The last five days of spring tour we spent in Italy, and were full of experiences of varying satisfaction. We were based in Milan, which, though it has its nice parts, is not really on par with Florence, Venice, Rome, or other such Italian cities in terms of sheer beauty and that distinct, alluring ‘Italianness’ that permeates them (this according to many, both Italians I met on tour and friends who’ve lived in Italy and traveled it extensively). Something of the mix of heavy industrialisation, the intensity of the fashion/modelling/consumer culture, and our first few days being filled with overcast skies and rain all coloured my perception of the city, and especially after having spent a good week and a half traveling around Switzerland, from small rural towns to pristine lakes to Alps, enjoying more than my fair share of cheese, pastry, and espresso, heading south to the boot proved slightly less than enrapturing.
But food, like in many such uncertain situations, didn’t allow this to remain the case for long. First, there was the celebratory banquet for the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification that we were invited to, a family friend of Oki’s that had a beautiful old converted estate outside of Parma, where we were treated to one of the more surreal food experiences I’ve had. The entrance hall with its vaulted ceiling and roof-high glass doors had a huge table laden with salumi, quarter-wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano (we were in Parma, after all), a gargantuan twist of bread, a small, precious bottle of Aceto Balsamico di Modena that was aged for god knows how long, because it was rich, fruity, and the viscosity of a reduction (to eat with the cheese!), and attended by a white-jacketed waiter with gold epaulettes, trimming and slicing a shank of Culatello di Zibello to paper-thin wisps of rich, cured rump. Who knew that ‘butt’, as Michael kept cheekily calling it, could be so delicious?! It was my first experience eating pig and it was totally worth it. The meat melted long and slowly, giving up its complex flavour over time. It was nothing like what I was expecting. It was subtle and tasteful, in every sense.
Another white-jacketed server was manning the bar table, with a huge silver tureen of bottles on ice. The Vino Spumante Strologo, another local specialty, flowed fast and free. We performed a short set for the guests in the living room which was incredible fun and well-received, after which we were invited back to the entrance hall for another, even more elaborate round of antipasti: five different types of Italian cheeses with apricot spread, pear membrillo, and honey; roasted peppers, zucchini, and eggplant; slow-roasted tomatoes stuffed with herbed chickpea paste and breadcrumbs; shrimp spoons with a sort of chilled green coulis; a type of spanikopita; more bread; even more things I can’t even remember – oh, and more Culatello, of course. And more wine.
We made our way back into the living room, where tables were set for what could have been a wedding. White tableclothes, embroidered white satin seat slips, rose centerpieces, five crystal glasses per place setting (for sparkling wine, red wine, white wine, digestivo, and water, naturally), and burnished metal place settings of the sort one might find in Taillevent or some place like that (this is a complete assumption with no basis in personal experience). We lounged and talked with the guests, many of whom were our age as friends of the daughter, who goes to college in Milan. After an untold while (I’m certain time ceased to exist for the night) the pleasant white-jacketed men came back in with huge white ceramic dishes of pasta. We had two primi courses: Tortelli di Ricotta and Gnocchi alla Bolognese. Both were incredible. By this point we were getting fairly stuffed. Dessert then followed, which we could not object to (though our bellies might have been thinking otherwise). Chocolate mousse, almond tiramisu, berry torte, and canteloupe and wild berry gelati, paired with a fizzy dessert wine called Malizia, with melon notes to complement the gelato, and fresh fruit now filled the banquet table in the entrance hall, which we all made a couple trips to. Everything was remarkably delicious. I especially loved the vino rosso frizzante – sparkling red wine. I had seen it on a couple menus before in North America, but never tried it. It was surprising to my uninitiated palate, in an exciting and pleasant way. In some ways I actually preferred it to some sparkling whites, because it had both body and lightness, not just a sweetness than can overpower some sparkling wines.
But the night was far from over. After dessert, the white-jacketed men brought out espresso, the full bar opened, and the father passed around a couple boxes of cuban cigars. Soon the room was full of lively post-dinner chatter, the clink of tumblers, and sultry cigar smoke. Many an Alley Cat had one smouldering in his hand, regardless of familiarity with how to smoke it; and rightly so, for when else would we be offered such decadence? We spent the rest of the night talking with our new friends, trying new tastes, and generally marvelling at the surreality of it all. We even sang a couple more songs, which the father joined in for! Finally, after a good five or six hours, we said goodbye to our wondrous hosts and took the private leather-seated bus they’d hired for us back to Milan.
I’m convinced this night never actually happened and is merely the product of some complex psychological experiment. A trick someone is playing on me.
Then there was the visit to Carpi, a small town outside of Modena, where Austin, Oki and I were welcomed into the home of Oki’s relatives for a leisurely, mid-afternoon lunch of home-style Italian delicacies, great company, and a tour of the town and nearby Modena. Only Austin and I joined Oki for this trip because the rest of the guys wanted to do other things, but boy are we glad we did because it was an experience we won’t soon forget. The nonna of the family, along with her daughter, must have been cooking at least since the previous day. We started with a big slice of piping hot lasagna, not heavy at all like American lasagna, but still substantial and immensely gratifying – and I am not a lasagna person. I’m sure the key was in the freshly-made pasta, the quality and layering technique of the cheese, and the overall seasoning. With a glass of Hefeweizen, it was a satisfying start to the meal after a long few hours of traveling.
But that was just the beginning. The main lunch consisted of small, warm pockets of fluffy bread, almost like baby pita but more english-muffiny, and a huge spread of different condiments and ingredients to stuff them with. There was pancetta that had been beaten into a spread and mixed with spring onions, paired with grated Parmigiano. Or multiple kinds of fresh cheese (one like basket ricotta but richer, another like Brie but less pungent and without the rind) with fresh fennel and balsamic reduction. A big bowl of radicchio salad. Crusty bread and real good olive oil. Salumi platter. More vino rosso frizzante. We lounged and ate for hours. It was so lovely, because even though Austin and I didn’t speak Italian, we communicated with Oki’s relatives in other ways, and there was laughter and merriment throughout the meal.
And then there was dessert. Nonna had made a other-worldly chocolate cake. And a bowl of traditional custard from the region. And a basin of homemade meringues (which were perfect – smooth on the outside with a bit of give, and soft and fluffy on the inside). As if that weren’t enough, when the conversation turned to how amazing the cake was, three of the women at the table from three different generations couldn’t help but go upstairs to the kitchen and whip up a bowl of fresh Panna (Italian whipped cream) to top the cake and custard with. Before long, my curiosity got the better of me, and I put a few drops of balsamic reduction onto one of the meringues – much to the entertainment of the table (though they all soon tried it too). And at the vague mention of limoncello, the mother went to fetch a bottle of the sweet lemon liqueur that their neighbour had made herself. Which we then compared with small glasses of liquirizia (because two liqueurs is better than one), a licorice liqueur with a very complex and delicious taste – chocolate on the nose, a blast of anise in the middle, with a toffee-like finish. And it was thick, like syrup.
If you’re full just reading all this then you can imagine how we felt by this point. Talk about Italian hospitality. My goodness. I was quite happy to go on a walk after lunch to the town piazza with the two daughters, Oki, and Austin, walk through the park and among the old buildings, and explore the town. And get a completely unnecessary but totally delicious gelato.
But perhaps my favourite and most impactful food memories are from the day I spent wandering Milan by myself, taking in all the sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and, of course, tastes. Because as I explored the centre of the city, it really was a full-sensory experience. The bright spring sun reflecting on the white façades of the buildings; the buzz of people on the piazza at all hours of the day; the hewn stone of the old monuments; and, one of my favourite aromas, the smell of roasting chestnuts. It is a smell I associate with Europe in general – I have stumbled across vendors selling little paper bags of roasted chestnuts in many Europeans cities, and it is so comforting to me that I always buy some. I love the nutty, rich, rustic yet sophisticated smell and flavour. It is a sort of personal tradition that I hope continues for a very long time. And the caldarroste of Milan were no exception.
I found a spot on a ledge in the cool shade of the Duomo, perched on the stone, and relished.
Look at that. So edible.
It is always a moment to savour, the way the shells release from the nut so satisfyingly, the fuzz lifting silently from the golden flesh.
I got the smallest bag, because I wanted it to be a real treat; before I knew it I was down to my last, precious one:
And then there were none:
The chestnuts kept me going for a few hours, but after an afternoon of walking around town, exploring, interacting with strangers, trying to navigate my way through a language I wish I knew but didn’t (except for a few saving phrases!), I decided I needed a pick-me-up. And what better way to cure late-afternoon exhaustion on a warm day in Italy but with Italian gelato?
Seriously, the best gelato I’ve ever had. It was just so smooth! And unctious. I have no idea how they do it.
I wanted to make sure I got the perfect gelato – not just any corner-store genera, but the real deal. I wanted to find the place where the Italians got their afternoon gelato. Call me a sucker for the futile pursuit of authenticity; I may be, but in this case it was a successful call. I found the best gelato in town, I’m sure of it.
The place was called Cioccolati Italiani. It was a few blocks from the Duomo, and it was packed with Italian-speaking Milanese residents clambering for the source of the smells that wafted throughout the high-ceilinged store. They sold chocolate, pastry, and coffee as well, but their focus was on gelato. Well, and chocolate. Before I even requested the type of gelato I wanted, the server asked which type of chocolate I wanted. I was momentarily confused, until I saw her gesturing towards the three chocolate fountains behind the counter with a substantial-looking waffle cone in her hand. I indicated the darkest-looking one, from which she promptly filled a ladle and deftly anointed my cone with molten dark chocolate. Okay, cute gelato girl, so you know what you’re doing.
I finished the already sufficient treat with Crema Bologna, the traditional gelato flavour of the region, and Pistaccio. I had to wait a while, but as I exited to the street with cone in hand, I was one happy boy.
The Pistaccio was something to behold, a marvel of mankind’s craft. She had used her paddle to soften it to a thick paste before putting it atop the cone, and it clove to the tongue in rich swaths and perfectly balanced profiles of cream, sugar, and the wondrous taste of the delicious green nut. The Crema Bologna was a sort of custard, eggy taste that complemented the nuttiness and aroma of the first. The crunch of the cone was perfect, it definitely did not get soggy. But the chocolate, my friends, the molten dark chocolate in the bottom of the cone was what truly made this a revelation.
The upper part had cooled and thickened from proximity to the gelato, and came away with the last few licks of Crema Bologna and Pistaccio in a spongy, luscious paste.
I simply couldn’t believe it. But getting through to the bottom was when I was really floored.
A cone of molten chocolate to lick, slurp, and all but drink like an espresso. The simplest of pleasures; a perfect, perfect afternoon in Milan.