The Milan dining scene

Typical dishes in Milanese cuisine

Milan is the industrial powerhouse of Italy, drawing a mix of international businessmen, fashion designers, media moguls, and tourists by the busload. Milan's industry has also long been a major draw for inter-Italian emigration, so it's no surprise that Milanese restaurants serve a medley of cuisine from across Italy's regions: Apulia's sun-drenched Mediterranean south, Tuscany's vine-draped arcadia in the heartland, Gallic Piemonte hard up against the French Alps.

Reid's Milan Restaurants

Still, most restaurants are built atop a solid foundation of typical Milanese dishes and the cuisine popular in surrounding Lombardy, where the breadbasket plains of the wide Po Valley wash up against the lower slopes of the Alps in Italy's lake district. Lombardy's cooking mixes of lake and river fish, mountain cheeses, and the legacy of the barbarian hordes who settled here after the 5th-century fall of Rome.

Typical Milanese dishes

The Lombards are descended from Germanic, not Latin, stock, so it's no surprise the local signature dish is cotoletta alla milanese, that flattened, breaded veal cutlet more commonly known as wienerschnitzle.

Dining for free in Milan
Want a free dinner in Milan—or at least a hearty snack to stave off hunger until dinner? Do a stuzzichini (snacks) crawl from bar to cafe during the aperitivo /Happy Hour for tons of free bar snacks and scrumptious canapés. » more
Saffron-tinged risotto alla milanese is made with small, pearly grains of arborio rice, slow-cooked in broth to sticky perfection. Often, a bright yellow dollop of this rice appears on the plate next to a hearty slab of ossobuco, a beef shank served with the circle of marrow-rich bone still imbedded in the meat.

Tortelli di zucca, the pasta pockets stuffed with a spiced pumpkin paste typical of nearby Mantova, often show up on Milanese menus.

Cassoeûla is, as it sounds, a Milanese version of cassoulet, a stew-thick, cabbage-based soup fortified with meaty chunks of pork chop and sausage.

Many meals feature Northern Italy's signature side dish, polenta, a cornmeal mush that can range from a runny soup to a spackle-thick paste, sometimes cut into bars and lightly fried, sometimes studded with bits of mushroom or other fresh ingredients.

Bread and Cover
There's an unavoidable charge called pane e coperto ("bread and cover") of about €1 to €5 that's added onto your bill at just about all Florentine restaurants. This is not a scam. This is standard in Italy.
With the famed Italian lakes (Como, Garda, Maggiore, and many smaller ones) reaching their deep fingers of water into the Alps just north of Milan, and the Mincio River lying to the east, Milan's restaurants are spoilt for fresh fish. To increase the likelihood that you're getting local products, look for the following fishies: persico (perch), trota (trout), lavarevllo and coregone (both forms of whitefish from the lakes), luccio (pike), or tinca (tench).

Cheese & desserts

Lombardy is the proud home of pungent, blue-veined Gorgonzola cheese, as well as its less famous—but just as wonderfully stinky—cousin from nearby Bergamo, the gooey, mold-less taleggio. Grana padana is the local sharp, hard, aged cheese that can hold its own against any parmesan or pecorino romano.

Lombardy also produces the widely exported Bel Paese (the sort of mild, everyman cheese you could throw into a kid's lunch box) as well as marscarpone, so soupy and spreadable that many people mistake it for some kind of heavy cream (understandable, as it's the prime ingredient in such heavenly, creamy desserts as zuppa inglese and tiramisù).

Speaking of dessert, Milan may not win too many awards in this department, and the sweets on its menus tend to hail from other parts of Italy, but we can blame the locals for having invented panettone, a sweet bread studded with bits of candied fruit—the traditional Christmastime dessert (though in its defense, panettone is far, far more palatable than its fruitcake cousins around the world).

Tips & links


For more info:

General dining tips
  • "Pane e coperto" is not a scam: Nearly all Italian restaurants have an unavoidable pane e coperto ("bread and cover" charge) of anything from €1 to €15—though most often €2 to €5—per person that is automatically added onto your bill. This is perfectly normal and perfectly legal (though a few trendy restaurants make a big deal about not charging it).
  • Find out if service (tip) is included: Don't double-tip by accident. If the menu has a line—usually near the bottom of the front or back—that says "servizio" with either a percentage, an amount, or the word "incluso" after it, that means the tip is automatically included in the price. (If it says "servizio non incluso," tip is, obviously, not included.)

    Even if the menu doesn't say it, ask É incluso il servizio? (ay een-CLOU-so eel sair-VEET-zee-yo)—"Is service included?" If not, tip accordingly (10%–15% is standard).

    Don't be stingy about tipping, though. If il servizio is, indeed, already included but the service was particularly good, it's customary to round up the bill or leave €1 per person extra—just to show you noticed and that you appreciated the effort.
  • Tourist menus: The concept of a bargain prix-fixe menu is not popular in Italy. Some restaurants do offer a menu turistico ("tourist menu"), which can cost from €8 to €20 and usually entails a choice from among two or three basic first courses (read: different pasta shapes, all in plain tomato sauce), a second course of roast chicken or a veal cutlet, and some water or wine and bread. With very few exceptions, tourist menus tend to live up to their name, appearing only at the sort of tourist-pandering restaurants that the locals wisely steer clear of.

    However, a menu à prezzo fisso ("fixed-price menu") is often a pretty good deal, usually offering a bit more choice than a tourist menu.

    Then—especially at nicer (and pricier) restaurants—there is the menu degustazione ("tasting menu"), usually far more expensive (anywhere from €25 to €110) that is a showcase of the chef's best, or of regional specialties, and can make for an excellent way to sample the kitchen's top dishes.
  • Book ahead: For restaurants that I am truly eager to try, I go ahead and book a table—at least at dinner. I find that a corollary of Murphy's Law seems to apply. If you prudently book ahead, you are likely to show up to a half-empty restaurant and feel a bit like a fool for having worried about finding a table. If, on the other hand, you just show up at the door expecting to find a free table, the place will inevitably be packed and its bookings full for the evening.
Italian dining phrases
English (Inglese) Italian (Italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...a restaurant un ristorante oon rees toh-RAHN-tay
...a casual restaurant una trattoria
oo-nah trah-toar-RHEE-yah
oon ohst-air-EE-yah
I would like to reserve... Vorrei prenotare... voar-RAY pray-note-ARE-eh
a table for two una tavola per due oo-nah TAH-voal-lah pair DOO-way
...for 7pm per le sette pair lay SET-tay
...for 7:30pm per le sette e mezzo pair lay SET-tay eh MET-tzoh
...for 8pm per le otto pair lay OH-toh
I would like Vorrei... voar-RAY
...some (of) un pó (di) oon POH (dee)
...this questo KWAY-sto
...that quello KWEL-loh
chicken pollo POL-loh
steak bistecca bee-STEAK-ah
veal vitello vee-TEL-oh
fish pesce PEH-shay
meat carne KAR-neh
I am vegetarian sono vegetariano SO-no veg-eh-tair-ee-YAH-no
side dish [veggies always come seperately] cotorno kon-TOR-no
dessert dolce DOAL-chay
and e ay
...a glass of un bicchiere di oon bee-key-YAIR-eh dee
...a bottle of una bottiglia di oo-na boh-TEEL-ya dee
...a half-liter of mezzo litro di MET-tzoh LEE-tro dee
...fizzy water acqua gassata AH-kwah gah-SAHT-tah
...still water acqua non gassata AH-kwah noan gah-SAHT-tah wine vino rosso VEE-noh ROH-so
...white wine vino bianco VEE-noh bee-YAHN-koh birra BEER-a
Check, please Il conto, per favore eel COAN-toh pair fah-VOAR-eh
Is service included? É incluso il servizio? ay een-CLOU-so eel sair-VEET-zee-yo
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