Grazie, Milano! Three Restaurants
Although like most Italians Milanese breakfast on the run, they always make time for a good lunch. At Salsamentaria di Parma, the wine comes in small bowls, the coffee in shot glasses and the crowd, many of them local professionals, pile in starting at noon. As the name suggests, inspiration for the food is that of Parma in northwest Emilia-Romagna, home to the richest tract of farmland in Italy. Parma is associated with parmigiano reggiano, prosciutto and pasta with emphasis on filled versions such as tortellini, tortelli and ravioli, all of which are part of the restaurant’s offerings. Verdi was a regular at the original location in Parma; in tribute, his music fills the air.
It was a cold, rainy day in March, and unsurprisingly the place was packed—I skittered in almost on the stroke of noon—another five minutes and there would have been a substantial wait for a table. The menu is on the placemat with specials written on a chalkboard. To ward off the chill, I ate polenta swimming in butter and liberally strewn with parmigiano with a contorno (side dish) of onions, eggplant, tomatoes and peppers stewed together so the flavors merged but the pieces of each vegetable remained distinct. Nearby, six people from a nearby office passed up wine, (they must have had substantial work ahead of them as most Italians drink wine at lunch and dinner), ordered pasta and a secondo and then drank coffee. Wooden paneling, hanging prosciutto and coat hooks give the Salsamenteria an old-world air but, if you seek a dinner spot bathed in candlelight, think again as the lighting here is always bright. Regulars give the place a clubby quality but newcomers don’t feel out of place, the staff is helpful if you have questions about a menu item and the food is delicious, rich with butter and oil.
The Navigli district, one of the oldest in Milan, was originally comprised of five canals constructed between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, used to transport goods from this landlocked city to the Lago Maggiore and on to Switzerland. After the bombings of WWII, the area fell into disrepair, only to be revived fairly recently, turning into a hot area for young people, artists, tiny, trendy shops, bars and restaurants. It’s highly touristy, loud and not for everyone but in the right spirit can be fun for a stroll on a nice evening. Just off the larger of the two surviving canals, the Osteria del Gnocco Fritto has been around since 1999 serving meals and a particular bread you’re not likely to encounter elsewhere. Almost as you sit, a basket piled with gnocco fritto, puffy squares of lightly fried bread, appears. I rarely eat fried food but this was irresistibly light and greaseless. Many diners start with the bread, piling on selected meats drawn from over twenty-five kinds of Italian ham and cheeses from a huge selection before moving on to pasta. Be warned: If you eat a great deal of ham, cheese and the homemade jams, you may have trouble stuffing down pasta to say nothing of dessert.
I ate Umbrian ham followed by homemade tagliatelle with a sauce of boar meat and drank a wine from the same area as the ham. Although not a meal I’d want to eat every day or even every week, it was outstanding with helpful waiters, most with excellent English, and a low-key atmosphere. This is the kind of place where you often strike up a conversation with people at the next table, usually inquiring about what they’re eating or vice-versa. The restaurant is open for dinner only Monday through Friday; on weekends service starts at noon.
Potafiori is as good to look at to eat in. Part flower shop, part restaurant, it’s in the Porta Romana area, open for what’s called a “quick lunch, “ i.e., an entrée, glass of wine, water and coffee, and dinner. The owners present a play list of agreeable music leaning towards jazz. Dinner starts with two different amuse bouches that change often—a bite of sardine, a tiny bit of apple with a dot of something salty, a teaspoon of creamy soup. You could start with an appetizer of octopus, smoked apple and paprika, listed as gluten-free, move onto orecchiette pasta with turnip greens and demi-sel anchovies, have a main of beef filet or guinea fowl thigh and finish up with the day’s special cake, fruit or something called Sapori di Sicilia: sheep milk ricotta, almonds, candied orange and pistachio. Portions are beautifully arranged and small. The atmosphere and food were so lovely that I ate there twice, once savoring fish in a cream sauce laced with peas; the second time eating penne with tomato sauce and salted ricotta. The two hostesses were clad in one-shouldered, gray maxi dresses with sneakers in a too-cool for school manner. No one cares if you eat an entire meal or a single course and every bite is enhanced by candlelight, exquisitely arranged flowers and plants you are welcome to buy.
Milan has a great many restaurants and these are not among the currently most fashionable or pricey. However, they fit into my avid sightseeing routine and my travel companion and I found them delightful, each in its own way. One of the pleasures of being in Milan in March is the (relative) lack of crowds—museums, galleries and restaurants have plenty of action but it’s not wall- to- wall as can be during Fashion Week or other high tourist times. You may have to endure wind and rain but it’s a small price to pay.
Salsamenteria di Parma
Via Ponte Vetero, 11,
Osteria del Gnocco Fritto
Via Pasquale Paoli, 2
via Salasco 17,