Sunday 22 February 2015

A hidden dinner in Milan

We'd never done anything like this before.  After buzzing the intercom we entered the old wooden doors wondering what might lie ahead.
We had arrived punctually for dinner at a stranger's house with eight unknown dining companions, most of whom we discovered were young Milanese lawyers.
This hidden supper club was hosted by a Milanese hipster couple, Melissa and Lele in their spacious warehouse apartment.
Melissa and Lele are world travellers who decided to channel their adventurous spirits, and love of food, into hosting an 'underground' restaurant in their home.  It has been such a success that they now have 3,000 people on their database.  Bookings to attend one of their dinners, which are offered four or five nights a week, almost always book out within hours.
Were we out of our comfort zone?

Yes. Absolutely.  But we loved it!

From the moment we stepped through that old wooden front door we felt welcome.  After a glass of prosecco, introductions and a short explanation of the night's proceedings from Melissa, we sat down at the table, and what a beautifully set table it was.

Melissa works closely with Chef Andrea Sposini to plan menus which utilise seasonal ingredients.  We were amazed to learn that they host dinners, cooking classes, and cultural events like small concerts or performances, four nights a week in their home, while still working full-time.  However, that is about to change as their little business has expanded rapidly over the past three years. This spring they hope to devote themselves full-time to their Supper Club.
If Melissa and Lele felt frazzled and worn out by their workload, it didn't show.  They appeared completely relaxed assisting Andrea with kitchen duties, while mingling with their guests.  As each of the four courses was served, Lele or Melissa gave a brief explanation of the dish.  And as we were at home, they always returned to offer seconds for those who wanted just a little more.

So what was on the menu at Ma's Hidden Kitchen Supper Club?
Four courses of wonderful Italian food.  We started with an antipasto, a slice of ricotta and borrage tart which was crisp, light and so delicious that Stefano put his hand up for a second sliver.  Il primo piatto was minestrone soup with pesto pasta.  This was a fresh green vegetable soup with a dollop of pasta coated in a tasty home-made pesto sauce - a new trick that I'm taking home to try at the next bookclub dinner.  
Then we paused for a short break.  We were free to wander through the house, admire the wall of Lele's travel snaps, venture downstairs to their little 'shop' of collectables, or flick through one of their library of Lonely Planet travel books.  We returned to the table to enjoy il secondo piatto, a casserole of rabbit with olives and pinenuts, served with a side of erbette.  I often order rabbit when we go out, so I feel well qualified to offer an opinion about the quality of this dish.  In all honesty it was the best rabbit I've eaten.  Moist, juicy, flavoursome, just perfect.  I would return to Ma's Kitchen just for this dish alone.

And then we had dessert.  Latte Fritto.  We'd never heard of it but apparently this dessert is traditionally served in Liguria.  It is a milk custard, like a pana cotta, coated in breadcrumbs and then deep fried.  Our dining companions were very excited when this dessert was served and now we know why.  It was incredible.  A warm, crunchy crust which gave way to a delicious, but not overly sweet, creamy custard.  Sensational.
We first heard about Ma's Hidden Kitchen Supper Club from our friend Emily who went to a cooking class with Melissa and Lele, more than a year ago.  Emily recommended the whole evening as a "must do before you leave Milan".  It sounded intriguing.  When I discovered that we could just turn up for dinner, and not have to cook it ourselves, I persuaded Stefano that this was one of those Milan bucket-list things that we had to do.
I'm so glad we did.
It was a uniquely Milanese night of warm hospitality, lively Italian conversation and memorably delicious food.

Emily, grazie mille per la idea.  Melissa, Lele e Andrea, grazie per un pasto favoloso!
Melissa and Lele the hosts of Ma' Hidden Kitchen Supper club.

How to book:
Ma's Hidden Kitchen Supper Club CLICK HERE
It is a bit of a process to discover this Hidden Supper Club.  
First you need to subscribe to the email newsletter and then wait for an invitation.  
Once you receive an email listing the dinners and events for the month, you must respond, really, really quickly.  It took me several attempts before we finally got the happy email saying that we were successful.  
Then, after you have been accepted you need to join their Online Club.  On the night there is a 10E membership charge for the year.  
Dinner was 40E per head which was excellent value.  BYO wine.

Monday 16 February 2015

Why we love skiing in Bormio

As our date to leave Milan looms closer, we visited the Italian Alps one more time for ten days of skiing.
View of the mountain and the town of Bormio from our apartment.
We considered trying somewhere new like the Dolomites, but in the end we couldn't resist returning to Bormio.

Outside the apartment on our second morning after a fresh snowfall.
This time we rented an apartment which turned out to be a great decision.  Not only was it an easy ten minute walk through town to the main ski lifts, but it was cosy and very comfortable.  Even better, it was owned by a friendly father and son team, Lucio and Luca. 
Homemade Pizzoccheri!
We learned that Lucio is a great cook.  On Saturday night I answered an unexpected knock on the door of our apartment.  There was Lucio with a pot of steaming, freshly cooked pizzoccheri, the traditional pasta dish served in the Valtellina, which he'd whipped up for his guests.  Having previously enjoyed this hearty cheesey pasta dish in several restaurants of Bormio and Grosio, we were delighted to taste Lucio's creation.  Our verdict - it was the best pizzoccheri we've had, ever! (Okay that's only a score based on three previous tastings).  The following day when we thanked Lucio for such a delicious surprise, he described that his secret ingredient was butter - really fresh local butter bought from a shop on the edge of town where they sell their own dairy produce.  Sadly it looks as though Stefano won't be replicating this recipe at home.
It's these sorts of traditions that continue as part of everyday life in Bormio. Even though it is a busy ski and tourist town, old-fashioned ways of hospitality and generosity still exist.  Like the complimentary shot of grappa to farewell skiers after a lunchtime stop on the slopes for a slice of pizza.
And the delicious krapfen donuts that they still bake in the pasticceria which was too conveniently located along my path back to the apartment after a hard morning of skiing.
While we enjoyed many days skiing the famously long runs on Bormio mountain, we also discovered the neighbouring town of Santa Caterina.
Only a short bus ride up the valley from Bormio, Santa Caterina offered sunny, open runs and some fantastic views of the mountains above the treeline.
Once again we loved visiting Bormio.  This time it was just a little harder to leave as sadly we won't be back next season.  We will miss having the Alps only a short train ride away.  

Arrivederci Bormio.  Speriamo che non sia l'ultima volta.

Where we stayed:
We stayed in this lovely one bedroom apartment which I found on Airbnb CLICK HERE. In the low season apartment rentals in Bormio are well priced.
Transport directions
Regional trains from Milano Centrale to Tirano leave once an hour.  Buses connect with most trains, so the entire journey is only about three and half hours.  Train and bus ticket combined was less than 15E per person one way.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Sunday lunch in Milan - Osteria Del Binari

Sunday lunch is a tradition in Italy, one that we've adopted whole heartedly and plan to continue when we return to Australia.  If not lunching at home, families gather at the local osteria, trattoria or ristorante, which raises a question we've puzzled over many times - what is the difference between these three venues?

The answer it seems is largely historical.  In the past a ristorante was considered the most formal dining option, with white-clothed tables, professional serving staff including a host and sommelier, an innovative menu, not just regional dishes but something a little more refined, and therefore the price was more expensive.  A trattoria was more likely to be a smaller, family run establishment with a more homey ambience offering traditional regional dishes, a good hearty meal for a medium price.  An osteria was originally similar to a travellers' inn and was usually positioned close to transport links where people could stop for a drink with a simple rustic meal on offer.  Thus it was the 'cheap and cheerful' option for a quick meal.  In our experience these definitions no longer exist, as our recent lunch at Osteria Del Binari illustrates.

For our first meal in Milan, back in December 2012, Stefano took me to Sunday lunch at Osteria Del Binari on via Tortona.  Since then we've eaten there several times because the food is reliably good and because it is so very Milanese - hidden, elegant and slightly old fashioned in style and service.
As we start to say our goodbyes to Milan, we visited Osteria Del Binari one last time.  Elisabetta, a friend of Stefano's who he met at the office, joined us on a beautiful sunny afternoon for a traditional Milanese pranzo della domenica.  As always at this osteria, we were greeted with a complimentary glass of prosecco.  Crudities with oil and pate arrived, again complimentary, so we could sip and nibble while making our selection from the menu.
Stefano ordered a homemade pasta dish, "pasta al torchio con farina di castagne al ragu di selvaggina", which was a delicious pasta made with chestnut flour and a game meat ragu.  Although Elisabetta isn't Milanese she chose the city's favourite, "cotoletta alla milanese con patate novelle agli aromi" which was a very large veal cutlet with roasted herb potatoes.  I ordered the other favourite Milanese dish, "ossobuco con risotto alla milanese", in fact I've ordered it every time we've been to Osteria Del Binari.  The servings were large, but the dishes were so fresh and delicious that we cleaned our plates and agreed with Elisabetta when she concluded that it was one of the best meals she's eaten in Milan.  And thanks to Elisabetta's thoughtful discussion with the sommelier, a bottle of Barbera from the Piedmont region complemented our dishes perfectly.
Dessert was a selection of ricotta, chocolate and lemon torte, and a not very photogenic but absolutely delicious, caramel tarte tartin.  
Elisabetta, Stefano and I enjoying a sunny Sunday lunch.
We relaxed and took our time chatting and enjoying the sunny corner looking out onto the courtyard.  A perfect Sunday afternoon in Milan.

So what is the difference between a ristorante, trattoria  and an osteria?  As you've probably guessed, it is a question which still puzzles us, especially when we eat at Osteria Del Binari.

Where we ate:
Osteria Del Binari CLICK HERE
via Tortona 1
The price was about 40E per person - excellent value.  
Cross the pedestrian bridge over the railway lines beside Porta Genova station.  Via Tortona is on the left.  Don't be concerned about the area, although it looks ordinary it is perfectly safe.  During Design Week via Tortona buzzes as the hidden design studios which line this street open their shutters and invite the world inside.  

Prossima volta dal Bormio.