Americans tend to place a lot of importance on where your family is from: people who have never even been to Ireland dress in green on St. Patrick’s Day, and those who happen to still sport the Irish patronym get extra brownie points. As for Italian-Americans, a large part of our (yes, I’m part of that clan) heritage involves our food: food made by our nonnas in giant pots that smell of garlic and basil, things smothered in red sauce and parmesan cheese and the sorts of dishes you find in New York City pizza joints with chianti in straw-covered glass carafes and red checked tablecloths.
This isn’t, however, the Italian food, nor the Italian culture, I encountered when my parents first took me to Milan, several years ago. The Italy I had pictured was the southern tip of the boot and Sicily – the little rock it’s kicking. The sunny skyscapes and warm Italian mammas are nowhere to be found in this northern Italian city, where you’re more likely to find slim, fast-talking Milanese women sipping an espresso in two mouthfuls before jetting off somewhere very, very important. At least, that’s the impression I got when I set off to explore with my brother in tow.
Thanks to frequent international flights, my internal body clock hardly ever suffers the repercussions of jet lag, so while the rest of our family crawled into bed for a mid-morning nap, my brother and I set off into the city to see what it could offer us. My brother has even more Italian-American pride than I, but he of the Sicilian complexion was just as out of place as we strolled the cold northern city and basked in its architecture: the Gothic spires of the Duomo, the symmetry and stark whiteness of the Scala. We sat at an outdoor café over perfect cappuccinos and watched as local Milanese smoked, sipped, talked… all immaculately.
We walked the galleria Vittorio Emmanuele: a mall of sorts, but not as I knew malls to be. It was old in its architecture, yet new in the haute couture stores that lined its corridors, indoors, yet not completely enclosed, with domed glass ceilings and vaulted archways leading to the rest of the city.
Milanese food is Italian, but not Italian in the way we know it in America. The red sauces of my childhood are nowhere to be found, but there’s an elegance that I don’t find in that honest, peasant food either. There’s something to be said for spending the time to make a perfect pot of risotto, simple ingredients coming together, only to be embellished by a bit of saffron: Milan’s impeccable class shining through.
Recipe: Risotto alla Milanese
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 2 cups water
- 1 tbsp. Butter
- 1 tbsp. Olive oil
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 2 cups arborio rice
- ½ cup white wine
- 1 heavy pinch saffron threads
- 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
- Bring the chicken broth and water to a boil, then turn off the heat and cover.
- Meanwhile, heat the butter and olive oil over medium low heat in a wide, heavy skillet with high sides. Slowly sweat the onions with a heavy pinch of salt, stirring often, until translucent, about 10-15 minutes. Add the rice and cook until slightly translucent, 2-3 minutes.
- Add the white wine and stir the rice until the liquid is absorbed. Add the hot chicken broth by the ladleful, stirring as the liquid is slowly absorbed each time before adding more. Continue until the rice is al dente, about 20-25 minutes. Add the saffron and taste for salt. Continue adding liquid until the rice is cooked to your liking.
- Turn off the heat and stir the cheese into the risotto. Serve immediately.
Number of servings (yield): 4
Emily Monaco is native New Yorker, living and writing in Paris since 2007. She loves discovering new places and, of course, their local cuisines! Read about her adventures in food and travel at tomatokumato.com or follow her on Twitter at @emiglia