In Milan, fashion has long taken precedence over food. Despite the Italian city’s unrivalled wealth, industrial heritage and retail power, its culinary credentials are surprisingly poor compared to the rest of the country.
Napoli is the unrivalled home of pizza, Bologna celebrates its meat-filled tortellini and mortadella sausage, and Rome and Florence have the country’s best three-star Michelin restaurants: La Pergola and Enoteca Pinchiorri. Milan may have its culinary staples – osso bucco (braised veal shanks with bone marrow) and risotto alla milanese (saffron-flavoured risotto) -- but with stiff culinary competition elsewhere, the Milanese instead choose to celebrate Armani, Gucci and Prada.
Times and tastes, however, are changing, and a growing number of cooks, cafes and concept stores in Milan are trying out new ideas in the name of culinary evolution. For instance, at Agua and Food, an innovative larder-come-luxury-boutique, cured meats and Tuscan wines sit alongside pullovers, pashminas, belts and briefcases. On one shelf you can indulge your palate with pots of golden honey from the Lombardy town of Piacenza, and on the neighbouring shelves you may find expensive Italian leather shoes. In keeping with all the best Italian enotecas (wine bistros), the ceiling is hung with a variety of dried salamis, held together with frayed strings and wax.
This somewhat incongruous relationship between food and fashion is central to the city’s new culinary vision, one that plays to the city’s traditional strengths and reputation for high design. The Milanese know what they are good at – and how to market, sell and package it – so they have just taken their flair for haute couture and relocated it to the kitchen.
To experience this partnership at its best, make a reservation at Ristorante, the show-stopping restaurant at local boy Giorgio Armani’s new Armani Hotel, where the creative team lets loose on Lombardy cuisine. Located on the seventh floor, the eatery has floor-to-ceiling windows with incredible views towards the Duomo. But if you fancy a splurge, opt for the chef’s table placed at the heart of the kitchen, from where you can watch Milan’s up-and-coming chefs sauté and soufflé while they serve your supper. It is the closest thing you can get to a chef striking a pose on a catwalk.
Designer Roberto Cavalli could not resist following in Armani’s footsteps, and he too has a fine dining restaurant, Just Cavalli Hollywood, located near the lush green Parco Sempione, the biggest park in the city centre. In typical Cavalli style, the restaurant is a celebrity magnet during the annual Milan Fashion Weeks, and the restaurant’s over-the-top interiors include kitsch faux zebra and leopard print cushions, bronzed mirrors and gaudy chandeliers. Cavalli has also put his stamp on the kitchen with twists on Italian classics. Signature dishes include fresh tagliolini pasta with white alba truffle, and paccheri (tube-shaped pasta) with fresh lobster, made to his own recipe. Only in Milan would a haute couture fashion designer believe in his ability enough to transfer his talent into the kitchen.
The designer label food trend continues across the city. Fashion houses Bulgari, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana have got in on the act – check out D&G’s Gold restaurant near Porta Venezia (one of the historical gates of the city), where wafer-thin models order burgers topped with foie gras or beef fillet tartare with egg and edible gold leaf jelly. At the Gucci Cafe, under the dramatic shopping arcades of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, awe-struck tourists and Milan businessmen vie for the best terrace-side seats during lunch.
Even if you opt for a less pricey meal, the world of fashion and designer labels is never completely out of the picture. Set up by Carla Sozzani, a former editor of Italian Vogue and Elle, 10 Corso Como epitomises Milan’s creative dining scene. Set in a Milanese palazzo (a grand public building) north of the city centre, the concept is a winning combination of a three-room hotel, art gallery, design boutique and cafe-restaurant, and Sozzani has since replicated its success in Tokyo and Seoul. Her love of the Far East is evident through dishes like citrus steamed seabass with steamed snow peas and salted mullet roe spaghetti And at Michelin-starred Ristorante VUN at the Park Hyatt Milan, the plates are designed by British sartorial guru Paul Smith. The food is also exquisite – try the black pig’s neck served with smoked aubergine and plums.
To keep pace with these innovations, classic Italian restaurants are having to up their game. Carlo Cracco, Milan’s only two-star Michelin chef, may have trained in conventional techniques under French master chef Alain Ducasse in Paris, but his signature Milanese restaurant Cracco serves up inventive dishes such as electric-yellow spaghetti made from egg yolks and crème brulée burnt with seasonal Italian olive oil.
Similarly, Il Teatro, at the Four Seasons Milan, has long been regarded as one of the city’s best restaurants and now prides itself on its celebratory nine-course themed menu – last season focused on lobster, this season’s special ingredient is the Italian truffle. If that was not enough, executive chef Sergio Mei has conjured up the out-of-this-world fairy tale Cave au Chocolat – a room dedicated to art of the dessert. Packed full of tiramisus, sorbets and gelato cakes, it is heaven for those with a sweet tooth; even the walls are painted with a special coating of edible chocolate. La Dolce Vita in Milan never tasted this good.