When people think of Milan usually the first thing that comes to mind is fashion. Next, likely that it is a financial capital or maybe the opera. But tourists think Milan food is an afterthought.
Yet comforting Milanese cuisine is appreciated throughout the country and Italians also know it as home to the aperitivo.
After a few years away I have finally returned to Italy for a conference. As it was a hectic 5-day program I came prepared with a list of what to eat in Milan.
But I thought if I planned well I could squeeze in traditional Milanese food outside of conference hours.
I was wrong.
I had planned like a novice traveler. It’s true. I forgot that after an overnight flight crossing 5 timezones I would be fatigued with jet lag.
Also, I forgot how tiresome pounding the pavement of a conference floor could be. So my list of 30 Milan foods I wanted to try became an impossible mission.
On the bright side my hosts treated me to a dinner the final night at Antica Osteria II Ronchettino. Just outside Milan city centre, this Milanese restaurant is known for traditional cuisine.
So while I didn’t get to try a lot of food in Milan, it did end on a very bright culinary note as the menu included so many tasty
Milanese foods on my list and a few more I didn’t know about like fried cow brain!
I know. I know. I’m one of the few people that gets excited when they are told they are eating brain.
As I did all of the research before my trip I didn’t want it to go to waste. Instead I’m sharing with you all of the Milan food I wish I had.
Next time I will be a smarter traveler and tack 2 or 3 more days on my trip to Italy so that I can enjoy.
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A Beginner’s Guide to Types of Restaurants in Italy
How to Eat in Italy Without Looking Like an Idiot
Why Milan is Different
This was not my first time to Milan. I’ve been here briefly in the past so I knew the Milanese way can be very different from the rest of Italy.
People are actually on time
Perhaps it’s because it is a financial centre. It’s home to Italy’s stock exchange and regularly deals with the rest of the world.
Don’t expect to be on Italian time here and show up late for a reservation at a hot restaurant, you will lose it.
Milan Observes Siesta from 2-4pm
I am spoiled in Latin America and regularly take advantage of siesta. It’s a necessary but dying tradition.
Still, in Milan many observe it so if you want to eat lunch, get there before 2pm or you’ll have to wait for an afternoon snack at 4pm.
Cultural and Historical Influences on Milan Food
As the capital of the Lombardy region, Milan has drawn many of its culinary influences from the region. Delicious dishes that become popular in the surrounding area are quickly exported to the capital.
Over the decades Italians flocked to Milan because of its economic prowess. After World War II many left southern Italy to seeking work, and bringing their recipes with them.
This has continued throughout the years with not only Italians both immigrants from other countries. I think migrant cities always have great food, it’s one of my favourite things about Toronto.
Milan foods also depends on the ingredients produced in the region. Lombardy is the largest producer of rice in Europe, naturally this is why risotto is so popular. Maize is also common here and used in polenta dishes.
As it’s part of northern Italy, Milanese cuisine takes some influences from neighbouring countries where it has had strong trading connections over many centuries.
Expect similarities with traditional French cuisine as well as Austria, Spain and Switzerland.
Milan’s Lombardy region also borders one of my favourite food destinations in Italy – Emilia Romagna. Many of the dishes are similar to Modenese food. If you love Italian food you’ll want to read these posts:
- Modena: The Best Food City in Italy
- The King of Cheese: Parmigiano Reggiano
- Where to Find the Best Balsamic Vinegar
- Where to Eat in Modena
What to Eat in Milan
Risotto alla Milanese
This is one of the classic dishes that you will find in Milanese cuisine. It is often considered to be the original Italian risotto.
This is a simple and hearty dish and it is a must eat in Milan. Fortunately it is often the pairing that goes well with ossobuco or in my case at Antica Osteria II Ronchettino it was with cleaned roasted bone marrow.
The short grain arborio Italian rice is the most common used in this dish. It is classically cooked with white wine and Parmesan.
It is seasoned with salt, pepper and saffron, which gives it the iconic golden colour.
At its heart, polenta is a really simple food that is made with cornmeal. While it often has the texture of a porridge and is served as a side to stew and meat, you can also find it deep fried and cooked into solid forms.
Let’s face it, polenta can be very good or very bad. So if you’re going to eat this Milanese food make sure it’s in a good restaurant.
Look for restaurants in Milan that put a spotlight on the ingredient with variations made with mushrooms or local cheeses for a delicious take on this simple comfort food.
Showing off some of the finest ingredients in Milanese food, ossobuco is made with veal shanks that have been cross cut.
Depending on the type of ossobuco you are eating, you may have the original version without tomatoes, or a more modern variant that does include tomatoes.
The veal shanks are browned in a pan, before they are braised in a combination of white wine and meat stock.
The finished dish is then garnished with gremolata and served with risotto alla milanese or polenta.
Minestrone alla Milanese
This tasty soup is one of the staples of many homes in Milan. There are a few things that set it apart from the same dish elsewhere.
Like traditional minestone you will find plenty of fresh, seasonal vegetables. In Milan it is common to have beets, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes and celery.
As rice is at the forefront of Milan food, locals bypass the pasta and instead use arborio rice.
In the winter, the soup is a hearty warming dish, while in the summer months minestrone Milanese is more commonly served cold.
Cotoletta alla Milanese
This breaded veal cutlet is similar to what you would see as schnitzel in Austria. It also crossed the Atlantic as a classic Argentinean food, simply called Milanesa.
Confusingly, it is also sometimes called costoletta. Without a doubt it is one of the most common dishes that you will find in restaurants across Milan.
A veal cutlet is dipped in milk or a mixture of similar consistency, then in breadcrumbs.
It can either be deep fried or grilled to complete the Milanese food. It is then usually served with potatoes and vegetables.
Or in some cases it may be accompanied with french fries.
Orecchio di Elefante
This is a variation on the cotoletta, which is a popular part of Milanese cuisine. In orecchio di elefante the basic ingredient is also a veal cutlet that is usually from a milk-fed calf.
Unlike the cotoletta which is cooked with a rib bone present, here the bone is removed. The meat is tenderized and flattened before cooking.
Similarly it is dipped in milk and covered in breadcrumbs before cooking.
As it is a thinner piece of meat without a bone it requires less time to cook. It is commonly served with sautéed potatoes or fries and a salad.
Trippa Alla Milanese (Busecca)
When people ask if I like tripe the only response is, it depends.
It’s the edible lining of the stomach of an animal. I absolutely adore lampredotto sandwiches in Florence, which use tripe.
Thankfully I can say that the pork tripe at Antica Osteria II Ronchettino was perhaps the best I had ever eaten.
It was so tender you could have sworn it was noodles instead of offal. Most people in our group went back for seconds.
Trippa alla Milanese is most commonly cooked on Saturdays in Milan. These pieces of the meat are pre-cooked, before they are added to a mix of carrots, celery and onions that have been gently sautéed and added to white wine and hearty broth.
Although Busecca is eaten throughout the year in Milan, it is often considered to be a traditional Christmas dish.
It is traditionally eaten by a family after they return from midnight mass.
A traditional winter Milanese stew with pork and savoy cabbage. Cassouela is an Italian stew that has been cooked in the region for centuries.
Cassouela is a heavy stew that was originally made for physical labourers. It is a great way to use pork offal, cassouela may include trotters, ears, nose and ribs from the pig. It’s also possible to find slices of Verzino sausage.
The meat is slow cooked for several hours along with carrots, onions and other vegetables.
Legend has it that a Spanish officer was having an affair with the cook of a leading family in Milan.
Apparently he gave her the recipe for the stew, which is how it was introduced to the city.
Most commonly served as a summer meal, this is another Milan food with veal as the main ingredient. The dish requires thinly sliced pieces of meat from the rear leg of the calf.
Vitello tonnato is served with a creamy mayonnaise-style sauce that has been prepared using tuna to add a little fish flavour to the dish.
For presentation, a thin layer of the sauce is placed on the plate.Veal is added and another layer of sauce is used to cover the meat.
Pappardelle Alla Bosciola
With the prolific production of rice, it’s not common to see many traditional pasta dishes in Milan.
Pappardelle is a wide flat type of pasta, and used often in Bologna. The name ‘Alla bosciola’ translates into English as in the style of the woodsman.
This means that in practice it is served with a wild mushroom sauce. The most common type of mushroom used in this dish is porcini.
Although some others may use different wild mushrooms. The mushrooms are usually added to the pasta with a creamy white wine sauce, for a comforting pasta dish.
Warm Salad of Veal Nerve
A warm salad of veal nerves served with borlotti beans and marinated red onions from Tropea.
It’s a gorgeous salad although some may find issue with the nerves that feel like rubbery ligaments.
Oh how I love ravioli. It is true that you can find this stuffed pasta all over Italy. However, what makes it regional and alla Milanesa is the stuffing.
In Milanese cuisine the pasta pocked is filled with ground meat and a small amount of broth to hold it together, and a little parmigiana cheese.
Local restaurants in Milan may also serve variations such as cotoletta ravioli. If you’re craving comfort food, this is what to eat in Milan.
I first had zampone in Modena and it’s one of my favourite Italian foods.
A seasonal Milan food that is most common as a part of the New Year’s celebration, I understand this is a dish that may not appeal to everyone.
Zampone is made with a pig’s trotter aka the foot of the pig. Although if no one told you it was pig feet you wouldn’t know it. It is stuffed with a combination of minced pork, sometimes lentils, beans or rice and seasonings.
This Milanese food is traditionally prepared fresh, but even Italy has convenience food. So you will also find some options that are pre-prepared.
Like many areas of Italy, Milan has many of its own recipes for tasty sausages. In the case of Luganega, it is actually one that is of a disputed origin, with the Veneto region also claiming to have created the recipe.
And so (I think) it’s often referred to as luganega milanese as a passive aggressive way to say it belongs to Milan.
This sausage is made of pork, parmigiana cheese and red wine. It uses a long sausage casing wound into a spiral – similar to what you would see in Austria or Germany.
It can be grilled and served on its own. Sometimes it is eaten with polenta, or chopped and included in a risotto.
Bollito Misto (Boiled Meat)
Perhaps the least appetizing name for a dish, who wants boiled meat?
It turns out a lot of people do all over the world, in fact traditional Nova Scotia food includes a dish called boiled dinner.
This is a traditional winter dish, and I first tried it in Modena, in the neighbouring Emilia Romagna region. As the name suggests, this Milan food is straight forward – different cuts of meat are boiled.
Several different cuts of beef and veal can be used. The traditional bollito misto will also include a pork sausage called cotechino, and a piece of chicken as well.
This is usually eaten in a buffet style, with a range of sauces available to accompany the meat.
Believe me the sauces are key, otherwise boiled meat is as tasty as it sounds.
I first had puntarelle salad in Rome. It is a classic Roman salad served in the winter with fried cod.
But it’s not quite the type of salad we know in North America as puntarelle is a type of chicory, which is very bitter.
The vast majority of people will not be familiar with puntarelle, so as a brief introduction, it is a vegetable of the chicory family that is common in this part of Italy.
Dandelion Puntarelle Salad
The greens need to be soaked, which eases the bitterness and also gives them the curly appearance.
The dressing is often a simple garlic and red wine vinegar mix tossed with anchovies and also capers in Milan.
Sometimes these are described as meatballs but it’s not quite the meatballs that we know in North America, or even the Swedish meatballs from Ikea.
The best way to describe this dish is breaded deep fried meatballs…did I get your attention?
In Milan food is often traditionally made with leftovers and this is the case here. Mondeghili can include beef, pork or any other type of meat that is available and can be easily ground.
This meat is then combined with breadcrumbs and some egg yolk to bind the mixture together.
These are then formed into balls, before more egg is used to add a layer of breadcrumbs before the meatballs are fried.
I am sure I will get death threats from writing this but I have never had amazing bread in Italy.
I don’t understand why Italians can make amazing pasta, pizza, focaccia and pastries yet bread always seems to be mediocre.
But I always want to be proven wrong so michetta was on my list for what to eat in Milan. In Italian the name of this bread roll means a small rose – that’s a great start.
I also heard it could be savoury or sweet – even better! But I missed it, next time.
Fried Veal Brain
Not the first time I’ve had brain, I had expected the soft warm texture. Although others at our table thought that it was a joke they didn’t realize that in Milan all of the animal is used.
Although it may seem odd to eat brain, it’s actually one of the easiest and tastiest forms of offal.
Although it is one of the foods that is found in many parts of Italy, I heard lasagna was amazing in Milan.
Despite everyone being so beautiful and fashionable, Milan has so many great comfort foods and so many amazing kinds of cheese.
So I was ready for the lasagna alla milanese.
In Milan it is prepared with fresh pasta, bolognese sauce and gorgeously decadent béchamel sauce topped with traditional Milanese cheese.
What is Street Food in Milan?
Although Italy doesn’t have the same type of street food culture that you see in Mexico or Thailand, there are a number of kiosks that sell simple food to go.
These flatbreads are popular in many parts of Italy, especially in Rimini.
You can get them in small cafes but the simplest places to eat Piadina are in Milan are kisoks.
The dough for the bread is generally prepared with lard, which is combined with white flour and salt before it is cooked – also reminding me of delicious tlayudas in Oaxaca.
The flatbread can look quite similar to a naan bread or Greek pita, but a little bit thinner.
In practice, most people will buy the piadina folded around a filling of cold cuts and cheese, although sweet varieties are also available.
One of the most common things to eat in Milan. This tasty pastry snack is known as a singular panzerotto, with panzerotti being the plural – an important thing to know if you only want to order one.
They are commonly compared to smaller calzones. However, one of the key differences is that panzerotti are fried rather than baked.
The fillings for panzerotti often include tomato and mozzarella. Although it’s common to use dried tomatoes to keep the pastry from getting soggy from fresh tomatoes.
Other varieties can also include other common pizza toppings. Fried onions, anchovies and capers are also common fillings.
It was a bit chilly in Milan and the smell of roasting chestnuts was so lovely in the streets. I walked by so many stands, waiting to buy them. And then I forgot.
Cheese in Milan
One of the ways I try to explain that Italy is a diverse country, really made of 20 smaller countries, is through cheese.
My beloved burrata that is found in the south, isn’t made in the north where parmigiano reggiano rules. It’s also more common to find butter in the North and olive oil in the South.
This is why you need to visit Italy many many many times.
But it’s also why Milan deserves its own section on cheese. Because the Lombardy region takes cheese seriously and there are some you must try in Milan.
Gorgonzola is one of the region’s historic cheeses. It is a blue cheese that can be soft but also becomes more firm as it ages, which usually takes between three and four months.
The cheese is used in a variety of different dishes in Milan, ranging from a topping for pizzas through to being used to add extra bite to risotto, polenta and many pasta dishes.
Gorgonzola has protected regional status, meaning it can only be produced in Milan and the surrounding areas of northern Italy.
This cheese has been produced in the Milan region for centuries. It can only be branded as mascarpone if it is produced in an area near Milan.
A soft cheese made with a little bit of lemon juice to coagulate the cheese, it is then strained into a mould and chilled for 48 hours.
Mascarpone can be used for both sweet and savoury dishes. It is common as the base for cheesecakes and tiramisu. But it may also be used to thicken risotto as well.
Another one of the historic cheeses that have been produced in the Lombardy region for centuries.
In fact, there are mentions of taleggio in documents from Roman times.
This Milan food is named after the Taleggio valley, where it was said to have been first produced.
The production process begins in the autumn or winter, and it is washed weekly with seawater to prevent the build-up of mold.
The finished product is commonly used in polenta and pasta dishes. It is also popular in salads.
A cheese that is made in the Alpine regions of Italy, this is a soft cheese that does not require much time to mature.
The cheese is quite mild, made with cow’s milk and is often used as a filling for sandwiches.
Stracchino can also be eaten within a focaccia or with piadina for a quick snack. The origins of the name of the cheese relate to the Italian word for tired.
It is said that cows that have recently been moved from higher to lower pastures provide the best milk for stracchino.
This Milanese pastry is in many of the city’s bakeries. At the heart of the dessert is a puff pastry funnel, which is often covered in sugar or icing sugar.
The funnel is stuffed with a sweet cream or hazelnut. But every bakery does it differently and it can include vanilla, chocolate and lemon cream among the options.
At the conference there were several panetton displays. I seriously thought about stealing one to take to Cuba but chickened out.
This cake is often exported across the world, especially during Christmas. It is a sweet bread loaf with dried fruit and nuts.
It is not easy to make as the dough takes several days to proof properly to give the cake a light and fluffy consistency.
If you do get panettone at a cafe, order it with a glass of sparkling wine.
Easter is an important time in a religious country such as Italy. In Milan this cake is one of the ways that Easter is celebrated. Colomba is the Italian word for dove.
This cake it is shaped into the general shape of a dove.
The dough of the cake is similar to panettone. However, there are no raisins and instead candied citrus peel pieces.
Once baked, it is covered in almonds, pearl sugar and sometimes a chocolate sauce as well.
Drinks in Milan
I learned at the conference that coffee is Italy is quite regional.
While it tends to be dark roasted and bitter in the South, as it heads north it is often lighter with a bit of acidity.
I did a blind taste test and realized that I am a truth northern coffee drinker. I prefer it light with acidity.
Coffee in Italy is a very serious business. There are tons of different kinds of coffee and at what times you are allowed to drink them. It can be intimidating until you know the rules
Hot to Order Coffee in Italy
But in Milan things are a bit different. In other parts of the country you find Italians standing up basically shooting hot espresso down their throats.
You can also find espresso in Milan. But you can also find tall coffees similar to americanos in the city.
There are a number of sit down coffee shops similar to what we know internationally and lots of latte art to inspire instagram posts.
Although note that in Milan locals usually only drink milk in their coffee in the morning, so you still shouldn’t order a cappuccino after 11am.
Milan is a cocktail city. Aperitivo started in Milan, and today it’s still a strong part of the culture.
Gin and tonic is always a popular drink as is the classic Spritz cocktail.
But in Milan you must have a negroni sbagliato. The legend says it was a mistake by at bartender at Bar Basso although the truth is that it could just be a good story for having a reason to alter the traditional Negroni recipe.
Where the traditional Negroni is made with gin, in Milan this variant replaces the gin with the rather bubblier Prosecco.
This is combined with Campari and sweet vermouth, and several ice cubes. The trick is to add the Prosecco last, and to dribble it in slowly so that the bubbles do not fizz over the rim of the glass.
A drink that has seen a real renaissance over recent years, the barbajada is a drink that was originally popular at the start of the twentieth century, but lost favour in the 1940s.
The recipe calls for milk, chocolate and coffee to be combined in equal measures. It is whipped and sometimes topped with cream. Think of it as a luxurious mocha coffee.
The drink is named after its creator Domenico Barbaja, who became wealthy and owned his own café in Milan later in life.
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Images: Gorgonzola (c) Rachel Black, ossobucco (c) Stu Spivak, Taleggio (c) Indiana Public Media, vitello tonnato (c) Jules, zampone (c) Alpha, gallerie (c) Jordan Pulmano, Easter Colomba (c) N i c o l e, Cannoncino (c) chefpercaso, Duomo at night (c) Benjamin Voros, coffee (c) Tyler Nix, piadina (c) SpizzicainSalento, Panzerotto (c) Sarah R