For more than 40 years, I've been traveling to Italy but had never visited Monza, a hidden jewel just a short distance from Milan. That is, until a few weeks ago, when my friend Silvia Cassamagnaghi invited us to dinner nearby.
Silvia grew up in Monza, but recently moved to Milan, where she teaches at a university there. I met her many years ago when she was researching her book "Operation War Brides," which features a photo of my parents on the cover and their love story during World War II.
In the past, we had always met briefly in Milan, or in the countryside near Piacenza where my relatives live, but this time we met in Monza, a city that's unfortunately not on most tourists' agenda. But it should be, including this restaurant in the countryside.
Silvia took us to "Antico Ristorante Fossati," a place that features traditional dishes of Lombardy, in a building with a great historical pedigree.
Located in a nearby hamlet of Canonica, the restaurant was once the country home where Ludovico "Il Moro" came to hunt. Ludovico, a member of the noble Sforza family, was duke of Milan from 1494 to 1499 and is probably best known as a patron to the arts. He's the one who commissioned Leonardo DaVinci's fresco "The Last Supper," painted in Santa Maria della Grazia, next to his father's burial place.
With its vaulted brick ceilings, thick stone walls and walk-in fireplaces, Antico Ristorante Fossati evoked the feeling that we had traveled back in time hundreds of years. It's been used as a way station for centuries, and has offered refreshment to other notable Italian personalities like Giuseppe Garibaldi.
The restaurant is in a large farmhouse, made up of many different rooms and an internal garden. One of the lofts, that most likely stored hay or other animal fodder in the past, now houses a collection of gleaming copper pots. I wanted to climb up and take home a few.
A peek into the modern kitchen tells you the pots are more than just for show.
Many of the dishes are delivered and served table side from these pots with their time-worn patina, dents and dings.
They're also heaped above huge antique cabinets situated throughout the rooms.
We started with a typical antipasto selection from the region -- sliced meats (affettati) including salami, prosciutto and culatello (made from the pig's hind quarters and even more flavorful than prosciutto); pickled vegetables; "Russian" potato salad that you find all over Italy; polenta and local cheeses.
But the most memorable dish at the table was the plate in the upper left hand section of the photo called "nervetti."
They're a favorite comfort food of Silvia's, evoking memories of her grandfather and childhood, and they're a local specialty she insisted we try. I was a bit skeptical since the name sounds a lot like the English word "nerves." In fact, that's just what they were - nerves from a pig's face. They were every bit as gelatinous and chewy as they seem. But when in Monza.....
My favorite dish was the specialty of the house. Risotto Monzese, which is just the same as risotto Milanese, but it includes a bit of a local sausage called luganega, or luganica. That's a plate of osso buco behind the risotto, another delicious offering that also pairs well with the risotto.
The city of Monza itself has several sites worthy of a visit, including its main duomo, dating back to the seventh century, when the Lombard Queen Teodelinda is believed to have commissioned it.
The town hall was built in the 13th century, and was used for civic purposes. Art exhibits are sometimes held here, and the many cafes nearby are great gathering spots for a drink.
You'll find most people doing their daily marketing on foot or on bike. This bicycle was equipped with baskets that seemed capable of toting home a week's worth of groceries.
No trip to Monza would be complete without a visit to its royal palace -- just one of the places that the royal Savoy family called home until 1900 after King Umberto I was assassinated near the entrance to the palace. He was married to Queen Margherita (for whom pizza Margherita was named)
We were fortunate to be there on the final day of a viewing of a newly discovered painting by Leonardo DaVinci. It was purchased at a Christie's auction of $20,000 in 1998 and later authenticated to be a real DaVinci worth $200 million. It's thought to be a portrait of Bianca, the daughter of Leonardo's patron, Ludovico Il Moro, and has been dubbed "La Bella Principessa." It's now in private hands and who knows when it will be shown in public again.
If you do stay overnight, consider booking a room at a hotel called "Hotel De La Ville," reasonably priced and located right across the street from the royal palace. Our room was in a separate small villa, with lovely furnishings and an elegant entrance straight out of a decorator's magazine.
I found a guidebook inside our room that also included a recipe for Monza's risotto specialty, included below. It's written with metric measurements, but for American measurements, click here for my recipe for risotto alla Milanese.
From the book "Monza and Brianza with Brambilla's Family"
(serves 4 people)b
350 grams Arborio rice
150 grams luganega sausage
1 sachet saffron
1 small onion
half a glass of white wine
Grana Padano cheese
Brown the finely chopped onion and sausage, without the casing, in butter in a deep pan. Add the rice and allow to roast for a few minutes. Sprinkle the rice with white wine and let it evaporate. At this point, pour the broth to cover the rice and cook it over medium/high heat. Halfway through cooking, add the saffron, dissolved in a spoonful of broth and mix well. Continue cooking, making sure that the broth is always hot enough to not break the boil. At the end, add a knob of butter and grated Grana Padano cheese and mix thoroughly. Let it stand one minute and serve hot.