Lombardia II “Milano: Street Smarts”

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Momentous in my recollection of Milan are the many hours spent with my culinary mentor Wanda exploring the city’s famous food and wine shops.  I often found myself sitting alone in the passenger seat of a her minitaure Fiat parked perpendicular to the street with two wheels on the curb wondering where on earth Wanda was. She would frequently and suddenly pull into what she considered a parking space and dash into a market to buy more ingredients for our recipe testing leaving me to absorb the dirty looks of passersby trying to navigate the already difficult and narrow streets of the city. Her strategy for leaving me in the car was to avoid getting a parking ticket though I’m not sure I ever saw an Italian meter-maid in all the days I spent in Milan.  Regardless, it worked.

With Wanda as my guide, the shops and markets lining the streets of Milan became my classroom for learning the art of retailing.   Most often we walked; wandering into colorful outdoor produce markets, beautifully stocked grocery stores, heavenly scented pastry shops and butcheries bursting with glistening pink marbled meats and hand-crafted sausages. The displays in these shops were always amazing; they never overpowered the food but enhanced it in a classic, understated way.  I especially admired the windows of the Salumaio di Montenapoleone.  Arrangements of fresh pasta, salami and marinated vegetable jars always reminded me of still life paintings.

We would buy small tasting portions of anything and everything that struck our fancy and eat our selections in nearby parks and public spaces.  A slice of prosciutto, a hunk of provolone with some marinated artichokes or peppers along with a breadstick or two served as lunch for the day.  Or we would save our purchases to enjoy back at Wanda’s apartment while testing dishes for our evening meal.  With a good glass of wine, it became the quintessential iconic Italian antipasti.  No cooking required.

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© rob warner photography 2013

Cheese was another passion of ours in those days I spent with Wanda in Milan.  Like antipasti, it is simple to assemble and a superb part of the meal.   The French serve it after the salad and before the dessert.  The English and the Americans serve it after the dessert, but in Italy it can be the actual dessert.  The Italian way has always been my favorite.  Again, it only involves shopping and purchasing a selection of great cheeses with appropriate accompaniments.  The options are endless, but some of my favorites are savory Marcona almonds, rare chutneys, honeys, dried fruits and more exotic partners like dark chocolate shavings with blue cheese.

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© rob warner photography 2013

Food markets and delis (called Salumerias) were at the top of our “retail research” list.  Milan had them in abundance but the best, in my opinion, is Peck, an incredible institution dating back to 1883.  It is a shrine to Milanese gastronomy.  Wanda first introduced me to its main store, Salumeria Peck, shortly after my first trip to Milan.  I was overwhelmed by its extensive range of gourmet foods and wines all displayed with great taste on four elegant floors. I returned to Peck more times than I can count, always admiring the true beauty of each sparkling deli case; some filled with cheeses, some with rich red sausages resting on shimmering lemon leaves and some with large white bowls and platters filled to the brim with sumptuous salads and decoratively sliceable aspics  – I always found some germ of an idea that would translate to my market back in the U.S.

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Nancy Brussat, Nancy Harris & Candace Warner

At one time Peck had five stores including the Bottega de Maiale (all pork, all the time) and my favorite the Casa del Formaggio – The “House of Cheese”.  This culinary temple was overstuffed with nothing but wheels of cheese; some 300 types I was told.  Each round rested atop larger wheels creating a veritable golden city of cheese skyscrapers that literally reached from floor to ceiling.

Peck’s layered cheese tortas were especially notable.  They were made from a variety of soft, spreadable cheeses like Gorgonzola, Taleggio and Mascarpone layered with various nuts and condiments. Each was sensational but extremely fragile and very expensive. For a period of time Convito stocked a few of these tortas purchased from a local importer. It broke our hearts when we had to throw away portions of them because we couldn’t sell the delicate item fast enough.  Eventually we made our own, also sensational but still fragile.  The labor and product costs made even a small slice very costly.  A prerequisite for selling such delicate products is high traffic and we learned that neither Wilmette nor Chicago had enough zealous torta fans to support our efforts.  Despite that fact, we had nurtured a fan base for these delicacies and continued to make them for many years even though we often did so at a loss.

The owner of a very chic clothing boutique was one of those fans and asked me to make a layered “cheese torta” in the image of a wedding cake for the opening of her new Chicago Armani store.  I took on the challenge naming each layer after an Italian designer matching the “look” to each and selecting ingredients that I felt best portrayed that designer – like roasted red peppers and green olives mimicking the famous Gucci stripe. It was one of the most fun food projects I have ever participated in and the “wedding cake torta was the hit of the opening party.  Pictured below, bottom to top:  Torta Missoni, Torta Krizia, Torta Armani, Torta Versace, Torta Gucci and finally a celebratory torta on top in the tradition of a wedding cake.

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Occasionally I make one of the layers of that torta when I entertain.  It makes a great buffet centerpiece.  The one I have assembled most frequently is the basil and pine nut torta (Torta Armani) my favorite torta as well as and my favorite designer. Happily the making of it brings me back to my most beloved Milanese classroom – the incomparable Salumeria Peck and my numerous street wanderings with Wanda.

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© rob warner photography 2013

Torta Armani

 

For torta

35 thin slices of slicing mozzarella (approximately 1 pound)

1-pound cream cheese (room temperature)

8 ounces mascarpone

4 tablespoons pesto

¼ cup milk

1-cup pine nuts (2/3 for torta and 1/3 for decoration)

Mix the cream cheese and mascarpone together with a spatula.  Divide the mixture in half.  To one half of the mixture add the pesto.  To the other half add the milk.

For icing

8 ounces cream cheese

¼ cup milk

For decoration

Pine nuts (see above)

16 small basil leaves dipped in oil

Assembly

Oil a 9-inch cake pan and line with saran wrap allowing enough saran over the sides in order to easily lift the torta out after it has been assembled and cooled.

Place 7 slices of the mozzarella on bottom of pan (you may have to trim some slices in order to fit and form one thin layer)

Spread one half of the pesto cheese mixture on mozzarella

Sprinkle 1/3 of the pine nuts evenly on top, pressing them into the cheese

Place 7 more slices of the mozzarella on top

Spread half of the milk and cheese mixture on the mozzarella slices

Place 7 more slices of the mozzarella on top

Spread the other half of the pesto cream cheese mixture on top of the mozzarella slices

Place 7 more slices of the mozzarella on top

Spread the other half of the milk and cheese mixture on top of the mozzarella slices

Sprinkle 1/3 of the pine nuts evenly on top, pressing them into the cheese

Place 7 more slices of the mozzarella on top

Refrigerate for about 1 hour

Combine the cream cheese and milk for the icing.

Unmold onto a large plate

Ice top and sides with cream cheese mixture.  Decorate with pine nuts – one row down the center with two rows on either side.  Make the same 3 rows in the opposite direction forming 16 checkered squares.   Dip 16 small basil leaves into oil and place in the middle of each square.  Optional:  decorate sides with pine nuts and basil (see photo).  You will need more basil leaves and pine nuts.  Or create your own design.

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Our haunts also included pastry shops and bakeries.  The streets of Milan are overflowing with some of the best in the world.   Around the Christmas holiday, beautifully boxed and brightly wrapped panettone are artistically stacked in stores and pasticcerias all over the city.  Panettone is Italy’s famous round, fluffy Christmas bread and Milan is its birthplace. Italians are obsessed with them. During the holidays slices of panettone are consumed at breakfast with coffee, in-between meals as a snack and for dessert with mascarpone or zabaione or even smothered in a rich chocolate sauce.

Wanda and I loved to wander amidst them breathing in the vanilla and candied-fruit scented air.   We visited both large, more commercial food stores like Motto as well as smaller, old world bakeries such as Biffi Pasticceria on Corso Magenta opened in 1847 and a favorite of Wanda’s.

Legendary stories abound as to panettone’s origins – some dating back to pagan times.  Modern history credits Motto for revolutionizing the traditional panettone by making the dough rise three times (some 20 hours) before baking, giving it its now familiar light texture and tall sides.  This recipe more or less is the one used today by most makers of panettone.

When Convito first carried panettone back in the early eighties, only our Italian American customers bought them.  But Wanda insisted that once Chicagoans experienced the slightly sweet and delicate richness of this product, that they too would add panettone to their holiday gift-giving list.  She laughingly regaled me of the fabled story of the famous composer Puccini who had his wife deliver his friends a panettone at the end of each year.  One time, unaware of the professional rift that had developed between Toscanini and her husband, she sent Toscanini his usual panettone.  When Puccini learned this fact, he was horrified and sent a telegram to Toscanini, which read, “Panettone mistakenly sent”.  The next day he received a reply from Toscanini: ”Panettone mistakenly eaten”.

Like the bakeries and pasticcerias I visited in Milan those many years ago, panettone has become a staple at Convito during the Christmas season.  Our mission to this day is to sell the freshest, most beautifully wrapped and highest quality panettones we can possibly find.  We are proud of our impressive selection, in large part, due to the tenacity of my daughter, Candace Barocci Warner, General Manager and buyer.  She has become a panettone sleuth determined to find all the finest producers in Italy.  Although the classic version with candied fruit and raisins remains our best seller, the new flavors Candace has added to our repertoire like cappuccino, lemon, fig, Amarena cherry and chocolate chip have become increasingly popular.   To me it is the perfect holiday gift.

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© rob warner photography 2013

Panettone French Toast

makes 4 servings

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

½ cup milk

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

4 – ¾ inch slices of panettone

butter

Stir together the eggs, milk and vanilla in a wide shallow bowl.

Place the panettone slices one at a time into the bowl, letting slices soak up egg mixture for a few seconds, then turn to coat other side.

Melt butter in a skillet over medium-low heat.

Transfer egg-coated slices to the skillet and cook them until golden brown.  Turn and brown other side.

Serve with just butter and powdered sugar, syrup, jam or Amarena cherries* and whipped cream.

*The Amarena cherry is a small sour dark colored Italian cherry grown in the Emilia-Romagna region.  It is usually bottled in syrup, and sold in many gourmet shops and grocery stores.

 

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The wine stores Wanda and I visited in Milan during our street-walking days were mostly small, boutique-like shops with very targeted wine selections – fine wines from France and Italy and other European countries. Enoteca Solci, a high-class wine shop, was my favorite. Paolo had been a fan for years. It not only had a great selection of wine, but signage and display groupings throughout the store provided perfect roadmaps for customer education.  Signore Solci, the owner, was passionately dedicated to promoting quality Italian wine, as was the prestigious society he headed, called Vinarius.  It was the society’s desire that Italian wine receive the same respect French wines enjoyed. The era of bad basket wrapped Chiantis and old yellowed Frascatis was coming to an end, and if Solci had anything to do with it, the members of Vinarius would be in the front ranks of its demise.

It was those principles of high quality selection and comprehensive education that most interested me.  Fine Italian wine was at first difficult to find in the Chicago area.  Only a few importers carried the elite bottles.  But I had the good fortune during my early retail years to be assisted by some savvy wine experts.  One especially – the inimitable Maury Ross, president of the Wine House at Union Liquor, became my mentor.  He was smart (Phi Beta Kappa), kind, respectful and full of good ideas for both promoting and selling wine.  He came from a family rich in retail wine tradition.  His grandfather had started a chain of liquor stores in 1892 and two generations later Maury had become an icon in the wine industry, selling wine in the 40s when it was something people knew little about.

Before I had a clue as to what I was doing, Paolo and I met with Maury in Chicago.  He was famous for helping people get started in the wine business. We were still exploring business options, but importing wine at that time was at the top of our list.  Maury listened carefully to our proposed importing plan – as incomplete and uninformed as I’m certain it was – and never told us we were naïve idiots – but very calmly and intelligently laid out the overwhelming details of wine importation finishing with a list of “to dos” for Paolo and I to investigate before we continued on this path. By the end of the meeting I remember Paolo saying to me, “I think it would be easier for us to import a bomb!”

After further research, we decided to discard our importing idea and concentrate on retail so I happily continued my studies in the wine shops and food markets of Milan learning daily what it was that I wanted Convito to become.   Within five years of opening our doors, Convito’s wine department received the Vinarius award for outstanding selection and education of Italian wine – only the 2nd shop outside of Italy to be so honored.  Being presented the Vinarius plaque (an absurdly heavy and very serious looking marble tablet) in Milan by Signore Solci himself – and at my favorite wine shop Enoteca Solci – was a thrill second only to the personal tour he gave me of his private cellar tasting room where some of the bottles actually dated back to the early 1800’s.

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Vinarius Award presented by Signori Solci, Milano

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After a full day of walking the streets of Milan when it was time to rest our weary feet, Wanda and I always had great difficulty choosing the perfect respite.  Milan has so many lovely cafés. Sometimes we selected Sant Ambroeus. Its Murano chandeliers and 1930 décor was the ideal place for great people watching.  We would enjoy a slice of delicious cake and a slice of Milanese society all at the same time.  It was the same with Café Biffi in the Vittorio Emanuele Galleria, a gorgeous glass-vaulted structure covering the street connecting the Piazza del Duomo to Piazza della Scala and Caffe Cova situated in the fashionable Via Montenapoleone fashion district.  These warm and elegant cafes were always the perfect places to unwind and take stock of the lessons from our day of exploration and research.

I continued walking the streets of Milan long after my partnership with Wanda and Paolo ended.  Even during my “Wanda and Paolo years”, much of my time was spent alone.  I basically memorized my favorite parts of this amazing, sophisticated city – the city where I learned so much about Italy and its unique place in the world of food, wine, design and culture.  And where I discovered so much about myself.  It was in Milan sitting in a lovely café sipping a cappuccino at the end of a long day where I did my best thinking  – or “steeping” as I liked to call it.  It was here that I began to formulate a plan for my business and for my life.

But to this day, my favorite way to take a break from the chaos of shopping, the people and the traffic is to sit in any of Milan’s parks or public places and nibble on freshly sliced salami, a hunk of cheese and a slice of bread and watch the city speed past me as Wanda and I did so many times during my years with her.  It is in this way I feel at most in sync with Milan and with my most vivid memories of Wanda.

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Vittorio Emanuele Galleria, Milano

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About Nancy Brussat

I am the owner of an Italian café and market in Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb on the north side of Chicago.  The original Convito Italiano was opened in 1980.  It included a deli, bakery, prepared foods, groceries and wine.  Today it is renamed Convito Café & Market and has expanded to include an 80 seat restaurant.   In preparation for launching my business I wanted to learn as much as possible about the food, the wine and the culture of this country I so came to love. I had the good fortune to have extraordinary teachers, Milanese residents and future partners Paolo Volpara and his mother Wanda Bottino.  During my frequent travels from 1979 to 1986 I was able to cook with Wanda in her small Milanese kitchen during the week then travel to different regions with Paolo on the weekends. I continue visiting Italy to this day but this was my time of total Italian immersion.   It was the beginning of an adventure that carried me to the four corners of Italy and every region in-between.  It was also the beginning of another kind of journey – a personal one that opened up possibilities I never considered or knew existed.  It was a heady time for a girl brought up in the fifties.    
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3 Responses to Lombardia II “Milano: Street Smarts”

  1. Mary Nahser says:

    Sitting poolside in Harbour Island with a delicate breeze floating by, I am in awe of all you have accomplished in the past 30 years and reminded of all it took to get to where you are today!

    I think this post is one of my favorites! and the wedding cake torta!! that is a creative project to end all! Thanks for the adventure!

    Mary xx

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Paul Aloms says:

    Wonderful description of your introduction to everything Milanese. I particularly connected with your discription of enjoying a slice of Salami, a piece of cheese, bread and a glass of wine in the Galleria. When was there enjoying a late lunch I remember thinking “this is the best…..so wonderfully european”. Great blog Nancy.

  3. I always love your blog and especially love all of the photos!

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