Laura Lazzaroni

Award-winning author Laura Lazzaroni wants the world to rethink Italian cuisine. Sure, the country is home to a rich culinary history, but it also boasts a new generation of chefs eager to break with tradition and redefine the scope of the local gastronomy. Many of these renegade cooks work in Milan, the international Italian city that Lazzaroni also calls home. From neo-trattorias to Japanese-Italian dining rooms, these are the establishments at the vanguard of the new cucina Italiana.

The New Cucina Italiana
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The New Cucina Italiana

Whenever I want to explain what The New Cucina Italiana [the name of Lazzaroni’s  book published by Rizzoli New York in 2021] is, I always start with range. Contemporary Italian cuisine is so much more than your super delicious – yet also stereotypical – staples like Amatriciana, lasagne or tortellini brodo. But at the same time, it’s not just highly conceptualised Michelin star fine dining: there is a whole range of experiences to be had in between, and this movement is largely in the hands of young women and men who, from north to south, are really trying to bring something new to the table. This “something new” can mean a bunch of different things. From breaking with the traditional restaurant format to finding a more sustainable approach to the supply chain. From bringing mixology programs into the restaurant to revisiting traditional dishes with new scientific knowledge and tools, making them lighter but no less delicious. It’s a respectful step forward. Bold, fun and tasty.

The Home of New Italian Cuisine

If we talk about cities, Milan and Rome are the ones that truly embody what this new cucina means the best, in terms of range. Milan has always been in a head-to-head race with Rome when it came to restaurant formats. Rome has a strong traditional regional backbone; Milan has the international business perspective. Rome has historically been more connected to publishing and politics: Milan is the industrial heart of the country and the place where the design and fashion system truly developed and launched. We’re the city where everything was sophisticated and upper-crust and maybe contaminated with international flavours. In this sense, Milan has been probably more avant-garde than the rest of Italy when it came to culinary trends. But now (in 2021) I’d say they’re pretty locked, both equally vibrant and interesting and nuanced.

© The New Cucina Italiana: What to Eat, What to Cook, and Who to Know in Italian Cuisine today, Rizzoli New York, 2021. Ph. by Alberto Blasetti. 

A Pivotal Milanese Restaurant

The restaurant Ratanà is a reference for so many. It’s a place that I go to time and time again. Chef Cesare Battisti was truly among the first to kind of work on the concept of an informal restaurant that spoke to everybody, with exceptional technique and products drawn from the tradition of Lombardy but through a contemporary perspective. There’s an almost industrial vibe to the restaurant, yet at its heart, it’s basically the perfect marriage between a trattoria and an upper middle-class Sunday restaurant. Cesare does incredible research on his ingredients, he has all the cool producers on speed dial; technically, he’s incredibly solid and he has taught so many of the young chefs: he is one of the mentors. The experience at Ratanà can be informal or more elegant, it can swing both ways. It’s the sort of place where you can take your mom and dad or your boss and make an impression equally. If you go, make sure you try his mondeghili [Milanese-style meatballs]: arguably the best in the city.

When A Three-Star Chef Goes Casual

Spazio is Niko Romito’s smart casual concept, the perfect link between his fine dining idea and Alt, the fast casual, almost diner-style concept that he has in Abruzzo. There’s a menu of smart (some even memorable) dishes and impeccable service; you can totally trace the lineage of all dishes back to his three Michelin-star restaurant, except they’re more to the point – and less expensive. A prêt-à-porter version, if you will, of his couture. The approach to ingredients and technique is cut from the same cloth and the flavor is equally mind blowing. The deliciousness is maybe more direct. The restaurant is in a beautiful location in the centre of Milan, in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II overlooking the Duomo. I think of Spazio as a perfect example of that sort of informal cuisine that is neither a trattoria nor fine dining, but something else altogether, probably closer to the concept of French bistronomy.

The City’s Game-Changing Trattoria

I know the majority of people on The Local Tongue have mentioned Trippa, but I feel like it’s another box we have to check because it embodies yet another aspect of the new cucina Italiana. Trippa has taken a format that is quintessentially Italian and made it modern without compromising its soul. The trattoria is the place where the balance of power between the kitchen and the front of house is 50-50. [Chef] Diego Rossi does exceptional work on the selection of the products he uses and doesn’t just draw from Lombardy or the north. Whenever he knows that he can find a great product he’ll get it even if it’s not in the immediate vicinity. He knows each cut of meat and fish (including offal, his signature), each variety of vegetable requires specific handling – processing and cooking: this kind of quasi obsessive technical knowledge is one of his strengths. His cuisine is truly ingredient-driven: he has a few staples on the menu (like fried tripe) but most dishes change often, with a few being made à la minute, with only a handful of servings available. This is where the front of house is crucial: a waiter must have almost the same knowledge of the chef to be able to explain – and sell – the ingredient and the dish. There is a preconception that trattoria dishes are hearty but also super heavy because that’s the only way that they can be delicious, but this is one of the lessons of the neo-trattoria: you can make delicious trattoria-style dishes without them having to be super greasy. In order to do it, however, you must know how to treat your ingredient. Diego knows how. I never go to Trippa and come out of the restaurant feeling like, “oh my god, like I’m not going to sleep tonight.” An example? He makes a beautiful dish in the summer that looks like a beef carpaccio, but is made with super thin sliced watermelon and Lodigiano cheese. It’s so light and good for you, but it’s delicious as well.

Trippa chef Diego Rossi
© The New Cucina Italiana: What to Eat, What to Cook, and Who to Know in Italian Cuisine today, Rizzoli New York, 2021. Ph. by Alberto Blasetti. 

Another New Trattoria To Watch

Nebbia is an interesting place that has taken the concept of the neo-trattoria to slightly more sophisticated levels. The ambience is sort of Tribeca meets Copenhagen: minimalistic and sleek. The chef is Federico Fiore, trained in Paris at Iñaki Aizpitarte’s Chateaubriand and The Marksman in London, where he absorbed the best elements of bistronomy and elevated pub food; he infuses them into a small menu of strong dishes, with a selection of niche Italian delicacies, fresh pasta made in house, good bread and some solid fire-cooked meats. The natural wine selection is also tight.

The Difference Between a Trattoria and Osteria

Trattoria and osteria are not the same thing, even though people tend to use the terms interchangeably. They signify two different experiences. A trattoria is a place where the balance between food and drink is equal. A true osteria is also an informal place, but the star of the show is what you drink. Whatever food you have is like small bites and little dishes that accompany the experience of drinking. In a way it’s comparable to a tapas bar or a pinxtos bar in in the Basque Country where there are small delicious things to nibble on to accompany your cocktail or vino.

Italian-Japanese Cooking From Massimo Bottura’s Former Sous Chef

Tokuyoshi was a one-Michelin star restaurant that used to be right by my apartment: during lockdown it switched to a different kind of concept called Bentoteca – inspired by the tradition of Japanese bento. Chef Yoji Tokuyoshi, the owner, used to work with Massimo Bottura: after Tokuyoshi he opened another restaurant, Alter Ego, in Tokyo. Here and there he plays with a counterpoint of Italian and Japanese. At Bentoteca, he’s doing Japanese dishes using Italian ingredients. They’re fun, smart, tasty, and they’re accompanied by a good selection of natural wines. In Japan, the pendulum swings towards Italian-inspired dishes made with local Japanese ingredients. It’s a very smart format and people are loving it.

Cascina Lagoscuro
© The New Cucina Italiana: What to Eat, What to Cook, and Who to Know in Italian Cuisine today, Rizzoli New York, 2021. Ph. by Alberto Blasetti. 

Home-Style Japanese Food

Gastronomia Yamamoto is run by a mother-and-daughter team. The mother used to have a sushi restaurant where I used to eat many years ago. At one point she left and I lost track of her. Then her daughter, who had studied marketing in London, came back to Milan with the idea of a restaurant serving home-style Japanese food – which was genius. So they do these very hearty, comforting dishes that most one-track-sushi-minded people don’t necessarily associate with Japanese cuisine. And people now love them! They’ve also created a tight knit community, not just of Japanese living in Milan, but also Milanese people genuinely interested in Japanese culture, they even organise workshops at the restaurant.

Milan’s Most Underrated Restaurant

Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia is a two-Michelin star restaurant whose founding chefs, Aimo and Nadia Moroni, are truly legends of Italian cuisine. It has two Michelin stars, so you could argue that it’s not exactly under the radar. But at the same time, I feel like it doesn’t really get the love that it deserves – from young people, especially. It’s one of those places that’s kind of like no longer cool because there are places that have more pop and are fresher. Too bad because it’s really not about super highbrow conceptualised froufrou cuisine: it’s linear, simple, clean, recognisable flavours and dishes that are deeply rooted in tradition and, again, exceptional ingredients. Aimo, just like Cesare at Ratana, is one of those chefs that other chefs go to when they need to find the best producers of specific ingredients. He has them all in his roster because he’s been working with them for so long and he knows everybody. Aimo is too old to run the kitchen now so there’s a couple of young chefs [Fabio Pisani and Alessandro Negrini] who have been running it for years, adding a bit of a more contemporary zest to the menu. They’re very nice guys and good friends. So if people want to try a piece of history of Milanese (fine) dining, I would send them there.

A Democratic Meat Restaurant

Mangiari di Strada is basically a market stall in the covered markets by the Darsena, on the Navigli (the water canals of Milan). Its owner, Giuseppe Zen, is a chef-slash-butcher who also has two other stalls at the same market, a nano bakery with very good bread – the smallest bakery I’ve ever seen! – and a cheese stall with specialty cheese, mostly raw milk. Mangiari di Strada is this butcher shop where he’ll cook à la minute anything from smashed sheep’s meat burgers to all sorts of skewers, meatballs and obscure but delicious cuts of meat. He’ll cook right in front of you and serve them with a little glass of red wine, a slice of bread, and maybe a little bit of giardiniera, pickled vegetables, another specialty I love so much. And if you haven’t had enough meat, he even has a huge display with racks of dry-aged T-bone steaks. They’re not cheap, but you’ll want to take one home, for sure.

Erba Brusca chef Alice Delcourt
© The New Cucina Italiana: What to Eat, What to Cook, and Who to Know in Italian Cuisine today, Rizzoli New York, 2021. Ph. by Alberto Blasetti. 

Other Market Highlights

The other cool thing about the markets by the Darsena is that there’s all sorts of fruit and vegetable vendors from South America who have stalls there. If you’re looking for tubers, tropical fruits, chiles and other specific ingredients from Peru, Chile or Mexico that are difficult to find in supermarkets, you’ll find them here. There’s also a fishmonger across the street from it which is sort of like a satellite business but still part of the market which is also pretty cool. I would recommend people to also go to Peck at least once because it’s such an experience. It’s a rather fancy specialty gourmet store right by the Duomo (they have another location near City Life and one in Forte dei Marmi) with anything from fresh pasta to meats, cheese and charcuterie made in house. All sorts of canned tuna, preserved vegetables, oil and vinegar, wine, pastries. It’s a historic place that’s been there since 1883. When grocery shopping, you have to play your cards right and mix in a little bit of market stuff with a little bit of the high-end stuff, just as you do when you go shopping for clothes.

Terroir is somewhat of an insider’s best kept secret: a small gourmet store specialised in organic artisanal pantry basics, groceries, baked goods and sweets. They make a point to only stock ethically-produced, connoisseur-worthy foods, which they source through extensive research, emphasising their cultural value and their nutritional properties. Coffee, tea, jams, chocolate, oil, rice, wine: no matter what you get, it’s going to be something pretty special.

What To Put in Your Shopping Basket

I know it will sound trite, but visitors need to taste very good Parmesan cheese. And more to the point, Parmesan cheese of different ages (or stagionature). There is a difference obviously between young Parmesan (aged for a minimum of 12 months) and Parmesan that’s been aged for 30+ months but they serve different purposes as well. One is obviously sharper, but also harder. The other one is more mellow and creamier and you can taste the roundness and nuttiness of the milk. Our salumi is so distinctive and varies from region to region. It’s really a treat to try them all: I’d recommend some salame Felino and Varzi. I mentioned giardiniera which is a mix of pickled vegetables (and sometimes fruits). Really anything that’s preserved in oil or brine: we’re very good at preserving vegetables. I would also make a point of buying great rice (Arborio or Carnaroli) and at least attempt to make very good risotto. And of course, a good loaf of bread: take it to Parco Sempione, sit in the grass and eat it with some exceptional extra virgin olive oil. Sorry, I know that sounds like a cliché, but it doesn’t get any better than this!

A Sophisticated, Unexpected Bakery

I want to shout out a couple of friends who have an amazing bakery called Tilde, 40 minutes outside of Milan, that does incredible work with heritage varieties of Italian wheat. She’s Peruvian, he’s Italian and they met in London. Their aesthetic is kind of artsy and sophisticated – which is unexpected for a bakery. She actually is a performance artist and they organize an arts festival once a year. They’re in a small town called Treviglio, in the province of Bergamo. I would take a little road trip and go out to Tilde to grab an exceptional loaf for your Parco Sempione picnic!

Erba Brusca chef Alice Delcourt
© The New Cucina Italiana: What to Eat, What to Cook, and Who to Know in Italian Cuisine today, Rizzoli New York, 2021. Ph. by Alberto Blasetti. 

A Farm Restaurant on The Edge of The City

Erba Brusca is a restaurant outside of Milan, along the Naviglio Pavese, where the city gives way to the country. The owners have a one acre working farm that supplies most of the produce for the restaurant, but they also deliver some in a weekly farmer’s box service that was especially well received the during lockdown. The chef, Alice Delcourt, is French-American and has been living in Italy for many years. Her husband is an Italian sommelier, Danilo Ingannamorte, who used to be business partner of chef Cesare Battisti of Ratanà. Alice worked at the River Cafe in London and you can totally feel that vibe which truly a celebration of vegetable-driven, farm-chic food. Being American, she has an outsider-slash-insider’s perspective on Italian cuisine: she knows the techniques and the dishes, but she doesn’t have that obsessive reverence to the code. She can be free and stay loose in her approach to the cuisine and bring in influences from Northern Africa, India and the Middle East – al culinary cultures she loves and respects. Erba Brusca is one of my favourite places and I feel it really exemplifies the concept of range when I talk about contemporary Italian cuisine. You can go to Erba Brusca and eat one of the best risottos in Italy. Made by an American. The one in my book is topped with Moroccan preserved lemons.

The Perfect Day Trip

If I had to recommend a place for someone who wants to take a day trip, I would say Cascina Lagoscuro, a farmhouse that’s about an hour outside of Milan. It’s a proper working farmhouse/cheese farm. It’s built in the style of the old Lombardy cascina [a farm with a square yard], so it’s U-shaped, with a courtyard in the middle where they would keep the geese and chickens. Out back they have a huge park, with a lake (hence the name), pigpens, barns and greenhouses. The father, who started it, makes amazing cheese and charcuterie. The son, Luca Grasselli, is in charge of the restaurant, which is open on weekends: it offers a fixed price menu, everything is made fresh in house, the servings are heaping. The appetizers alone, with a sample of Lagoscuro cheese and preserves, house bread and focaccia, salumi, vegetables still warm from the sun, would be enough to fill you up. Then there’s the main dishes: they’re traditional at the core, but what I like about them is there’s always a little twist, an unexpected combination of flavors or techniques. See, Lagoscuro’s kitchen crew hosts a number of young chefs who come and go, from different walks of life and with very worldly experiences. When I was there for the The New Cucina Italiana they had someone who had interned at Fäviken: so you know that, at a place like that, even risotto is so much more than “just” risotto!    

Profile Image: © The New Cucina Italiana: What to Eat, What to Cook, and Who to Know in Italian Cuisine today, Rizzoli New York, 2021. Ph. by Alberto Blasetti.  

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