada, Armani—and obviously, because it’s Italy, it had good food. However, as someone who professes to be a foodie, I felt duty-bound to delve deeper into the regional food culture than what mainstream British pop culture tells us Italians eat (although secretly still planning on eating as much pizza as possible over the three-day trip as I could).
What many native English speakers in the UK and U.S. think of Italian food is shaped by popular culture. Anyone who watched Disney as a child will remember the iconic scene from Lady and the Tramp, the two pups sharing a delicious-looking bowl of spaghetti meatballs, moving in for a kiss as they slurp on the same strand of spaghetti. Then there’s the also iconic, if not ill-famed, Eat Pray Love where Julia Roberts’ character takes a “finding herself” pilgrimage to Rome to immerse herself in the culture and learn the language but really ends up spending most of her time gorging on—you guessed it!—pizza, pasta and wine.
In the UK, or in London at least, I’m sure this has an influence on the type of Italian food we consume. Pizza is definitely having a moment in London and has been for a while. You can’t scroll through a list of “best places to eat in London” without coming across a newly opened sourdough pizza spot, which research tells me is most similar to the Neapolitan, or Naples-style, pizza.
Whilst Italian cuisine in the UK is clearly readily available, it doesn’t mean it lives up to Italian standards. I have an Italian friend who wouldn’t dream of letting me pick an Italian restaurant unless she had fully vetted it. Her choices haven’t let us down so far, and I’ve tried some non-stereotypical foods that I definitely wouldn’t have had without her. A memorable dish was gnocco fritto bread (delicious puffs of fried bread) that we ate in the trendy East-London pasta joint Via Emilia. I’m still waiting to try her favorite London pizza spot, Santore.
So by the time my partner and I arrived in Milan, we were definitely ready for lunch. We stopped at a little bistro that was full of Italians and reassuringly, reservation signs (plus no photos on the menu, which is always a good omen). I’d made a list of famous Milanese dishes we needed to try on our visit, including risotto allo zafferano, ossobuco and coletta alla Milanese. However, dazed from our early start, we ordered purely with our growling stomachs.
Focaccia with ham and cheese, pasta with cod roe, anchovies and broccoli and big bottles of acqua frizzante to quench our thirst. It was delicious. Afterwards, we wandered to the Parco Sempione and sat in an idyllic cafe, sipping more sparkling water and double espressos to perk us up, as we’d heard that it was a faux pas to order a cappuccino after midday in Italy.
Our first proper eating adventure in Milan, however, turned out to be a bit of a disaster. After researching the best places to eat pizza in the city, we hopped on a tram to head to a restaurant in the popular Porta Venezia district. Europeans are known to eat later than the Brits and Americans, and it was a bit embarrassing to be going for dinner at 7:30 p.m., so to drag it out, we stopped at a bar to take advantage of the famous aperitivo hour.
Aperitivo hour is basically a much more sophisticated version of pre-dinner drinks, where Italians drink bitter aperitifs such as Aperol or Campari along with bar snacks, like nuts, olives, crisps and cold cuts of meat. There are different accounts of where and when the concept of aperitivo came from; however, popular opinion seems to suggest that whilst some sort of version of a pre-dinner drink has been available for hundreds of years, the tradition as it currently stands has roots in Milan.
We learned our first culinary lesson at the restaurant when we ordered a starter of bruschetta; this actually refers to a type of bread and not the toppings we usually associate with the dish, including tomatoes, oil and garlic. This version came slathered with nduja (also having a moment in London).
After this is when things took a turn for the worse. A small caveat is that I have a nut allergy, which can make eating out, especially abroad with the potential language barrier, a tricky experience. Unfortunately, despite checking multiple times, it turned out that there had been a mistake, and a savory biscuit that contained almonds had been sprinkled on my pizza. Who would have thought—nuts on a pizza! The pizza looked amazing, complete with a whole burrata, bresaola and yellow tomatoes, so it was such a shame I couldn’t get my teeth into it. Despite the staff being incredibly apologetic about the incident, I was feeling a little shaken. Still in need of a good meal, we headed to the one place we knew would be incident-free. Yes, we went to McDonald’s. In Italy. I can’t bear to say more.
The next few days were much more successful in terms of eating; thankfully, there were no more McDonald’s trips and no more nut allergy incidents. We drank the creamiest, most delicious cappuccinos I’d ever tasted for the insanely cheap price of €2.50 from a local cafe that also sold cigarettes, pastries and lottery tickets.
We discovered that the differences between the Northern Italian vs. Southern Italian cuisine are also quite marked: the North typically has richer, creamier dishes perhaps due to its colder winters than the Southern regions experience, where more frequently consumed is what we think of as the traditional “Mediterranean diet,” seafood, tomatoes, olive oils, vegetables. Despite our best efforts, I think we actually ended up eating more of a Southern diet on our trip.
Whilst our breakfasts consisted of the standard coffee, fresh fruit, warm bread and sweet pastries, our lunches and mains included fresh tomato salad, spaghetti with clams, caponata and extra pizza, as I didn’t get to eat mine on our first night.
Eating in Milan was definitely a good experience, but if we were to return I would have done some more research on the best spots to eat before going. Trying to eat Italian food every day you spend in Italy might also be a bit unrealistic, as lots of the recommendations that came up from a Google search weren’t the traditional pizza and pasta I’d hoped for—you can find some excellent sushi restaurants and beyond in Milan as well. It made me realize that eating Italian food every day in Italy might also not be what the Italians do; I don’t eat “English” food every day. Learning about Milan’s food culture transcended the risotto and ossobuco we were so excited for.