Getting to know Milan’s neo-trattorias

Chefs in Italy’s fashion capital are turning away from traditional trattorias and conventional fine dining to offer something entirely different.

By Jaclyn DeGiorgio
Published 6 Nov 2019, 17:00 GMT
Food at Nebbia
Dishes at Nebbia. The restaurant's three proprietors each spent time working abroad before returning to their hometown equipped with a global flair that’s evident on the table.
Photograph by Nebbia

I crack the golden shell of the brulee-style baba ganoush with my spoon and scoop out a dollop to spread across a disc of sesame-flecked flatbread. I pile on grilled green pepper, blueberry-marinated spring onion and fennel yoghurt before finally tucking in. Whimsical and delicious, the five-course tasting menu at Altatto embodies the direction Milan’s restaurant scene is taking. The city is teetering on the edge of a bistronomy trend like the one that swept Paris in the Noughties.

Trattorias are to the Italians what bistros are to the French: small, informal restaurants serving simple food at low cost. Yet, at this new breed of trattoria, chefs are offering smarter, more creative dining than their forebears, in a more approachable setting than their Michelin-starred peers.

Over the past year, restaurants with this bistronomic sensibility have been cropping up in Milan, with their bare tabletops, contemporary design, natural wines, solid cooking and innovative, flavourful menus. All at a reasonable price. The trend kicked off in Milan in 2015 with the opening of Pietro Caroli and Diego Rossi’s Trippa, a game-changing ‘neo-trattoria’.

“Trippa has pushed others to be more flexible and direct — always professional but less rigid in their ways, and even braver in proposing decisive dishes,” says Paolo Marchi, founder of gastronomic organisation Identità Golose.

With its mustard-yellow walls, vintage furniture and wood tabletops, Trippa redefined the trattoria, with chef Diego Rossi’s bold, no-frills cooking leaning towards less-fashionable ingredients such as donkey meat and offal. Four years later, a reservation here is still one of Milan’s most elusive.

“Rossi had the courage to choose a different path from the stereotypical Milanese trattoria — which tends to be out of favour with the public nowadays,” explains Marchi. Trippa is successful and commands rebirth because it’s alive, true and genuine.”

With a rustic ambiance, lived-in feel and the occasional checked tablecloth, trattorias are typically family-run establishments, often with a history that goes back generations. The homely Italian food served here is simple and familiar, and although they may be crowd-pleasing, trattorias don’t tend to blaze any trails. Milan is Italy’s most cosmopolitan city, and before this new wave of trattorias rolled in, innovation and technique were largely the preserve of higher-end restaurants. 

“Milan is the capital of three things: aperitivo, design and fashion,” says Margo Schachter, an Italian food journalist. “We want to be cool in every occasion ... and food right now is part of the game.” The city attracts savvy, cultured travellers, and the Milanese themselves are just as worldly — so while classic local dishes still have a dedicated following, the internationally trained chefs and restaurateurs who are taking a new approach are a welcome addition to the city’s food scene.

Another in the new wave of restaurants to hit Milan is Nebbia, whose three proprietors each spent time working abroad before returning to their hometown equipped with a global flair that’s evident on the table. A pillowy nugget of pumpkin browned in sweet hazelnut butter and a fluffy mound of whipped goat’s milk is nestled beneath a verdant pile of turnip tops and crowned with a sesame crisp. A succulently robust lamb ragu clings to ribbons of tagliatelle covered with a blanket of pleasantly piquant pecorino di fossa. At the shabby-chic Mater Bistrot, meanwhile, the tasting menu is a mix-and-match affair consumed by hand or with cutlery. A cricket ball-sized fritter comes packed with seafood, unctuous squid ink and spicy ’nduja sausage, while the spaghetti is tossed with green strands of samphire and doused in a crab-tomato sauce infused with zingy ginger and bitter parsley.

In such a fad-forward city, will this modern, bistronomic sensibility stay in vogue? Margo Schachter believes it comes down to a simple blueprint. “Eat to impress is the statement,” she says. “We love to go out… [and] it must be special, but fine dining is a one-night stand. It’s too pretentious for many and too expensive, while the new trattorias are affordable, cosy and easy. That’s the formula for success — as long as the food is good.”

Three to try

The five-course veggie menu here pays homage to the three owners’ tenures at Joia, a Milan institution that was Europe’s first vegetarian restaurant to earn a Michelin star. The food tempers haute cuisine with playfulness, fusing colours, flavours, textures and techniques, while the cosy decor incorporates tables that double as blackboards for the waiters to scribble on. Tasting menu: €37 (£32) per person. 

Italian for ‘together’, Insieme is the brainchild of Federica Caretta and Alessandro Garlando. The neat Scandinavian-style decor juxtaposes pastel shades with exposed brick walls while Garlando’s deft menu combines influences from his native Milan and Carreta’s native Puglia. Four-course tasting menu €45 (£39).

Mater Bistrot
Ad men-turned-restaurateurs Giuseppe Pillone and Salvatore Giannone looked to Paris for inspiration when devising Mater Bistrot. Distressed-paint walls, marble tabletops, an open kitchen and candlelight enhance the cosy 25-seat dining room. Chef Alex Leone’s menu is divided into plates to eat ‘con le mani’ (with hands) and ‘con le posate’ (with cutlery). Four-course tasting €45 (£39). 

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