Life After Risotto: Fine Dining in Milan Italy, The Casanova, and beyond

by Louis Bignami

Milan may have the best food in Italy even though a charcter in Germi’s movie Il Cammino Della Spreranza notes, "There are bad people in Milan. They eat rice. Nobody has better risotto, veal, cheese or bread and you can argue that the Milanese emphasis on business lunches compounds the usual Italian lust for food. There’s no place in Europe to eat better if you realize that, like the Romans, Milanese don’t eat much for breakfast and the big meal is at lunch. Given this, let’s look at three upscale restaurants and a classic café.

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The Galleria Restaurant: Hotel Principe de Savoy: Casanova Grill

There’s no question but the Casanova, in the Hotel Palace, offers the best Italian food in Milano and the most challenging menu. "Challenging?" Even with antipasti, zuppe, prima piatti, secondi di pesci OR secondi di carni, vedure, formaggi and dolci OR frutta it’s impossible to have all the best treats at one time. Two visits seems minimum.

Return and you are a relative. Your name is known, your preferences are noted and your presence treasured. Granted, I’m an Italian chauvinist, but it’s my considered opinion that Italian service comes from the heart – service charges are, after all, included in the bill. Maybe it’s Mama’s influence, but standard service in Italy seems incredibly welcoming. The service at the best restaurants, such as Casanova and the others we’ll mention here, defines perfection.

Last visit, for example, I arrived dehydrated and rather ill at lunch. This after climbing the stairs in the Cathedral – do take the elevator – and an hour’s walk on a hot day at the tail end of one of those "three days, three countries" working trips I deplore.

"Signore, you look overheated. Please sit down here."

Agua sin gas magically appeared in a large bottle, and a second bottle followed. Concern was genuine. After Swiss efficiency and a couple of days in France highlighted by rental car reservations that disappeared and surly service – well, this last in Paris where even the French deplore the local manners – I felt comfortable, coddled and home.

"Have you breakfasted?"

"No, just coffee."

"Let me offer you some bread and cheese to make you feel better."

A plate of wonderful breads and cheeses, Paprino, Crana Padano and a tiny glass of 20 year old Osborne port appeared – these did not, incidentally, appear on my bill. They would, of course, usually be offered after the main "or secondi" course and before, or in leiu of dolcis or desert. Then I was left to recover and my reservation put back "at your convenience."

Happily, twenty minutes looking about the classically Italian but nicely uncluttered restaurant found me ready to tackle their spring menu. Menus at Casanova change quarterly to take advantage of general availability and add a daily or weekly chef’s choice. TIP: Try the chef’s choices!

Antipasti choices ran from smoked salmon timbales with pasta in a light pesto sauce through a favorite smoked mozzarella cheese sliced with slices of vine-ripened tomato with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and wonderful olive oil.

Antipasti arrived with an assortment of olives, Tuscan dried beef and other delights which, at Casanova include at least seven or eight breads, breadsticks, crackers and other excuses to gluttony.

However, the seasonal special menu offered a delightful antipasti of grilled small Porto Belo and sautéed local wild mushrooms. The waiter felt this was "the best antipasti in the kitchen," and his smile grew wider and wider as I ate every scrap.

On this visit, waterlogged by two aguas sin gas, I skipped zuppe. Given the hearty nature of most Italian soups, and the availability of wonderful bread, my wife and I often dine of antipasti, soup and desert and the minestrone with rock lobster medallions or the traditional pasta e fagioli or bean soup should be sampled if you have time and space.

In Milano the usual primi piatti choice --- Pasta or rice – isn’t in play. Risotto fuels Milanese. After long discussion with the Maite d’, the waiter, the chef and two "Doctorre" a table away, I opted for the classical plain rissoto, and a rather more bland menu than would usually be my choice. I should note that every other educated Italians seems to be a "Doctorre," and you can never go wrong in Italy by piling on the honorifics like my wife piles parmesan on her pasta!

The day’s risotto ran to creamy yellow rice with a slightly chewy texture garnished with more saffron than I usually put into a paella. At other time’s Casanova rissoto comes with sweetbreads and spinach, with chicken livers or with all sorts of other happy additions – my favorite variation runs to tiny bits of veal and proscuito. It’s worth noting that vegetarian dishes, or your favorite variations on the dishes in the menu are just a request away.

Secondi, or main courses, offer either fish and meats. Some gourmands even manage both. It’s my personal prejudice that meat’s better in Milano than fish – the latter seem better in Venice, but I’ve had trout in Milan that ranked with wild trout from a stream. This time my neighbors insisted I sample their "fileto de scofano spadellato con schiacciatina di patete all’olio di oliva" sticks in my taste memory. The fish was shorter than the name which translated out as "Sauted scorpion fishfillet with a potato pie in olive oil. Delicious! "Gratzia, Dottores."

Meat choices are easy. Milano, to me, means veal. Casanova’s veal chop comes on the bone, but flattened to scallopini thickness and plate-covering size. Fork tender, it testifies to the best ingredients and skilled preparation. Eggplant with a hint of tomato and a wonderful sauce filled the plate.

At other times the Duck escalope with vegetables, baby lamb fillet the size of your thumb with curry and pilaf or a plain low calorie crispy spring chicken perfectly done with a herbs testify to the restaurant’s reputation. I’m still trying to talk my wife into sharing a Florentine Steak for two – maybe next time.

A glass of wonderful Chianti classico put everything in proper perspective.

At this point it’s traditional to consider a small green salad and then go either with the Piedomontese ripe cheese selection or the less aromatic classic selection I’d sampled before dinner. I had to pass.

However, the desert trolley did me in. Will power got be past the pastry, but Italian ice cream is the best in the world, and Casanova raspberry, blueberry and "wild" berry ice creams required considered sampling. Small servings and much less sugar than is usual in most parts of world got me through to another walk to the Stoffa Palace and its world-class art

The Galleria Restaurant: Hotel Principe de Savoy

As you might expect from the name, this elegant restaurant takes its menu from classic Italian dishes and it’s decor from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. The romantic atmosphere features quiet piano music, and the restaurant seems very popular with couples or families celebrating special occasions. In summer a gazebo atmosphere with white umbrellas and candle-lit tables in the hotel gardens provides the best al fresco dining in Milan. The menu is rather more limited than that of the Casanova Grill, but many local specialties grace the menu here.

Hours d’oeuvres and salads run to mushroom and cleese salad with white truffles or the contrast in taste and texture of roasted crepe mushroom caps and crisp ham in a red wine sauce. Ham, it sould be noted comes in a host of types, sausages and finishes and our favorite ham plate runs to assorted ham cuts with melons and figs.

First courses and regional soups focus on mushrooms and classic rice soup with lentils and scallops. However, our favorite primi piatti is the Gnocchetti zucca gialla mantecati con porcini e scampi with it’s pumkin dumplings with mushrooms and shrimp.

Main courses include Ossobuco, veal cutlets Milanese style and a wonderful grilled bay chicken marinated in lemon, with cashew nuts and pumpkin. The seabass with clams and wine is a fine choice, but the mixed fly of scampi, prawns and tiny squid on a bed of crisp vegetables is tough to turn down. My wife’s choice is the lobster with ginger and garlic with red curry rice that contrasts rich lobster meat with a bite of spices and a smooth, tasty rice. Choice here is, obviously, tough, but there’s a gourmet choice menu for two that includes four main course dishes and a desert so a couple can graze to find their favorites

Deserts run to chese plates with hand-twisted breadsticks and sage-flavored crackers or an assortment of sorbets, icecream and wild berries. After am Italian meal we usually go for the cheese and fruit and leave the rich deserts and the world’s best ice cream for mid-afternoon snacks that get our full attention.

Il Duca

Preparations here, like the hotel, seem understated and classic. So it’s a fine choice for a night after a wearing day. Favorite antipastis are swordfish with orange flavored fennel, a delicious licorice and orange flavored vegetable with a wonderful swordfish from Sicily and the dry cured beef, or Bresaola with racola and emmenthal.

Primi choice is always Rissoto – either my wife’s favorite with saffron or my choice with radicchio and gorgonzola – or plain spaghetti perfectly prepared with scallops and fresh dill.

Meat dishes seem rather basic with breaded veal scallops sauced with fresh tomato and dill the choice, but the grilled veal, a thick juicy chop, is deliciously simple and prepared exactly to order.

There are usually two simple salads before a cheese course from the cheese trolley after copious samples and ample time to discuss choices. So it’s an excellent way to try some local cheeses that rarely make it out of Northern Italy. We take notes and buy the cheeses we favor for our fair weather picnic. Sadly, you can’t bring home soft Italian cheeses unless they’re pasteurized, as most of the best are not.

After cheese, according to my wife, "desert beckons." Assorted sherbets and ice creams and cream carmel generally lose out to the sweet of the day that might be a slice of rich cake, a light puff pastry or other delight. So far we’ve not seen the same dish twice.

Biffi Scalla Piazza della Scala 02-886651

Oddly enough, we’ve never eaten dinner or lunch here, but this is the spot in Milan for an after-opera meal. It’s also one of the best dozen Milanese restaurants. After-opera treats include Carpaccio, or dried raw beef with a n ice sharp sauce served with wonderful bread fills me up until breakfast. Riosotto al Salta, a sort of rice pancake suits my wife when she can tear herself away from deserts such as chestnut ice cream or a number of other gelatos.