One day Sonny accosted me on the train on the way home from work. He was frantic and excited at the same time after reading about the youngest chef to receive three Michelin stars and who many were saying made the best risotto on the planet. A few moments of interrogation peaked my interest but a promise made to our younger brother years ago about venturing to Italy together always deterred our travels to this part of the world. So when he told us he would not be able to join for a few more years, we decided we could not wait for him any longer. The next thing you know we were flying on two new Boeing 787 Dreamliners on our way to the rich artistic, historic and culinary delights of northern Italy.
Milan was our initial destination and upon emerging out of the transit station into the heart of the Piazza del Duomo, we did not expect the massive hoards of people coming at us in every direction. Even the pigeons at the plaza were so used to humans they were unfazed by our proximity and potential to hurt them.
Luckily, our hotel was two minutes away and after dropping our bags, a desire for a quick bite proved to be not so quick when line ups into every dining establishment nearby turned out to have queues at least 150 people deep. The trend of declining fast food chains seemed to bear little to no weight on the dining habits of the Eatalians as both the Burger King and McDonalds were packed like sardine cans. Perhaps this was simply a byproduct of the ongoing Expo that encapsulated the city during our stay, or perhaps the second most populated city in Italy is regularly like this. But until we return, we will never know.
Half an hour later we managed to find a place that served espresso and paninis that satisfied our hunger until dinner that evening. At the former sous chef of Osteria Francescana’s eponymous restaurant, Tokuyoshi, we were served forward thinking Milanese cuisine with Japanese infusions showcased through solid ingredients, execution, flavours and service. But perhaps this was not the best restaurant to visit for our first major meal in Italy. Although the whimsical and artistic influence of Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana was extremely evident, we may have had a greater appreciation for Tokuyoshi’s twists on the classics if we had a better understanding of the traditional. With limited time in Italy and a few restaurants open on a Sunday however this was what our schedule accommodated (a problem we ran into in Paris a year before as well).
What our schedule did not account for however were the next day closures of most of the city’s attractions. Michaelangelo’s last sculpture the Pieta Rodanini, the Castello Sforzesco and the Ambrosia Library holding Da Vinci’s codex for example were all closed on Monday. And tickets for Da Vinci’s Last Supper were taken all too quickly by the tour groups even with the extended Expo hours.
Nevertheless, the few places that seemed to be open were quite impressive. The marbled Duomo di Milano and its walkable rooftop were truly sights to behold. And dinner at the two Michelin starred generational family restaurant, Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia, that evening gave us the traditional Italian cuisine we longed for the day before.
Three hundred kilometres east towards Venice brought us to the restaurant mentioned on the train two years ago, Le Calandre. Helmed by the Alajmo brothers in a town called Rubano, just beside Padova, this three Michelin starred restaurant was traditional yet modern with a complexity of flavours that greeted us with every bite. Their two risottos were amazingly intense and subtle at the same time, making it worthy of all the accolades bestowed upon it. The timing of our entire meal too was spectacular with service operating with machine-like efficiency. Although not robotic in any way either as the number of locals and regulars were a testament to the familial atmosphere of the restaurant.
Evident too the next day when we lunched at their sister restaurant, Il Calandrino, where the staff from Le Calandre stopped by our table to greet us. Although it was a more casual home-style dining establishment, we were impressed by the equally impressive execution of the food (like the light tagliatelle lathered in guinea hen ragu and red beet béchamel sauce) and the similar clientele of locals that dined that afternoon.
Almost a 180° turn from our meals the nights before, the tables at the three Michelin starred Osteria Francescana were predominantly occupied by our fellow North American tourists. In terms of cuisine, Massimo Bottura’s was unlike any other Italian restaurant we had experienced before, so out of the box he seemed to create his own box. The ingenuity and intricacies behind many of his dishes were extremely impressive and there were multiple plates we could not appreciate thoroughly until discussing our thoughts further with each other or by getting clarification from the staff. But perhaps in Massimo’s mission to be artistic, he left out the the diner’s desire to feel fulfilled. It may have just been us or perhaps the classic menu we ordered, but after the meal we longed for a more satisfied stomach.
Which is not the same feeling our noses experienced the next morning at 4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia where the smell of the parmigiano reggiano filled every inch of our bodies during the dairy tour that culminated in their impressive parmigiano reggiano “cathedral”.
Lunch then brought us to the dynastic producers of balsamic vinegar, Osteria di Rubbiara – Acetaia Pedroni, boasting a range of aged vinegars beautifully integrated into every dish of our very traditional Modenese four course meal paired with local libations such as grappa and lambrusco. The viscosity as the age of each vinegar increased was impressive, and the final pairing with vanilla ice cream made a more than adequate substitution for the typical North American chocolate syrup.
In Modena they have a saying: Slow Food. Fast Cars. Although we did not see a Ferrari on the autostrada this trip, visiting the home of Enzo Ferrari and the homes of parmigiano reggiano and balsamic vinegar did not disappoint.
Neither did the small town of Canneto sull’Oglio and the home of the Santini family, Dal Pescatore. This undeniable three Michelin star experience epitomized the breadth and depth of the best northern Italian cuisine and hospitality we had experienced from the start of our trip. From the tender silky pastas, to the light fluffy risotto with balsamic vinegar, to the entire Santini family bearing their own responsibilities in the restaurant and everything in between, it was a fitting end to our 650+ km journey through northern Italy.
The next day it was back to Milan for some unfinished business. There were still some some gelato to eat and some Da Vincis to see. But a few hours back in Milan we realized that seeing a painting in a museum was not as significant to the experiences we just had the past few days. To have tasted and breathed the preservation of the Italian’s history and culture through the dishes that lay before us or the products developed through traditional methods passed down through multiple generations of the same families far surpassed walking through an exhibit in any major city. To have witnessed firsthand the people behind the products that play an integral part in the cultural identity of the regions we were so fortunate to visit is a distinction that made this experience through northern Italy so unique.
More pictures and posts of the places and restaurants we visited in northern Italy are forthcoming, but for now, click here to to view the pictures processed thus far.
Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny