Eating in Milan (aka a little piece of heaven)

September 28, 2012

The stuff dreams are made of...

Next to shopping, eating in Milan was what I was looking forward to most. I had a couple restaurants I knew I wanted to go to (including this brewery for a drink, which we later learned from our Italian friend is an institution in this city), but mostly figured I'd grab whatever looked good during the day. I looked up one good bakery and figured this, along with a few gelato stops, was all I needed to get me through till dinners with the hubby.

I had read all good things about Luini and its panzerotti, so the first day I decided to go and grab a few things to have on hand for breakfast and snacks. I tasted my first panzerotti that day - the seemingly popular 'Pomodoro' one, with tomatoes and gobs of gooey Mozerella - as a late afternoon snack and was hooked. The crispy fried dough and the warm cheese was just too good, reminding me a bit of empanadas with their tasty contents and pocket-like ease. It's no wonder when I came back to this place (which I did on several occasions) during more popular times of day, the street was chock-full of people eating their panzerotti and the lines were not only halfway down the block, but manned by serious-looking guards to keep people moving with an out of place, German-like efficiency. I tried a few other sweet things there (see the sweet, liquor-soaked, Won Ton-like thing below), including the sweet panzerotti - filled with things like ricotta and chocolate or wild fruits and cream - but nothing could touch the fried Pomodoro panzerotti. I will seriously have dreams about those little pockets of greatness.

Our first dinner out on our own in Milan was to Antica Trattoria della Pesa, a traditional Italian restaurant dating back to the nineteenth century. The vibe inside was close-quartered and homey, with each table situated less than a foot away from the next. We shared a wonderful bottle of wine (thoroughly taking advantage of all the great red wine while in Italy!) and fell absolutely in love with our entrees. While Osso Buco was the dish to have there, I passed on it in light of the green pepper steak after staring longingly at someone else's the night before (and knowing that good steak was not so easy to come by back in Germany, aka, the Land of Pork) and I wasn't sorry I did. My husband's veal stewed in white wine sauce was divine. For dessert, I indulged again in something I so rarely got to enjoy these days: crème brûlée. While it too was delicious, it couldn't touch the signature dessert my husband chose, the frothy sweet Zabaione freddo. Aside from my aching feet (thanks to new 4-1/3" heels), it was the perfect meal.

I was most looking forward to our meal at Erba Brusca, which I had discovered through AFAR and sounded just up our alley. It is a bit on the outskirts of the city (quite a ways past the end of the Metro line, so a car/cab is necessary), but well worth the effort. It's a very earthy kind of place where the food is simple and much of the ingredients they grow themselves. We also found out later that the chef is actually American, which may cause some to scoff at the authenticity of our Italian dining, but I say good food is good food, no matter where the chef hails from. In American style, we arrived for our early-by-Italian-standards reservation time (pre-9pm) and were greeted by most the staff, still preparing for the night, and a happy little Dachshund that is a resident there. They had originally recommended the patio, which is really lovely, but in light of my legs being a mosquito buffet a few nights earlier, I requested the enclosed patio space instead.

With no English menus, we were left to start decoding what we could as our anticipation grew over the deliciousness that was surely to come. We had an idea of what sounded good to us (between the hubby's Spanish and what little Italian knowledge we both had) and the waiter was kind enough to come and give us a run-down of the menu for clarification. Since we knew Italians consider pasta just a course between the starter and the entree, we figured we would at least split an antipasta so we could try to enjoy as many different flavors as we could further into the meal.

What sounded like a light, almost basic starter turned out to be nothing short of stellar. They very nicely split our choice - goat's cheese with tomato salad and sun-dried tomato pesto - between two plates. I must admit here that tomatoes are not my favorite thing. On their own, I often find them either tasteless or of off-putting texture. These were neither. The light but gorgeous flavors coupled with that amazing pesto was to-die-for and set the bar high for the rest of the meal. The pasta I chose for the black truffles in it ended up having clams (FYI, I dislike pretty much all seafood), but didn't taste fishy at all. In fact, the richness of the abundant truffle shavings was nearly matched by the rich, buttery sauce and overwhelmed my palate with decadence. Frankly, I barely even noticed the clams. Even while I was positively melting over my pasta, I managed to get in a few bites of the hubby's choice: a long pasta with rabbit ragout, chopped olives and laurel oil. Fantastic!

My meat dish, humbly translated as "Moncucco chicken with peppers marinated with herbs from the garden" surprised me more than I can say. The chicken was so moist and flavorful and the peppers - oh, those peppers... - were seriously the best-tasting peppers I had ever eaten. I never ceased to be amazed at how the simplest of dishes are often the most mind-blowingly delicious. To say that the beef salad with onions and potatoes also did not disappoint would be gross understatement. By the end of that course, we were both so stuffed, but I am not one who can say no to dessert...

And so with that, we both ordered espressos and I opted for the chocolate dessert, which I usually don't, but the description of dark chocolate parfait with figs marinated in pepper and grappa sounded too amazing to pass up. The first bite nearly brought tears to my eyes, it was that good (although I blame the night's ecstacy-inducing food and half a bottle of wine for any emotional short-comings I might have experienced). My husband, who swore he would not enjoy more than a bite and does not suffer from my same sweet-tooth mania, managed to split the whole thing with me. Upon discovering they also do a Sunday brunch, we knew we would have to come back at some point to experience more of Erba Brusca's impressive menu.

I consider myself a bit of a gelato conoisseur, mostly in that I love it, I can't get enough of it and have tried it at various places all over Europe and throughout Italy. After having a few that week that were pretty good to just okay (because really, it's hard to actually get bad gelato), I knew I needed to do a bit of internet research to seek out the best. This lead us to Il Massimo del gelato. Getting to this spot on Friday evening of Fashion Week took us through traffic that was next to mind numbing, but as soon as I had my first bite, the last 45 minutes of trying to get across the city had all but disappeared. This was, no doubt, the best gelato I have ever eaten. I got the largest cup, which ironically was comparable to the average size 'small' in America, and I still nearly went back for seconds (granted, it was dinner).

The flavor selection is unbelievable, with lots of expected standbys like lemon and melon, but with a completely unexpected and utterly rich-looking chocolate section that included such specialties as the 'Azteco' chocolate (which I got) and the candied-orange and Grand Marnier chocolate (which my husband got). Being so used to the German's rather low tolerance for spiciness, I didn't think twice when the girl told me 'it's hot' of my chosen chocolate flavor. Of course it's hot, I could understand the Italian description enough to know it was with cinnamon and peppers, like a traditional Mexican chocolate. Well, her words were a definite warning because that chocolate was so hot it required cleansing my palate with the other flavors before I could go back for another bite, not to mention that it left my belly warm and fiery for the better part of an hour. But so crazy good.

I paired it with coffee, which I thought would go nicely with the spicy chocolate, and melon, which is my very favorite. The melon was literally like biting into a cantaloupe, the flavor and ingredients were so fresh. It wasn't melon flavor - it was melon. While my chocolate was spectacular, my husband's was nothing short of mind-blowing. And while his peach was also stunning, his lime was so good I could quite possibly give up margaritas (my drink of choice) for the rest of my life if I could eat that instead. On the drive home, we actually discussed doing a one-night drive down to Milan just to have dinner at Erba Brusca and gelato from Il Massimo (oh yeah, and then brunch back at Erba Brusca the following morning..). I'm still floating on a cloud of deliciousness from the whole experience.

Yes, that is me licking my cup. It was like crack, I tell you.

Bailey would be so proud.

We also did a quick grocery run before we hit the road, not only to pick up snacks, but to stock up on things like Italian red wine and all the watermelon Tic Tacs (trust me) they had. We also made this awesome discovery:

Juice boxes for grown-ups. That's right, this party's gonna be off the hook.

Thanks for all the grub Milan, you knocked my socks off.

Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische

Buongiorno, fashion and shopping in Milan!

September 27, 2012

So, I felt a little bad heading to Milan without much of anything planned or written down (save a few restaurants - more on those in another post) in my usual pre-travel way. I'm sure there were scores of amazing sights I didn't see and lots of cool things I missed, but I was in the mood for a wandering, low-key kind of holiday. I knew I wanted to shop, I wanted to eat well and most of all, I didn't want to feel like a tourist in such a touristy city. I wanted to get by on my own (while the hubby was at work) in language I didn't speak in a city I didn't know.

Before even getting into town on the first day (we were staying on the outskirts in San Donato Milanese), I had an altercation with a gypsy in the train station trying to take my money, where I had to grab her hand away and yell to get her to leave me alone. So I knew, much like I tell my husband he becomes a much more aggressive version of himself behind the wheel when driving in a big city, I too had immediately switched on 'city mode'. I looked down instead of gawking open-mouthed at all the glorious architecture above me and avoided the hoards of scam artists jumping on every obvious tourist in the main piazza at the Duomo. I managed to snap a couple of photos, but really, I played the local card as much as I could.

Apparently this worked well enough to be asked something (a place nearby, perhaps?? I speak next to no Italian...) by a couple of Italians while I was sitting and enjoying a foccacia lunch one day, though I still felt terribly unstylish next to the real locals. Whether they were glammed out in the latest designer offerings and handbags worth more than my yearly clothing allowance or tatted up with short, punky hair and bras worn as integral parts of an outfit, it was clear they were serious about fashion as an art form. It was a far cry from the 'fashion' I'm used to seeing in our town - head-to-toe Marc O'Polo and Louis Vuitton handbags. Women look nice, but it's just not the same. I felt inspired just being around such inspiring people, not to mention inspiring retail space. The Zara on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II was one of the most impressive shops I've ever seen (which I describe in this post) and the Replay store was literally a rainforest, with real, live plants growing out of the two-story walls in the front and what looked to be a working metal waterfall. 

Serendipitously, it was also Fashion Week. As the events got going halfway through the week, the influx of increasingly glamorous-looking people was incredible. Every time I turned around, there was another woman in a pleated leather dress, a strapless satin dress or an amazing pair of printed pants - of course all with 3, 4, or 5" heels on. When we headed out of town on Friday, we passed a massive event at which I spied this girl out front and just knew she would wind up photographed for her impressive style. A few days later, as expected, I see her photo pop up on Elle UK's round-up of Milan Fashion Week style. I was hoping to see Scott Schuman in action, but only saw one street photographer I didn't know taking photos of a woman on super swanky Via Della Spiga wearing these amazing trousers and the requisite impossibly high heels.

The models were also out in full-force, their stick-like arms clutching their Books and never once seen with any food (whereas I was rarely seen without gelato or a cheesy, fried panzerotti in hand). I almost had to laugh when the super nice metro station man helping me with directions asked if I was a model (likely just because he had to look up at me), since it's pretty clear I love to eat. I even debated getting this tee to sport while there, but was a little embarrassed to be so presumptuous. Ah well, at least I got to enjoy the culinary greatness Milan had to offer while all those models looked so hungry.

Sure, the Duomo was pretty impressive...

But I was here for the fashion! Nearly every window had some reference to Fashion Week:

There was even an amazing giant 'snowglobe' in front of one of the H&Ms promoting the upcoming collaboration with Italian fashionista Anna Dello Russo (ahhh, a giant shoe...):

A few of my favorite shopping acquisitions include this sweater, an awesome combination of two of my favorite sweater details - stripes and fair isle:

... these dominatrix-esque Zara heels:

...and finally, the perfect slouchy grey hat I've been on the lookout for for over a year:

There were of course a few things I had to pass up that I'm sorry I did. Like this H&M cardi:

... and this Benetton duffle (especially after discovering it's sold out everywhere in Germany in my size already):

Aside from fighting off the gypsies, the other major downfall in Milan was being out at night with the mosquitoes (which I have terrible reactions from, obviously):

It's making me seriously rethink that trip to Thailand, where I'm likely to wind up in the hospital from all the bug bites I will probably get, much like our trip to Hawaii where 40+ infected mosquito bites landed me at a nearby clinic. I think my delicate constitution requires that I stay in colder European climates. I suppose there are worse things. 

So the next time I want to shop - and eat! - Milan may be my city of choice. Next up, a round-up of the amazing things we ate...

Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische  

Switzerland might be the prettiest place on earth

September 25, 2012

Driving to Italy (again) meant driving through Switzerland (again), and seeing that it stunned me with its landscape the first time, I was excited to enjoy it again so soon. Our drive through boring Zurich had me worried that perhaps I had seen the best of Switzerland on our last trip, but arriving at our stop for the night - Lake Lucerne - restored my belief that this in fact might be the most spectacular country I've ever seen.

We arrived at our hotel very late at night and left rather early in the morning, but even the view from our modest, short stay was pretty amazing (see first photo below). After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we spend a little time down by the lake taking in the picturesque landscape. Everything from the brilliant sky to the surrounding mountains to the swans that had taken up residence on the sparkling lake seemed like it had been hand-picked to make the most beautiful scenery ever. No mangy birds or homeless people or graffitied walls marred the vistas. Switzerland would not accept anything less than this perfection. 

After getting on the road, I was thinking in my next life I would like to come back as a Swiss swan and live in this magically perfect location - until we started to see the cows again. I don't care what all those propaganda-filled commercials from back in the states say about 'California cows are happy cows'. No sir, I want to spend my next life - or hell, all my next lives - as a cow in the Swiss Alps. With their softly-clanking bells, amazing vistas and seriously the greenest grass I've ever seen to eat, these cows have it made. Spending my days lounging around these hillsides, taking in the dramatic, rocky mountains and countless waterfalls sounds about like heaven.

On our drive to Italy, we got a taste of the lovely cow life with hours of stunning landscapes and waterfalls bathed in the most gorgeous mid-morning light. Swiss cows, I seriously envy you.

Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische

My new favorite castle

September 24, 2012

When I first saw a picture of Schloss Lichtenstein (not actually in Liechtenstein, but in Tübingen, Baden-Württemberg) on Pinterest, I knew immediately that I wanted to go there. Once I realized that it was a mere few hours away, I was even more eager to make it happen. Lucky for me, our drive to Milan last week allowed for a short (okay, a few hour) detour to see it. It was everything I expected from the photo and more.

Driving up, we first spied the castle way above us on the ridge. The long, winding drive informed us of the spectacular views that were to come. Once there, we found the surrounding buildings are also impressive, with their castle-like details and ivy-covered walls. But getting to the actual Schloss, with it's sweeping views and towering presence over the valley, is nothing short of breathtaking. It almost appears as though the castle was carved out of the massive rock it sits on, as if it were a natural part of the landscape. I've never seen anything else quite like it.

We always sarcastically lament on our road trips, or even just on weekend drives around the area: "Ugh. Another castle," as they are literally around every bend. I suppose that joking sentiment has started to take root in reality much in the way that sunny days in California are taken for granted when they are so abundant. Sure, they are all beautiful, but this one, this one was spectacular.

Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische