It was 1972 and I was traipsing through Italy, stopping long enough in Milan to meet my Italian aunts and uncles for the first time. I rang the bell and the voice from the citòfono (intercom) instructed me to climb three floors. Scrambling up the stairs, I arrived at a doorway and found myself staring into the eyes of someone who looked vaguely familiar. "Zia Carmen?" I asked. It's an eerie feeling to be looking at someone you've never met before but who looks just like your mom. That's how it felt when I met my Aunt Carmen for the first time. She and Uncle Mario welcomed me into their apartment and for one week shepherded me around Milan and introduced me to a dish that has become one of my all-time favorite comfort foods - risotto alla Milanese.
It's ubiquitous on menus there and it's not at all hard to make. The important thing is to use really good ingredients - good saffron, like that grown in Navelli, the heart of saffron territory in Abruzzo; homemade chicken stock and a really fine, aged parmigiano cheese.
The photo above was taken a few weeks ago at one of my favorite Milanese restaurants, called "Nabucco." Their risotto alla Milanese is everything it should be -- creamy, with rich flavors of saffron, butter and parmigiano. The photo is not doctored up at all - their risotto is really that golden yellow color. Beef marrow is classically used in the recipe too, but it's something I usually omit since it's not readily available at my markets and I never think to order it ahead of time. It's still pretty delicious without it.
Milan is often overlooked by tourists to Italy, and truth be told, it's not on my top five places to visit in Italy, either. But even after visiting the city dozens of times, I never get tired of its magnificent duomo and even found new things to see this year too.
To get the full experience of the duomo, take the elevator up to the roof and meander among the gargoyles. You'll feel like the Italian version of "Quasimodo" in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
Look down from the roof into the archway of the beautiful Galleria, then stroll through it and gander at the shops, including Prada and Luisa Spagnoli.
Make sure to leave time for an Aperol Spritz at the rooftop bar right across from the duomo just outside the Feltrinelli bookstore. You can't beat the view, and the munchies that come with the drinks makes the cost worthwhile.
The Castello Sforzesco is always worth a visit, for the various museums housed in its many wings. You'll even find one of Michelangelo's sculptures there in the Museum of Ancient Art - the Rondanini Pietà.
One of the most famous art works in the world is housed in the refectory here at Santa Maria della Grazia - Leonardo Da Vinci's "Last Supper."
But if you don't have any luck in securing a ticket, (or even if you do), don't miss the strikingly beautiful frescoes in the church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, including this last supper painting by followers of DaVinci.
It's low on tourists' radar, but San Maurizio, which has been dubbed the "Sistine Chapel of Milan" deserves wider recognition. I've been coming to Milan for more than 40 years and yet had not seen this stunning place until last month. I'm glad I stumbled upon it this year.
If you are lucky enough to be in Milan during opera or ballet season, be sure to buy tickets to a performance. You'll feel like royalty, even if you're not sitting in the royal box. Even if you haven't bought tickets ahead of time, you can sometimes get them last minute from "bagarini" or scalpers, just outside the box office. You might pay less than $75 a ticket this way, but warning: you'll be seated in nosebleed territory.
There's so much more to see and do in Milan. I have barely scratched the surface. But above all, leave time (and money) for shopping. You'll be dizzy with all the options, from the shops on Via Dante and Corso Buenos Aires to the heady, expensive boutiques on Via Montenapoleone.
Risotto Alla Milanese
printable recipe here
2 shallots, medium, finely minced (about 1/4 cup)
3 T. butter, plus 2 T. more for the "mantecato" at the end
3 T. olive oil
2 cups arborio, vialone or carnaroli rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
6 cups (or maybe 7) of chicken stock, heated
2 packets of saffron threads (or powdered saffron - I buy these in Italy and they come in small packets of .100 grams each, but they're available at gourmet food stores or fine Italian grocery stores)
1/2 cup - 1 cup parmesan cheese
beef marrow, optional
Sauté the shallots in 3 T. butter and 3 T. oil until softened. If using beef marrow, add it here. Add the rice and stir a few minutes at low heat until you see a little translucency on the grains, then add the saffron and stir a minute or two more. Turn the heat to medium and add the white wine and stir some more. Then add small ladlefuls of the chicken stock, stirring continuously. When it looks like the rice has absorbed each ladleful, add more stock, and continue doing this for about 20 minutes or so, until the rice is cooked, but not overcooked. I prefer it to have some "tooth" to it. I also like it a little loose, so I have extra stock on hand. If you run out, use hot water (but only if you need a small amount.) When it's at the right consistency, turn off the heat and whip in 2 T. butter and the parmesan cheese and stir well before serving.