We arrived at the incredible Milano Centrale Stazione around noon. It’s the largest train station in Europe (by volume) and the light from the gigantic, glass-covered, steel-arched dome naturally illuminates the vast interior. It is clean and pure.
What’s not so pure is the exterior design. Built in 1931 under Mussolini, the grandiose façade can only be described as Monumental Fascist Architecture. Wretched excess! Things did not start well. We caught a taxi in front of the train station, loaded our luggage, got in and told him we were going to the Hotel Gallia. He swore at us and tried to get us to get out of his cab. It turns out that our hotel was just across the street, and I guess that he had been waiting in line…perhaps for hours. But he delivered us. I tipped him well. But he still stuck out his tongue out and gave us a hand gesture (the Italian salute) while pulling way.
(I’ll never forget the look in the hotel porter’s eyes as Joanne answered back with a spirited “Vaffanculo!”)
Welcome to Milan, folks.
Now, the city is not as big Rome, or as beautiful as Florence or Venice. No romance or quaintness here. Milan is harsh, gritty and urban – truly Italy’s industrial capital. But change is afoot. In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Farren writes, “As Italy’s undisputed capital of fashion and design…Milan is transitioning from gritty and gray to gorgeous and green.”
Maybe give it five years.
In the meantime, savor Milan’s timeless assets, like Santa Maria Nascente (commonly referred to as the Duomo) – the Italian Gothic cathedral frequently dubbed “The Birthday Cake.” Begun in the late 1300’s, it took nearly 600 years to finish and today is the second largest cathedral in Italy, after St. Peters in the Vatican.
Just to the right of the Duomo sits the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele Due, Italy’s oldest active shopping mall, and perhaps the first enclosed shopping center ever (sorry Southdale). Built between 1865 and 1867, it’s perhaps most notable for its immense roof’s four intersecting barrel vaults of iron and glass (the ribbed glass supplied by Saint-Gobain …still in business today). And today, how many American shopping centers incorporate the name “Galleria?”
Leonardo’s Last Supper, one of the world’s most recognized paintings, is housed a ten-minute lite-rail ride from the Duomo in a small church called Santa Maria Delle Grazie. I always thought that the painting was a fresco, but I’ve since learned that Leonardo painted it on a dry wall that he first coated with white lead paint to increase the luminosity. The intimate setting of the iconic painting allows one to get up close and personal.
Another must-visit: PECK, the Italian temple of gastronomic delights, located two short blocks away from the Duomo. You can spend hours strolling the floors, salivating over displays of prosciutto hams; two-inch-thick porterhouse slabs (soon to become Bistecca Fiorentinas); jams and jellies; just-caught seafood, including lobster tails encased in gelee at the deli; and countless beautiful pastries. Oh, yes, I almost forgot: The downstairs wine cellar is probably the largest, broadest and deepest in all of Italy.
That all brings us to our surprise discovery of SOLFERINO RISTORANTE, now one of our all-time favorite traditional restaurants in Italy. This little gem resides in the less touristy Porta Nuova, adjacent to Milan’s famed design district, where three streets come together: Via Marsala, Via Solferino and Via Castelfidaro.
Let me tell you about our dinner. The menu teems with Northern Italian classics, one foot rooted in tradition, the other foot kicking it forward. SWEET.
As expected, our dinner began with Italian bread…..served in a paper bag. The wit of serving bread in a paper bag did not disguise the bland and tasteless unsalted slices that populate all too many restaurants in northern Italy, but the focaccia course made up for it. High in gluten, moist and pleasantly chewy, it was delightfully salty and brushed with a fruity olive oil.
From there, the hits just kept on coming.
The pristine Crudo, for example, didn’t smell like fish. It smelled fresh, like the ocean. That was followed by an antipasti of Grilled Octopus paired with righteous slices of Grilled Porcini Mushrooms – an odd pairing, but a delicious one.
Then our server approached our table sporting a platter of just harvested summer mushrooms called “Funghi Alla Uova” (egg mushrooms). I’d never had them before, but I became a believer when they soon appeared in an impressive allotment crowning a salad of just-made creamy Burrata.
Two new appetizers appeared next: a smooth and silky Artichoke Flan and a smoky Eggplant Terrine.
Spinach Gnocchi tossed with Stracchino Cheese and dusted with Toasted Pistachios and Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese grated fresh at tableside was a winner.
Since here at Parasole we own three steakhouses (two PITTSBURGH BLUES and, of course, MANNY’S), we are continually monitoring the best steakhouses around the country and around the world, looking to see if we can learn something to ensure that we stay on top. Solferino serves up a hearty, unabashedly carnivorous cuisine.
No surprise: We ordered the Bistecca Fiorentina – a three-finger-thick block of cow. And not just any cow, but the premium Italian breed known as Chianina, expertly seasoned and fire-grilled, then brushed with a sort of rosemary gremolata. Does anybody with half a brain not love a perfectly prepared steak? Well, I guess my daughter, for one (what did I do to have a vegetarian for a child?)
Desserts couldn’t have been more satisfying, particularly the flaky Millefeuille with Chantilly Cream.
But now we are going to talk Risotto – the mother of ‘em all, the specialty of Milan: RISOTTO MILANESE.
When my partner, Pete, and I attended Marcella Hazan’s cooking school, one of our classes was devoted to Risotto Milanese. Now, understand: Marcella did not take prisoners. You made it her way, and ONLY her way…or else.
So we faithfully “toasted” Arborio Rice in loads of butter, then added chopped pancetta (Italian bacon), shallots, chicken broth, a little olive oil and saffron threads steeped in hot chicken broth. Bone marrow was optional. After stirring continually for about twenty minutes, we added a generous handful of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese to the pot and were directed to serve it in shallow bowls (to prevent cooling too quickly)…but never, ever on a flat plate. Makes sense. It was creamy, toothsome, cheesy and delicious.
Well, at Solferino, they take a slightly different path to risotto nirvana. First, instead of Arborio rice, they use the Carnoroli variety because, they claim, it retains the structure of the kernels better than Arborio. Neither do they permit shallots or onions or pancetta or olive oil. Moreover, chicken broth, beef broth and bone marrow are never to be used. These folks give “purist” a new meaning. The only liquid allowed is vegetable broth because it does not get in the way of the saffron and the Parmigiano Reggiano. So their recipe is this simple: rice, butter, saffron, vegetable broth and a tiny bit of salt to taste. Plus, of course, the cheese.
Some information and valuable tips to you cooks out there who want to make Risotto Milanese at home…
“Toasting” means sautéing the rice in butter for three or four minutes, helping each kernel to absorb the butter without becoming soggy. And don’t skimp here: Use a premium butter with a high butterfat content like Kerrygold or Organic Valley. Be generous with the saffron – really generous. Steep it in a cup of hot broth for about 30 minutes. Yes, saffron is hellishly expensive, but if you take the low road, you’ll lose big time and miss its uniquely fragrant, concentrated flavor as well as the vivid color.
(A digression on the cost of saffron: It’s the tiny dry thread from the crocus flower and is painstakingly harvested by hand – one thread at a time. THAT’S why you’ll probably spend twenty bucks or so on SAFFRON.)
At Solferino, we had not only a plate of Risotto Milanese, but also the iconic, rib-sticking Osso Bucco, a braised, juicy and yielding, fall-off-the-bone veal shank, always delightfully paired with Risotto Milanese.
Oh…BTW: Wondering which of the competing recipes is best? They’re like wool and silk. Neither is better than the other; both are different, and each is terrific. Over the years I’ve probably sampled dozens and dozens of different iterations of the dish – and the WORST I’ve ever had was ABSOLUTELY WONDERFUL!!!