Milan: My Gray Grand Dame Turns Golden
Story and photos by Susan Van Allen

The alchemy of a good risotto conjured up in a cooking class is the key to transforming a visit to fashion-obsessed Milan.

golden Risotto in Milan
Courtesy of Antica Trattoria La Pesa

There's a sensation, a click that happens when my trip to Italy truly begins. It's not the moment when the plane lands. It's that click when I first feel the heart and soul of it. The sight of a signora on a bicycle crossing the Arno as I cab into Florence, a church bell ringing in Rome, the pop of a prosecco bottle in my hotel room in Venice. My heart expands in my chest, a calming warmth flows in, La Dolce Vita takes hold of me.

There is no click when the train pulls into Milano Centrale. It's bone-chilling damp. I rummage through my purse for gloves.

I step into the station to meet Milan: She's pompous, Italy's money maker, Fashion Capital of the World. She is my Gray Grand Dame.

A rush of international travelers surrounds me in this vast space—a maze of escalators, steel canopy, billboards, fascist marble friezes of muscular workers, winged horses.

fashionable MilanPer usual, it's raining. Up goes my umbrella as I zig-zag through traffic and along wide boulevards to the enormous piazza where the Gothic Duomo cuts into the mist, with its pointy spires, countless saints, gargoyles. I trail behind a signorina to the Galleria, her stiletto heeled boots echo against the marble.

I'm a speck in the midst of glamorous people. They have been plucked from all corners of earth to this destination—striding by as though on a Fashion Show runway. Signoras float by in fur coats, signors in immaculately tailored suits and brilliantined hair, Even the mamma with the baby stroller looks chic.

I'm cursing that I didn't have a personal stylist to begin my day. The Grand Dame is keeping me at a distance, bringing back a familiar awkward feeling that goes way back to childhood car rides, with mommy at the wheel, past fancy New Jersey shore Victorian houses in the town next to ours. "I love the window treatments," she'd muse, slowing down the station wagon. She'd park and we'd sit across the street silently watching: a uniformed maid sweeping a wrap-around porch, Cadillac pulling into the driveway, a leggy, bleached blonde with a tennis racket bounding up the steps.

Finding Comfort Food in Milan

My craving for cozy is off the charts. I lift a shivering arm in front of La Scala Opera house to hail a cab. "Antica Trattoria La Pesa," I say, and cabbie nods in approval.

In a few minutes there appears the restaurant's welcoming deep green awning. A heavy door opens to the dark wood interior of this institution that's been around since 1880, run with pride by the Sassi family. An old-school waiter dressed in crisp ivory jacket ushers me to a table and pulls out my chair.

fashionable MilanThe room is a sea of dapper men sporting cuff links, their female companions tastefully pearled, speaking in hushed, fancy restaurant tones. It's the historical touches here that ground me—faded tiles from when the building was a weigh station for merchants, a vintage metal sign that reads: Vietato sputare in terra ("It's forbidden to spit on the ground").

I'm facing a corner that displays an odd monument—a plaque and chair nailed to the wall, honoring Ho Chi Minh. In the 1930s this revolutionary lived above this place and held meetings here with his Communist comrades.

There's no need for me to open the leather-bound menu. I know exactly what I want: Risotto alla Milanese, the golden dish of Milan, which at La Pesa they call Risotto al Salto and refer to as "Sun on a Plate."

I'm filled with anticipation for this traditional dish, that came to Milan in a roundabout way. Rice was imported from India during the days of the Roman Empire, a precious commodity, used mostly for medicinal purposes. It wasn't until the Middle Ages, thanks to those Moors and Saracens who invaded Sicily, that rice became part of the Italian diet.

The grain moved to mainland Naples, then through political connections between the Naples Aragonese and northern Sforza families, to Milan. It was discovered that the fertile, swampy flatlands of the north, surrounding the River Po, were perfect for rice growing. When a 14th century plague brought famine, filling rice satisfied many. It was simply prepared for centuries until 1829, when official records show that Milanese chef Felice Luraschi invented this gold-buttery version, a perfect complement to the rich elegance of the city.

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Read this article online at: Milan: My Gray Grand Dame Turns Golden

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