Saffron & Smoked Paprika Peanuts
Peanuts, potato chips and olives are the holy trinity of aperitivo snacks. From the swankiest of cocktail lounges to the most casual of cafes, this trio is ever present at aperitivos across Milan. While they are often accompanied by other light bites, they are on occasion the only nibbles fueling the spirit of aperitivo. The good news is peanuts have long carried the torch of lonesome bar snack. Likely originating in Peru, peanuts were first brought to Europe by the Spanish in the late 1700s. Since then they have made their way to bars around the globe, as their savory-salty-crunch makes for an ideal accompaniment to almost any libation. We’ve turned up the heat on this happy hour staple by roasting them and tossing them with saffron, smoked paprika and sea salt. Contains Peanuts; Gluten Free, Vegan
Homemade Potato Chips with Porcini and Grana Padano
It’s hard to say which crop of this alliterative Peruvian duo has had a greater influence on global cuisine, but like peanuts, potatoes have made their way out of the mountains of South America and become a staple in dishes and diets around the world. Potatoes are a wildly versatile tuber and can be cooked in a near infinite number of ways. And while some of the first recorded recipes for something akin to a potato chip began appearing in cookbooks in the early 18th century, we’re partial to the legend of George Crum who was a chef in mid 1800’s Saratoga Springs, New York. As the story goes, Crum was dealing with a rather picky customer who kept sending his potatoes back to the kitchen, claiming they were either too salty, too thin, or too soggy. Frustrated, Crum sliced the potatoes wafer thin, fried them to a crisp and covered them with a liberal sprinkling of salt. To his surprise, they were a hit at the table, and the potato chip was born. While this story likely has its origins in savvy advertising, there’s no denying potato chips are now big business and can be found in bars and grocery stores around the world. As an homage to Crum, and because chips an essential part of any aperitivo, we’ve made ours the old fashioned way before upping the ante by adding porcini salt & shiitake powder along with a sprinkle of Grana Padano cheese for extra umami umph. Contains Dairy; Gluten Free, Vegetarian
Marinated Olives with Gorgonzola
Olive trees have been cultivated in the Medditeranean for millennia and their importance to the region cannot be understated. A staple crop for the Greeks and Romans, olives and olive oil have become representative not only of the Medditeranean diet, but of its culture as well. Gorgonzola, by comparison, is a relative newcomer on the global culinary scene, with production dating back “only” to the 11th century. The cheese takes its name from the village where it was first produced, the small town of Gorgonzola, located in the greater Metropolitan City of Milan, just 20 km northeast of the city center. Gorgonzola is made from whole cow's milk and mold spores of Penicillium glaucum before being aged for 3-4 months. Together olives and Gorgonzola make for a truly authentic Milanese appetizer. For this dish, we marinated ripened black olives in olive oil, garlic, lemon slices and fennel seeds before baking and finally topped with crumbles of the younger gorgonzola dolce. Contains Dairy; Gluten Free, Vegetarian
Sauteed Greens with Garlic & Chili
Aperitivos aren’t known for their displays of fresh produce, with most veggies either fried or in a sauce of some kind. This spread of sauteed mixed greens however, is an exception. You’ll often find these greens used as a filling in freshly baked Piadina or spread atop crostini as we’ve prepared here. It can be made with any combination of mixed greens and we’ve opted for some of our favorites. Collard greens, mustard greens and green cabbage are finely chopped before being sauteed in olive oil with copious amounts of garlic and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Gluten Free, Vegan
Braised Cannellini Beans with Pesto
While more common in Central Italy, hearty cannellini beans make an excellent topping for crostini at a Milanese aperitivo, especially when braised with garlic and olive oil. We’ve topped the dish with a fresh pesto of basil, oregano, green onions and parsley, which lends a light herbaceousness and acts as a delicious foil to the richness of the beans. Gluten Free, Vegan
Il Primo e Il Secondo
Risotto alla Milanese
There are very few Italian dishes that break the standard convention of starches for the first course (il primo) and proteins for the second (il secondo). A proper Italian meal involves eating one's way through a menagerie of vibrant smaller dishes and courses, each intended to compliment the others and elevate the overall dining experience. Ossobuco e Risotto alla Milanese is a decadent exception to this rule, served together as a singular “main course.” The dish has a dubious origin story about a young Milanese apprentice, nicknamed Zafferano for his excessive use of saffron as a pigment. Allegedly, his friends put saffron in a rice dish at his wedding to prank the young groom, but wedding guests found the dish so delicious that none was left by the end of the night. While this story is unlikely, as recipes for risotto don’t begin appearing in cookbooks for several more centuries, the dish is nonetheless a standard bearer of Milanese cuisine. Arborio rice and onion are sauteed in olive oil before being slowly simmered in stock colored with strands of saffron. We’ve used parmesan stock here instead of the traditional chicken stock for a greater depth of flavor. The dish is finished with a dab of butter before freshly grated Grana Padano cheese is folded into the mix. Contains Dairy; Gluten Free, Vegetarian
Beef Ossobuco alla Milanese
Literally translated to “bone with a hole,” Ossobuco originated in Lombardy sometime within the last 200 years, although no one knows exactly when. Regardless, since its creation Ossobuco has quickly gained popularity, becoming not only an iconic dish of Milan, but an internationally recognized dish representative of Italian cuisine. Traditionally the dish is made with veal shank, but we’ve opted for the more readily available, but equally delicious, beef shank. Braised in white wine and tomatoes until almost falling off the bone, and perched atop a bed of Risotto alla Milanese it’s the perfect dish for a cold Michigan night. Contains Dairy, Gluten
Polenta Shortcake with Fennel, Raisins, Figs, and Pine Nuts
While not typically Milanese, this Venetian dessert from Marcella Hazan captures many aspects of Milanese cuisine, namely the use of polenta and dried fruits. Creamy polenta forms the base of this cake, before chopped dried figs and golden raisins are folded into the mix lending sweetness and color. Pine nuts and fennel seeds are also added for a savory crunch. Contains: Dairy, Eggs, Gluten, Tree Nuts; Vegetarian
In the 19th century, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, Austria-Hungary took ownership of the Veneto region of northern Italy. The Austrian occupiers found the Northern Italian wines too strong for their delicate Hapsburg paletes and so would add a “spritz” of water, German for “a splash.” Eventually, still water was replaced by sparkling water and the wine by liqueur. When Aperol was invented in Padova in 1919 it quickly became a popular choice for “un spritz,” but it wasn’t until 2003 when Gruppo Campari purchased Aperol and started an extensive marketing campaign that the Aperol Spritz became a top contender for “Italy’s favorite drink.” Today the Aperol Spritz is a classic aperitivo cocktail choice.
While just as storied and illustrious as any other Italian city, the draw of Milan is not in its ancient ruins or its “Mediterranean lifestyle.” Suffering heavy bombing by the allies in World War II, the city has been mostly rebuilt within the last half century. Since then it has become the epicenter of modern industry in Italy, the metropolitan heartbeat of the country that is home to luxury textiles, finance and manufacturing. With the rise of Milanese fashion houses - Armani, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana - the city has come to dominate global fashion and personify a luxurious Italian lifestyle.
Perhaps no other cultural tradition embodies this dolce vita as much as the Milanese aperitivo. While it has been compared to Spanish tapas and happy hour in the U.S., Italian aperitivo is an event unto itself. Despite numerous cities claiming it’s invention, Milan is widely considered to be the birthplace of the aperitivo, and it is certainly the city with the strongest aperitivo culture. Stemming from the Italian word “aprire,” meaning to open, the first drink of the evening is meant to open up, or stimulate the appetite. It’s a time when friends come together to appreciate good food and better company.
Every evening, bars and cafes will set out buffets of varying complexity, some just peanuts, olives and chips, others full spreads of mini pizzas, sandwiches and pastas. The Milanese will convene at these bars after work, where the price of admission is the purchase of a cocktail, often low ABV and slightly bitter to stimulate the appetite, such as a negroni or a spritz. Neither a snack nor a full meal, aperitivo is a time to socialize with friends, unwind after the work day and “prepare” for dinner. Because many Italian families eat late by American standards, often only sitting down for dinner at 9pm or later, the aperitivo is not only a leisurely way to enjoy time with friends, but a necessity in order to tide oneself over between lunch and dinner.
I was fortunate to live in Milan in 2015 while working at the World Expo and can attest to the simple elegance of the Milanese aperitivo. There is nothing quite like witnessing an entire city emptying out of office buildings and heading to favorite cafes and bars to partake in convivial conversation while indulging in great food and drink. If you truly want to feel like a Milanese tonight, we encourage you to take a moment and slow down. Savor the food, enjoy the company, and let go of any stress, at least for a few hours.
Aperol Spritz a.k.a. “Un Spritz”
Carefully fill two large wine glasses with ice. Pour 2 parts Aperol, followed by 3 parts prosecco and 1 part sparkling water into each wine glass. Gently stir, garnish with an orange slice and enjoy!
Risotto alla Milanese
Makes 6 servings
2 quarts vegetable or chicken stock
½ teaspoon saffron threads, gently crushed between your fingers
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, or enough to coat the bottom of the pan
4 tbsp butter
1 onion, finely chopped
½ tsp salt, plus more to taste
2 cups Arborio rice
2 cups dry white wine, such as pinot grigio
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano (good quality domestic parmesan or grana padano work here as well), about 4 oz
In a medium saucepan add the stock and saffron threads, heat on medium until just about to simmer. Reduce heat to the lowest possible setting to maintain temp, the stock needs to be warm as you add it to the rice. Do not boil.
Coat the bottom of a large saute pan with olive oil, add 2 tbsp of butter and heat on medium high.
Add onions and salt and saute until translucent, 8-10 mins. Do not brown.
Add rice and stir to coat in olive oil and allow to toast slightly. 1-2 mins.
Add white wine and stir, allowing liquid to reduce.
Begin adding stock one ladle at a time, stirring constantly, allowing stock to reduce and be absorbed each time before adding more. You should be able to part the risotto with the spoon and it should take a moment before coming back together in the pan, typically 2-3 minutes between each ladle. Be careful not to stop stirring otherwise the rice will stick to the bottom of the pan and burn. Keep adding stock until almost all of it has been used. Beginning checking the rice for doneness, continuing to add stock and stirring until it is fully cooked.
When the rice is fully cooked, turn off the heat, and add the remaining butter. Stir to incorporate.
When the butter is melted, fold in the freshly grated cheese.
Taste for salt, stirring in more if necessary.
Divide risotto equally among plates, top with freshly grated parmigiano or grana padano and enjoy
Recipes Inspired By:
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
PUNCH, a wonderful online magazine for all your happy hour and aperitivo needs
Italian Food Forever, a good online resource for Italian recipes adapted to the American pantry
NYT cooking, while there is a monthly subscription, we find the fee worth the well curated recipes and global inspiration.
Golden rice, The History of Risotto alla Milanese