On this year’s fall business trip to Europe, a weekend in Milan provided the crossroads between our vacation in Prague, Newton’s connections to Poland and then Greece for meetings, and my connection to Lisbon to visit old friends. Besides, it gave us yet another chance to relish some Italian meals!
Having given away to friends the book that we consider our sacred guide to Italy: Fred Plotkin’s Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, but having received a response from that very Fred on one of my Italian blog dispatches featuring him, I was able to e-mail Fred ahead of time for a couple of dining recommendations in Milano. Our other priorities were to see the Piazza Duomo with the famous Milan Cathedral and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, and to do some serious shopping.
A lovely tram adventure led us to Nespresso capsules for our machine (these cost three times more in Brazil). We had to settle for a non-Fred restaurant for our first dinner, as L’Osteria del Treno near our hotel required reservations and was booked. But we were lucky to select a place filled with natives, delicious food and free prosecco.
We decided to climb the exhilarating – if slightly claustrophobic – tower to the roof of Milan Cathedral. The pay-off was the huge blue sky and panorama of the city through the lacey flying buttresses. Sandblasting had rendered that black multi-spired Gothic icon from my college art history days into a glimmering ivory wedding cake! We got the same glorious blue sky we had in Prague, though in Milan it does wax brown around the horizon. The temperatures were actually in the ‘80’s, despite it being autumn…flip-flops and tank top all the way!
Here is the Galleria, considered by some to be the oldest shopping mall. It is surrounded by palaces, including a neoclassical built by Napoleon. Even MacDonald’s looks pretty good here:
Here is a typical study of Newton, studying locations and info on his i-phone.
No one really needs a reason to go to IKEA, but there are no well-designed, low-priced housewares in Brazil. We caught a subway to an IKEA bus on the surreal, garbage-strewn outskirts of something (I thought Fellini would materialize) and now we own loads more housewares, including bona fide flatware, limoncello glasses, a cheese slicer, a 220 voltage lamp and a new huge rice paper lantern shade (the old one’s frame is rusted out – the fate of all metal by-the-sea in the Northeast).
We managed a reservation for dinner this time at L’Osteria del Treno. Though from the street it appears to be a simple osteria near the central train station, once you pass through the front room a certain elegance ensues, with warmly lit peach walls, cloth tablecloths and napkins. We took the occasion to order a bottle of our favorite Italian wine, Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany. It cost several hundred dollars less than in Brazil! The menu mentions “Slow Food,” the movement in Italy symbolized with a snail, which counters fast food with the traditional preparations of each region. I had a delicious codfish casserole with wild fennel – fennel alone is worth a trip to Italy! The night before I had ordered “baccalà” at the other restaurant and assumed it was “bacalhau” – codfish in Portuguese, though the menu translated it as “fly fish” and it did not taste like codfish. At del Treno, the name for the codfish was “merluzzo,” which is the name of a different fish in Brazil, not the ever-popular bacalhau imported from Portugal. This time it was truly codfish. It’s confusing, but Fred Plotkin was kind enough to explain it all to me after I reported back to him: merluzzo would be fresh cod, baccalà would be salted cod (what we know in Brazil) and then there is stoccafisso (stockfish) which is dried cod without added salt that must go through days of soaking to revive. Newton and I shared a lovely chocolate mousse in a pie crust, then coffee and…once Newton was having a limoncello, the owner came over and offered the ‘superior’ Sicilian dessert wine, Zibibbo, whose lovely subtleties did render limoncello a bit crass (but we will always love it!!). At this point we closed the place, but I felt I should mention Fred to the owner since that front room has a table along the aisle displaying several guidebooks that mention del Treno. They all happen to be in Italian, but I thought Fred’s book in English should have the exposure, so I gave the owner Fred’s name and book title. He said they were checking the internet as we were leaving! Fred informed me that he generally eats ‘under cover’ in Italy to get the authentic take on eating establishments. Maybe a wig, Fred?
Newton had to fly off on business, so I moved into a single room in the hotel for one additional day in Milan. I had a morning of much needed girly-shopping along the huge Corso Buenos Aires for shoes, underwear and make-up. Can you believe that they only sell black eyeliner in Natal, as if everyone here has black hair?? Brazilians, not to mention Europeans, come in all shades. I’m talking about the inexpensive general store, the expensive cosmetics store and the exorbitant imported cosmetics store. I have mixed feelings about the Potiguars’ (citizens of the state of Rio Grande do Norte) lack of entrepreneurial acumen. They miss so many obvious chances to make money, but then again, they do not think that making the most profit possible is the key to life, as in the US…so there is a refreshing aspect. Still, one needs eyeliner.
I didn’t want to travel by metro alone at night in Milan, so decided to go to Fred’s suggestion, Piero e Pia, for Monday lunch. Two metro stations (great-looking in that contemporary Milano way) and a long trek through a wonderful university neighborhood got me there just ahead of lunchtime cut-off. Only one table of business men and me were eating in the outdoor sidewalk section. The owner brought me a simple-but-perfect salami on bread and a glass of great white house wine, then I had perfectly cooked bronzino filet (sea bass – always a favorite of ours in Italy) on a bed of veggies – zucchini, carrots, celery, etc. (I can’t get celery in the Northeast of Brazil, so I was thrilling to the delicate sweetness of it!). I was slightly surprised to find the zucchini as cooked as it was, but the veggies could not have tasted more delectable (you could taste them up the insides of your face – my benchmark), and Fred later explained this about the zucchini: “Italians cook their zucchini more than we do. Have you noticed that when it is softer it has more flavor?” When I expressed my frustration at having to select sorbet or gelato for dessert from a long list (it was down to the mandarino sorbet from Sicily or the pistachio gelato, also from Sicily), the owner offered a bowl of half and half. The pistachio won; that was the most exquisite pistachio ice cream EVER. Not green, covered in grated pistachios, and yes – I could taste it up the insides of my face!
The next morning I checked out of the hotel to catch the Malpensa Express train to the airport for my flight to Lisbon. We had taken this train on the way in - a very fast 45 minute ride, and Newton had explained that arriving at the airport one hour in advance of these short European flights was adequate. Some guy helped me buy my train ticket from a machine, wanting a euro in return (worth it), and I managed to schlep my bags and large rice paper lantern shade onto the train in time. What I had not anticipated was the 35-minute breakdown of the train en route.
Next chapter: after 34 years, Sandra AGAIN misses a flight to Lisbon to visit her old friends Julio and Gib.