Three Days in Milano

My offspring have let it be known that they expect regular Blog posts while Sheila and I are on vacation in Italy.  Frankly, I can’t stand to write on an iPad and WiFi connections in Milan and Venice have not been great.  If motivated, I will write when I can in an effort to keep you up to date with our culinary tour of Italy.

We arrived safely at Malpensa airport some 40 minutes early on Air Emirates.  Nice flight, adequate food and the cabin staff were both young and quite courteous as opposed to the staff on US carriers.  We took the Express train to Cadorna station in central Milan.  Hotel Ritter was adequate, but a great location to walk to downtown Milan (Duomo), restaurants and subway connections to Expo 2015.

Now Milano has a reputation of being the most congested city in Europe, but I didn’t find it so.  People walk, cycle (includes motorcycles) and use public transportation, but few seem inclined to drive – how civilized!

After checking into the hotel and changing into something a bit more comfortable, we took the subway to the newly restored Duomo.  What a remarkable Cathedral!  While I probably could have used a touch of divine guidance, I settled instead for a Campari spritz at Bifi Bar in the Galleria.  Nets have been placed at all of the entrances to the Galleria to keep marauding pigeons in check.

Having failed to get a ticket to see Da Vinci’s recently restored Last Supper, we settled instead for an even more impressive exhibit of Leonardo’s engineering and artistic brilliance in a nearby gallery.  Working from Da Vinci’s manuscripts (codex), designers had recreated models of his flying machines, cannons, bridges, musical instruments, city plans and the occasional piece of art: the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper where he was simply experimenting with paints.  What genius!

Dinner was at Giaccomo Argentario (Anna and Claudio’s wise recommendation), which overlooks the Duomo.  The food and views were magnificent.  Sheila and I split the traditional and wonderful risotto Milanese, followed by the best grilled calamari I have ever eaten and puntarele (a bitter green escarole).

Expo 2015 Milano

The following day we were off to Expo 2015.  While still not totally completed, this World Fair celebrating the sustainability of food is a gigantic undertaking that showcases the artistry and rich culinary diversity of the world’s nations.  You walk under a great open-air canopy and can visit one or more of the many wonderful national exhibits.  The Brazil exhibit featured a rope-walk over a simulated rain forest; the UK showcased a wild flowering garden and eccentric “humming” piece of modern architecture; and the U.S. exhibit featured hanging gardens (see picture above).  Although very interesting, the Expo was simply too large and overwhelming to fully embrace.  Like most Italian visitors, we eventually settled for San Daniele prosciutto and mozzarella di buffala at Eataly.

The food highlight of the visit to Milano was dinner at Prime near Piazza Garbaldi.  Sheila had a remarkable dish of marinated sliced salmon served over mozzarella with a thin wedge of filo and honey – an unusual but remarkable combination.

Just south of our hotel is the lovely area of Brera – narrow streets and interesting boutiques.  The University of Milano has taken over a very large Jesuit Church.  The enclosed botanical gardens are used to study scents and we were most fortunate to have a walk-through as it is normally closed to the public.

It is now Sunday and we are off to Venice.

Making Risotto: The Basic Technique

People ask me the secret of preparing the “perfect” risotto.  Certainly, you need a reputable brand of Arborio rice (basically a short-grain rice)   but the most important thing you can do is recruit an Italian to do the stirring.   A Roman politician explained that the Milanese are ideally suited for this role since they don’t tire easily with boring and repetitive tasks.  (Editor’s Note:  A gentleman from Milan retorted that this is why Romans eat pasta rather than rice, since they are not used to “heavy lifting” in the kitchen).  Seen here -with the ideal stirring posture and appropriate reverence for the task at hand – is my dear friend, Claudio attentively bruising the Arborio rice by stirring in the beef broth.  Unlike recent American presidents, Claudio can actually hold a half-way intelligent conversation and stir at the same time.

As Marcella Hazan points out, “if you have never had it (i.e. risotto) except in restaurants, you have very likely never had a true risotto.”  I totally agree:  Precooked rice with broth is not risotto!  The following basic risotto technique is recommended by Marcella:

Basic Risotto Technique (4 Servings)

1.  Sauté chopped onion or shallot (about 2 Tbs) with 2 Tbs of butter and 2 Tbs of vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed casserole until translucent but not browned.

2.  Bring 5 cups of beef or chicken broth to a simmer (homemade if possible, but somewhat diluted – Marcella recommends one cup of canned chicken broth plus 4 cups of water).  The ideas is to infuse the rice with the flavor of the broth, but not overpower it.

3.  Add 1 1/2 cups of raw Italian Arborio rice to cassrole and sauté with the onion for another 1 to 2 minutes.  Stir to coat it well with cooking fat.

4.  Add 1/2 cup of the simmering broth and stir while cooking “until the rice absorbs the the liquid and wipes the sides of the pot as your pour.”  As the rice dries out (i.e. absorbs the liquid) add another 1/2 cup and repeat the process until the rice is fully cooked (firm – not crunchy – and moist). It will normally take most of the broth.   Do not immerse or drown the rice by adding too much liquid at the same.  Also, make sure to stir it continuously so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  Risotto requires patience and continuous stirring.

5.  Marcella recommends that the heat be “lively.”  I normally opt for medium heat to prevent the broth from evaporating too quickly.  If the heat is too low, the risotto will become gooey.  In any event, it should take no less than 20 t0 25 minutes of stirring to get the “right” consistency.  Marcella recommends 30 minutes.   When cooked, the rice should be creamily bound together, neither dry nor runny.

Risotto alla Parmigiana

According to Marcella, “Risotto alla Parmigiana is the purest and the finest of all risotti.”  I agree, as you can’t fake it by masking the imperfections of your cooking process by loading it up with mushrooms, sausage or vegetables.

Using the Basic Technique described above, create Risotto alla Parmigiana with the following finishing steps:

1.  5 minutes from being done add 1/2 heaping cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and 1 Tbs of butter.

2. Mix well into the risotto mixture, taste and correct for salt.

3.  Reduce the amount of broth you are adding toward the end to avoid having it become too runny.

4.  Serve immediately with additional grated Parmesan cheese if needed.

Editors Note:  If you can’t find a Milanese to stir your risotto, I have been told that Investment Bankers are pretty good.  Avoid traders from Goldman Sachs since they are too busy selling shady deals to Muppets.


Peter Greenaway brings Da Vinci’s Last Supper to Life

Sheila and I still vividly recall driving Abigail “Drama Queen” May to JFK in September, 1994 to board her flight for her Junior year abroad at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy.    As an economics major at the University of Pennsylvania, Abigail had applied for and was accepted into Bocconi’s exchange program.  While this course was generally open only to students at the Wharton School of Business, Abigail managed to navigate through the red tape to get herself accepted.  Presumably, Wharton students were more interested in studying derivatives and asset securitization than eating a nice risotto.  While these Wharton students no doubt learned skills that would net them millions of dollars in bonuses but eventually bring the US financial system to its knees, I can’t help but wonder if the world would be better if currency and derivatives traders actually had a passport.   Sheila thinks not.   “Much rather have the inmates in the asylum rather than reinforcing ‘ugly American’ stereotypes,” she remarked.

Ah, the trip to JFK.   In order to make “light” conversation, Sheila and I were pitching a few Italian phrases just to test how well Abigail had learned her Italian.  After all, she had taken two semesters in Italian and presumably would be reasonably well-equipped to deal with the three courses in economics that would be taught in Italian (Economics was always Greek to me!).  After several attempts to strike up a conversation, Abigail informed us that “it was just reading and grammar, we didn’t have conversational Italian.”   I almost lost it on I95, but promptly decided to act as stoic as Abigail since she didn’t seem to think that the inability to speak Italian would be an “issue.”   Sheila, on the other hand, was asking her how a “functional illiterate” could possibly get to Bocconi from Malpensa (the International Airport for Milan) without falling into the hands of  white-slavers.  Needless to say, it was not the best of send-offs and I kept scratching my head trying to figure out what they taught kids for $30,000 a year (1994 money).

Some three months later, Sheila was off to Milan to check-in on Abigail.  We needn’t have worried since she was speaking Italian like a papagallo (aka macaw) and seemed to know all the bars and cafes within a 10 block radius of the University.  While not sure that her Italian was fluent, it was at least serviceable.  Since Sheila seemed to be intruding on Abigail’s “social space,” she decided to visit some of the key cultural sites in Milan.  A favorite which she had visited with her parents in 1974, was Da Vinci’s mural of The Last Supper which is located off the beaten path in the Santa Maria delle Gracie convent.    As Sheila tells the story, she arrived at Santa Maria with her parents in tow  just as they were closing.  A kind guard let them in after Sheila explained that her father had been in Milan in World War II.   Now 20 years later, she had an opportunity to see the newly restored mural of one of Da Vinci’s most famous works.

With that lengthy introduction, I am thrilled to report that Peter Greenaway is exhibiting a 45 minute film of The Last Supper at the Armory in New York City.  I have never had an opportunity taken the time to see The Last Supper and am thrilled that Peter Greenaway, one of my favorite film directors, will reveal his unique perspective on this pivotal piece of art.  Maybe it is not the “real” thing, but 45 minutes is a lot better than the 10 minutes you are allotted to see it in person.  Peter Greenaway’s earlier works were a bit controversial (The Draughtsman’s Contract, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) but I am confident that the short video below will give you a lovely introduction to what you can expect to experience.