Headed to Italy and wondering what to eat in Milan? You might think you know Italian food, but that doesn’t mean you’re familiar with the Milan food scene, since the cuisine of Lombardy is quite different than what is popular in Rome or Sorrento. So bookmark this post so that you know exactly what to order in Milan once you’re here!
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An Introduction to Traditional Milanese Food & Drinks
You might think you know Italian food, but when you get to Milan expect that traditional Milanese cuisine will look very different from what you have back home in the Olive Garden. People from Milan (and in all Lombardy) live far from the Mediterranean. Thus, traditional Milan food and drinks are not what you might be expecting. Instead, the best things to eat in Milan look more like what you find in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.
In the north of Italy, there are not the same tomatoes, olive oil, or fresh herbs like in the south or in other Mediterranean countries like Greece. Pasta is also not an important part of Milanese cuisine. Everything is quite heavy, with fewer fresh vegetables. Instead, you’ll find rich sauces, butter, mushrooms, meat, stews, rice.
The diet is very rich, consistent, hearty, and specially designed to combat the humid and foggy winters, snow, cold weather and cloudy days. Milanese dishes heat you from within, as they say. Milan cuisine is full of heavy food that goes with rich red wines high in tannins. Barolo and Barbaresco are both great options.
What to Eat in Milan: Food & Drinks You Need to Try!
See how many of these Milan dishes you can try while you’re here!
Risotto alla Milanese
The list couldn’t start with any other recipe. Risotto alla Milanese (and the many different variations of risotto) is a classic of the Lombardy region and a staple dish in Milan.
Rice is used in many local dishes, getting the same status that pasta has in other regions of Italy. The main ingredient in an authentic risotto alla Milanese is the expensive and delicate saffron, which gives the dish a characteristic and inviting bright yellow tint and unique flavor.
The dish is creamy and one of the most beloved starters that Milanese people choose when serving a three-meal course. On many occasions, it is also served as on its own.
A beloved variety in Milan is the risotto ai funghi. An equally rich and creamy dish, lacking saffron but a distinct earthy flavor given by the different varieties of local mushrooms used to prepare the dish. In this recipe, the star is fungo porcino, a favorite mushroom variety in the Lombardy region.
Cotoletta alla Milanese
The second on the list of Milan’s most consumed meals is definitely the Cotoletta Alla Milanese, which — even if you might think it — don’t you dare tell a Milanese it looks like a schnitzel. They will most likely be offended!
The cotoletta is made with veal and the bone is not cut out but also fried adding a decorative touch to the final result. The piece of meat is breaded and then fried, rigorously in butter, never in oil. Butter gives the meat a fragrant flavor, a unique aroma, resulting in a very tender delicacy.
Some restaurants prepare a version without a bone, but so big that barely fits the plate, it’s called orecchio d’elefante (elephant’s ear) and it’s simply delicious.
As we have said earlier, pasta is not as popular in Northern Italy as it is in the rest of the country, so rice and potatoes often provide that those of starch that cold winters require. Another popular start in Lombardy is polenta, which is a regional favorite.
Polenta is cornmeal and it can be prepared in a thousand different ways, as soft as a paste or as hard as a block, which is later on cut and fried or even baked. Polenta can be paired with mushrooms, with minced meat and tomato sauce, and with gorgonzola dolce, a local and more creamy variety of blue cheese.
This is a local cheese that is produced in two different versions, the spicy and stronger one, called Gorgonzola piccante or mountain Gorgonzola (usually aged) and the version that’s creamier, less pungent, and ideal to add to hot risotto or polenta, known as Gorgonzola dolce.
Gorgonzola is a DOP product meaning that it can only be produced in the areas of the Milan region, especially in the town named… Gorgonzola!
Gorgonzola is one of the four different varieties of cheese that top the Pizza ai quattro formaggi (pizza with four kinds of cheese) and many locals love to eat it together with green apples.
Ossobucco with Gremolata (Pair with Barolo or Barbaresco wines)
Another dish usually served in the cold Milanese winters is ossobucco. Ossobucco literally means a hole in the bone, therefore the dish is given its typical substance by the marrow which adds consistency, creaminess, and texture to the dish.
The bone is simmered for long hours in a casserole, often with ref wine or broth and three basic vegetable that you will encounter in every Italian sauce: Carrot, onion, and celery. Ossobucco is often placed on top of steaming hot polenta and garnished with what locals call gremolata, a combination of parsley, lemon, and garlic that adds a little touch of freshness to the rich dish.
Usually known as a poor man’s dish, the name comes from the Lombardy dialect and it indicates a typical dish in Milan. The rustic stew is very spartan when it comes to ingredients, simply pork and cabbage. It’s a common dish to have in winter, and it’s best known for its strong fragrance and flavour.
One of the most traditional drinks that is sadly being lost in Milan is Barbagliata or Barbajada. The drink is mainly made with whipped chocolate, coffee, and milk, all of them in similar proportions, usually adding sugar and some whipped cream on top to finish it.
It goes extremely well with pastries and seasonal dishes such as Panettone or Easter Colomba and it’s served warm or cold in summer.
Although this is not a dish in itself, the Milanese Happy Hour, known in Italian as Aperitivo, is one of the most beloved traditions that local share a few hours before dinner. It’s very common for co-workers to gather after the office hours, or for friends to specially meet before dinner to share a drink of their choice, wine or Prosecco are good choices, and also enjoy different dishes with small bites.
Usually, when you pay for the drink, you have automatic access to the Aperitivo buffet table and you can help yourself as much as you want. Usually salads, slices of pizza, olives, and other small bites can be found in the traditional Aperitivo Milanese.
Panettone is a classic Christmas dish that was first created in Milan, and the actual translation of the name means “big bread.” This, because it’s considered a festive bread eaten on one of the most special days of the year.
Panettone is sweet, but not too sweet, and the dough is enriched with candied orange, nuts, citron, as well as raisins, which are added dry. Panettone also incorporates different aromas, including orange, lemon zest, and clove.
Pasta alla Crudaiola
Although pasta is not the main starch source in Milan, it is indeed consumed and alla Crudaiola is one authentic Milanese way to serve it.
Crudaiola could be translated as “raw style,” so this pasta only includes fresh elements that are not cooked, but simply added on top of your pasta dish. They usually are fior di latte (fresh cheese), small tomatoes, Parmesan cheese flakes, and cured prosciutto. It’s a very common way to serve pasta in the summer period.
Michetta pane e salame
Known as stadium food, this simple dish is basically a sandwich made with fresh bread (known as the michetta) and a few slices of Milanese salami. Despite its simplicity, it’s a delicious treat that could even replace a meal if you just want to grab a bite on the go.
Another drink you should order when having an Aperitivo, if you don’t really enjoy wine or Prosecco, is a Negroni. But in Milan, the favorite way to have a Negroni is not by respecting the original recipe, but by asking for a Negroni Sbagliato, usually translated as Broken Negroni although the actual meaning is Wrong Negroni.
The name comes from the fact that the original Negroni drink is fixed using Campari, a typically Italian bitter liqueur, sweet vermouth, and gin. The Negroni Sbagliato version uses sparkling wine instead of gin.
Not exactly Milanese, but more common in Bergamo, it’s still a beloved dish in the Milanese gastronomy tradition. Manzo is the Italian term for beef, so this is basically a dish made of meat with only two more ingredients, anchovies and olive oil. A legendary dish combining sea and land products, it has a punchy but tasty flavor and it is usually served with polenta or boiled potatoes.
Panzerotti are not really Milanese, but they’re still a popular Milan snack. And Milan is considered one of the best places where you can try Italy’s highest-quality panzerotti. Just head to Luini Panzerotti, meters away from the Duomo Cathedral and be ready to wait in line for a freshly cooked crescent-shaped pastry filled with any ingredient you love. From mozzarella to ham, vegetables, mushrooms, chicken, and even Nutella!
The same way Milanese people enjoy Panettone during the Christmas season, the Colomba (in English, dove), is a typical sweet, pretty similar to Panettone, eaten or given as a present during the Easter season. Instead of having several different types of fruit, it’s usually covered with almonds or orange peel, but never raisins. The best part of the dove-shaped cake is the pearl sugar and whole almonds used as a topping.
Budino di riso
Rice pudding is not an original dessert from Milan, it sees its roots in the Tuscany region and yet, it has been adopted by the locals as one of their favorite dishes. Budino di Riso can be eaten either for breakfast or in the afternoon with a cup of espresso.
The delicacy has a rich, creamy filling made with rice and heavy cream while adding a touch of cinnamon which makes it really quite delicious.
Amaro is a bitter liquor, with a strong herbal component, and, with a substantial alcoholic content, commonly served after a heavy meal or even used to prepare cocktails. Amaro Ramazzotti is one of the most famous brands and it is bottled at 30% alcohol. It was originally first produced back in 1815 from a secret family recipe, and it has, since then, turned into one of the most famous drinks from Milan.
5 Things to Bring with You to Milan
The Lonely Planet Italy guidebook or the Rick Steves Italy guidebook for your trip. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you arrive in Italy, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use an Italian sim card while here to help navigate the trains.
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS system, and general travel genie.
A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for Italy because it has many anti-theft features.
More Milan Travel Resources
If you’re planning to see DaVinci’s Last Supper, here’s a guide to getting tickets for Santa Maria delle Grazie so you don’t miss it! (Tickets sell out early).
Next, while you’re in Milan, you should make time to see these other beautiful Milan Churches.
If you’ll be spending time in Rome, check out my interview with Mike Duncan on the history of The Roman Forum. I also have several episodes of my travel podcast, Rick Steves Over Brunch about Rome and Venice. Plus I have 101 Italy Quotes for Italy Instagram captions.
Finally, check out my list of books to read before your vacation in Italy.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for Italy make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging out in cities (like Milan…ahem) where tourists can be the victims of pickpockets. Italy is the only country I’ve been to (out of almost seventy) where I’ve had someone try to pick my pocket…and it was in Milan!
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for two years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.
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