Local Food: Here's What To Eat In Milan, Italy

When it comes to hearty, comforting Italian food, our pick is Northern Italy. This section of the country reigns supreme when it comes to hearty, traditional Italian dishes with everything from truffles in Piedmont and wild mushrooms all around to classic braised beef dishes like manzo all'olio in Lombardy, and, in our opinion, the king of comfort-y meat dishes, Osso Bucco.

Since Milan is the unofficial capital of Northern Italy, we go full force on those comforting, popular Italian dishes when we're there. The reason that food in Milan is hearty? Yes, the weather is partially the reason but also it's the literal lay of the land. Lombardy's proximity to the Po River means it is part of Italy's "rice bowl," so you'll see risotto everywhere you turn, especially in the Fall.

So, while the southern parts of Italy are all seafood, tomatoes, olive oil, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, the region of Lombardy (which is home to Milan) has been historically about the land, using lots of veal, cream sauces, butter, and Grana Padano cheese. The region's most famous traditional Italian recipes are saffron-tinged Risotto Milanese, cotoletta (aka veal Milanese), carpaccio di Bresaola, polenta, panettone (a Christmastime cake), and Amaretti cookies.  

But, today Milan is very much a global city so it's not all risotto and polenta: you'll see trendy vegan cafes, juice bars, and ethnic restaurants, alongside traditional regional spots.

Here is our definitive list of what to eat in Milan that are quintessentially Lombardian:

Ossobucco {Ossobuco alla Milanese}

You've probably seen this at every other Italian restaurant you've ever been to, but did you know it's from Milan. “L’oss bus a la milanesa” as it’s called in Milanese, is one of the most revered and popular Italian dishes in Milanese cuisine. Ossobuco alla milanese is particularly popular in the winter, because, well, it's a super filling dish. Traditionally, the dish was made with the hind legs of the veal (called ossobuchi, plural form in Italian) and would have been pretty much a special occasion dish.

The Ossobuco alla milanese is a pretty straightforward one pot (aka piatto unico) dish. It's usually served over Risotto alla Milanese (see above). The bone marrow is a key component of the traditional Italian recipe -- it's used in many dishes instead of oil or butter to stew meats and is a key ingredient in Risotto alla Milanese. To be a legit ossobuco eater, you must not pass go and head straight for the bone marrow. The technique of digging the bone marrow out with a teeny spoon is ironically called “tax collecting” (riscuotere le tasse).

Polenta

Year round you’ll find polenta on menus across Northern Italy but it really takes centerstage in the colder months. Since it’s made with nothing but corn flour and water (or broth), the quality of the corn flour is key to the taste. Traditionalists cook it in a cooper-lined pot and, like risotto, stir it constantly while it cooks. Our recipe is an easier, quick version of traditional polenta but is just as delicious. Since it's just a couple ingredients, make sure you get really good quality polenta (Anson Mills! Bob's Red Mill!) so it's as tasty as possible. By the way, our favorite thing to do with polenta (aside from eating it right off a spoon with a dab of butter and pinch of flaky salt)? To make like old school Northern Italians and throw an all-out polenta party!

Panettone

This Milanese food  is a delicious buttery, brioche-y take on fruit cake (way better than what we have stateside). It's a Christmas cake so most places will only sell it during the holidays, but, if you want to try it, the bakery Pasticceria Martesana serves it pretty much year round. Look for a panettone that feels heavy for its size and, whatever you do, get it from a legit bakery and don't buy it from duty free on the way home!

Negroni Sbagliato

Literally translated to “the incorrect Negroni” the story goes that a bartender was trying to make a classic Negroni (equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari) but added Prosecco instead of gin and this drink was born. The classic place to get this drink is the place is was created, the old-school Bar Basso.

Risotto Milanese {Risotto alla Milanese}

The reason there's so much rice in Northern Italy? It's ground zero for rice. Milan is located next to the Po River Valley, which means it’s in the middle of Italy’s “rice bowl.” That means that while you’ll see pasta on the menu everywhere, the classic carbs in Milan and the surrounding Northern regions would have been rice and polenta. The Milanese style risotto is a nod to the fact that Milan has always been a wealthy city since it uses pricey ingredients: saffron, butter, and, when made in traditional Italian recipes, even bone marrow.

Veal Milanese {Cotoletta alla Milanese}

Think of this like the Italian version of weiner schnitzel -- as in, deliciously crisp-ily breaded and fried meat. Like Risotto alla Milanese, you’ll find this breaded veal chop on almost every menu in the city. Look for one that has an even golden brown color and the bone attached to the cut (an indicator of its quality). And, like all good fried food, it should have a crisp coating, the meat should be very juicy, and, though it's fried, it should seem relatively light. And, tbh, it shouldn't be cheap! Shady spots around Milan will swap way cheaper pork chops for veal so this is really a dish where price can dictate quality.

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Opening photo by Christine Davis

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