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Italy on a plate: A chef’s guide to Milan’s thriving food scene

By Shaun Dowling

<em>Credit: Yes Milano</em>
Credit: Yes Milano
Executive Chef at Auckland’s BOSSI, Shaun Dowling has spent 20 years abroad, travelling between Brazil, Italy and Australia, and married into a large Italian family with roots in Bellagio.

What makes Milan special?

Milan as a city is entirely flat, and in my opinion sightseeing on foot is the only way to go – stroll through the city and immerse yourself in the culture, engage with locals and discover their secret spots. And of course, the food is incredible. My favourite dish is Pollo alla Milanese, but there’s also excellent charcuterie – trust anywhere with prosciutto crudo hanging in the window!

What three words best describe Milan?

Through the lens of a chef it’s best characterised by the three ‘P’s – pesto, polenta, and prosciutto crudo.

What makes Milan’s food scene so unique?

Milan has mastered the art of balancing simple dishes with layers of elegant flavours. Its specialty is not pasta or pizza, but Cotoletta alla Milanese – a thin veal cutlet breaded and fried in butter.

Credit: Yes Milano

What are Milan’s best restaurants to visit?

  • Ristorante Nabucco is a fine dining destination named after composer Giuseppe Verdi’s lyrical piece ‘Nabucco’, which influences their approach to blending Milanese cuisine and Italian traditions.
  • El Brellin is a destination restaurant that perfectly balances tradition with a modernised interpretation of Milanese heritage, enhancing the traditional cooking methods and ingredients with fresh new flavour profiles.
  • Antica Trattoria della Pesa, frequented by locals, is one of the oldest restaurants in Milan, and has mastered the rustic and authentic culinary experience.
  • Trattoria Masuelli San Marco is a sophisticated eatery where locals say the ‘Slow Food’ movement first manifested – sourcing organic seasonal ingredients fresh from local producers to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions.
  • Trattoria del Nuovo Macello is a dining experience with a creative twist on the classics; my favourite dish there is the Spaghetti Vicidomini.

What are some must-visit sights?

While the Duomo, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the Teatro alla Scala are beautiful and worth a visit, I’d suggest heading to the Castello Sforzesco. A quick walk from Piazza del Duomo, the incredible castle was built in the 15th century, and I think it speaks to Milanese history more than the most famous spots. I’m in awe just walking through the gardens.

My must-see is Parco Sempione and the Triennale di Milano, which sit behind the castle and host the best contemporary art.

Hidden gems to discover?

The Small: bistrot and lifestyle. A space created by fashion designer Giancarlo Petriglia to represent the close relationship between art and cuisine, they curate seasonal dishes and host emerging or established artist exhibitions.

What dishes must people try when visiting?

Risotto alla Milanese, the king of risotto. And going back to the three ‘P’s, you can’t leave without tasting polenta, it perfectly balances simplicity with rich flavours. The best spot for it is Masuelli San Marco.

Looking for more travel inspiration? Discover a wine-lover’s guide to Portugal’s breathtaking Douro Valley

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