Earlier this year I was invited to give a talk to the senior management of the Rocco Forte Collection of hotels on The Making of a Successful Restaurant. My initial ten point plan began and ended with two facts that have nothing at all to do with what the customer may eat or drink. The first, I argued, is that the restaurant must have an easily-memorable name and the last is that the restaurant must create distinctive memories so that customers will keep on coming back and also recommend it to their friends.
Several weeks later I was in Milan and was delighted when an Italian counterpart suggested that we go for dinner to Trattoria Milanese, a name so obviously memorable that I did not even need to write it down in my notebook. And as the taxi pulled up outside, in a narrow one way street close to the citys financial centre, it was clear that the building exuded a sense of history and comfort.
In fact, part of the thick walls interior date back to the 13th century although the trattoria has only been in the hands of the Villa family since 1933. It is currently run by Antonetta and Giuseppe Villa who are nothing if not conspicuous. She welcomed us, took our coats and was later sitting over the desk writing out the final bills as we left after midnight while he took our order, suggested some wines and helped his waiting staff clear the tables. Grey haired they may be but obviously young at heart.
What adds to the trattorias welcome is that everything is so open. The entrance offers several good views into the kitchen while the first of three different dining rooms contains a large bar that wraps around two walls and contains a vast number of bottles of red wine, digestifs and the vital coffee machine. Above this on a lintel that runs across the whole of the interior is a series of words painted by the British artist David Tremlett that translated from the Italian reads as follows, We eat to live. We live for love. But do we eat for love?
I hadnt time to think about this conundrum for too long as the simplest of menus, a single type written sheet with the food on one side and the wine list on the other was put in front of us and it was time to test why this trattoria has been so obviously popular for the past 75 years.
One reason is that it caters for the particular Milanese penchant of eating every single cut of meat. While the city has been one of Italys richest for centuries, hence the habit of adding saffron, the worlds most expensive herb to its risotto, to produce the golden risotto alla Milanese here and in the citys butchers shops it is still possible to order tendons, thinly diced, as a first course, or calves brains, kidneys and liver as a main course.
They also offer far more mainstream ingredients if that is what you fancy. What continues to surprise and impress me about Italys best trattorie is that they manage to combine a vast array of dishes with a speed of service that never fails to impress, a consequence I believe of not bothering to fiddle with the food once has been put onto the plate but instead to concentrate on delivering it to the hungry customer as soon as possible.
So, it seemed, within seconds of David Villa taking our order there were plates of bresaola and prosciutto on the table and small veal cutlets in a sweet and sour dressing. Then, obviously, risotto alla Milanese, covering a large plate that left me wiping my plate with some bread and then their speciality, a vast veal cutlet served on the bone with just a single leaf of radiccio and a slice of lemon to one side. Finally, a combination I had not encountered before, slices of local soft white cheese alongside chestnuts in mustard. Memorable indeed.
Trattoria Milanese, via Santa Marta 11, Milan 20123, tel: 00 39 02 86451991.
Denis Cotter, Cafe Paradiso, 16 Lancaster Quay, Cork. Tel 00353 21 4277939. www.cafeparadiso.ie
Denis Cotter is a chef who has had an extraordinary influence not just on those who have eaten at his restaurant but also on many chefs outside Cork and even outside Ireland. Cotter has chosen to specialise in vegetarian food and in addition to the restaurants has produced a series of excellent cookbooks, The Café Pardiso Cookbook, Paradiso Seasons and most recently, Wild garlic, gooseberries
and me which have inspired many amateur and professional chefs. Head to Café Paradiso for pumpkin gnocchi, sautéed leeks and goats cheese; a braised turnip galette with Portobello mushrooms and walnuts and, finally, a pear and almond tartlet with spiced caramel.