Tracie and I happened upon a couple of really great finds in Milan on the first three days we were there. One night, we took my friend Peter’s recommendation and dropped in to a Birreria and Osteria called La Libera that served up a terrific seasonal fare. I had one of the best Cottoletta alla Milanese that I’ve had at that restaurant. It was served on the bone and the loin portion of the veal had been pounded about 3mm thick. It was served with a side of lemon and a small salad. Tracie had god knows what as mine was too good to even pay attention to what she was eating beyond our initial saluté and diving into our plates and vino.
When we ventured out to Varenna and Lake Como we found a hidden treasure up a cozy little alley just beyond the boat docks. We walked past and saw a nice contemporary dining room set subtly back off the corridor, we only looked because there was a little table set for two outside the door and beautiful flower arrangements that the wife and owner of the Chef was watering at the time. We were famished as we’d spent a good part of the day wandering up and down and staring at the beautiful streets and alleys that make Varenna the quiet and charming gem that we hope it will remain. If you are ever in the Lake Como area head to Varenna and Varenna Mon Amour.
There we sat down for lunch the chalkboard out front mentioned a special priced primo and secondo for about 20 Euros. We found a menu full of seasonal delicious sounding options yet the menu remained simple and of a manageable size, so rather than sticking to the special we chose a la carte. We made our selections and dove into the bread basket filled with a nice variety of breads: pane integralé and the ubiquitous white bread but nicely hand shaped.
For primi, of all things, since I was overwhelmed with lobster trim from Per Se everyday back in the states, I chose a lobster dish. It had Pacherri di Gragnano pasta, which is like a very large rigatoni. The Chef chose to serve a half a lobster seemingly chopped up with no regard, but as you dig in and used the gleaming custom pliers and meat picker tools provided one gets an idea that this Chef is not your ordinary Italian Chef. Every knife cut in the lobster was deliberately placed for ease of access to meat. A feat only a lover of lobster could accomplish. This opened up the shell to allow for even and complete saucing of the meat. The meat melted in my mouth like a warm piece of butter. Tossed into it all with the generosity of a farmer sharing his first harvests were plump cherry tomatoes and crisp broad beans. Simple traditional fare served up with a style and sense of care that would put most Chefs in the states to shame.
Tracie’s choice of a broad linguine pasta, handmade in the restaurant, was cooked al dente and carefully tossed with perfectly cooked scallops, giant cherry tomatoes and topped with farmer’s mâche that tasted of the earth like no other mâche I’ve tasted. Somehow, we both managed to finish these generous primi piatti and loosened out belts for the next round. The moment they arrived we knew somehow we’d manage. My calamari and Tracie’s monkfish both exploded with the flavors of a well seasoned grill. This guy knew not only how to cook fish he knew how to make love to your mind with them.
As we sat there in their dining room, a stone’s through from the lake, we knew our choice of Varenna as a quick retreat from the busy streets of Milan had been well placed. We set out that first afternoon on the shores of Lake Como with fat bellies and sated hearts. We’d be back one night for dinner. I wanted to set all the clocks forward. Sleep for days, do anything to bring the next meal at Varenna Mon Amour closer.
A few nights later, sadly we chose another restaurant for that evening’s dinner, we made our ways down the coastline and back up the steps to Varenna Mon Amour. Because when you think you have a good restaurant you don’t want to give it up. You want to explore, to test, to feel it out, to see if it can turn those feelings back on inside you again. For a second time we sat down to a glamorously affordable meal. Glamorous because we felt like VIP’s from the flavors and presentation but managed to walk away without an empty wallet. I wanted blood this time and went straight for a ribeye like cut seared on the charcoal grill to a perfect medium rare and garnished with a heaping mound of vibrant flowery pink peppercorns and rosemary. Nearby sat a carefully piled medley of summer vegetables. As the beef melted in my mouth our hearts began to soar.
Tracie opted for local fare and tried a sardine like fish fresh from Lake Como. Pan fried and then oven roasted with a dash of vinegar and olive oil. It was all draped with fresh herbs and bursting forth from the parchment cartouche aromas of fried fish, crisp summer veggies and the astringent waft of vinegar drifted from her plate to mine. Our eyes were filled with anticipation. As we let our wine breathe, a Refosco from Venezia, we dug into our main courses. This time we’d held back and only ordered an appetizer and a secondo each saving room for the brilliant desserts that we’d spied a few days before resting on the tables nearby.
That evening sits in a place in the minds eye. A place where colors and aromas and the gentle clink of wine glasses resides. We past the evening making new friends with a lovely Italian couple to our left, the husband a cinematographer with an ear problem and the wife with a knack for languages. She claimed her German was better than her English, but we chatted away from a few tables across and discovered that the restaurant was new to the area and that the chef was a friend from childhood. Later on as our bellies filled to capacity the chef came out and he told us about his life and how he came to have this treasured little location tucked away in the alleys of Varenna. He’d plied his knife on the shores of many countries and every dish struck a beautiful balance between the rustic seasonal traditions of Italy and the sweeping breadth of his career of over fifteen years in the kitchen.
Looking back this remains the best restaurant that we chanced upon in our travels this time in Italy. Other would come, but this remains our favorite. Its hard to beat the walks and view around the restaurant and the lulling pace of Varenna life is hard to pull away from as well. Some would say Varenna’s too sleepy of a town and we would say fine, keep your Bellagio and your Menaggio. We’ll always have our Varenna.
As we set our sights back on Milan, to join back with our friend from the states Peter, before we set out for the countryside, we looked back on our stay as a lovely quiet rest. In Varenna, we buried the dust and grime of the Beijing city streets. In Varenna, we put behind us the shock of Asia and headed back into the warmth of our western heritage.
Here’s a brief interlude of our meals in Varenna. Somehow I failed to take photos of food in Milan.
Back in Milan, Peter whisked us over to his apartment, with high hung ceilings and wall of ten foot windows overlooking a lovely yet boisterous courtyard, to a local delight that we couldn’t find on our own. Over fifty years ago a man by the name of Luini arrived from southern Italy and opened the doors of his restaurant to share the rich goodness of panzerotti. Made from dough similar to pizza dough, filled with an unfathomable variety of fillings they are fried up and served to clamoring throngs of Milanese. We shoved past the crowds surging into the building into the Piazza and found a bench to sit down and share a small variety of fillings: spinach and ricotta, tomato sauce and mozarella, prosciutto and salame, and funghi. From there we zipped along the Milan streets and happened upon his favorite gelateria and shared bites of lemon basil, pistachio, nocciola, and blackberry.
That evening we set out for a quiet Osteria just outside of the old part of Milan, Osteria dei Fauni ( Via Turati, 5 in Segrate, about 10 minutes east of Milan ). Peter had mentioned the place weeks ago when I’d asked him about places to visit or possibly stage. He had spent several days a week over a few months working with the Chef Michael his new friend from Philly who had married an Italian woman and was currently cooking up a storm in this quiet yet sadly empty little gem. The proprietor has an astute palate for wines and wanted to create a place that challenged traditional boundaries of Italian Cuisine. Michael took the challenge and with a staff of one serves up some maddeningly inventive and delicious takes on traditional Italian fare.
To start, Tracie chose a mouth watering terrine of a burrata garnished with anchovies. I never would have thought this would have worked, but here it was and it all came together perfectly. Peter and I settled for a mixture of Salume. Michael’s wife, who was our server, had mentioned a guanciale that Michael had house cured and we selected that with a few other choices. Tracie’s dish was the star of the first course but our appetites weren’t sated as we settled in for our second course.
For my second time in Italy shoved my way into a plate of Cottelleta alla Milanese. Michael’s was a contemporary take on ‘a la meuniere’ style. The crust crackled and crunched in a way that only Japanese Panko can and my teeth sunk into a tender perfectly cooked pork loin, thin but with enough to bite, and the juices of the finest Italian pork mingled delightfully with drips of butter that unfamiliar to the Italian kitchen somehow forced their way onto the plate. Later that evening when I remarked on his use of butter he smiled and told me it was so important in his cooking style that it was the only thing his Italian cooks couldn’t understand and that when he returned from a short vacation once, he returned to find the mound of butter that he’d mistakenly ordered to be delivered the day before his departure untouched and waiting for his gentle hand.
Peter’s choice raised their eyes and received an “are you sure?” with his deliberate and quick “I’ll have the Cavallo…” His loin of horse seared a dripping rare arrived to all of our delight. We each took a bite with Peter devouring the rest and found the meat deep with richness yet without a hint of distinction beyond a slight more bite to set it away from the beefiest beef. The evidence that Michael’s time in the kitchen was long and steady came true when he came and sat with us as we finished our last bites. His presence is one of a cook. Large high shoulders, slightly sloped but grown strong from years bending over a chopping board and reaching from burner to pass to put out food to tenuously anxious guests. We chatted for over an hour and his eyes filled with hope and cheer as he recounted stories and shared his dreams of owning his own bakery soon and unleashing his talent on the world.
Once again a dreamers table, we sat talking about our accumulated dreams and goals of opening various forms of restaurants, bakeries and farm to table ideas. All different, all possibilities hanging in the air. I could hear times gear grind slower as we passed the torch of sharing our various ideas. Time is always seeking change in the ticking and pointing and measuring and stretching as the physicality of the possible hangs in the mind. As we finished our last glass the clock surged back into gear and we slumped off to our beds where the light in our heads flashed. Italy is a place that sometimes seems dreamlike, unbelievable and yet it’s there. When you visit you can’t help but wonder what it would take to get people to leave. It seems a perfect place wherever you are.
We finished off our stay the next day at the beach at Finale Liguria a few hours outside of Milan and came back to Peter’s where I made my first attempt in months to share the love that I’ve received from countless kitchens all over the world. And then we were off again. We set our sights and taste buds for the Calvi’s in the town of Varzi southwest of Milan.