Monday, April 6, 2009

Mangia Milan: Carbo Loading

My last trip to Italy was right after college graduation. I spent two weeks backpacking from Lake Como to Naples and back up to Venice. With hardly any lira to my name, I was more concerned about paying for my train tickets and hostel stays than eating well. In fact (I'm ashamed to admit it), I ate a lot of McDonald's on that trip. Nine years later, I had the opportunity to revisit northern Italy. While circumstances had changed -- Italy was on the euro, I was staying at hotels vs. hostels -- I was still traveling solo and looking for ways to eat well on the cheap. But on this trip, I avoided McDonald's all together and found several quick, inexpensive options. There was one common thread: all involved two of Italy's staple food elements -- bread and cheese.

First stop, Princi Bakery. Prinic has been lauded by the New York Times and other blogs for its chic approach to baked goods. With several outposts in Milan, I visited the stores at 5 Piazza XXV Aprile (which uses a numbered ticket system for ordering, making for much better crowd control) and Via Ponte Vetero 10 (which has more indoor seating, including a communal table good for solo diners, if you can actually get them to take your order!).

The best thing at Princi? The focaccia, or pizza as they called it. Servers snip off large squares which they will heat (Italian="caldo") and snip into smaller squares making it easier to eat with a fork (only children seem to eat pizza with their hands). During my stay, I sampled focaccia with zuchini, focaccia with eggplant and the focaccia with spinach, tomato, brie and some other kind of cheese pictured here (it was my favorite). If you go, grab an extra piece to eat on the plane home. Hot or cold, it was delicious and a pretty good bargain at about €3.50 (prices based on weight; cash or debit only). Next up was a recommendation for wood-fired pizza. Sibilla, located on Via Mercato, 14 (a little up from the Princi on Via Ponte Vetero), has no exterior signage -- just the name "pizzeria" over its door. It is clearly a family place. In fact, I went on a Saturday afternoon shortly after it opened and of the five or so tables, I was the only one with no kids!

I asked my server what the most popular pizza was and without hesitation he said the margarita, so of course I ordered it. The pizza itself was fairly standard - good and hot, but they clearly used "cheap" cheese, making what could have been great similar to your average New York slice. However, the servers were friendly, service was prompt, portions generous and there was no cover charge. A Coke Lite, green salad and pizza cost me €14 (cash only).

For those overwhelmed by the Duomo crowds (or line of tourists snaking around the Duomo roof -- all I could think when I was up there was "safety hazard"), Luini is a good place to recharge with a quick snack. Luini was highly recommended in multiple guidebooks, as well as sites like

People are gaga for its panzerotti, or little hand pies. Luini offers a selection of these treats in both sweet and savory flavors. I went in late in the afternoon, and pickings were slim. I ended up with a salami and mozzarella version for €2.50. It had been sitting in the case, and was room temperature, but still tasty. The dough was not greasy in the least (perhaps it had been baked vs. fried) and was a tasty snack on the go (especially since so few Italian snacks are meant to be eaten on the go -- in fact, most Luini patrons seemed to linger outside the door and finish their snack). I however was thirsty and decided the perfect way to wash down a panzerotti was with a cocktail, so I went around the corner to Zucca. The bar/cafe, which is on Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, has beautiful mosaics, and is well-positioned for people watching. Pay the cashier, belly up to the longer bar for alcohol or shorter for a coffee, give the bartender your receipt and wait for your drink. Or pay a cover to sit, relax and giggle at tourists. I am a sucker for local liquors (once, in Antwerp, I ordered an Elixir d'Anvers, a yellow, anise flavored beverage I sipped once and then traded in for a cosmo). So of course, I ordered a Zucca and soda. Zucca, which I gather is a rhubarb liquor, is quite bitter and reminiscent of sour root beer. However, for €3.50 (plus all the green olives, chips and Doritos I could eat), it was worth it just to stand and gawk, like any good tourist. Next up - Mangia Milan: Gelato.

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