Mike MacEacheran | A Fashion for food in Milan, Lonely Planet
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A Fashion for food in Milan, Lonely Planet

Fashion has long taken precedence over food in Milan. Despite the 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, tagliatelle and mortadella (the city is known as La Grossa – or ‘The Fat’ after all) and Rome and Florence have the country’s only 3-star Michelin restaurants. Sure, Milan has its culinary staples – osso bucco (braised veal shanks with bone marrow) and risotto alla milanese (saffron flavoured risotto), but with stiff competition from Emilia Romagna to Piedmont, travellers do not come to Milan to eat. The Milanese themselves choose instead to celebrate Armani, Gucci and Prada.

But times and tastes are changing. A growing number of cooks, cafes and concept stores are using the city as a testing ground to try out new ideas all in the name of culinary art. This is nowhere more evident than at Agua and Food, an innovative larder-come-luxury boutique where cured meats and Tuscan wines sit side by side with pullovers, pashminas, belts and briefcases. On one shelf you can indulge your palate with hand-made artisan Bardini chocolates or pots of golden honey from Piacenza; on the neighbouring shelves are expensive Italian leather shoes and designer brogues. In keeping with all the best Italian enotecas, the ceiling is hung with a variety of dried coppa 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 the pre-conceived notions that visitors have. The reality is that the Milanese know what they’re good at – and how to market, sell and package it – so they have simply taken their flair for design and haute couture and relocated it into the kitchen.

To experience this partnership at its best, make a reservation at the show-stopping restaurant on the seventh floor of local boy Giorgio Armani’s new Armani Hotel. Ristorante has floor-to-ceiling views, which look out across the rooftop spires and skyscrapers towards the Duomo Cathedral, and sees Armani’s creative team let loose on Lombardy cuisine. If you fancy a splurge, opt for the chef’s table, cunningly placed at the heart of the kitchen, from where you can watch Milan’s up and coming new chefs’ sauté and soufflé while they serve your supper – it’s the closest thing you can get to a chef striking a pose on a catwalk.

Roberto Cavalli couldn’t resist following in Armani’s footsteps and he too now has a fine dining restaurant, Just Cavalli Hollywood, located near the lush green Parco Sempione. In typical Cavalli style, it’s a celebrity-magnet during Milan Fashion Week and the restaurant’s interiors are completely over-the-top – there are kitsch faux zebra and leopard print cushions, bronzed mirrors, and gaudy chandeliers – but the menu is less predictable, with twists on Italian classics; signature dishes include fresh tagliolino with fresh white alba truffle and his contemporary reinterpretation of a Milanese risotto.

The food as fashion trend continues across the city. Bulgari, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana have got in on the act – check out D&G’s Gold, where wafer-thin model waifs dine out on burgers topped with a spoonful of foie gras or beef fillet tartar with egg and edible gold leaf jelly. Likewise, the Gucci Cafe, under the dramatic shopping arcades of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, is the ultimate place to watch the daily soap opera as awe-struck tourists fight with Milan businessmen for the best terrace-side seats for dinner.

Even for a meal where you don’t have to max out your credit card, the world of fashion 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. It’s set in a Milanese palazzo and is a winning combination of a three-room hotel, art gallery, design boutique and café-restaurant. Its success has now been replicated in Tokyo and Seoul, showing that the Milanese have started to dictate global dining trends. Again, fashion plays a subtle part at the Michelin-star Ristorante VUN at the Park Hyatt Milan: here, the limited edition striped plates are made by British sartorial guru Paul Smith.

To keep pace with these innovative changes, even classic Italian restaurants are upping their game and the stakes (and even the steaks). 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 is anything but predictable. Visitors can expect electric-yellow spaghetti made from egg yolks and crème brulee burnt with seasonal Italian olive oil.

So where does Milan go from here? Il Teatro, at the Four Seasons Milan, may be a glimpse into the future. It has long been regarded as one of the city’s best restaurants but it 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 weren’t 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 desert. 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 before.