12 November 2012

n.d.p. in milan: antica trattoria della pesa

Before we caught our train down to Florence, we took a very early lunch at a restaurant one of my friends had booked, Antica Trattoria della Pesa. We were actually the ones waiting outside before the restaurant opened.

I'm not sure how often this happens at Antica Trattoria della Pesa in the springtime. It's certainly on the tourist radar, and adjacent to the train station. But the lunch on offer is midwinter-hearty Milanese fare, at dinnertime prices. It's the sort of thing that seems appropriate if a cousin has just got married, or Napoleon has just been crowned; at most other times, it's can be a bit pompous, particularly to anyone accustomed to the lively, informal style of stateside Italian restaurateurism.

That's sort of the point with this variety of restaurant, though. The hearty Milanese fare I mentioned could be spruced up and delivered a thousand times better by a more ambitious restauranteur elsewhere. Restaurants like Antica Trattoria della Pesa succeed mainly because, being institutions, they evince no ambition. From the perspective of a certain conservative diner, ambition is the last thing one would want to perceive in a meal, and would be avoided at the sacrifice of almost any other criterion for a good meal, except high cost.

I'm not an exceptionally conservative diner, but I do have sympathy for this point of view. I detest wizardy restaurants: anything overdesigned, any overt flair, any rehearsed schpiels about the ecological concerns of the chef and how they influence the tableware, etc. About the most I can tolerate is menu-page dedicated to a kitchen's food providers, as at Strasbourg's Chez Yvonne, or at Restaurant Christophe here in Paris. Those are like production credits after a film: of great interest to insiders, eminently ignorable for everyone else. But restaurants whose service or menu requires explanation usually risk coming on a little strong, as though owners were over-anxious about proving what, frankly, should be self-evident: that restaurants comprise a creative medium.

But I use the subjunctive for a reason there. Diners like my friends and I, willing to take creative restaurateurism on faith, are invariably outnumbered by diners who just like being waited on in nice surroundings, and who consider anything else a bit impudent, a distraction to dinnertime conversation. Antica Trattoria delle Pesa has succeeded for so long by appealing more to the latter demographic than to me. I can see why this works: regardless of recent restaurant trends, there will always be an audience willing to pay money for nothing, or, more specifically, for the lack of what they feel to be too-much. (This is dining as social expense, a gestural affair where aesthetics are secondary.)

The food was mostly fine. The bresaola was a little dry and the vitello tonnato was overcooked and kinda small-fish compared to the same dish made just about anywhere in Barolo. Prices across the board seemed intended to bely Italian food's reputation as peasant cuisine.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the best dish we had, and the clear highlight of the meal : a risotto al salto, or fried risotto, a dish typically used to prevent leftover risotto milanese from going to waste. Ingredient cost on a dish like this is probably close to what one might spend on a rice crispy treat from a vending machine.

But where the risotto milanese that had accompanied my friend B's ossobucco struck me as no great shakes, its presumable al salto afterlife was paradise : an ungarnished discus of rice, crispy and almost-popped on the exterior, chewy on the interior, and suffused throughout with a rich aromatic brothiness.

Unwilling to drink red wine at noon, we went for a reliable standby, Attilio Contini's basic 2010 Vermentino di Gallura "Orriù."

One of precious few cheap wines on the list at Antica Trattoria della Pesa, it's fairly typical of low-cost Sardinian Vermentino : broader and less refined than same grape from Liguria, spicier than same grape grown in Tuscany. (In France I have yet to encounter a Rolle that possesses much varietal typicity; most just taste generically floral and Provençal.) Still a familiar salinity and sweetcorn flavor. Contini are among Sardinia's oldest and most established estates, dating back to 1898. They make more interesting wines than this, particularly their inimitable Vernaccia di Oristano, the 1998 of which is presently drinking in magnificent form.

After a blind tasting of Italian wines we held at our friends' cave in the 11ème, Aux Anges

That wine, incidentally, is available at soulless wine megastore Lavinia in Paris, and, unlike Antica Trattoria della Pesa, the Vernaccia is both historically notable, and a terrific bargain.

Antica Trattoria della Pesa
Viale Pasubio, 10
20154 MILAN
Tel: 02 655 5741

Related Links:

N.D.P. in Milan: Bar Basso
N.D.P. in Milan: Il Kiosko
N.D.P. in Milan: Peck
N.D.P. in Milan: La Vecchia Latteria

A nice pictorial post on the cuisine at Antica Trattoria della Pesa @ AthurHungry
A mention of Antica Trattoria della Pesa in Mimi Sheraton's 2007 Milan food tour piece @ NYTimes (Though I can't help pointing out the redundancy of describing a risotto, as she does here, as possessing flavors of "cheese, butter, and dry white wine." That's like describing a PB&J as possessing flavors of peanut butter and jelly.) 

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